Lev Grossman on T.H. White and The Once and Future King
One of the subjects I will go on at length most often is, most assuredly, Arthuriana. My abiding love for that genre started with a gorgeous illustrated volume (an abbreviated Morte D’Arthur) given to me by my great-aunt, but really came to fruition during my Freshman year of college when I was assigned both The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon. Previous to this, the only fantasy I’d really read was Tolkien, L’Engle, Alexander, and some Terry Goodkind. And while Mists was very empowering, especially as feminist fantasy, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King changed the entire landscape of how I viewed fantasy storytelling.
If I had one book to keep with me until the end of the world, it would likely be The Once and Future King. I had no idea fantasy could be so multi-faceted, so humorous (and hilarious) and yet poignant. I can’t get through the damned book without sobbing (the scene with Gawain and Arthur in the tower… egads… hand me some Kleenex). But I can’t read it, either, without getting completely lost in the narrative, the philosophy, the language. It is, as far as I’m concerned, a truly magical book.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I read an NPR article today, where Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, had something very similar to say. You ought to read/listen and take note. But here’s a good bit:
The Sword in the Stone set the standard by which I judge all historical fiction. It is also the most perfect story of a childhood ever committed to paper, and it is only the first part of The Once and Future King. What follows — Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, the Holy Grail — is a foregone conclusion to those who know the story of King Arthur. White took hold of the ultimate English epic and recast it in modern literary language, sacrificing none of its grandeur or its strangeness (and it is very strange) in the process, and adding in all the humor and passion that we expect from a novel. What was once as stiff and two-dimensional as a medieval tapestry becomes rich and real and devastatingly sad.
It’s no exaggeration to say that after reading The Once and Future King, I never looked at Arthur, or fantastical writing the same. And I am so thankful for that.