The Once and Future King
by T.H. White (1958)
There are few genres with as much staying power as Arthurian literature. It began around 830 (but Arthur may have been mentioned by a Welsh poet even earlier than that) and these classic tales are still going strong today. King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Merlin the wizard, Mordred, Morgan le Fay, Lancelot, Tristan, Galahad, Gawain and the knights of the round table have legendary status in literature.
Hundreds of books and millions of words have been written about these people and their trials and tribulations, and that’s just the fiction. The Arthurian ball started rolling when a monk wrote Historia Brittonum for a Welsh king. This early history book of England and Wales mentions Arthur, and then Geoffrey of Monmouth took the stories and added his own flourishes in Historia Regum Britanniae around 1136.
It was then a free for all with anyone who could write (and not many could) retelling these stories. The strange thing is that these stories about a Welsh-English warrior king, his wife, his knights and a wizard became an international bestseller. The stories were picked up and retold in France, Germany and Scandinavia and beyond.
And then came Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485, printed by William Caxton. This is quite simply one of the most influential books ever printed and serves as the basis for today’s interpretation of the legend. Malory compiled and translated the stories from French texts.
In 1892, London publisher J. M. Dent & Co. produced an edition of Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by a young Aubrey Beardsley. To many collectors and bibliophiles, this book is a masterpiece – not bad for a 20-year-old insurance clerk’s first attempt at book illustration.
The Ashendene Press published a much-sought after limited edition of Le Morte d’Arthur in 1913, and Arthur Rackham famously illustrated a version in 1917. Sidney Lanier (his version was illustrated by the famous artist N.C. Wyeth), Howard Pyle and John Steinbeck were among the later writers to take Malory’s work and rework it. Rosemary Sutcliff, Thomas Berger and Bernard Cornwell have also written Arthurian fiction.
Mark Twain’s contribution should not be ignored. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court from 1889 is memorable because it helped established time travel as a narrative tool and the book served as an effective satire of romantic writing. Twain wanted to stick a fork into chivalry and the idea of knights rescuing damsels in distress.
There are Arthurian-themed novels published every month but the genre is now the domain of fantasy writers.
Why have these stories endured? 1) Arthur, or someone like him, almost certainly existed. 2) The tales have every ingredient necessary for a good story including drama, adventure, conflict, love and sex, magic, treachery, and family strife. 3) Almost every character is flawed with the exception of Galahad. 4) The female characters wield great power centuries before strong women became a staple of fiction. 5) Some bad, bad things happen in these stories – the death of Gareth at the hands of Lancelot for instance.
This page features lots of Arthurian literature but we heartily recommend T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This book combines White’s four Arthurian novels – including The Sword and the Stone – into a single volume of magnificent literature.