Book Meme: Mel’s Day Seven

Book Meme Challenge:

Most Underrated Book

I tend to be oblivious to the ‘ratings’ of almost anything, and so this challenge makes me curious; ‘underrated’ according to whom? Scholars? Teenagers? Popular opinion? The General Consensus of the World-at-Large? Poetry buffs? Philosophers? History? Historians? What give a book a “rating”?

Most of the books that I enjoy but are largely unknown remain unknown because they appeal to only a certain demographic or have difficulty breaking out of their genre. And for most part, this is rightly so. There are few books that can extend across ages, cultures, education, etc., to be recognized by all. And the same is true for genre books; for example, not all fairy tales can have the sweeping grandeur and scope that makes Lord of the Rings so widely beloved.

But there is one piece of literature that I believe expands  far out of its context to engage the academics, the normal people, and the children of every nation. And certainly should be more widely read than it currently is.

The Once and Future King
By T.H. White

To be fair, this book has been very well received. There was even a movie made based on the first section, “The Sword in the Stone”. Remember that from childhood? I vaguely recall that it seemed to have a pacifist moral attached, which annoyed me. There was also a musical supposedly inspired by this book: “Camelot”. But both of these two theatrical adaptations gave me a rather negative expectation of the book itself.

It was Christmas break, and I had just completed a class on “Arthurian Legends,”  reading everything from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory. It was amazing, and I was not yet ready to let go of the Round Table, the chivalry, the adventures, the layers of symbolism and meaning . . . and so when I saw The Once and Future King at the book store I picked it up.

White is smart, amusing, and wonderfully well-read. The diction is simple and elegant, and can be understood and enjoyed by adults and children. (Even when it is somewhat cheeky.) The storyline is intriguing and fun, moving quickly and creatively. It is actually a ‘tome,’ in which there are three ‘books’: “The Sword in the Stone,” “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” “The Ill-Made Knight,” and “The Candle in the Wind”.

In the first book, the most child-like of them all, young Arthur – “Wart” – is educated by being turned into animals and experiencing the world  (and types of government) through the animalistic structures and relationships. This part can be slightly annoyingly pacifist, but its real purpose is to set up the premises of human respect  and self-government. It is rife with delightful characters, magical adventure, and stunning observations on society, education, and government. (Because those normally go together sooo well . . . . )

In the next books we see the still child-like warrior king as he struggles to establish a kingdom that is safe and happy. And now Arthur must ask the difficult questions. What goes into the happiness of a country? What is the purpose of war? What can a government reasonably do to allow/promote freedom and happiness? Arthur makes mistakes, both in his personal life and his rule, but he does come do as Merlin keeps telling him, to “USE YOUR HEAD!!!”

Coming to this after only just finishing Malory,  I was thrilled to realize that clearly White modeled his structure and premise around “Le Mort d’Arthur”. Malory, writing at a time when English civil war was imminent,  had determined that the Arthurian tales were an excellent vehicle for educating the youths who would go on to rule England. So his books takes on a brilliant, (if dark,) examination of culture, power, and the decisions it takes to govern self and country. White’s version enters into dialogue with Malory’s, often taking the exact same tropes and working something new, or using a creative situation to directly quote Malory’s conclusions.

T.H. White wrote this book around the time of World War II, when all these question of society and government were again being asked in earnest. And rather than simply lay the answers, White lays the education and processes of though that a person needs in order to fully explore and examine the options. But lest we fail to apply these question to our own lives and situations, White’s clever characterization of Merlin – a wizard living backwards – ensures that direct parallels to our time and our concerns can be mentioned.

What delighted me the most about The Once and Future King, were constant allusions to the greater scope of history and the literature. As Merlin is Temporally Challenged, the entirety  of the artistic cannon can be incorporated into the education, more so than Malory ever did. And it is done subtly, very tongue-in-cheek. For instance, at one point Guenever is remarked to having read that book that “Dante alludes to his story of Francesca and Paolo”. That book is, of course, a romance detailing the affair of Lancelot and Guenever. And I am certain that there are many more references to literature and art that I have not picked up because I have not yet read enough.

But not knowing does not impair my enjoyment of and engagement with the text. This book does not ever make me feel less than smart, funny, and thoughtful. Somehow, the entire rhetorical strategy of the book draws in the reader and gives him or her a sense of expanding horizons and clear sight.

If you noticed on the cover picture above, this book as been called “The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic”. But I would submit that The Once and Future King should not be rated merely in the genres of  “fantasy,” or even “classic”. In fact, as a pure fantasy book I rather dislike it.

But, it is a book  on philosophy, art, society, self-improvement. It examines the philosophy of education, the history of thought, the duties and structures of government, the responsibility of leaders, the limitations of human society, the boundaries of entitlement versus noblesse-oblige . . . and just about everything!

This book should have a timeless appeal, one was acknowledged when it was first published. But especailly todaythat everyone, (regardless of taste, age, experience, culture, or education,) should be able to read, enjoy, and be inspired to “use your head!”

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3 thoughts on “Book Meme: Mel’s Day Seven

  1. I’m noticing a trend here: you guys picking books and authors I’ve either intended to read but haven’t, or that I disliked briefly but have intended to revisit. This one is actually the latter. As a kid, probably sometime in junior high, I started eagerly into The Sword in the Stone…before eventually abandoning it in disappointment. The writing style was hard for me, and I remember greatly disliking the anachronisms, which seemed so irreverent (and as a kid I greatly disliked irreverence, which I equated with insincerity). To this day I don’t like the idea of a backward-living Merlin — it just seems wrong, unnatural, a cheat, and far too whimsical for my tastes. That was my childhood reaction. However, when I saw a beautiful old hardback of all 4 books on sale for $2 at the library, I immediately bought it. I expect to enjoy and appreciate White’s work on my return to it, and I’m encouraged by your recommendation.

  2. Hmm. Well,it is rather didactic, but when I read a bit aloud to my little siblings they liked it. And honestly, as a fantasy book it is not that great. I was mainly looking at it from the structural point of view, where Merlin-living-backwards entered into Malory’s Way to Educate a Ruler so well.

    I did struggle a bit with the first section, which felt overly moralistic. But the as soon as I got to the next sections I realized that all that moral framework were needed in order pose the next logical questions.

    So it is not so much that it is “underrated,” as it is rated in the wrong category. As a fantasy it is stiff and preachy. As narrative philosophy, it is excellent. As a clever work that makes me feel smart by literary allusions, it is brilliant.

    (Also, bear in mind that I am currently insane with stress and study and all that good ol’ stuff. So I might be attaching epic value to things that are really almost prosaic. Ad I pretty sure that next week I will need to come back and tone down all my hyperbole. Because right now I cannot think in realistic terms.)

    • Ah. I can see how reading it as narrative philosophy intended to be rich in literary allusions would yield a completely different experience, and likely one I would like more. In junior high I just wanted adventure and wonder. Now, of course, I still want that, but I’m also a bit more nuanced and inclusive in my tastes. +) It’ll be nice to revisit White with a new mentality.

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