I’ve finished The Once and Future King a few days ago but I didn’t know how to start with this review. I also studied for my Swedish exam – I study Swedish in a school for foreign languages – so I didn’t have the time to gather my thoughts. Anyway, I digress too much. I said in my previous review of the novel that I will share more of my thoughts after I finish it, and there really is a lot to say, so I’m keeping my word. There might be slight spoilers in this review, even though the versions of the story are quite well-known.
Let me say first that the book definitely didn’t disappoint me and it is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I liked how the characters were portrayed, with all their flaws and virtues. Nobody, not even Arthur or his most noble knights, was without a flaw. The narrator’s commentary, which I also mentioned in the previous post, keeps reminding us about it. The narrator also every now and then reminds the readers that what they’re reading is a work of fiction and refers to Thomas Malory’s version, saying how he’s left out some parts which can be found in his book. Thomas Malory also appears as a character in the end of the novel – he is a young boy who serves Arthur. Before the final battle, Arthur says to the boy that he shouldn’t fight because somebody has to stay alive and tell the story of his life and his ideas, and I thought this was wonderful.
“Thomas, my idea of those knights was a sort of a candle, like these ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now – you won’t let it out?”
“It will burn.”
Arthur really gives everything to his ideas, and is willing to sacrifice even his wife and his friend for the greater good. And what is the greater good? Sometimes, not ever Arthur is sure. He is constantly trying to find out a way to make the world a better place, but he doesn’t know how. He learns that chivalry is not as honourable as he thought, he realizes that fighting for a cause doesn’t prevent people from doing evil, and even the search for the Holy Grail doesn’t bring him any answers. There is no recipe for good – it is something you always have to strive for, and fight for. And sometimes, what you think is good may not be good at all. Doing good is always a work in progress. Perfection cannot be achieved, which is in a unique way shown in the characters of knights who come to find the Grail – mainly Galahad – and I love how ambiguous the notion of good is in the novel because good is ambiguous in reality, too.
If people reach perfection they vanish, you know.
Another thing I would like to mention is that at several points in the novel, the narrator speaks about history and explains the life in Camelot, comparing it to the life in the later centuries. There are also some references to known fictional works, for example The Canterbury Tales. Even though the readers are detached from the time period of the novel by constant reminders that this story is something that happened a long time ago, they are also given vivid images of the Middle Ages. The narrator is critical of the life in Middle Ages, but also recognizes everything wonderful and interesting about them, for example the architecture and art.
The Dark and Middle Ages! The Nineteenth Century had an imprudent way with labels. For there, under the window in Arthur’s Gramarye, the sun’s rays flamed though from a hundred jewels of stained glass in monasteries and convents, or danced from the pinnacles of cathedrals and castles, which their builders had actually loved. Architecture, in those dark ages of theirs, was such a light-giving passion of the heart that the men gave love-names to their fortresses. (…) Think of the glass itself, with it’s grand five colours stained right though. It was rougher than ours, thicker, fitted in smaller pieces. They loved it with the same fury as they gave to their castles, and Villars de Honnecourt, struck by a particularly beautiful specimen stopped to draw it on his journeys, with the explanation that “I was on my way to obey a call to the land of Hungary when I drew this window because it pleased me the best of all windows.”
I could quote a lot from this book, but I’ll leave you with just a few more aphorisms and a whole-hearted recommendation to read this novel.
…business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.
The bravest people are the ones who don’t mind looking like cowards.
We cannot build the future by avenging the past.
He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.