Recently, a friend showed me an excerpt from a book about words and their meanings. The author was critiquing the biased nature of the dictionary, of all things, using the definition of civilization as an example. Civilization, she argued, should not be generally defined as “advanced” unless the dictionary was (and I paraphrase here) the White, Male, European version. She is obviously referring to the history of genocide enacted in the name of civilization. But as a history major, I tend to bristle at such casual generalizations. Who, exactly, are these white, male, European evil-doers? And how are they differentiated from any other culture, race, or nation-state? There is no doubt that, looking strictly at numbers, Europeans probably take the top spot for evil, but Asian and Middle Eastern cultures are just as infamous. It would be like arguing that Ted Bundy is somehow a better person when compared to Jeffrey Dahmer: it’s pointless. Even the Spanish conquistadors, who committed perhaps the worst crimes against humanity in the name of civilization, can be judged as no more callous than Aztecs who disembodied their peasants. And as far as being white and European, my people, the Greeks, are innocent of enslaving anyone during colonial times, being subjugates of the (non-Anglo) Ottoman Empire. If it’s one thing I’ve learned in history: it’s complicated. But despite historians who discredit the romantic view of medieval times (and I refer here to knights-in-shining-armor) there is no denying that Romanticism was, in and of itself, a thing produced in these times. Whether knights actually stayed true to chivalrous ways is besides the point (probably not, if looking at Amin Malouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes). I prefer to judge societies not on the mob of the masses, however, but on that society’s aspirations. In other words, at one point in time chivalry meant something, and it is a sad loss that we do not remember it. Nothing expresses this sentiment better than T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
I chose this book as my no. #1 for a moment of reading akin to religious revelation. Granted, I was impressionable in my youth, but The Once and Future King had me balling. It isn’t sad things that open my tear ducts, however—it’s something else entirely—something close to my heart, redemption. For me, redemption is the defining quality of Christianity, and while I no longer label myself a Christian, I still hold dear many of its values. On the surface, The Once and Future King is about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, which is probably the most written about subject in the fantasy genre. In fact, Disney’s Sword in the Stone is based on its first third (side note: Professor Xavier, in one scene of the X-Men movie, teaches The Once and Future King to his class). But T.H. White’s masterpiece is more than just a retelling of the Arthurian legend; in its second third (in some publications, The Ill-Made Knight is part 2 of 4) the focus rests exclusively on Sir Lancelot Du Lac and the quest for the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail, as many people know, is symbolic of Jesus Christ, and the knights who seek it serve, allegorically, as Christians fighting for salvation. To be a good knight is to be without sin. For the larger part of his life, Sir Lancelot avoids sin and is invincible. His moral failing comes from the forbidden love between himself and King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. Despite this love triangle, Lancelot’s love is entirely platonic, yet he is still tormented by guilt and desire. This kind of conflict may be a foreign concept in our modern ME generation; it may be difficult for people of today to understand the angst by which a man struggles for his soul—and though I do not prescribe to many of the values that existed during medieval times—I am still saddened by the fact that most people care little about simply doing good. Goodness, it would seem, has been hijacked by the Religious Right. And while The Once and Future King may be to Christianity what Grapes of Wrath is to Socialism, it in no way diminishes the book or the strength of its narrative, and it never, ever, comes across as preachy. Without giving away spoilers, redemption ultimately saves Lancelot (just as Jesus sacrificed himself for sinners) and isn’t that a value we can all, left and right, agree upon?
OK, maybe not.
While it may not touch everybody in the same way, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King had a powerful impact on my life. It’s a book that, I can quite honestly say, made me a better person. And while chivalry may be dead and forgotten for most people, it’s still alive in me, and in others. Just as the knights of old, some people still fight for truth regardless of consequences. These ideals came out of a “civilized” Christian Europe, passed down to us by the bearers of those ideals, by writers like T.H. White who taught kids of the 80’s (like me) the meaning of chivalry.
Of course, none of this would matter if the writing wasn’t superb, if the story wasn’t engaging or the characters memorable. Strictly as an adventure story, or an epic fantasy, or as a retelling of Britain’s very best myth, any way you read it, here is a masterpiece. But it’s the subtext, the inspiring lessons behind the story, that bring tears to the eyes, and that makes The Once and Future King my #1 book of all time.