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Reading in progress: The Once and Future king: The Sword in the Stone, by T.H. White (listening notes, ongoing)

When I came across the "Once and Future King" by T.H. White on Audible (read by Neville Jason, who does a fine job of it), I knew I had to buy it. I already owned a physical copy of the book, but I have found lately that it suits me better to listen to long books rather than to read them, because my hands want to be doing something other than holding a book while I read.

This novel, which was originally published as a quadrology of short novels and later collected and revised into one long novel, is a retelling of part of the Arthurian legend and is considered to be one of the finest of the many re-imaginings of that legend.

It was disappointing to discover that this is actually an edited version that seems, according to one review on, to be not just abridged but actually a bastard version comprised of both the original short novels and the revised one-volume edition. However, another reviewer kindly pointed out some of the missing passages and where to find them, and I plan to find then in my physical copy of the book to read and get a sense of the whole thing.

It also seems that this version adds a fifth book, which was not included in the original revised edition, and most reviewers seem to think it spoils the novel. Whether or not I listen to it remains to be seen, but I rather think I will.

I have to admit that although I was a big mythology/legend/folk-tale nerd when I was a child and teenager, I came pretty late to the Arthurian legends, and still haven't, for example, read Le Morte D'Arthur, the best known early compilation and translation of these legends into English. My introduction to Arthurian literature was, in fact, Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, which I thought was a story sprung entirely from the mind of the author at the time I read it. It wasn't until I found a copy of my father's old textbook for a college class he had taken on European mythology and legends that I realised that it was based on old legends.

The novel is divided into four books and I have been listening to and enjoying the first, "The Sword in the Stone". It is about the early life and education of Arthur by Merlyn.

The setting is medieval, and Wikipedia states that the story takes place in the 14th century, rather than the 5-6th centuries which are the traditional setting for the Arthurian legends.

This section of the novel has the tone of a children's book, with child-like antics and adventures, but looking deeper you realise that Merlyn is using the adventures to teach Arthur lessons that will make him a good king. He tries to teach him statecraft, respect for others, leadership and to bring out his resourcefulness and get him to think about things. This includes turning him into different animals and letting him draw his own conclusions about what he experiences. The book can thus be read on two levels, first to or by children who will enjoy the adventures, adults behaving like children, and some scenes that are pure slapstick, like anything to do with bumbling King Pellinore, and secondly by teens and adults, who will enjoy the deeper themes, allusions, foreshadowing and the anachronisms that tumble from Merlyn's lips and those of the narrator from time to time.

This is a very English book, full of stereotypical English phrases, like "Tally-ho!" and I'm pretty sure I heard at least one "I say!". There are also hunting scenes that are very much out of medieval England, and Robin Hood (or Wood) crops up from time to time. The tone gets somewhat mocking at times, which makes me think it's parodying something, possible Le Morte D'Arthur or other Arthurian legends or novels. In any case, it is full of humour and fun, but with a serious undertone.

Merlyn seems to be immortal, or close to it, and lives life backwards in time. Thinking about the logistics of that just gives me a headache, so I try not to think about it too much.

To be continued - if I find anything more to say about it.

After I finish the whole book, I think I might go and read some more Arthurian tales. But which one(s) do I choose? I have copies of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, the whole of Mary Stewart's Merlin books and The Coming of the King by Nikolai Tolstoy.
These books are, respectively, a compilation of the Arthurian tales and legends, the story as seen from the point of view of the women, and from Merlin's viewpoint (the last two) and it should be interesting to read one or more to compare them with The Once and Future King.


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