Many people who have read The Sword in the Stone as children are unaware that it is only the first part of a quartet— including The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind— that is one of the greatest fantasy novels of the twentieth century. Whereas other novels of this genre and period are often mainly escapist, reflecting the wars and political torments of the time only indirectly, The Once and Future King is an explicit response to contemporary problems. In fact, it is a sustained defence of English liberal humanism (represented by Merlyn) against the Thrasymachean argument; Arthur explains that "What I meant by civilisation, when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness." At the same time (and necessarily) it is a searching meditation on the human condition and the question of original sin. This makes the novel sound quite serious, but it is also massively entertaining, full of incisive character studies, poetic touches and comic anachronism, and informed by a deep knowledge of mediaeval history that the author wears lightly. Throughout the quartet, White turns the Matter of Britain into something quintessentially English: self-satirising yet sensitive, with a profound tragic undertow that evokes the original on which it is based, Malory's Morte D'Arthur. White's Arthur is a kind-hearted Norman, baffled and saddened by the tribal warfare which destroys the peace of his reign. His fatal mistake, White suggests in this deeply pacifist work, was the attempt to harness force for good through the Round Table.
Beauty and humour dominate the first book, an idyllic novel about childhood that follows the development of the young Arthur (the Wart, as he is called by his foster brother Kay), under the affectionate, eccentric tutelage of the wizard Merlyn. The Sword in the Stone is primarily a Bildungsroman about the getting of knowledge. American critic Edmund Wilson argued in The Wound and the Bow that great literature is the product of childhood trauma, and this novel, like the rest of the quartet, certainly bears this out. The Wart is orphaned, as White felt himself to be following his parents' divorce, and Merlyn, though irascible and elderly (but getting younger all the time, because he is living backwards), is a father figure to him. White's portrayal of a child's natural joy in learning, under the guidance of a loving adult, is a reaction against the type of public school education that he had himself endured and which had left him with serious psychological problems that he never managed to overcome: White fell back on study as a cure for depression throughout his adult life (Merlyn famously advises the Wart, "The best thing for being said....is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails"). The wizard innovatively combines story-telling with field trips of a most unusual sort, turning the Wart into various creatures including a falcon, an ant, a wild goose, and a badger— this is Celtic shape-shifting as political object lesson—and introducing him to Robin Hood. The boy does not know it yet, but Merlyn is preparing him for kingship, vigorously attempting to educate him away from the Norman love of arms, which the wizard disdainfully describes as "games-mania." Dictatorial dystopia makes an appearance in the Wart's visit to the proto-Orwellian ant colony, where the only adjectives are 'Done' or 'Not-Done' (a lobotomising impoverishment of language), the ants are controlled by broadcast propaganda demonising the Othernesters, and a sign proclaims EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY. Though perhaps too obvious in its parallels with Nazi Germany, such political satire is startling in a children's novel of 1938. The ants are contrasted with the loving, internationalist wild geese, to whom national boundaries are imaginary lines and who cannot conceive of members of the same species murdering each other.
It is impossible to capture the charm and wit of The Sword in the Stone. The Wart's visit to Merlyn's idiosyncratic cottage has deservedly been repeatedly anthologised, and the gormless King Pellinore, constantly in pursuit of his beloved Questing Beast, is one of the most delightful comic creations in English literature. White's love of joyous anachronism is given full rein here: the Wart's adoptive father, Sir Ector, and his friend Sir Grummore Grummursum are harrumphing precursors of nineteenth-century fox-hunting squires, Friar Tuck is a Sam Weller-ish Cockney ("Dash my vig if I didn't think we was done for!") and so on. There is also unbounded linguistic playfulness, of which the best example is probably the obsequious, Genevieve-singing hedgehog— unearthed by the Wart during his badger phase—who speaks a peculiar mixture of Geordie, deepest Sussex and (possibly) Norfolk. In The Sword in the Stone the villains, seen through the children's eyes, are merely grotesque buffoons, but White develops a more sober-minded portrait of evil in the rest of the quartet.
The Queen of Air and Darkness, the second in the series, is the darkest and least successful of the novels. White's demons got the better of him here: animal lovers are advised to avoid the unicorn and cat scenes altogether. The novel is also unpleasantly Scotophobic, a by-product of its attempt to blame the later destruction of Camelot on Arthur's Orkney relatives (though White does, later on, partially compensate for this in his sympathetic portraits of Gareth and Gawaine), rather than traditionally, on Guenever. This was a necessary manoeuvre on White's part in order to overcome his deep-seated fear of women and give himself a chance to sympathetically draw Guenever, but identifying another woman, Morgause, as the cause of Arthur's eventual downfall simply replaces one misogyny with another. The idea of the Round Table is born in this novel, and Merlyn explains to Arthur the inherited Gael-Saxon-Norman tensions that will dog his reign and eventually flame into civil war, provoked by Morgause and Arthur's son, the Gaelic nationalist demagogue Mordred. There is some light relief, in the form of an encounter between King Pellinore, the Saracen knight Sir Palomides (speaking Babu English, which seems insensitive on White's part), and the Questing Beast, but the novel is, on the whole, somewhat imbalanced.
The Ill-Made Knight, which introduces the Breton Sir Lancelot, has greater light and shade. It is a more compelling novel in its autobiographical depiction of the sensitive knight, tormented by his awareness of his own evil nature: Arthur, with his simple goodness and happiness, is what White longed to have been, but Lancelot is the man he in fact was. However, there is also an element of wish-fulfilment in the infinitely touching romance between Lancelot and Guenever, tolerated by Arthur because his love for both of them prevents him from doing otherwise. White's gift for psychological study is displayed to the full here, and the Arthur-Lancelot-Guenever triangle becomes the emotional centre of the last two books. The ending of the novel, in which Lancelot is permitted by God to heal a wounded knight, is tremendously affecting. It conveys White's own desperation for delivery from himself: "The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle."
In the final part of the quartet, The Candle in the Wind, the eponymous candle is Arthur's idea of civilisation, bravely flickering as his kingdom is beset by Mordred's armies. The third chapter of the book contains an idyllic sketch of "the fabled Merry England of the Middle Ages," a snapshot of the Pax Arturus that swirls with eccentric detail, humour and colour like a mediaeval manuscript page. This is the most philosophical part of the series, as Arthur wrestles, to the best of his ability, with fundamental moral and political questions in his distress at the sufferings of his realm. He struggles between Merlyn's idealistic belief in human goodness and the present hideous reality, weighing up Christianity, the communism of John Ball, and internationalism: "The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing --literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines....Countries would have to become counties --but counties which would keep their own culture and local laws." The Candle in the Wind has that distinctive wan, exhausted, yet cautiously idealistic pacifist post-war atmosphere that also permeates Michael Tippet's oratorio A Child of Our Time: the closing scene, in which Arthur figuratively passes the candle to the young Thomas Malory, is very powerful.
Though White chooses Mordred's Gaelic nationalism as the vehicle for his comparison with twentieth century European history, this is not by any means a specific attack; he quite clearly intends it merely as a type of nationalism in general, of which, looking at the devastation of World War II, he takes a totally bleak view. Throughout the quartet, White identifies xenophobia and Force Majeur, the rule of might, as the twin threats to Arthur's civilisation. The novel is a response to the traumas of the 'terrible century,' heightened by White's awareness of the dark side of his own nature. By refracting modern politics through the prism of mediaeval England, he achieves a dual purpose, producing both an incisive political allegory and a determined riposte to the strand of thinking that views the Middle Ages as Dark.
On a personal level, the novel is quite clearly a redemptive catharsis. White wrote in his diary, "It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them." If this was his tragedy, his triumph was that he was able to sublimate his pain into an intensely moving novel containing a whole world of loveable and loving people, in which he succeeded in living, at least for a little, through his characters. --Isabel Taylor