My parents are both English professors, and when I was little they raised me and my brother on a strict diet of literary classics. I think they wanted to turn us into little prodigies, like the Williams sisters, except with books instead of tennis. It probably wouldn't have worked anyway, but the project was doomed the day I opened a book and read the following:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.
The Wart is short for Arthur, as in King, and the book was The Once and Future King by T.H. White.
I don't know very much about Terence Hanbury White. You probably don't either — as far as I can tell, there is only one half-decent biography of him, and it was written in 1967. He makes a cameo appearance in Julie Andrews' memoir Home as a solitary sexually frustrated misanthrope who lived alone on an island with a bottle of Pernod and a bad case of writers block. That T.H. White is a stranger to me. But the author of The Once and Future King is an old and very good friend. I have read his book more times than any other in my library.
Part one of The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, tells the story of the young King Arthur's education by the sorcerer Merlin in a small-time, no-account castle in the English countryside. White's descriptions of daily life in medieval England — hay baling, tilting and archery practice, falconry — are ravishingly vivid: like a restorer of antiques, he strips away the grime and smoke from the past until it's as bright and clear as the present. Chapter by chapter, through little adventures and big ones (both Robin Hood and Morgan le Fay turn up), Arthur slowly comes to understand, like and trust himself. He doesn't know it yet — his noble birth is still a secret, even to him — but he is preparing to take up the burden of power.
The Sword in the Stone set the standard by which I judge all historical fiction. It is also the most perfect story of a childhood ever committed to paper, and it is only the first part of The Once and Future King. What follows — Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, the Holy Grail — is a foregone conclusion to those who know the story of King Arthur. White took hold of the ultimate English epic and recast it in modern literary language, sacrificing none of its grandeur or its strangeness (and it is very strange) in the process, and adding in all the humor and passion that we expect from a novel. What was once as stiff and two-dimensional as a medieval tapestry becomes rich and real and devastatingly sad.
The Sword in the Stone was published in 1938, the year after J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and I often wonder why White isn't considered one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy, the way Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are. Perhaps one day, in the future, he will be.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.
This first appeared as a web only essay on September 13, 2010.