In a sense Time is the hero and chief victim of T. H. White's version of the Arthurian legends -- Time with his scythe bent out of shape, his beard knotted and his hoary locks adorned by a dunce-cap. If in this guise he resembles old Merlin spinning round as he disappears, or scratching his head while trying to discover whether something has already happened or is about to happen -- why, that is precisely how Mr. White means it to be.
In twisting the forelock of Time T. H. White is only following in the footsteps of Sir Thomas Malory, who clothed Arthur's sixth-century Welshmen in Norman armor. Taking the same liberties consciously, Mr. White introduces with malice after-thought the contemporary problems of communism, fascism, militarism and pacifism -- to name only the biggest -- into medieval England. He is within his rights. In their totality, after all, the Arthurian legends constitute "the Matter of Britain," in which these same problems in various forms have been repeatedly thrown up throughout history. Like all myth, the legends of Arthur are timeless, and Mr. White contrives, not only to say this but to get the maximum of fun out of demonstrating it. The difficulty, if there is one, lies with the changing character of his audience as the "Matter" develops toward its tragic end. "I have tried," he tells us, "to look at it through the innocent eyes of young people" -- but by the end of this volume the young can surely no longer be so innocent, for they have been asked to reflect upon the tragedies of Arthur's incest with his half-sister and Lancelot's adultery with Guinevere. But Mr. White's instincts are right; in practice, if not in theory, he knows that the young are no longer so innocent, and he does not try to be as saintly and priggish as his Galahad.
"The Once and Future King" -- the title is a whimsical but perfectly accurate translation of Rex quondam, Rexque futurus -- is an omnibus volume containing the whole of the Arthur story. Mr. White has trimmed and coordinated so that the work may stand as a tetralogy. His revisions will be greeted with cries of anguish by some devoted followers, with approval by others. Madame Mim, for example, has vanished completely from "The Sword in the Stone," and her evaporation is much regretted by this reader. On the other hand, the giant Galapas will not be missed. The Wart's singular education now includes a transformation into the world of the ants where "everything that is not forbidden is compulsory." As satire on communism this chapter seems rather forced, although in itself a tour de force of psychological insight into the insect world. We can only regret that it replaces the humanitarian lesson on evolution imparted by the sleepy snake in the original version.
"The Witch in the Wood" has been radically reduced. Retitled "The Queen of Air and Darkness," it now contains only fourteen chapters and centers upon the childhood of the Orkneys and the "lack of security" (the phrase becomes irresistibly funny as Mr. White uses it) that drives the sons of Morgause to cruelty. The unpleasant scenes with Queen Morgause are balanced by the uproarious adventures of King Pellinore and of that grandest animal character in modern literature, the Questing Beast. To those who know Mr. White it is enough to say that both Beast and King fall in love.
"The Ill-Made Knight" appears to be substantially unaltered. But in the larger context the interpretation of Lancelot has a depth, coherence and subtlety that make it perhaps the most impressive section of the tetralogy. The seriousness that predominates in the latter chapters of this book continues on into "The Candle in the Wind," which concludes the story along the lines of Malory. But the relationship between Arthur and Mordred is far more guilt-ridden than anything to be found in the pages of the medieval romance.
Here, then, is a whole stout volume of T. H. White's unique wit, vast and curious learning and brooding wisdom, a volume of levity and gravity for young and old. His faithful readers will rejoice; it is to be hoped that thousands of new ones will meet Uncle Dap and the Beast Glatisant, Sir Grummore and Sir Ector and Sir Palomides, Piggy and Sir Meliagrance -- to mention only a few of the marvelous minor characters who lurch around the heroic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.