(Originally posted in "Live and Let Dice"; September 9, 2004)
It's difficult to imagine, but there was a time before Gary Gygax, before J.R.R. Tolkein, before even the Science Fiction Book Club. In that antediluvian era, the beginning and end of Fantasy Adventure was the Legend of King Arthur. Oh sure, you had your Robin Hood and your Arabian Nights too, but for real heroic fantasy nothing beat King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
I did some dipping into Arthurianallia this Summer as research for Alex's Review Club and decided to re-read one of the classic retellings of the Arthur Myth: T.H. White's The Once And Future King. I read it in high school and enjoyed the first part, but found much of it rather thick. In the name of deepening my understanding of Chivarly, however, I gave it another try.
I'm glad I did. The book is still depressing; as White observes, Thomas Mallory didn't call his version "The Death of Arthur" for nothing; but mixed in with the tragic tale of three lovers is a splendid tapestry of medieval life, or at least how medieval life should have been.
The Once and Future King is divided into four books. (Actually, White wrote a fifth one, "The Book of Merlyn", but it was not published until after his death). The first book is probably the most familiar because of the Disney film based on it: "The Sword in the Stone". It tells about the boy Arthur, (or "the Wart" as he is called by his adopted family), and his marvelous education by the wizard Merlyn and of the miraculous sign which revealed him as Rightful King of England. The second book, "The Queen of Air and Darkness", shows Arthur early in his reign, trying to put down rebellion and find a way to end the cycle of wars which have plagued the island. It also introduces Morgause, Arthur's half-sister, a beautiful but self-centered sorceress whose children become poisoned by her family's hatred of the House of Pendragon. The third book, "The Ill-Made Knight", brings us to the heart of the Arthur legend: the Knights of the Round Table and the tragic affair of Lancelot and Guenivere. It also tells about the greatest of the knightly deeds, the Quest for the Holy Grail. The final book, "The Candle in the Wind", tells of Arthur's twilight; of the treachery of his son Mordred and the war which turned the Round Table against itself.
Until I re-read Once and Future King, I never thought about how much of D&D is really taken from Arthurian lore. Everyone knows that the game swipes Tolkien; I shouldn't be surprised if a lot of people outside the hobby think that The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons are the same thing. People who are more fantasy-savvy recognize elements of Conan the Barbarian and Elric of Melnibone; but a lot of the game's setting and structure can be found in the Arthurian romances.
For the role-playing Game Master, The Once and Future King provides a wealth of background detail. White's version of Arthurian Britain is a romanticized version of the Middle Ages, as is the world of D&D.
"The Sword in the Stone" gives us life in a small country castle. The descriptions of life as a squire-in-training, of a Yule-time boar's hunt, and of the Great Forest Sauvage can give the GM ideas for flavoring his campaign. There's even a neat little 1st-Level Adventure in which Wart and his adopted brother Kay venture into the buttery castle of Morgan le Fay to rescue some captives. (Yes, I said buttery. Long story).
As we go further, we get other views of the period; the dreadful state of pre-Arthurian Britain, when autocratic barons waged war for sport and committed atrocities simply by virtue of their power to do so; Arthur's revolutionary approach to warfare; the splendor of his court and daily life in Camelot; the adventures of his knights and the quest for the Grail.
More importantly, we see Arthur grappling with the problem every GM has to deal with: how do you channel the warrior's aggressive impulses into something constructive that benefits society? Arthur is not only inventing the Knights of the Round Table, from a D&D perspective he is inventing the Lawful Good Alignment and the character class of Paladin.
Anyone who wants to understand the Paladin class could do worse than read "The Ill-Made Knight", the third book of the volume. Galahad fits the popular conception of the Paladin; noble, pure and insufferable. White only shows us Galahad through the eyes of other knights and they, on the whole, can't stand him. (Although Arthur does reflect that it is his most worldly knights who dislike him most). But Lancelot, for all his sins, is a Paladin too, and White spends a lot of time opening his heart to us so that we can understand why he is what he is, the good and the bad.
The Once And Future King is a thick book and not always an easy read. The lightness and whimsey of the early section can be a little off-putting and give the erroneous impression that the book is a child's story. "The Sword in the Stone" is indeed an excellent children's story of the best kind. As C.S. Lewis observed, no book is worth reading at the age of eight which is not also worth reading at the age of eighty. This is such a book. The lightness of tone continues into the later section, but darker, more adult themes emerge which, by the books end, threaten to swallow the optimism and hope of the beginning. But the hope remains. Arthur is defeated, but not forever.
Arthur's dream lives on. He will return.
"Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone?" Merlyn tells him early in his reign, "Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quandum Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king."