The Ill-Made Knight by T.H. White (1940) 484 p.
I have by this point realised that T.H. White’s Arthurian fantasy series, The Once and Future King, is a modern take on a legend he assumes the reader is already quite familiar with. Perhaps every British schoolchild in the 1930s learnt about it, but for foreign or even modern readers it’s a bit different. My sum total knowledge of the legend is more or less John Boorman’s film Excalibur, and it’s been a long time since I saw that, as part of the muddled ninth grade English curriculum in a public school in Australia.
This isn’t to say that the books are hard to follow. They’re almost a child’s fantasy, written simply and with a tone that alternates between serious and jocular. But White quite often refers (especially in The Ill-Made Knight) to a scene by saying “Malory describes this” or “you can find a better account in Malory,” referring to Sir Thomas Malory, the 15th century Norman writer who popularised the legends in Britain. Many of the legend’s pivotal scenes, such as the quest for the Holy Grail, occur mostly off-screen or are related second-hand. The Ill-Made Knight is largely the story of Lancelot, covering his childhood, his arrival at Camelot, his affair with Guinevere, and the eventual decay of Arthur’s Round Table.
Although I think The Once and Future King would be more enjoyable to somebody with a basic grounding in Arthurian legend, this isn’t the reason I don’t like it as much as I expected to. It’s just not my cup of tea, even though I can plainly see White’s skill and I understand why the series as a whole is considered a classic. I found the focus on the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere to be tiresome, for example, when King Arthur is the far more interesting character – a just and fair ruler, growing increasingly troubled, in this book, by the hypocrisy inherent in his creation of a kingdom of laws which he accomplished by the use of force. And Merlin is entirely absent in The Ill-Made Knight, which is a shame, because White’s amusing interpretation of him as an omniscient, time-travelling, benevolent puppet master is one of the series’ better characters.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed The Ill-Made Knight more than The Witch in the Wood, because it felt more central to the series as a whole and serves more or less as an epic story of one man’s life in its own regard. I just hope the series picks up again towards the end.