This is a long book. More accurately, it is five books (forming an, erm, pentalogy? quintet?) which together make up White’s own re-telling of the Arthurian legends.

The Sword in the Stone covers Arthur’s childhood and his education by Merlin (Merlyn), leading up to the well-known climactic moment of pulling the magical sword from its stone and thus claiming the English throne. It is delightful, comic, heroic. There is an interesting contrast between the eddication which Arthur’s guardian Sir Ector seeks for him, and which consists primarily in learning to recite Greek verbs and to joust and such, and the education which Merlyn intends to provide and which consists in guided experiences from which Arthur is to learn how to think for himself.

The Witch in the Wood is less a book than a narrative starting at the end of Book 1 and ending at the start of Book 3. But, for all that, it is again delightful, comic and heroic. We are introduced to the witch Morgause (sister to Morgan le Fay and half sister to Arthur) and her sons, who are to be Arthur’s eventual downfall. This book also introduces a theme that will dominate the remainder of the work – the causes and prevention of war. Best of all, we are treated to a wonderful frolic around Orkney with King Pellinore, Sir Grunmore, Sir Palomides and the Questing Beast – all of whom are blissfully ignorant of the fact that Orkney is at war with England.

The Ill-Made Knight is something different again. It deals with the story of Sir Lancelot and it is more mature, darker, and more powerful than either of the first two books. It charts the creation of the Round Table and Lancelot’s place as its foremost knight, his friendship with Arthur, his love affair with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere (Guenever), and his grief for the loss of purity entailed in that love affair. There is less comedy in The Ill-Made Knight than in the first two books, which is a pity because White seems to do comedy well, but even without jokes you keep turning the pages, pausing now and then to muse.

The Candle in the Wind completes the story. It describes how through Lancelot and Guenever, the Orkney faction – those sons of Morgause who, as Arthur’s nephews, are now part of Arthur’s court – obtain their revenge on Arthur for ancient wrongs and complete the downfall of an already decadent Round Table. By the end, an old, defeated king prepares to die in battle against his own son. The book closes as he makes peace with his fate.

Then there is a fifth book.

The Book of Merlyn is something of a postscript. Arthur is taken for the last night before his battle to Merlyn’s cave to “complete his education”, that is, to discuss with Merlyn – and with some animals – the nature of man as a political and as a warring creature. It does have a few good bits, notably Arthur’s return from the Wild Geese and his stroll with the hedgehog, but they are not enough to rescue what otherwise struck me as a self-indulgent piece of writing used by White to vent his own emotions, in Merlyn’s voice, and without any great respect for the reader. My view is that the fifth book detracts from the whole, rather than rounding it off, which was a great shame.

(Although White did initially seek to have this work published as part of The Once and Future King, he was not successful; indeed, he revised parts of the earlier books to incorporate bits of The Book of Merlyn, suggesting perhaps that he had himself accepted the fifth book would not be published. The fifth book was only published later when the manuscript was “rediscovered” after White’s death. It would have been better if White – more to the point, his publishers – had stuck to a tetralogy.)

In all, this was an enjoyable and in parts a thought-provoking read. It is a very accessible telling of the Arthurian legends for the modern reader and I am sure that one day I will read it again, just perhaps not bothering with the fifth book!

Here is an Amazon link, complete with an unusually good review.

I bought this book from Ottakers for £9.99 – less than 1.25p per page [grin]. I did order it from the library but ended up with just the final chapter (The Book of Merlyn) by mistake, so I decided to cheat this time. I wanted to get the book in time for my holiday reading!

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