Cornelia's Favorite Book: Arthurian Legends

It's no secret that Cornelia's favorite book is T.H. White's The Once and Future King. It's a classic adventure saga not-unlike some of the popular fantasy we see today (looking at you, Game of Thrones)—set in Arthurian times, White's book was originally composed of four separate volumes, and is about the legendary King Arthur, the wizard Merlin, and eventually the Knights of the Round Table.

In the first section of White book, Arthur (then not-so-affectionately called Wart) meets the wizard Merlin. Merlin, who's living backwards in time, knows Arthur's future, and so begins to educate the boy who will later become king. Arthur's political education largely involves Merlin turning him into different animals so he can see how they run things, but it's also a way for the young not-yet king to learn about political systems. Constance Grady says it beautifully in this excellent Vox article:

As a fish, War learns about absolute monarchy; as an ant, he learns about totalitarian communism. Wart’s ideal becomes the pacific and playful geese (not, it is safe to say, the Canadian geese of North America, who are anything but pacific), and while he has fantasies of the pomp and glory of chivalry, he cannot stomach the endless, pointless wars of the ants.

So in the rest of the book, after he becomes king, Arthur devotes himself to finding a political system that will do away with the brutal excesses of feudal power and its “might makes right” ethos. . . . But despite everything Arthur does, Camelot creeps ever closer to the decadence and self-conscious irony of modernity. Every system Arthur creates only invites the worst of his knights to find new ways to twist it toward their own purposes.

We love old stories and fairy tales, legends and myths here at Breathing Books but only just learned (today!) that White's The Once and Future King came out of his experiences, both around World War II (he fled to Ireland rather than be drafted) and as a closeted gay man. It's a good reminder of how beautiful art can come out of difficult experiences, and also a powerful book about the uses (and misuses) of power and violence.

For more about The Once and Future King, we cannot recommend highly enough Grady's excellent article!