One commentator once said, 'T.H. White has a genius for recreating the physical conditions of the past; the child who reads him will learn far more than all the historians and archaeologists could tell of what England was like in the Middle Ages.' This tale, 'The Once and Future King', is a classic of English literature, crossing the ages to be a tale both of modern times in the language and treatment of characters as well as the misty, mystical past with its subject matter.
Like many classics, this book inspired both great love and great irritation. It is a classic retelling of the Arthurian legends - White does not add to the legends with his own additions, but rather sticks closely to manuscripts and stories that have gone before, most notably Thomas Mallory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur', also considered a classic. The book is divided into four major sections: 'The Sword in the Stone', 'The Queen of Air and Darkness', 'The Ill-Made Knight', and 'The Candle in the Wind'. The overall tone of Arthur's legend goes from hopefulness to tragedy, as even the final conflicts become unresolved, hence the idea that Arthur will come again.
The title of this work comes from the supposed inscription on Arthur's tomb: HIC IACET ARTORIVS REX QVONDAM REXQVE FVTVRVS. The sweep goes from Arthur's childhood to the final battle with his son Mordred. Like many works, this is both a piece of entertainment as well as a political commentary (think 'The Wizard of Oz' here) - Mordred's thrashers are Nazi stormtroopers, for example. This book was the product of the time just before World War II. Merlin's preaching of just war theory (the only acceptable reason for going to war is to prevent another war) is apropos of the time. The Round Table has definite tones of internationalism (from the failed League of Nations to the soon-to-be-born United Nations), and the concept of Might FOR Right (rather than might makes right) is embodied in the idealism of the Round Table fellowship. The rule of law over the rule of men is exemplified in Arthur's struggle against Lancelot and Guinevere. Merlyn also, because of the benefit of his hindsight being actually foresight (he lives backwards through time), continues to make allusions to things such as tanks, modern technology, and even to Adolf Hitler (albeit obliquely).
The tale gets progressively darker as the story continues - the seduction of Arthur by his half-sister will have major consequences later; Lancelot's seduction of Guinevere and her infidelity sow the seeds of the downfall of the Round Table Fellowship, and the final of the four sections is relentlessly bleak.
Still, this is a classic retelling of a classic tale, which continues to be revitalised in media, books, and popular imagination. Whereas some of White's contemporaries chose to create new worlds (think of Tolkien and 'The Lord of the Rings' here), White chose to revisit an old tale that has roots in the legends of the land directly and recast them for modern audiences. As the tales of Arthur continue to have life into the future (he really will be, in a sense, a future king), White's book will stand as a strong link in the chain of storytelling that has maintained this tale for over a thousand years.