Some books sear themselves onto your heart.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I picked up The Once & Future King by T.H. White in the school library. I forget why. I read it over spring break because I loved The Sword in the Stone movie when I was a kid, and I didn’t know the movie had been based on a book.
It wrecked me. I’ve never had a book speak to me so profoundly, so deeply. I liked books, but this one…this one altered me. It made me want to be better. I didn’t know that fiction could do that to a person.
Fast forward eight years later, and I’m in the middle of an incredibly rough season. I had just started therapy, which meant I was churning up all the self-loathing and buried trauma I had kept inside for most of my life. I was sort-of dating someone who was going through her own stuff (which meant we weren’t great to/for each other). My roommate wisely recommended that I buy myself something comforting. Instead of food, I decided to get myself a copy of The Once & Future King.
Part of me was afraid. What if the book didn’t live up to my memory of it? What if I was just a sophomore with bad taste? Worse, what if it was bad or cheesy or dumb?
(It may not seem like a big deal, but when you’re looking for a life raft, the small leaks matter).
But it was every bit as good as I remembered. Even better—because I had grown up, I was able to receive more of what the book had to say. It grew up with me.
Here are a few of my favorite passages.
The Nobility of Plain Virtue
“Arthur was not one of those interesting characters whose subtle motives can be dissected. He was only a simple and affectionate man because Merlyn had believed that love and simplicity were worth having.”
Quite possibly one of the greatest lines of literature I’ve ever read. It’s a sentiment I’ve internalized so deeply, I’m probably not even aware of its influence in my life.
“He did not see a hero of romance, but a plain man who had done his best—not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time—not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate.”
I used that line in a letter once: “in the teeth of fate.” I still don’t know what it means, but I love it all the same.
How Self-Hatred Can Impersonate Virtue
“His Word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them.”
Poor Lancelot. His chief failure was failing to see what his friends saw in him.
“Lancelot put up his sword and went back from the knight as if he were going back from his own soul. He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.”
As someone who struggled (and still struggles) with self-loathing, this moment is deeply affirming. The core of who we are is not the thoughts or impulses we harbor, but how we harness those impulses.
“The best knight of the world: everybody envied the self-esteem which must surely be his. But Lancelot never believed he was good or nice. Under the grotesque, magnificent shell with a face like Quasimodo’s, there was shame and self-loathing which had been planted there when he was tiny, by something which it is now too late to trace. It is so fatally easy to make young children believe that they are horrible.”
One of the interesting facts of White’s portrayal of Lancelot: he is not a handsome dude. It makes the romance between Jenny and Lance less about physical lust, and a lot more about kindred souls finding each other under the worst possible circumstances.
“[Lanceot] was trying to find out what he was, and he was afraid of what he would find.”
“Seeing so much further into the future than he did, she pressed towards it with passionate tread, wrecking the present because the future was bound to be a wreck.”
I love Guenevere. Her portrayal as some temptress in other media betrays what I think is the most fascinating thing about her: she won the hearts of two of the greatest men in her life. Idols and heroes and legends. She’s unapologetically complex and human, attempting to love them both. It cheapens her when she’s portrayed as flighty or deceptive. She’s bigger than that.
“[Arthur] may have fought Lancelot [in a tournament] in the hope of being killed by him—not a hope exactly, not a conscious attempt. This just and generous and kind-hearted man may have guessed unconsciously that the only solution for him and his loved ones must lie in his own death—after which Lancelot could marry the Queen and be at peace with God—and he may have given Lancelot the chance of killing him in fair fight, because he himself was worn out.”
Arthur’s isolation from his loved ones as a feature of leadership plays a major role in the book.
“They might have wondered what store of ferocity he had against himself, that could set him to break his own body so young.”
This one is about Lancelot, who spent every waking hour as a boy training himself to be a knight. All so he could serve Arthur. Their friendship is no less a love story than Lance’s and Jenny’s.
The Gentleness Our Trust Creates
“It is generally the trustful and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack. Arthur was strong and gentle enough to hope that, if he trusted Lancelot and Guenevere, things would come right in the end.”
I reflect on this one a lot. Trust and gentleness, even when that trust is betrayed, is a sign of strength.
“[Arthur], unfortunately for himself, had been beautifully brought up. His teacher had educated him as the child is educated in the womb…The effect of such an education was that he had grown up without any of the useful accomplishments for living—without malice, vanity, suspicion, cruelty, and the commoner forms of selfishness. Jealousy seemed to him the most ignoble of vices. He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife. He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these things.” [emphasis mine]
The strength of Arthur’s character is that he is so wholly a good man, even in the face of complete betrayal and isolation. He holds true to his love for his friend and wife, regardless of how they treat him. For my money, this is the greatest depiction of unconditional love in any piece of fiction.
The context of this next one is important: Arthur and Lancelot are out enjoying a stroll when they hear that Guenevere has been kidnapped. They’re both old men now, but immediately they enter their warrior’s rhythm. Lancelot calls for his armor, and King Arthur (who started as a squire, remember) immediately gets to work equipping Lancelot. Their friendship, Arthur’s love for Jenny overriding his pride, their mutual understanding that Lancelot is the most capable of saving her, and Arthur’s willingness to humble himself without hesitation—all in a few lines. Then…
“It is good to put your life in other people’s hands.”
How can a book like this not change you?