Book Review: The Once and Future King

I really didn’t get what I expected out of this book, which I always thought was a serious retelling of the King Arthur legend. I mean, it is that. Eventually. But it’s strangely paced and the work’s tone follows this odd arc across its four books that put me off.

The first book, “The Sword in the Stone,” follows Arthur’s childhood, and it’s dippy, whimsical, and laden with fantasy. It is, in fact, not too far from the Disney cartoon adaptation of the same name. Arthur has all kinds of adventures when his tutor Merlin turns him into different kinds of animals so that he can commune (literally) with nature. There’s also legendary figures like Robin Hood and mythical creatures like griffins. The whole thing was chock full of anachronisms and modern humor, which was pretty distracting. It’s probably good stuff for young adults, but I found it pretty silly and almost quit reading.

The weird thing is that beginning in the next book and continuing on through the last two, things start to get more serious. The second book still has some humor and silliness in it, such as when two knights create an elaborate costume to impersonate the mythical Questing Beast, only to have a real Questing Beast fall in love with them and pursue them across the countryside. But it’s more melancholy, too. The third book turns its focus to Sir Lancelot’s rise to prominence, and by the fourth book there is no humor at all and the tone is utterly tragic as it recounts the star-crossed love triangle between King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guenever. It ends quite sadly and is a far cry from a young boy who turns into a talking fish and has grand adventures in the Sherwood Forest.

I actually enjoyed the parts dealing with Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever. It’s a powerful story about love, loyalty, honor, justice, and pride. Those are the kind of powerful concepts that I think of when somebody mentions the Arthurian legends, and it works here. What didn’t work quite as well is how the whole novel jumps around from focus to focus and lurches along the time line without any concern for pacing. This is a story that should have felt more epic in places, and it didn’t. I also didn’t like how the first book about Arthur’s childhood had a tone that was so discordant with the rest of things. It’s not even like they’re part of the same story or world.

Still, it was more entertaining and enjoyable than not, especially the tragedy revolving around a king, his queen, and his most loyal (sorta) and upstanding (kinda) knight. And it’s all pretty clean with just a little violence, so I think a lot of young adults would like it, especially if they’re into the setting.

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