Just to be upfront, it took me six months to finish The Once and Future King. Not because I found it dull, but because I went back to college from Winter Break and fell into my thesis and only recently dragged myself back out. I finished on the plane ride home, and I’ve got to say, I really, really enjoyed reading this book.
I like how Merlin is out of sync, how he’s always a little bit off, never remembering what to say or when to say it. He brings a certain humor to the text that offsets the utter sense of resignation that Arthur brings in later.
I like how Arthur clings to this sense of justice and learns to think beyond the moment and into the future, thinks of the ramifications of his actions. I like how even though the people he rules aren’t quite ready for justice as Arthur envisions it, he still does what he believes is right, because he wants to lead by example, wants to be different from his ancestors and contemporaries.
And Pellinore and the Questing Beast. A close second favorite, for sure.
But I think I enjoyed Arthur’s animal “lessons” best. I wrote a section about the animal body in my thesis, in which I looked at how Elizabeth Bishop re-frames the inherently strange and yet familiar animal body as a way to approach identity and subject-formation from a new angle. And I think there’s a bit of that in Merlin’s lessons for Arthur. Arthur engages with these animals who have different values and different customs, and he comes to these sessions with his own human beliefs and then must readjust as necessary. He learns humans aren’t always right, aren’t always just, and it’s an important lesson that I want to remember.