The Once and Future King is a retelling by T. H. White of the story of King Arthur. A critically acclaimed retelling, which has been cited as one of the best versions of the King Arthur mythos.
The composite edition, first published in 1958, is in four parts:
- The Sword in the Stone, covering Arthur's childhood, the lessons he was taught by Merlyn (often involving him being transformed into an animal to give him a different perspective on the world), and how he was discovered and crowned King of England.
- The Queen of Air and Darkness, covering the early part of Arthur's reign, the founding of the Knights of the Round Table, and introduces Morgause, the mother of Arthur's nemesis Mordred.
- The Ill-Made Knight, featuring the story of Sir Lancelot.
- The Candle in the Wind, telling of the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom, concluding with a bit appearance by Thomas Malory, still a squire, whom Arthur sends off to remember their story.
The first three parts were published separately first, and revised to a greater or lesser extent for the composite edition. The biggest change was probably to second part, which was substantially altered and given a new title (the original version was The Witch in the Wood).
White also worked on a fifth part, set in the lead-up to Arthur's final battle, in which he was taught more lessons by Merlyn. This was not included in the composite edition, for some reason, but parts of it were incorporated into the composite edition's version of The Sword in the Stone. It was eventually published separately in 1977, after White's death, as The Book of Merlyn.
- Anachronism Stew: Deliberately set in no particular time period, with historical references being often vague and frequently contradictory. In several cases, White justifies it by saying that some things referenced (such as the characters drinking Port or wanting to send their kids to Eton) weren't actually what was being said, but that more modern things were used to give readers a sense of what was being said.
- Ant War: One of the animal transformations Merlyn performs on Wart is to turn him into an ant, and he finds himself in the middle of an ant war.
- Apothecary Alligator: Merlyn has one in his cottage.
There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed.
- Badass Creed: The song of the hawks in The Sword in the Stone.
- Bawdy Song
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted with Lancelot.
- Bi the Way / If It's You It's Okay: Lancelot was in love with Arthur. His jealousy and hostility towards Guinevere actually plays a part in them ending up together.
- Bring News Back: Why Thomas Malory can not fight and die in the last battle as he tells Arthur he wants to.
- Broken Ace: being Lancelot is suffering.
- Classical Mythology: Several personages from Greco-Roman mythology, such as Neptune, Hecate, and Minerva, make appearances in The Sword in the Stone (not to mention Castor and Pollux blowing Merlyn to Bermuda).
- Darker and Edgier: The Sword and the Stone is pretty light-hearted, and not much different than the Disney film in terms of atmosphere. Then comes The Queen of Air and Darkness and the story starts to get fairly dark.
- End of an Age
- Eternal Hero: Lampshaded and parodied in The Candle in the Wind, where Merlin (who was born an old man at the end of the universe and lives his life backwards in time to an eventual death as a baby during the Big Bang) devotes a couple of paragraphs to confusing Arthur by criticising future retellings of his legend, mercilessly savaging White's version ("Imagine, beginning with the Normans and ending with the Wars of the Roses") for using Comic Book Time to allow Arthur and the others to live through centuries of history while simultaneously only living for normal human lifespans.
- This scene starts with the duo meeting a young boy who turns out to be called Thomas Malory...
- Evil Albino: Mordred.
- The Fair Folk: Before Gaiman did this, the fairies in The Sword in the Stone were one of the earliest examples of these in modern fiction. Robin Wood said that they didn't have hearts, both literally and figuratively.
- Famed in Story: Arthur wanted the story told, at the end, to keep the memory of the ideals alive.
- Food Chains: See Level Ate.
- Forgot I Could Change the Rules: Inverted. King Arthur chooses not to change the law about burning adulterous wives after Guinevere's affair with Lancelot is revealed. He is not (particularly) jealous of them. He loves Guinevere, he loves Lancelot, he is the king and the law is barbarous, but he chose not to change it for the reason that nobody should be above the law.
- Also, he pretty much ignores the two of them until he can no longer pretend to be ignorant of the affair, and allows the two to flee. He's very much a tragic figure, though, as he does have to persecute them. His character arc of the last book or two has been realizing that the law needs to apply to everyone.
- Forgotten Fallen Friend: In the fourth book, Lancelot kills Gawaine's brothers Gareth and Gaheris. Though Gareth's death is hugely devastating to both Gawaine and Lancelot, neither of them seems to remember that Gaheris ever existed.
- Freudian Excuse: Agravaine, much more literally than usual.
- Good Is Not Nice: Sir Galahad
- Gorn: Queen Morgause boils a cat alive out of boredom. She doesn't even care about the practical purpose of granting invisibility, as she's intensely vain.
- Individuality Is Illegal: The ants Arthur meets in one of Merlyn's lessons.
- Just-So Story: The badger's dissertation in The Sword in the Stone.
- Lampshade Hanging: Merlyn does this constantly, since he's basically Genre Savvy due to moving backwards through time. Some of his most marvelous ones spiral off into funny and inspiring sermons about learning and the nature of spoken language.
- Legendary Catfish: In The Sword in the Stone
- Level Ate: In The Sword in the Stone, Arthur and Kay enter a faerie castle made of food.
- Merlin Sickness
- Mister Muffykins: Morgause's dogs
- Mommy Issues: All of the Orkney boys. Especially Agravaine.
- Only the Chosen May Wield
- Patrick Stewart Speech
- Pet Owl: Merlin's pet owl, Archimedes. As one would expect from an owl owned by one of literature's most famous wizards, he's fully capable of talking to people.
- Public Domain Character: Apart from the obvious, Arthur meets Robin Hood (who says his name is really Robin Wood, but it's clearly the same person the legends are about) in The Sword in the Stone.
- Reality Subtext: White wrote the majority of the series, including The Book of Merlyn, during the darkest days of World War II. It definitely shows, if you're looking for it. The scene with the ants in The Book of Merlyn is an explicit parallel to totalitarian regimes and Nazism in particular. And Mordred's faction in The Candle in the Wind are described in ways intended to compare them to Nazis. Plus there's Merlin's angry lecture to Sir Kay in The Queen of Air and Darkness, although that's less subtext than outright text.
- Red Right Hand: Mordred
- Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: Lancelot devoted most of his youth to learning how to fight, at the expense of having a proper childhood. He's better with a weapon than anyone else in the book, but among other things, he never learned to climb trees.
- Spinning Out of Here: Merlin always spins around before he disappears in a cloud of smoke.
- Tearful Smile
- Translation Convention: Explicitly invoked by the narrator. In the first few pages the narration states that characters are actually using or referring to certain period-accurate things like some kind of drink, but the narration will translate it into a modern equivalent, like port. In addition, most of the dialogue is in modern colloquial English, but for a few important parts here and there it switches to something much more old-fashioned-sounding. There is no in-universe explanation for this; the switch is probably just to drive home the point "this is important".
- White-Haired Pretty Boy: Mordred