There’s one particular reason the Arthurian legends are interesting: every writer portrays the story differently.
Everybody has their own take on who Arthur was, what his life is about, and what his allies and enemies were trying to do.
T.H. White did something especially unique when he wrote The Once and Future King.
He created a story that was entertaining, complex, and different from every Arthurian story written before or since.
Here are two things that really set The Once and Future King apart.
1. Different Takes on the Main Characters
White’s story concentrates on the main characters (Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guenevere, Gawaine, Mordred) from the Arthurian legends.
However, White portrays them in a very different way than most writers.
For example, he portrays Sir Gawain as an angry man, the product of a broken childhood.
Most authors describe Sir Gawain as kind (scholar B.J. Whiting noted that Arthurian literature describes Gawaine as “courteous” 187 times), but White’s Gawain has a terrible temper.
He gets into violent rages where he “seemed to pass out of human existence,” and attacks innocent people. His whole life is about learning to reign himself in.
White’s Lancelot is also very different. He’s still the finest knight in Arthur’s kingdom, but his motivations are very different.
This Lancelot is a man born with a disfigured face and can’t believe he’s really lovable.
So, this Lancelot becomes great because he so desperately wants to overcome his problems.
He works so hard at being the best knight in the world because he hopes that maybe, if he is faultless, he will become more than a man who looks like a monster.
2. Political Commentary
World War II started as White wrote The Once and Future King.
White was a fervent pacifist, so he worked his ideas about war and violence into the narrative.
When Arthur says in the second book that he thinks battles are fun, Merlyn essentially replies, “You have the same attitude towards war your father had, and England’s a mess because of it. Your father believed that Might was Right, so he went to war without thinking about how many people got hurt or whether he had a good reason.”
From that point forward, The Once and Future King becomes about Arthur trying to find a way to create effective peace.
His Round Table, his quest to find the Holy Grail, all his plans are careful attempts to make a country of warriors work together and end needless violence.
The discussions about war become especially prominent in the last book when Merlyn comes to Arthur just before his last battle and takes him to a cave.
There Arthur, Merlyn and a group of talking animals have a long debate about why humans fight wars, and how other species on Earth manage to avoid it.
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White-in-Boston-CollegeII.jpg