The legend of King Arthur is so familiar to most of us that it is surprising to find a fresh re-telling of this story - particularly one as clever as T.H. White's The Once and Future King.
White recounts the life Arthur from his education as a boy by the string wizard Merlin to his rise to the throne, where he conquers England and attempts to use his power to bring a new age of peace and chivalry to his downfall at the hands of his enemies - particularly his son Mordred.
The story spans 4 books - The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, the Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle In The Wind. Originally, White planned a fifth book - The Book Merlyn, but he did not finish this before his death and many of the stories from this book found their way into the other volumes. The story is told chronologically and follows Arthur and his closest friends and enemies throughout his life. Each book stands on its own but is best read as an entire series, in order. (The Book of Merlyn is optional reading.)
White often omits details of Arthur's story, referring the reader to Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur". Instead, White focuses on the characters' thoughts and feelings and motivations. How did Merlin's training of the boy Arthur affect King Arthur's philosophy during his reign? What were psychological damaged was caused Lancelot when he was drugged and tricked into losing his virginity? Why does Mordred hate his father and plot revenge?
The books become darker as the series advances; The Sword in the Stone is a lighthearted story featuring bumbling knights and anthropomorphic animals; while the final 2 books focus on the cost of human sin and weakness.
Through it all, White maintains his wit and keeps the characters fresh and alive.
I recommend this series for any fan of the Arthurian Legend.
My notes on the individual books are below.
The Sword in the Stone
A fun story of the youth of King Arthur, when he went by the unflattering nickname "The Wort" and served at the castle of Sir Ector, doing the bidding of Ector's son Kay, until he met the wizard Merlin in the forest and convinced Ector to hire Merlin as his tutor.
Much of Merlin's tutelage consisted of turning the Wort into various animals and allowing him to interact with other animals, learning their ways and their values. We will see these lessons put into practice when Arthur later rises to become King of England.
The Queen of Air and Darkness
Arthur battles King Lot to gain control of Britain and decides to form his famous Knights of the Round Table, who will promote and enforce chivalry in his new kingdom. We are also introduced to Arthur's half-sister Morgause (the "queen" of the book's title), who plots to seduce Arthur through witchcraft and give birth to Mordred, leading to Arthur's destruction.
Although this book is short and contains less action than others in the series, its introduction of key characters and concepts make it an important book in the series.
The Ill-Made Knight
This volume follows Sir Lancelot - his arrival at Camelot and friendship with King Arthur; his affair with Arthur's wife - Queen Guinever; his wanderings in search of both the Holy Grail and redemption for betraying his friend's trust; and his return to Camelot and his battles with his own conscience.
Lancelot is universally regarded as the greatest knight in the world and he believes that his power comes from his purity. But when he loses that purity (he betrays his friend's trust and also fathers Gallahad out of wedlock), he loses not only his power, but his self-confidence and, for a while, his senses.
Candle in the Wind
The climax of the story in which Arthur's rivals (led by Mordred) convince Arthur to try and execute his wife for adultery and to go to war with Lancelot. Arthur's adherence to his law is tested against his love and loyalty to his wife and best friend.
The Book of Merlyn
Unpolished and incomplete, but published after White's death. Merlyn returns to Camelot when Arthur is an old man. He takes Arthur back to some of the animals who had originally taught him lessons of justice, peace, and war and Arthur begins to find meaning in his life, which he had suspected was wasted. Some of these stories found their way into The Sword in the Stone.