The Once and Future King

Today I am recommending The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This book is actually a collection of four books. The first being The Sword in the Stone which was turned into and animated film by Walt Disney in 1963. This first book was originally published in 1938 (Beyond the first book, I’d say this novel is not particularly for kids as war and fighting and sex and death are, for the most part, shielded from the eyes of children). The collection of all four into The Once and Future King was published in 1958.

This recommendation does come with a few reservations. I enjoyed the lengthy novel (roughly 650 pages and nearing 300,000 words) which is centered around the Arthurian tales, but I’m afraid I may have come to it with a slight case of expectations. I know, I know, it is best to remove all expectations prior to experiencing a story so as to allow yourself to form your own opinion of it. I was planning on doing just that but seemed to have caught the little bug, which flew to me upon the words of Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman as well as others who provided blurbs or introductions to this book. People whose opinions hold weight with me.

I understand their love for the book. The wit-filled pages that recount Arthur’s education and inauguration as king to his formation of the round table and the era of chivalry and through the years beyond where if falls into ruin. The story is interesting and entertaining. Some areas drag while others are captivating. It stays true to what is known about the legends (which most of us know of but may have never really read about) and White often refers to Mallory or other sources of the Arthurian legend. I felt that White relied on the reader having previous knowledge of the legend during certain passages.

The more I think about the story the more I like it, but I was not enthralled while actively reading it. White was funny and whimsical while also covering the darker story-lines and allowing tragedy. There are no detailed descriptions of fights or battles or hardships. Many are written without providing action but do provide some detail about the aftermath. The result is no blood and gore (which is perfectly acceptable and not really essential to the story) but plenty of description about scenery and the lands of England. The story of Arthur and his knights has captivated the world for centuries. I believe his story and legend will survive for a long time and White’s telling of it will continue to entertain. After all, it is written for modern audiences and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The greatest thing about this book is its arching storyline of how England, through Arthur, was shifted from the “Might is Right” society to a more civilized land of laws. The tragedy of Arthur is in his good deeds. He transforms England into a peaceful land by channeling baser human instincts into a morally superior lifestyle. The new lifestyle is what ultimately causes the personal turmoil of the aged Arthur because he ties his own hands against saving the ones he loves.

If you are interested in, or already love, the Arthurian tales, then this book will likely be of great interest to you. If you know a little but would like to know more about these tales, then this book is a great place to start.

Happy Reading.

Phantom Queen

Three young women stood watching the sea. Footsteps too far to hear alerted them of a man approaching. Their wait was at an end. They all turned in unison and walked toward the small cottage they would call home for today. Two of the women turned toward the third and merged with her, disappearing like ghosts into the earth. The lone woman kept walking toward the cottage. Each step she took aged her until she was grey and slow. Hours passed before the young man came into view.

“Hello Madame,” he called as he approached, his leather armor defining his muscles more than hiding them. A long spear lay strapped across his back. The smile on his face dispelled any intimidation his figure would have normally held.

She stopped milking her cow and turned toward him in crafted surprise. This was the first time he had recognized her after many attempts to capture his attention. “Oh, hello young man. You must be weary to have come all this way. Please, have some bainne. There is too much for just me.”

He approached and graciously accepted the offer. He drank three full glasses of the fresh milk.

“Thank you for your kindness. This will help my strength in future battles.”

“You shall be the strongest warrior,” she said knowing the truth of her words.

“Alas, I cannot stay to enjoy a proper exchanging of words. Please accept my deepest apologies.” He bowed to her.

“No need for such formalities. Young men are naturally making use of their constant vigor, as they should before age strips it of them.”

The young warrior continued his path and the old woman watched him go until he was lost to the horizon. Then her body burst into a murder of crows scattering across the sky.

Every Season

The leaves and grass were a vibrant, fresh Spring green despite it being the day of Winter Solstice. Outside the grove, the fields were covered in snow and the trees already long retreated into hibernation. The air inside was warm also. Gaelin wore simple clothes as he had little else. No coin in his pocket or food in his stomach. The cold gently left him, but his feet remained numb as he forced his legs forward. Each step an uncertainty. He did not feel the grass against his bare feet.

Before him was the alter. He had wondered for weeks, unsure of what he sought, until he saw the grey stones and the large willow tree. There were rumors of this place. Folktales told in taverns and inns and even then mainly by master storytellers or drunks seeking attention. But sometimes, rarely, a story is told by a frightened child. These stories add to the tales and are also dismissed as such. Gaelin knew otherwise. Whenever such a story was told, there was often something new. He experienced such a rarity the day before he began his search. It was during the description of the creature when Gaelin noticed the truth hidden in the large, fearful eyes of the child. The young boy had seen something inexplicable, and no one paid it any mind.

Gaelin had taken the child aside and calmed him. The child welcomed his interest and comfort despite the fact he was a stranger. More than anything, he was glad to be taken seriously instead of laughed at as the rest of the town had. The child gave him a detailed description. Legs like that of a horse, bare torso of a man, face also of a man except for wolf’s teeth and antlers like a stag. And the eyes. It had the eyes of a demon. They changed constantly from blue to green to yellow then red. Pulsing, flickering like fire. The creature spoke in a language the child hadn’t understood. Gaelin comforted the child with hot cider and left him by the hearth. That was the last time he remembered being warm.

The numbness was fading gradually. Some feeling returned to his calves as he climbed the stone stair toward the willow tree. If it had been Spring, the grove would have been lost within the forest. Against the dead of Winter, it was a beacon at the end of a maze. He ascended onto the large stone before the willow. The air was charged but nothing stirred. No animal, no noise, nothing but his own quiet breath until he muttered, “God of the green, Lord of the forest, I offer you my sacrifice, and I ask you for your blessing.”

Silence. He breathed quietly and waited. The air began to move and a breeze softly brushed against him. The willow leaves like vines reached out and curled around his limbs and torso. They were warm also. He was lifted from the stone and pulled in slowly. He fought a fear that threatened to overwhelm him. Then he was lost in the darkness of the tree. He could hear nothing, see nothing, feel nothing. The grove was silent and still once again.

Three days passed without a sound until the willow opened its veil. Its vines floated down to the grey stone and retreated just as slowly. Gaelin stood. A loud clack echoed through the winter air. He opened his eyes and saw the grove in every season. His eyes flickering from red to blue to green then yellow. His smile revealed wolf’s teeth.

How Odin lost his eye

Mythology has always fascinated me. The Norse pantheon especially so. One thing that draws my interest is that the gods are immortal but know that they will eventually die during Ragnarok (a contradiction I know). These mortal immortals behave much like humans and are not immune to emotions, but they of course perform impossible feats and live in a world that contains what we would call magic. The story I am sharing with you this week (it’s Flash Friday) is the story of Odin and how he loses his eye, and what he gains in return.

If you have not yet dipped your toes in the waters of mythology and enjoy this snapshot of a story, I recommend you check it out. Of course the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda are great sources for Norse mythology, but if you don’t like poetry or a translated book originally written around the year 1200, I recommend you try Myths of the Norsemen by H. A. Guerber or Neil Gaiman’s recently released Norse Mythology. Neil’s version is of course modern (but stays true to the myth) and is suitable for all ages. Guerber’s was written in the early 1900’s and is very informative (he did his homework).

This is a retelling of Odin’s short exchange at Mimisbrunnr.

The Price of Wisdom

Many months had passed since Odin left Asgard. He had shed all ornament before his departure. Instead of his spear, he carried a walking staff. Instead of his armor, he wore simple clothes wrapped in a dark blue cloak. And instead of riding Sleipner, his eight-legged horse, he simply walked. He appeared as nothing but an old wanderer to any who would see him. He appeared as a man to men and a giant to giants. Nothing about his appearance would reveal his name. He had traveled across the vast land of Jotunheim, the land of giants, before he found the end of his journey; a well. Beside it stood its warden.

“Greetings, Odin, Borr’s son.”

Odin grinned, “Well met, Mimir, guardian of wisdom. I have come to drink from your well.”

“Many have desired such as you, but none has so desired it that they would offer what is asked of them. You know your price.”

“I will not shy away from it.” Odin walked to the well. It was brimming with water so thin and clear it could have been air. He felt his thirst for it. He raised a hand to his right eye. With his thumb and two forefingers he spread his eyelids wide, dug deep into his skull, and pulled his eye from its resting place. Through all the pain he did not make sound. Blood dripped like tears from the empty socket. Odin held the eye before him and looked upon it one last time, then he dropped it into the well where it sank deep into its clear water. “The price is paid. I will have what is mine.”

Mimir nodded and produced a large drinking horn. He filled it with the well’s water and handed it to Odin, the first and last to pay the price. Odin took the horn with both his hands and drank deeply. Behind the taste of sunlight, the future became clear. He saw all that would happen in the nine worlds. All the troubles and triumphs of men and gods, and beyond that he learned why the sorrows and trials must be made. Noble acts amidst the troubles and sorrows would create a force that one day, a day long in the future, would grapple and destroy the evil that brought terror and torment into the world. Odin new what he must do to prepare for the end of days, and he took solace in the thought of a world reborn.

Odin drained the horn in one drink and handed it back to Mimir. He thanked the wise giant, then turned and left. His right eye would remain suspended in the well of wisdom, looking up through the water, as a sign to all who would wander there that the Allfather had paid for his wisdom.