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The Once and Future King

T. H. White

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Plot Overview

Terence Hanbury White was born in 1906 in Bombay, India, to British parents. He was educated at Cheltenham College in England and Queen’s College in Cambridge, where he graduated at the top of his class. White led a solitary life, and other than his few friends from the academic and literary world, his only companions were his pets. White was particularly heartbroken when his dog Brownie, a red setter, died after fourteen years of faithful friendship. White did make one attempt to get married, but his heart was not in it and his would-be fiancée eventually broke off their relationship. Toward the end of his life, White underwent psychological treatment for homosexuality. White was also an on-again, off-again alcoholic, and though his drinking never ruined him, it was enough of a problem that he made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop drinking entirely.

Early in life, White taught at several English preparatory schools. His first successful book was an autobiography called England Have My Bones. He was eventually able to make enough money from his novels, particularly from the four books that make up The Once and Future King, to dedicate himself to writing full time. In his spare time, White was a passionate falconer, pilot, sailor, goose-hunter, fisherman, and scholar of medieval texts. It was in this last capacity that he began studying the Arthurian legends, stories about the legendary King Arthur that date as far back as the early twelfth century and have become an integral part of British literature. White’s own interpretation of King Arthur would become the subject of his best-known novels.

Although The Once and Future King was White’s best-selling novel, three of the four books that make up the completed work were first published independently: The Sword in the Stone in 1938; The Witch in the Wood, later renamed The Queen of Air and Darkness, in 1939; and The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. The fourth book, The Candle in the Wind, first appeared in 1958, when it was published in the completed The Once and Future King. White also wrote a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, in which Merlyn and Arthur discuss the issue of war, using the animals that Arthur had known as a child, but it was rejected by White’s publisher. That book has since been published but has never been considered equal to White’s classic novel. In the years since its initial publication, The Once and Future King has enjoyed a popularity that spreads far beyond bookstores. White’s novel is the basis for the classic Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot, which debuted in 1960, and for the animated Disney film The Sword in the Stone, which premiered around the time of White’s death. White died in Athens, Greece, in 1964, at the age of fifty-seven.

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