Comfort Reads: The Once and Future King

In our ongoing feature inspired by ILE’s growing ‘Reading for Wellbeing’ collection of fiction for staff and students, Adam Cummins shares his love for T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. 

The days begin to retreat into night, and the leaves start their yearly change from green to orange. A chill falls over York, and the sky yaws from bright to grey. You become increasingly attracted to the books that make you feel warm. Books that you’ve read before, and books that you will undoubtedly read again. Books to be read next to a fire, if one has the luxury, and books that can be read in bed, most importantly.

The book that I perhaps read most is tragic, comic, violent, theatrical and so much more. It’s a legendary tale of knights, magic and growth. It’s T.H. White’s classic take on the Arthurian mythos, The Once and Future King.

But I think, as a literature student writing for a student’s blog, I can often get bogged down in trying to academically explain my right to enjoy a book, especially when it comes to genre fiction. If I’m completely honest, there are parallels that make me biased towards White, and the England he conjures forth in the pages of this tome.

Brisk winds, blowing forth through leafy valleys and snapping coats against thighs in a east midlands national trust park. This national trust park is Stowe Gardens, and T.H. White taught here for four years. I visited this place every week for years, I have countless memories of this place, and so I share a kinship with White (Whose story is heartbreaking, and particularly brutal in and of itself).

I would imagine myself Arthur, a knight pulling forth a mythical sword and wielding it against my enemies, and Merlin, transforming me into animals in my flight through the undergrowth, and into the trees. From branch to branch I clamber, much the the dismay of my caring mother. Arthur’s growth into a man frustrated by human nature and it’s unbending ability to destroy itself is pertinent to current times, and it’s easy to find solace in this character who sees no hope in the world. Against a torrent of brutality, savagery and visceral cruelty, Arthur, and White by extension, persist.

What attracts me perhaps most to The Once and Future King is the presentation of a mythical England that somehow roots itself in a glorious reality. White’s England is small, conquerable and traversable, yet indirectly strange, magical and intimidating, a country where one can lose oneself in far lands, but never be too far from the home and hearth. England is wide, expansive, and brutal. Yet the classroom, the keep, and the tower are unexpectedly places of medieval warmth, romance and drama. Arthur’s childhood in The Sword in the Stone, the first part of the four parts that make up The Once and Future King, is unreasonably quaint, akin to the ‘nostalgia’ of Christmas at Hogwarts, a Christmas not experienced but always remembered.

Arthur and Lancelot’s dark juxtaposition creates so many memorable moments, and so many outpourings of emotion that give the novel such deep tone, and make it greatly effective to read late at night, wrapped in a blanket. Arthur’s never-ending optimism is overwhelming, his unending sense to correct wrongs, in conversation with the brooding nihilism of Lancelot, faithfully placing a trust in Arthur as a form of hope.

Exploring White in a mythological style might be counterproductive to celebrating the man’s struggle for acceptance and what remains one of English literature’s most very introspective explorations of self. White’s everlasting quest for self affirmation and meaning should ring true with every student struggling in the university system, which is exactly why I’ve chosen his magnum opus as my comfort read.

Do you have a favourite Comfort Read you return to time and again? If so, and you’d like to share your love in a 600-800-word post, email one of our sub-editors: Ellie Anderson-Ingham, Adam Cummins or Charlotte Stevenson.