The title ‘Once and Future King’ is not lightly given, and there are very few kings (or queens) in history of the world who have so permeated into the psyche of a nation.
When Uthr Pendragon is murdered, his friend and ally Lion Lord Cunedda reveals the secret of Arthur’s birth before the dispirited army, and declares him the rightful Pendragon as Uthr’s son. But before Arthur can gain his throne, political expediency demands that he serve under his father’s enemy and murderer, King Vortigern. The same forces push him into a loveless marriage with Vortigern’s Saxon daughter, Princess Winifred, and away from his Cymraes fach, Gwenhwyfar.
While Arthur is gaining allies and reputation as a cavalry commander, Vortigern’s father-in-law, Hengest is amassing his Saxon forces on British shores. The Saex “allies” of Vortigern form an insurmountable obstacle between Arthur and his two goals: the throne of Britain, and Gwenhwyfar.
King Arthur is synonymous with Chivalry, Round Table, Merlin, and most important of all, the Quest for the Holy Grail. Many of the highlights of the legend are woven seamlessly into the story here, but this book is as far away from the myth as possible. The book strips the Arthurian legend of all those layers, leaving a period of violent struggle, when Rome had abandoned British isles and Saxons and other barbarians were fighting for dominance over the roman remnants.
Arthur in this book is a the product of his time. He drowns his loveless marriage in wine and women. A ruthless warlord and a gifted general, he understands the politics of power enough to serve under Vortigern (and later, briefly with Vortigern’s son Vortimer), and to understand the threats around him in the court. He is circumspect enough to play the long game and form the foundation on which he will later build his famed elite cavalry army, the Artoriani.
At the same time, that one moment of passion which will ruin all is never far below the surface. That’s why he can see far enough to forge a bond of friendship with a man who can provide him horses for his cavalry, yet at the same time he can lust after his newly-formed ally’s wife, blind to everything else. And he has more than enough people in his life (including his wife) who are ready to push him over that edge. It is at such times, that his friends show their importance. Cunedda, Arthur’s cousin and his second-in-command Cei, and even Gwenhwyfar form that essential radar which keep Arthur from straying too far from his path.
Gwenhwyfar, the youngest sister in a household of older brothers, is a bit of “tomboy”. She pledges her unborn sons to Arthur’s service, still a girl, when her father declares Arthur as Pendragon. And though she has to go through many difficulties and personal devastation to gain it, remains true to her love for Arthur.
I can safely say that if I hadn’t survived A Song of Ice and Fire (the series has grown on me by now), I wouldn’t have found the book as readable as I did. As it is, once you get over the gory details of dark ages and absence of fantastical elements, the story is very engaging. I am looking forward to the next books in the series, though if this book is any indication, I am pretty sure I will be taking frequent breaks from reading to get over the more “historically accurate” parts.