On a flight to San Diego, I found myself in the not-so-rare situation of having ample time to read, coupled with the increasingly rare situation of having in my possession an actual, honest-to-goodness made-of-paper book. The collection of circumstances leading to this anomaly include disappointment in my current Kindle read, the recommendation and lending of Beardsy (which, when it comes to literature and music, trumps nearly everyone else), and the recurring problem of having read both the in-flight magazine and Sky Mall given the frequency of travel in my life these days. So I opened the cover, started at the top left and read down, over, and on to the next page. It really had been months since I’d handled a proper book properly. And though I am not as nostalgic or Luddite as many, I certainly enjoyed the smell of the pages, the dry course feel of them on my finger tips. And perhaps it did evoke memories of my youth, reading fantasy novels to Mac by lamplight in the fort under my desk.
I apologize for the nostalgia. It is, in part, the season. But it is something more.
As I flew and read, I would occasionally laugh out loud, or stop, go back, and read again. This book has all the magic of my first reading of William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” I found myself jotting things down, making notes on scraps of paper (or, when I remembered, in my iPhone) – These are the things you must remember! These are the things that speak to you! Among the things I have written down (out of context):
- “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.”
- ” … but it seems, in tragedy, innocence is not enough.”
- “The Ill-Made Knight”
The offending above-mentioned book is one that I am sure most of you have read, but I am experiencing it for the first time: The Once and Future King. I would say the absence of this book from my nerd catalog is only slightly less egregious than the fact that I have yet to read Dune.
The fact is, I’ve read Arthurian legend time and again, including Le Morte D’Artur and the more modern Warlord Chronicles (both which I HIGHLY recommend) and I am even currently engaged in the paper-and-pen Pendragon campaign. Aside from the mythology of Krynn, there are few areas of fiction I would say I’ve spent as much time devouring. Yet this is the first time I have read this book.
And let me also say, as was told to me when I was handed this tome, that this is a thing which I likely would not appreciate nearly as much as I do right now in my life. There is a certain warmth and emptiness and acceptance of turmoil and release from the frustrations of youth and expectation that accompanies growth and maturity – and perhaps, given this context, certain pieces of art become nearly prescient in their wit and display.
Let me put that another way … I bought the rerelease of The Dismemberment Plan’s “Emergency and I” this year, and it was shocking to me how much that album resonated with my life as an early 30’s failure. I understand that the same sounds and rhythms were present when I was 21 and the album was a frat anthem; but the intentions, the ideas, the mood was clearly aimed at a different set than Drunken Emo Moron. And so I discovered, for the first time, what that album was really about.
The Once and Future King is about a lot of things – it is a humanization of the story of Arthur. It’s about bringing the context of classic human tragedy into the modern era. Its about love and friendship and honor in the face of treachery and betrayal, and how the things inspired by good do not always lead to kind endings, while the things inspire by selfishness and greed do not always beget more suffering. It is about sacrifice and denial of the self. It is about the human condition.
I consider this book to be the flip-side of the coin upon which The Magicians rests as well – this a non-cynical look at suffering and pain while people attempt to make the world a better place; that (The Magicians) a cynical analysis of the selfishness of young adulthood, the disappointments of growing up, and the consequences such selfishness and disappointment wrought upon the world.
I believe that together, these books can teach us not only to be nostalgic for the times in our lives that were simpler, but to be more accepting of the turmoils and tragedies we will face. And to have the strength to know that such tragedies are often our own doing; but more often, it is simply the weight of the tides that push us forward, set in motion long ago by forces beyond our control. And through this, perhaps we may find the dignity to love, and to know that we cannot love without loss, and to bravely face those things when we are at our most alone.