Book of a lifetime: The Once and Future King, By TH White
Saturday 13 October 2012
I have loved so many books in my life that it always surprises me how easily the answer comes when people ask me about my favourite book. There is no doubt in my mind, although the question summons many beloved titles. It is 'The Once and Future King' by TH White: the book I would take to the island; the book I want by the side of my deathbed; the book I wish I had written.
I found it rather late. At the age of 17, I had just finished 'The Lord of the Rings' for the first time. Middle Earth was back then as unknown in Germany as Narnia or Gormenghast. In my small home town there was no one who had ever heard about these books, except for my English teacher. But I felt that I had finally discovered the books I wanted to read. They were mostly published at Klett Cotta's Hobbit Press, a label back then brilliantly designed by Heinz Edelmann, who also worked on The Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine'. Sadly, his sublime and unique covers have now been replaced.
Anyway, there it was: the Arthur myth – my favourite story of all time – in breathtakingly modern clothes. Told with such mastery that I felt I had never heard it before. I had never met characters so richly drawn.
I had not known that Lancelot was ugly and that, of course, he was so kind because he was so cruel. And Guinever: how could a male writer know so much about women? How could he know so much about everything?
How was it possible to weave such a magic carpet from both tragedy and comedy, making them melt together into the most unforgettable fabric made from words?
I whispered them while reading to taste them on my tongue. I read them over and over, at that time still in the German translation (a rather good one, as far as I recall). At that age I did not even have the dream of being a writer. It never crossed my mind that I might be able to tell stories someone else might love. But maybe White planted the seed, as I fed for years in secret on the adoration for his book.
I read 'The Once and Future King' aloud to my 14-year-old brother. Yes, the whole book. He was very silent after I had finished. "So?" I asked. "Which one did you like better?" I had also read 'The Lord of the Rings' to him… all three parts. I am quite fond of Mr Tolkien's tale, too. 'The Once and Future King', my brother finally answered. "It makes me think." Yes, it does. Think, and feel, and meet all the light and darkness of the world.
Oh, how I wish I had written that book.
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