I'm not sure what I was expecting going into The Once and Future King, but it wasn't quite this. It's a reworking of Malory's Morte Darthur in a modern-day (well, 1960s) idiom; an attempt to explain the tragedy of Total War through the lens of a national myth.
As it stands, the book is a composite of four earlier works, revised for inclusion in one long book: The Sword in the Stone (upon which the Disney film is based), The Witch in the Wood, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. That composite nature is very obvious in the book's shifts in tone: the first "book", "The Sword in the Stone", is light-hearted, funny, deeply subversive of Malory, and surprisingly inventive, as the apparently orphaned Wart (as his foster brother Kay so kindly calls him) is turned by his teacher Merlyn into a fish, a wild goose, a badger, an ant. He meets Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the woods; he goes on a quest to rescue servants from the fairy queen Morgan le Fay. It's very odd and very charming. But this humour fades quickly as the young king grows up (although King Pellinore and his Questing Beast remains hilarious and adorable until well into the second book), and the rest of The Once and Future King is oddly serious. Subversive elements and references to Malory remain - I liked the use of Malory's Middle English for formal knightly challenges - but the later parts of the book are more or less straight retellings of the Guenever/Lancelot romance (can I just say: Arthur is so lovely over all of that) and the Mordred plot. True, the main players have more psychological reality than they ever had in Malory - I can't remember if Agravaine's incestuous love for his mother was in the original, but it's fantastically dark - and White has a very pronounced thematic message that gives the tale of the Round Table a new spin; but it's interesting rather than involving, a thing to be analysed and not enjoyed. For me, anyway. I didn't particularly connect to it, and though I can see myself dipping in and out, I probably won't read it all again.