The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King
T. H. WhiteINTRODUCTION
(Full name Terence Hanbury White) Indian-born English novelist, poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, short-story writer, travel writer, editor, illustrator, and author of juvenile and young adult novels.
The following entry presents commentary on White's juvenile novel The Once and Future King (1958) through 2002.
White's The Once and Future King (1958) is a decidedly twentieth-century retelling of Thomas Malory's epic fifteenth-century Morte d'Arthur, a reinterpretation of the classical myth that remains true to the source material of the Arthur legend while functioning as an accessible post-World War II juvenile novel. The 1958 edition of White's novel is composed of four parts, three of which were published earlier as individual novels—The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Witch in the Wood (1939), and The Ill-Made Knight (1940). After editing the initial works, White bound them together with a fourth book titled The Candle in the Wind and produced The Once and Future King, an extensive epic novel relating the story of King Arthur from childhood though his legendary reign as King of England. Considered one of the definitive modern takes on the Arthuriad legend, The Once and Future King utilizes the framework of Arthur's life to express an anti-war message while balancing comedic and dramatic elements to maintain the flow of the classic myth.
White was born on May 29, 1906, in Bombay, India (present-day Mumbai). His parents, Garrick Hanbury and Constance White, had a troubled marriage and, at the age of five, White was sent to England, where he lived with his mother's parents and attended British schools. He was placed at Cheltenham College, a military-based school, in 1920, the same year his parents were divorced. An excellent student, White was accepted to Queen's College, Cambridge, where his intelligence and literary prowess so impressed his teachers that, when he contracted life-threatening tuberculosis in his second year, his dons raised money to send him on a year's convalescence in Italy. Upon his recovery, he proved a brilliant pupil and became a protégé of novelist/professor L. J. Potts, with whom he would maintain a lifelong correspondence. Before gaining his first-class English degree in 1928, White composed a thesis about Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which would later spark White's enduring passion with both Malory and the Arthuriad. After graduation, he quickly composed several novels and volumes of poetry, releasing the first in 1929. In 1932 his Cambridge professors recommended White for a position as the head of the Stowe School's English Department, where he would remain for four years. Tired of the teaching profession, he quit Stowe in 1936 to fully concentrate upon his writing. Already the author of nine books written under the pseudonym of James Aston (his mother's maiden name), White released The Sword in the Stone—the first novel of his Arthurian tetralogy—in 1938 to great acclaim and popular interest. Its selection for the Book of the Month Club in the United States and the eventual sale of its movie rights to Walt Disney afforded White financial independence and the ability to move to Ireland the following year to avoid both Inland Revenue taxation and military conscription into World War II. Settling into a peaceful existence in an isolated cabin in rural Ireland, he indulged his primal nature, almost solely limiting his activities to writing, hunting, and fishing. In this secluded environment, he became prodigious, quickly releasing the next two books of his Arthuriad. He completed his planned five-book epic during this era, though his plans to release them together in one edition was scuttled by both his publisher's reluctance for such a lengthy book and a World War II-era paper shortage. Ultimately, protracted negotiations between White and his editors led to the release of The Once and Future King in 1958 as a heavily edited revision of his initial vision for his retelling of the Arthuriad. Now composed of four novels—the planned fifth book, The Book of Merlyn (1977) was excised completely and would only be released as a stand-alone novel thirteen years after White's death—The Once and Future King featured many extensive revisions in White's previously released trio of Arthur novels, which including cutting the text of The Witch in the Wood almost in half and retitling it The Queen of Air and Darkness. Despite his growing literary reputation, White's personal life was lonely. He had believed that his move to Ireland would alleviate his loneliness, however, while possessing some Irish heritage on his father's side, the locals eyed him as an unwelcome Englishman and even a potential spy. He was eventually asked to leave in 1946, causing him to permanently resettle in the Channel Islands. Shortly after completing a lengthy speaking engagement in the United States between 1963 and 1964, White suffered a heart attack on a Mediterranean cruise and died on January 17, 1964, in Piraeus, Greece.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
White's novelization of the Arthuriad is a straightforward retelling of the classic legend with particular emphasis drawn from Malory's fifteenth-century Morte d'Arthur. In contrast to many versions of the Arthur story, White's intent focuses primarily on Arthur himself rather than the Lancelot/Guinevere aspects of the myth. The book is separated into four complete novels, with The Book of Merlyn often included in many critical analyses, despite not having been originally bound as a part of The Once and Future King. White places his Arthuriad in Gramayre, ostensibly a Middle Age version of England. The events begin in The Sword in the Stone, which White creatively conceived as a children's book to trace Arthur's early childhood origins. He establishes Merlyn the magician's mentorship of the young Arthur—here called "Wart"—through a series of educational adventures, many of which see Merlyn transforming his protégé into various animals to demonstrate lessons of the natural world. In The Witch in the Wood/The Queen of Air and Darkness, readers are introduced to Morgause, Arthur's half-sister, and her four sons, the Orkney brothers. Here, White establishes the roots of the so-called "Ancient Wrong" of the Arthuriad, describing how Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, slew the Earl of Cornwall before raping and impregnating his wife Igraine with Arthur. The second book was always the most problematic of the tetralogy for White, a fact demonstrated by his heavy revisions, but it establishes the dark methodology of Morgause (often considered a stand-in for White's mother Constance), whose incestuous seduction of Arthur would lead to the birth of Arthur's downfall—his son and mortal enemy, Mordred. The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, highlights the life of Lancelot, the prefect knight of the Round Table. Tracing his origins from childhood, it paints Lancelot as a flawed and physically unattractive boy constantly at war with his own dark impulses. Called "a sadist with a conscience" by critic C. M. Adderley, Lancelot is presented here with greater three-dimensionality than most versions of the classic figure, demonstrating both his character flaws and overriding desire to be the chivalric knight of his dreams that ultimately lead to his glory and his great betrayal of Arthur through his affair with White's Guenever. The Ill-Made Knight further presents the middle years of the Arthuriad, from the establishment of Round Table to the Quest for the Holy Grail to the treachery of Arthur's sister, Elaine, that leads to the birth of Galahad, Lancelot's son. The final book of the tetralogy, The Candle in the Wind, presents a world-weary Arthur at war with the sons of Morgause. The novel ends with Arthur at the end of his life reflecting back upon the events of his life before his eventual retreat to Avalon where he rests until the need of England brings him back. While The Book of Merlyn was not bound with the other stories of The Once and Future King, it nonetheless serves as a sort of epilogue to Arthur's great journey, ruminating somewhat didactically about the warlike nature of man and the futility of Arthur's idyllic goals on the eve of his last battle with his son, Mordred.
Central to White's creation of The Once and Future King was his dismay over the devastation wrought by World War II. As such, it served as a point of inspiration for White, who confided to his mentor L. J. Potts that, "I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme to Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal." Considering himself a conscientious objector to conscription, White composed his version of the Arthuriad as a response to the horrific events of World War II, offering an idealistic and pacifist take on the traditionally warlike figure of Arthur. To that end, White utilizes a series of educators in each book to mentor the story's primary principals, including the flawed Irish saint Toirdealbhach/Torealvac, who seeks to fill the gaping hope in the Orkneys' lives left by their duplicitous and neglectful mother, and Lancelot's Uncle Dap, the chivalric role model to the imperfect idealized knight. But the most important educator is Merlyn, the magician living backwards in time who guides Arthur to his destiny through a series of lessons, taught to him through whirlwind and playful dips into the natural world. Transformed into a series of animals, Wart learns several subtle philosophical lessons from each animal—as a perch, he is guided through an introduction to the principal of might versus right; as a merlin, he gains insight into class order; and from the ants, he experiences firsthand the terrors of the warring fascist state. Wart has more positive experiences among the geese, which show him the strength of unity, and the badger, who comes across as a philosopher of the first order. These transformations of The Sword in the Stone are playfully drawn out and probably intended—appropriately enough—for a youthful audience. While this first book is regularly classified as children's literature, the succeeding works are often not, due to the increasing complexity and violent themes as the tetralogy advances. Indeed, critics have suggested that the books of The Once and Future King seemingly progress in thematic content corresponding to the aging of Arthur himself. "The distance from [The Sword in the Stone] to the almost pessimistic philosophizing of the Book of Merlyn seems great," Alan Lupack has asserted, "but part of White's artistry is to make the process gradual, like aging itself."
The tetralogy of The Once and Future King has firmed White's literary reputation and secured the author a place among the premier re-tellers of the classical Arthur legend. The first and third books have been particularly well-received by critics, with Naomi Lewis calling The Sword in the Stone a "jolly, idealistic, magical-comical romp" that was "so much more than a juvenile book." However, the second novel of White's Arthuriad has been more problematic, with even White—who wrote that "it may not be any good"—doubting its success as a bridge between the tales of Arthur and Lancelot. As a combined work, however, The Once and Future King has been almost universally praised for its success in creating deeper character arcs and histories as explanations for the motivations and failings of the Arthuriad's legendary players. The Times Literary Supplement, in its initial 1958 assessment, suggested that the four books of The Once and Future King combined to create "a unity whose tone appears now as something more, much deeper and more serious than a casual reading of the earlier volumes would lead the reader to suppose." James Reynolds Kinzey has agreed, calling the collection "an engrossing story and an excellent introduction to one of the most important legends in English literature." However, the obvious graduation of tone between the story's beginnings and eventual end has drawn some criticism, with Sylvia Townsend Warner arguing that these variations seem odd, particularly with regards to the didactic and heavy notes of The Book of Merlyn: "Giving the impression of having been written by two different people it does not seem sincere. Written by one man, it seems demented." Other critics have lamented the negativity with which White portrayed his few female characters, causing Heather Worthington to allege that the "world of White's narrative is only safe for the boys when women are absent." Regardless of such complaints, The Once and Future King has remained among the most lauded modern interpretations of the classic Arthuriad. In the words of Kinzey, in The Once and Future King, White manages to "examine the relationship of humankind to animals, the workings of justice, and other philosophical questions about the nature of civilization. The tragedy of Arthur is that philosophy provides no answers."
Loved Helen and Other Poems (poetry) 1929
The Green Bay Tree; or, The Wicked Man Touches Wood (poetry) 1929
Dead Mr. Nixon [with Ronald McNair Scott] (novel) 1931
Darkness at Pemberley [author and illustrator] (novel) 1932
First Lesson: A Novel [as James Aston] (novel) 1932
They Winter Abroad: A Novel [as James Aston] (novel) 1932
Farewell Victoria (novel) 1933
Earth Stopped; or, Mr. Marx's Sporting Tour (novel) 1934
Gone to Ground; or, The Sporting Decameron (novel) 1935
Song through Space and Other Poems (poetry) 1935
England Have My Bones [author and illustrator] (essays) 1936
Burke's Steerage; or, The Amateur Gentleman's Introduction to Noble Sports and Pastimes (nonfiction) 1938
The Sword in the Stone [author and illustrator] (juvenile novel) 1938
The Witch in the Wood [author and illustrator] (juvenile novel) 1939; revised and republished as The Queen of Air and Darkness, 1958
The Ill-Made Knight [author and illustrator] (juvenile novel) 1940
Mistress Masham's Repose [illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg] (novel) 1946
The Elephant and the Kangaroo [author and illustrator] (novel) 1947
The Age of Scandal: An Excursion through a Minor Period (nonfiction) 1950
The Goshawk [author and illustrator] (nonfiction) 1951
The Scandalmonger (nonfiction) 1952
The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century Made and Edited by T. H. White [editor and translator] (nonfiction) 1954
The Master: An Adventure Story (young adult novel) 1957
*The Once and Future King (juvenile novel) 1958
The Godstone and the Blackymor [illustrated by Edward Ardizzone] (travel writing) 1959
America at Last: The American Journal of T. H. White [edited by David Garnett] (journal) 1965
The White/Garnett Letters [edited by David Garnett] (correspondence) 1968
The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King (juvenile novel) 1977
A Joy Proposed [edited by Kurth Sprague] (poetry) 1980
The Maharajah and Other Stories [edited by Kurth Sprague] (short stories) 1981
Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence between T. H. White and L. J. Potts [selected and edited by François Gallix] (correspondence) 1982
*Comprised of an enlarged version of The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.
Naomi Lewis (essay date 12 July 1958)
SOURCE: Lewis, Naomi. "Whose Arthur?" New Statesman 56, no. 1426 (12 July 1958): 50-1.
[In the following essay, Lewis suggests that White's The Once and Future King is an enduring novel that transcends its early status as a juvenile work.]
In a rather arch verse introduction to one of his best-known shorter poems, Tennyson describes a house-party where a few young men sit ‘round the wassail bowl’ discussing the decay of honour, current theology, and other such late-night gossip. Asked about his Arthurian epic, the poet Everard says that he has burnt the thing.
Why should any man
Remodel models? these twelve books of mine
Were faint Homeric echoes, nothing worth.
But Francis his friend reveals that he has saved one section from the fire. And—soon persuaded—the poet, ‘mouthing out his hollow oes and aes’, begins to read: So all day long the noise of battle roll'd….
This fine poem, as Tennyson well knew, was not in the least a faint Homeric echo; it is, indeed, one of the noblest specimens of Victorian Malory that survive. Its author did, of course, attempt the Arthur theme again, but only to cast about, at a more commonplace level, among the side romances. Not many writers, after all, have managed to take the whole epic story as it stands. In our own day, though, the feat has been done by Mr T. H. White, whose three Arthurian volumes, published at intervals over the past 20 years, are now concluded with a fourth, revised and assembled into one [The Once and Future King ]1. Mr White is a literary eccentric, as much at home in the mire and marvels of medieval Britain as anybody not a professional historian can ever have been. Originals of this author's kind seem peculiar to the native culture—Reade, Du Maurier, for instance—producing, as if by accident, some near-masterpiece along what might appear at first a tributary wayside. Mr White, an obstinate original, has also his moments of genius. Are we to count his Arthur, though, as the representative Arthur of our day?
For Malory's saga holds a curious place in English esteem. ‘A holy book,’ the present Poet Laureate has called it; it is a reasonable description of the sentiment. Opinion has not always been so firm. Ascham, a fair enough minded critic, but insensible to charm, thought the work demoralising, observing that ‘the whole pleasure … standeth in two special points—in open manslaughter and bold bawdry…. Those be counted the noblest knights that do kill most men without any quarrel, and commit foulest adulteries by subtlest shifts'. Well, you can read into any of the world's great ancient narratives what you will. Milton, being Milton, found in Malory a call to virtue, an incitement to spend one's life defending ‘the honour and chastity of virgin and matron’—a bleak but impeccable ideal.
Milton did not, as he first intended, make it the theme of his great epic, or the English school-child would not have received its Malory so entirely from Tennysonian and Pre-Raphaelite sources. The nineteenth century was ready for a fresh version, and knew what it required, aesthetically and morally, from the legend. It hardly mattered that the values of that uninhibited fairy tale were not based on those of the domestic hearth. True, few writers went as far as the ageing Wordsworth, who invented an episode (The Egyptian Maid) in which a shipwrecked heathen miss, cheerfully agreeing to be baptised, selects for her husband from all the Arthurian knights the celibate and misogynistic Galahad. But a wilfully false re-reading was in the air. Burne-Jones epitomised another sort of romantic fantasy. Those vague and dreaming knights with their tender, sensual, phthisic faces, could never have endured the physical roughness of the average chivalric day as Malory records it. As for the poets of Albert's England, with a few exceptions they chose what had least moment in the original text: the love relationships of men and women, not only Guenevere's story but Iseult's, Enid's, Elaine's. The Globe edition of Malory, in a Preface (by Sir Edward Strachey) dated 1891, contains these astonishing words:
The morality of Morte Darthur is low in one essential thing, and this alike in what it says and in what it omits: and Lord Tennyson shows us how it should be raised. The ideal of marriage, in its relation and its contrast with all other forms of love and chastity, is brought out in every form, rising at last to tragic grandeur, in the Idylls of the King. It is not in celibacy … but in marriage … that we are to rise above the temptations of a love like that of Lancelot or even of Elaine; and Malory's book does not set this ideal of life before us with any power or clearness. In no age or country [Sir Edward continues] has the excellence of marriage been wholly unknown; but Luther and the Reformation brought it first into the full light of day, when he, a monk, married a nun, and thus in the name of God declared that the vows of marriage were more sacred and more binding than those of the convent, and that the one might be lawfully set aside by the other.
But it should be remembered that there was more than one Tennyson. As a young man he had written not only Morte d'Arthur but the delightful springtime fragment called Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenevere. (Also Ulysses, which is an anti-Penelope, anti-Ithaca poem.) The detestable Idyll, which Sir Edward thought so highly of, about Guenevere grovelling on a convent floor before the stern high-minded king, was a work of his pontifical Laureate years.
In Mr White's version government, not Guenevere, is Arthur's problem. Lancelot is his finest knight and dearest friend: as for the long love between friend and wife the king had (as Malory puts it) ‘a deeming, but he would not hear of it’. This Arthur is a ‘kind, conscientious, peace-loving fellow who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius’. Emperor of Europe, inventor of the chivalric ideal (Might in the Cause of Right) and later of Civil Law (Right without Might at all) he still cannot control the basic human evil in his men.
The first book, The Sword in the Stone, started off as a boy's-eye view of the ancient English world—a jolly, idealistic, magical-comical romp; and something of this flavour persists throughout. Merlin is compared to Lord Baden-Powell with a beard; Lancelot is called ‘a sort of Bradman, top of the battling averages’. Arthur says to the boy Lancelot: ‘I want to get hold of a lot of people who are good at games to help with an idea I have…. It is about knights,’ etc. Lancelot, who has had a more sophisticated education, promptly replies: ‘We call it Fort Mayne in France…. You want to put an end to the Strong Arm, by having a band of knights who believe in justice rather than strength. Yes, I would like to be one of those very much. I must grow up first. Thank you’. As one may imagine, women, especially domestic women, have hardly a place at all. Elaine, mother of Galahad (‘our baby’) is the tenacious little woman, the spirit of suburban married life. Her ‘round face had stubbornly refused to accept the noble traces of grief’. Guenevere does rather better, but not much. She ages, which Malory's characters never, apparently, do. The only woman allowed on any major expedition is Percivale's sister and she meets a peculiarly disagreeable end—providing some virgin's blood for a local leprosy case. Only as a corpse is she allowed a further (and minor) part in the quest. The Tristram story is not touched at all, except for a sensible remark by Arthur that the poor fellow always had a confused idea that the two Isouds—La Beale and White-Hands—were really one.
All this is not important. The author's tastes are stronger than his dislikes: this, in a work of such a kind, is unusual. (Compare Mr C. S. Lewis in his fairy tales.) Mr White is at his imaginative best when he is also most knowledgeable, and the book gives scope for his considerable if somehow private knowledge of ancient and modern natural history, of archery, armoury, hawking, hunting (if these are the correct terms), and other such medieval ploys; also of clothes and music, stained glass and building methods, and other details of that cruel and colourful world. And through its forests and galleries move the key figures of Arthur and Merlin, then of Arthur and Lancelot, with the bitter, strange Orkney brothers, children of the witch Morgause, as the danger element, the Gael for ever at battle with the Gall. The fifth, Mordred, too clever for his blunt and simple world, is Arthur's own incest-begotten son.
Arthur himself is the spirit of public good: a sympathetic, lonely figure working through centuries of civilising practice in his single reign. This is the chief fruit of Merlin's teaching, But Merlin now has gone to his doomed sleep. The magic hand—we still invoke its help in times of need—is locked in a cave and will not come again.
What I meant by civilisation when I invented it, was simply that people ought not to take advantage of weakness…. People ought to be civil. But it has turned into sportsmanship. Merlin always said that sportsmanship was the curse of the world, and so it is. My scheme is going wrong…. They are turning it into a competitive thing. Merlin used to call it Games-Mania. Everybody gossips and nags and hints and speculates about who unseated whom last, and who has rescued most virgins, and who is the best knight of the Table.
Still, it is Lancelot, le Chevalier Mal Fet, the imperfect human creature battling against its own imperfections and not always wanting to win, who is the high creation of this tale.
But the problem of every epic remains the same. What end had the chase in view? Even the quest for the Grail has an edge of absurdity: what then? the whisper sounds. Or else: it was Galahad's private Game, and nobody cares for Galahad. And what had Merlin's marvellous education done, at the last, for the King? Mr White soon finds himself with questions like these on his hands. The danger lies, of course, in the new dimension that the teller gives to the figures of pageantry: at once the limitations rise of logic, life and time. What began as a schoolboy frolic ends with an old man, ‘inventor of civilisation’, trying to find the great reasons why he has greatly failed. Kipling's Gramarye has turned into modern war-torn England. And now it is the eve of the final battle. Are the Celtic queens—the guardians of the ancient magic—waiting over the page, as in Malory, to bear the King away? It may be, but Mr White stops at a different point. He leaves the issues laid out for dissection, and turns with magnificent anachronism to a brilliant idea for the close.
The White Arthuriad does not ignore the difficulties of the old story as so many versions for the young are bound to do, but it is for other reasons than this that it is so much more than a juvenile book. The lesson it seems to teach—since Merlin knows it all from the start—is that what must be must be; the real and exhilarating business of life is the battle against the inevitable. Or perhaps the telling itself is the trouble. This extraordinary and often magical volume may or may not lead a young Milton to the defence of virgins: that depends on the reader's temperament. But from a literary and aesthetic view it will certainly impose its picture for a long time after, perhaps for always, on any later version that may be read.
1.The Once and Future King. By T. H. White.
Stephen P. Dunn (essay date spring 1962)
SOURCE: Dunn, Stephen P. "Mr. White, Mr. Williams, and the Matter of Britain." Kenyon Review 24, no. 2 (spring 1962): 363-71.
[In the following essay, Dunn contrasts Charles Williams's Arthurian poetry with White's The Once and Future King, emphasizing White's bleak, yet humorous perspective and Williams's more religious and symbolic perspective with regards to the Arthur legend.]
Among the recurring myths of Western man, adapted by each succeeding age to its own needs and tastes, one of the most persistent is the Arthurian cycle. Two of the more interesting current revivals of this cycle are T. H. White's The Once and Future King and the Arthurian poems by the British poet, novelist, and theologian Charles Williams (1886-1945).
Both White and Williams (to say nothing of other writers, like Eliot, who handle the same subject matter more tangentially), despite their differences, show a profound distaste for the modern world, its values, preoccupations, and achievements. Neither White nor Williams says, as many modern thinkers do, that our age is a bad one because it has failed to realize its own ideals; on this score, no age was any better. On the contrary, both say in very different ways that the ideals themselves are all wrong. Neither White nor Williams seems, as do most of the Beats and Angry Young Men, to be complaining nihilistically or out of cosmic pique. Each makes his critique on a firm philosophical basis: in Williams' case radically Christian, in both senses of the word "radical"; in White's, for want of a better term, Stoic; but in both cases basically hardheaded, humane, and broadly inclusive—indeed, omnivorous.
On several counts, White and Williams might seem an odd pair to yoke together. The Once and Future King is a novel or series of novels, though far from conventional in form or matter; Williams' "Arthuriad" is a cycle of separate poems, mostly short, some narrative, others lyrico-philosophical, quite various in form, and neither written nor published in consecutive order relative to the story they collectively tell. Furthermore, Williams left his work incomplete at his death; the corpus consists of two books of verse—Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)—and the posthumous prose fragment "The Figure of Arthur." This is part literary history of the Arthurian cycle, and part imaginative reconstruction of the actual circumstances on which it may have been based. "The Figure of Arthur" was published, together with a quite elaborate commentary on the poems, by C. S. Lewis as The Arthurian Torso (1946).
White and Williams, then, were not by any means trying to do the same thing, even assuming that both of them had been able to carry out their intentions fully. Still, starting from viewpoints which might seem diametrically opposed, both reach closely similar conclusions—White's expressed in terms of quite down-to-earth politics, Williams' in terms of a complex and highly personal poetic symbolism. Finally, the two writers handle the myth in entirely different ways and show sharply contrasting attitudes toward history.
The Once and Future King is one of those books which is a world, in which almost every reader can find something to his taste. Its locale is a generalized, idealized medieval Britain, which the author obviously does not intend to be taken as a picture of any actual country in any actual historical epoch. Yet despite the idealization White's Britain is firmly grounded in physical and social reality. Those elements of the marvellous and romantic which were so prominent in Arthurian literature from Malory to Tennyson and even beyond are here scaled down to human, and humorous, terms. Where fantasy enters, it is not taken seriously, but put in with an indulgent chuckle and a dig in the reader's ribs. White's humor is arch, whimsical, peculiarly British—a little like Lewis Carroll, but without his faintly horrifying surrealism. The first appearance of Merlyn, in fact, bears a marked resemblance to the entrance of the White Rabbit:
There was a well in front of the cottage, and the metallic noise which the Wart had heard was caused by a very old gentleman who was drawing water out of it by means of a handle and chain.
Clank, clank, clank, went the chain, until the bucket hit the lip of the well, and "Drat the whole thing!" said the old gentleman. "You would think that after all these years of study you could do better for yourself than a by-our-lady well with a by-our-lady bucket, whatever the by-our-lady cost.
"By this and by that," added the old gentleman, heaving his bucket out of the well with a malevolent glance, "why can't they get us the electric light and company's water?"
(Merlyn, it should be explained, lives backwards, so that he knows what, in our terms, is going to happen, but not what has happened. "The Wart" is Arthur's nickname as a small boy.) The old-fashioned knights—like the fox-huntin' Sir Grummore Grummursum, the dimwitted King Pellinore, who spends his life pursuing the amorous and complicated Questing Beast, and Arthur's foster-father Sir Ector—talk like upper-class Dorothy Sayers characters; Sir Palomides, the Saracen knight, speaks the lotus-flavored English of a Bengali babu out of Kipling. At times, White does not disdain even the frankly Walt Disney touch, as in the scene where the Wart is turned, at his own request, into a fish—the first phase of his formal education:
Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, "Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?"
Immediately there was a loud blowing of seashells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn, and pointed his trident at the Wart.
White said in an interview when The Once and Future King was first published that the humor was put in to make the moral and philosophical pill—which, in all conscience, is a fairly bitter one—slide down more easily. If this is true, so much the worse for the book as a work of art. But, with all respect to the learned and cantankerous author, I think he is kidding us—if not himself—at this point. I do not think he is really a sermonizer, and I think he means something more, and something less obvious, by his innocent-seeming and rather Edwardian japes. Laughter is the voice of the freely-working intellect, and its first message is proportion: when we laugh, we limit the extent to which our passions can be involved—or at least the extent to which they control our actions. By poking consistent, gentle fun at his story, White puts the reader on notice that this is not high tragedy, or even high romance; that he is giving us the world and life as they are—grubby, seedy, inconclusive, with the best intentions usually yielding the worst results—and not as some tragedian or romancer with an eschatological turn of mind (such as Charles Williams, for instance) would like them to be. He indicates as much when he says that there were dragons in the forest around Sir Ector's castle, where Arthur grew up, but "these were small ones, which lived under rocks and could hiss like a kettle."
White's selection of material—and his handling of material which he finds embarrassing or repugnant, but in the nature of his story cannot avoid—is highly revealing, both of his powers and of his limitations. The whole Tristram-Iseult affair is barely mentioned, and then only at third hand, as a tawdry and distressing scandal. In fact, like most modern writers, White seems ill-at-ease with sex, at least in its more "normal" and straightforward aspects. With courtly love, which he regards as an institutionalized neurosis, he does quite well, up to a point. The Lancelot-Guenevere story, for example, is treated with discretion and sympathy, but remains peripheral to the action as a whole (whereas Williams makes it metaphysically central, while actually saying almost nothing about it).
The essential limitations of White's method appear most strongly in his version of the Grail Quest. He presents this as what we would call a kind of propaganda operation—a device invented by Arthur to hold his Round Table together and keep it functioning at a time when its original objective, the establishment of an order of temporal justice, had already been achieved, and the energies of its members were finding no adequate outlet and turning sour as a result. As White describes it, this attempt to do the impossible failed like all the others.
This notion of a sort of spiritual W.P.A. may seem ridiculous, if not sacrilegious, to many people, but it is quite in keeping. White's message (if he has one), his vision, and his imagery are all essentially political, and essentially negative—that is, incomplete or lopsided. The Round Table, he says through Arthur's mouth, was founded "‘to dig a channel for Might, so that it would flow usefully. The idea was that all the people who enjoyed fighting should be headed off, so that they fought for justice, and I hoped that this would solve the problem.’" The enterprise failed because, again in Arthur's words, "‘Unfortunately we have tried to establish Right by Might, and you can't do that,’" and because "‘We have achieved what we were fighting for, and now we still have the fighters on our hands.’" The attempt to control force by force, in other words, is self-defeating. The Grail Quest likewise failed in its earthly purpose, White implies, because those who succeeded in it disappeared from the earth—either by being actually translated to another level of existence, directly into the Divine Presence, like Galahad (the only completely successful Grail-seeker), or by more or less withdrawing from worldly concerns, like Lancelot, Bors, or Percivale—leaving it in as poor shape as ever. All of this, of course, indicates a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature, and at the very end of the story this is spelled out. The aged Arthur, before his last battle, reflects on the teachings of Merlyn—here rather startlingly represented as a Shavian liberal of pre-1914 vintage:
He had been taught … to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good is worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. He had been forged as a weapon for the aid of man, on the assumption that men were good.
if there was such a thing as original sin, if man was on the whole a villain, if the Bible was right in saying that the heart of men was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, then the purpose of his life had been a vain one. Chivalry and justice became a child's illusions, if the stock on which he had tried to graft them was to be the Thrasher, was to be Homo ferox instead of Homo sapiens.
For all of White's exuberant though sharply limited imagination, his delicious, dancing humor, his encyclopedic learning and superb sense of history, his ultimate outlook is bleak and cheerless. As a convinced though eccentric and highly sophisticated Christian, Charles Williams would no doubt have agreed with White's implied assessment of the nature of man, but he would certainly have drawn radically different conclusions. The reader who finishes White and plunges straight into Williams, as I have just done, finds a shocking change in mood and atmosphere. White's world, despite the medieval costumes and armor, the details of manners and mores, and the occasional use of the high chivalric style, is still the world as we, unfortunately, know it—or perhaps rather the world we knew before 1939; this is made clear by Merlyn's playful parallel between medieval war and Victorian fox hunting. Williams deals in ar- chetypes; his locale refuses to be pinned down with any precision. Almost all we can say about it, sociologically speaking, is that it contains an ideal of civil polity and civilization, embodied in the Byzantine Roman Empire, and an ideal of universal religion embodied in monastic Christianity.
I should make it clear at the outset that I consider Williams one of the great minds and imaginations of the century, and his Arthurian cycle, collectively, a poem equal in complexity and potential significance to The Waste Land or the Cantos. More: I consider it superior to either of these, since it has little of Eliot's tea-table mysticism or the pedantry and crankiness of Pound. This is the reason, and the only reason, why I am willing to spend time puzzling out Williams' fantastically complex metaphors and bizarre turns of phrase, and why I ask the reader to do the same. Throughout the cycle, Williams composes with a dark, riddling, hardic splendor, a sustained philosophical lyricism, a symbolic richness, density, and reverberation of which I cannot recall an equal. His command of sound effects and modern verse techniques—sprung and suspended rhythm, calculated bathos, various forms of allusion—is virtuosic. In brief, he shows in abundance all the qualities which the modern mind most admires in poetry—when it doesn't reject it altogether. Why then is he so unfashionable, except among a small coterie? And why, in an age so hungry for fake religion (running the intellectual gamut from Norman Vincent Peale to Aldous Huxley), is so little attention paid to the genuine article?
The most immediately startling thing about Williams is his penchant for systematic symbolism. He builds up an inner poetic world as complex and inclusive as Dante's. For example (though I have no intention of repeating the job that C. S. Lewis does—sometimes rather too dogmatically—in The Arthurian Torso): "Logres" is Williams' name for Britain as a theme or province of the Byzantine Empire. But since the Empire is itself a symbol of both the temporal and the divine orders, and of ordered spirituality as a way of life, Logres also represents what Britain could have become had the Arthurian enterprise succeeded and had the Grail actually been recovered. Around Logres the rest of Williams' private geography arranges itself; Broceliande, the faery forest to the south, representing the unconscious, the irrational, with all its dangers and possibilities; beyond Broceliande, the holy castle of Carbonek, where the Grail is kept, symbolizing mystical religion … and so on. A whole aesthetic is summed up in the figure of Taliessin, the king's bard, through whom much of the action is seen and interpreted. Poetry, Williams is saying—and only a great poet can say this and make his readers believe it—is after all only poetry; by itself it cannot ultimately reveal anything or save anyone. Finally, the "Arthurian enterprise" is, for Williams, something quite specific: the unification of Broceliande with Byzantium—which means, of the imagination with reason, order, the hierarchical principle. This union, if it could be brought about, would produce the perfect individual or the perfect state, or both. The enterprise fails, for various complicated metaphysical reasons, but chiefly because Arthur allows himself to be corrupted—deliberately chooses to be corrupted—by temporal power and by his own desires. The dramatic symbol of this corruption is that he commits incest with his half-sister, Queen Morgause of Orkney.
The contrast in the handling of this explosive theme is highly significant. White mentions the incest, but in a curiously offhand way. In his version, Arthur's doom flows not so much from the incest itself as from an act of political injustice consequent upon it: when he learned who Morgause was, and that she was pregnant, he gave orders that all babies born within a given period be put to sea in little boats, and Mordred was fortuitously saved. In other words, White's story, stripped to its essentials, is a classical tragedy of hybris; at one point he explicitly says as much. But for Williams the significance of incest is of a different order entirely: incest, he says, is the archetypal sin, in that it contravenes the law which makes all men interdependent. As C. S. Lewis puts it, "the strain gives itself not to another strain but only back to itself."
I do not think, however, that Williams' current unpopularity is due only to his being a system-building medieval mystic in modern dress. After all, T. S. Eliot wants us to see him in much the same way, although there is a vast difference between Williams' meticulously imagined world and the half-digested gallimaufry that Eliot gives us under the same label. I think, further, that what makes many people uncomfortable with Williams is that he believes, quite literally and with utter conviction, a number of things which more up-to-date Christians—except for an occasional Catholic—have forgotten, or wish they could forget. He believes, for instance, that there is no salvation outside the Church—by which he means not any particular church now existing, but some organized religious communion. He believes in a worldwide theocratic polity. He believes further that a man actually can sell his soul to the devil: that is, deliberately take one wrong turning and be damned forevermore. Such ideas are apt to raise a chuckle nowadays—especially the last; although, as a hypothesis to explain the behavior of men like Himmler, Eichmann, and Rudolph Hess, it will do as well as another. Most importantly and most basically, he believes in order as an absolutely positive principle: for him, the idea of a conflict between the individual and society is pernicious where it isn't meaningless.
Williams has other eccentricities as well. For a Christian, he is markedly enthusiastic about sex as an avenue of approach to God; like Dante, he clothes his theological concepts in carnal symbolism likely to embarrass those who aren't prepared for it. He takes the Eucharist with a bizarre, cannibalistic seriousness, calling it "the Flesh-taking." And of course his belief in the existence of evil as an independent principle opens the door wide to all sorts of occult concepts.
Except for his tendency to conceive man's relationship to God, at least initially, as moving toward a sexual union, Williams sounds like a kind of poetic Fundamentalist—a type calculated to give any right-thinking modern critic the cold horrors and send him screaming for the nearest Joyce handbook. This, I submit, is misleading and a pity. Fundamentalists are usually noted for the amount of experience they automatically exclude, for the narrowness of their private worlds. Williams' world is broad, varied, and inclusive—much more so than that of most modern critics, novelists, or even poets: that is to say, than the "real" world. Williams' world is an exhilarating place, even for readers who can't believe in it more than half or a third of the way. The language in which he describes it is full of glorious noise: the clang of bronze and silver, the blare of trumpets, the howling of primordial winds, the rumble of earthquakes and volcanoes.
Only of course it isn't the real world. Social events and issues are, for Williams merely reflections or symbols of metaphysical ones. Even in his novels, he is not particularly interested in character or psychology as such: what he finds especially significant is what a given person can become under a philosophical impetus of some sort, which is something that few modern novelists, except perhaps Greene, have paid any attention to.
The question, what does Charles Williams have to say to us, still needs answering. White, with his inimitable zest, careful scholarship, superb sense of history and fine feeling for the panoply and variety of medieval life—in short, with all the makings of great and lasting popular success—ultimately speaks in the world-weary accents of a disillusioned survivor of the past 50 years' disasters and disappointments. Williams, whose childlike yet sophisticated faith apparently remained unscarred by these horrors (though we should remember that by an early death he escaped witnessing perhaps the worst of them), expresses this faith in a form so arcane and so out of step with the times as to be virtually inaccessible without a prodigious intellectual and imaginative effort on the reader's part. This is the tragic paradox of our century: the expert performers, technicians, and lion-tamers of language have nothing to say that we don't know already; and those who may bear within them the seeds of the new revelation are generally regarded as babbling, moonstruck cranks.
Finally, in order to let the reader judge for himself whether I have overstated Williams' purely poetic powers, I must do some quoting. Since Williams doesn't lend himself to being excerpted, because of the intricate workmanship and sheer headlong drive of his finest passages, I'll quote two fairly extended swatches and let it go at that. Here, for instance, is Williams' own peculiar version of the Fall, from "The Vision of the Empire," in the earlier of the two books:
The Adam in the hollow of Jerusalem respired:
softly their thought twined to its end,
crying: O parent, O forkéd friend,
am I not too long meanly retired
in the poor space of joy's single dimension?
Does not God vision the principles at war?
Let us grow to the height of God and the Emperor.
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.
The Adam climbed the tree; the boughs
rustled, withered, behind them; they saw
the secluded vision of battle in the law;
they found the terror in the Emperor's house.
The tree about them died undying,
the good lusted against the good,
the Acts in conflict envenomed the blood,
on the twisted tree hung their body wrying,
Joints cramped; a double entity
spewed and struggled, good against good;
they saw the mind of the Emperor as they could,
his imagination of the wars of identity.
Here is a passage showing the poet in full cry, with all the stops out. It is from the very end of the cycle, although it is in the earlier book.
An infinite flight of doves from the storming sky
of Logres—strangely sea-travellers when the land melts—
forming to overfeather and overwhelm the helm,
numerous as men in the empire, the empire riding
the skies of the ocean, guiding by modulated stresses
on each spoke of the helm the vessel from the realm of Arthur,
lifted oak and elm to new-ghosted power.
The hosted wings trapped the Infant's song;
blown back, tossed down, thrown
along the keel, the song hastening the keel
along the curve of the sea-way, the helm fastening
the whole ship to the right balance of the stresses …
The ship of Solomon (blessed be he) drove on.
(The last line recurs as a refrain throughout the poem.)
I have not intentionally chosen either the most complex or the most splendid passages that I could find. I merely intended to show Williams' intellectual and verbal maestria. And with this I rest my case.
Sylvia Townsend Warner (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: Warner, Sylvia Townsend. "The Story of the Book." In The Book of Merlyn, pp. ix-xx. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Warner describes how White composed the five eventual books that comprised White's complete vision of the Arthurian cycle in The Once and Future King.]
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Martin Kellman (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Kellman, Martin. "The Sword in the Stone: Arthurian Beginnings." In T. H. White and the Matter of Britain: A Literary Overview, pp. 79-113. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Kellman discusses the influence of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur on White's The Once and Future King and examines the revisions White made to the first two books of his Arthurian tetralogy—The Sword in the Stone and The Witch in the Wood.]
Reconstructing the Matter of Britain as well as the Middle Ages was not a task White chose hastily or treated lightly. The material had been paramount in his mind from the very beginning of his academic and literary careers but awaited the day when White felt free of other preoccupations, both internal and external. Twenty years later, beginning his final revision of The Once and Future King, he associated the start of the project with "becoming a free man" (Warner, p. 272). His temporarily dormant interest had apparently been rekindled by a new awareness of the integrity of the tragedy in Malory's story and the clear motivations for the actions of the characters (Warner, p. 98).
Writing continued virtually uninterrupted, despite a move to Ireland and the onset of World War II until the completion of Volume Three, The Ill-Made Knight. Both volumes one and three were enthusiastically received by the critics, but volume two was less fortunate and the artistic problems it presented, particularly the incompatibility of tragedy and farce, caused White a great deal of anguish. The other major problem was finding a suitable finale for the work and this was wrestled with, on and off, until 1957.
Ever aware of tradition as well as his individual talent, White soon realized, with some awe, that he was
doing what Geoffrey of Monmouth, Mallory [sic], Spencer [sic], Hughes, Purcell, the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson etc. did and what Milton thought of doing. They called it the Matter of Britain. You get even the most extraordinary unlikely people meddling with it—Aubrey Beardsley and your friend Don Quixote for instance. A man who copied out the Morte D'Arthur in morse code would still be a major literary figure. It is the theme which makes it so.
That is why I am sweating myself blind … trying to get it straight. It is odd but I feel responsible to it, not to myself.
(Garnett, p. 87)
By 1957, eighteen years later, the feeling became more urgent as he realized that "The Matter of Britain will have to be my chef d'ouvre so I need to be at the top of my form for it" (Warner, p. 272). Although he originally felt its authorship to be more valuable to civilization than his participation in World War II (Garnett, p. 45), he was even willing to join the war effort to enhance the credibility of the novel's emerging anti-Hitlerian values (Garnett, p. 103). Might was to be stopped at all costs. He threw everything he knew into the book, the skills of a lifetime: hawking, flying, hunting, even diving in the later editions, once he had learned it. He cannibalized previous books, published and unpublished, for themes and finally put himself in as Merlyn and his mother as Morgause.
Never one to resist a challenge, White elbowed his way into the crowd of authors who treated the illustrious theme, occasionally digging that elbow into the readers' ribs. The challenge was indeed formidable, for the epic theme magnifies faults and mocks pettiness. It contains the material of high tragedy and low comedy, great nobility and ambiguous morality, the marble of great statues ready for the molding by a proper artist into the shape suitable to his time and personality. White modestly predicted success, writing to Garnett, that, at the completion of The Once and Future King, he would "saunter off to Olympus and sit down between Mallory [sic], Chaucer, Milton, Tennyson, with a cold shoulder for the Pre-Raphaelites" (Garnett, p. 69).
Perhaps, as Anne Fremantle suggested (Saturday Review, July 23, 1958), the Arthurian legend was created or adopted by the collective unconscious of the English people to help them recover from the trauma of being yanked out of Christianity by the Reformation. White might have agreed, having shown in The Bestiary and in The Godstone and the Blackymor more than a passing interest in the Jungian unconscious of a race. In any case, the problem of the origin of Arthurian material is a thorny one. Suffice it to say that both R. S. Loomis1 and Charles Williams in his "Arthurian Torso"2 confirm the long-held opinion that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain crowned Arthur. Previously, he had been only a Dux Bellorum or military chieftain (Loomis, p. 14). Further, in The Prophecies of Merlin, Geoffrey supplies Arthur with Uther Pendragon for a father and incorporates the battles against Rome and against Mordred taken from the Annals of Wales (Loomis, pp. 35-38). More significantly, Geoffrey makes Arthur's court reflect the Platonic idealization of the values of his own day, both by reflecting his own culture and supplying a nostalgic, backward look at what they felt they needed from the past. This use for Arthur has never stopped. Although Geoffrey is not sure whether Arthur died or sleeps still in Avalon (Loomis, p. 38), it is perfectly clear he is always available whenever a jaded generation needs him for whatever purpose. In our own time, the mantle of Camelot has been draped on the Kennedys, and supplied inspiration for John Steinbeck, Thomas Berger and Mary Stewart among others.
It was the French, however, in what is termed The Vulgate Cycle, who claimed Lancelot for their own. They then grafted the Grail story onto the ever-growing Arthurian material where it has lived, somewhat uncomfortably, except for Tennyson and Charles Williams, ever since. Chretien de Troyes turns Lancelot into somewhat of a buffoon, part of a cynical view of the conventions of courtly love in his own time. But as W. W. Comfort points out in his introduction to Arthurian Romances, Chretien makes no apology for his clearly immoral, non-Christian behavior.3
Merlyn's origins are also typically confused. He was either sired by a devil or a place name, a remarkable origin in either case (Loomis, pp. 124-127). Being part demon and part Christian, he has presented a challenge to writers ever since. He practically discouraged John Steinbeck from continuing his version, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (New York: 1976, p. 335). All this left enough loose ends and undeveloped material to keep authors busy, perhaps forever. Malory, too, used Arthur and the Round Table as exempla of the virtues he thought his time needed and, for the most part, he remains the source for all Arthurs after him.
Perhaps the most famous and influential modern version is Tennyson's Idylls of the King, what he himself referred to as "faint Homeric echoes, nothing worth," the version White felt most obligated to rectify. It was Tennyson's idealized, two-dimensional tapestries that contributed most to the notions of these figures as allegorical, lacking complex psychological and moral natures. If the essential tragedy had a cause at all in Tennyson, it was in the villainy of Vivian who distracts a distraught Merlyn and then leads Mordred to the sinning Lancelot and Guenever. They have only been forced together by the remoteness of Arthur's perfection. Mordred, of course, is no longer Arthur's bastard son. Arthur was "ever virgin save for thee" (Guinevere," 1. 553) and Mordred "no kin of mine" (l. 570).
Lancelot, here the bold and dashing cavalier, seemingly has no reason to dub himself le chevalier mal fet. White felt it necessary to single out Tennyson for correction.4 He points out that the young Lancelot was an ugly, sullen child and that the lovers, when discovered, were really quite old (Once, p. 529).
But Victorian semi-canonizing reifications did not deter twentieth-century writers from using the material in their own way. Nathan Comfort Starr, in his King Arthur Today provides a thorough but scantily-described inventory of modern Arthurians, including a lengthy appreciation of White, although only the first three volumes of the tetralogy had then been published.
The major Arthurians, excluding White, of our own time were Charles Williams, his friend C. S. Lewis, and Edward Arlington Robinson. For Robinson, Merlin's warning that "nothing can stand on a rotten foundation," was as applicable to World War I as it was to Camelot. The demise of the Round Table as seen in Robinson's poems was entirely Arthur's fault, although a dour Calvinist sense of predestination makes its presence faintly felt. Unlike White, who was ambivalent about the miraculous parts of the Grail legend, Robinson secularizes them entirely, making the Grail an inner light which, once seen by Lancelot, separates him forever from his former associates. For Lancelot, the tragedy is chastening, as for Oedipus at Colonus.
On the other end of the religious spectrum, the Grail for Charles Williams was entirely spiritual in its meaning, even if only allegorically so. He considered Galahad the finest creation of western literature, even finer than Dante's Beatrice (Williams, p. 154). The Grail, as Williams saw it in his preface to "The Region of the Summer Stars," was expected to bring about the imminent coming of Christ since the story is set at the time of the Parousia. The subsequent civil war, however, made this impossible (pp. 212-213); the Dolorous Blow was self-inflicted.
In Williams' poetry, the Grail became an end toward which all history was directed in finite time, an end which fixed all participants in the search in static roles. The poems of the Arthurian cycle are themselves somewhat archly stiff, philosophical, allegorical and decidedly unmusical, clearly meant to reach the soul through the mind rather than the ear. The character of Merlin, the good pagan, is confusing but acceptable as part of Destiny's plan, "as if time itself became conscious of the future and prepared for it" (Williams, p. 158). White's concept of time and history was decidedly different, as will become evident.
For C. S. Lewis, Williams' friend, Malory provides the central theme for the end of his science-fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength. As Lewis sees it, Arthur attempted to unite the societies of Romanized Celts and Welsh Druids, and might have succeeded had he lived. Merlin represented both, having been conceived before the separation, and could even unite the black and white of the devil and the Grail. In That Hideous Strength, he reappears just in time to use white magic to help the latest incarnation of the Pendragon, Arthur Fisher-King, rout the technological, amoral, inhuman and decidedly un-Christian forces of the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (NICE) before they alter the human condition forced on us by the felix culpa.5 Merlin "went out of Time, into the Panchronic state for the very purpose of returning at this moment" (p. 277). Logres or Camelot is an edenic state of perfection which almost happened on earth in the sixth century, whose loss has haunted England ever since, and whose continuing possibility prods her out of drunken sleep from time to time (p. 458). The cycle of creation followed by fall followed by redemption is a major theme in both Lewis and Williams.
The association of Camelot and Eden, the peculiar relationship between Merlin and time and the concern with Guenever's barrenness are themes in Lewis which also concerned White. However, although it can be safely assumed that White was aware of Lewis and Williams, no overt references can be found. It is possible, however, that the White portrait of Galahad as a boring prig whose piety got on everybody's nerves, is a response to Williams. Both Robinson and Williams, in the parochialism of their responses to Malory, contrast significantly with White's broad range of approaches to so much of the available material.
For White, Malory was the essence: "I do think I am an authority on Malory. I also consider he was the greatest English writer next to Shakespeare" (Warner, p. 153). He was not only the overwhelmingly predominant source of the narrative but his purported consciousness provides the artistic frame of his work. In a modest mood, White explained to Garnett that he "never pretended to be more than a footnote to Malory … a kind of literary criticism of him" (Garnett, p. 91), providing some of the missing motivations, rounding out the characters and speculating on some of the ambiguities and confusions inherent in any epic treatment of collected legends. In a brilliant afterthought, White introduces Malory into the book itself by having a disillusioned Arthur knight him and commission him to tell the world how things once were in Camelot. Since White felt strongly that the greatness of Le Morte d'Arthur owed as much to Malory as to his sources, and that a great deal of it stemmed from a fifteenth-century imagination dwelling on the mythical past as recorded in the sixth century, White wished to re-create Malory as much as he did the epic material itself.
Kenneth Rexroth described the epic form as "disorder recollected in tranquility" (Saturday Review, July 10, 1965) which can be interpreted to mean a nostalgic recreation of a mythical former time when things must certainly have been better. Homer, for instance, tells his audience that nobody has the strength of the ancient Greeks anymore and, doubtless, Agamemnon felt the same way about the Titans. It never was the way it used to be. Malory, Rexroth adds, made Morte into "primitive disorder recollected in collective disorder." Having found little if any "noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love friendship …" in his own experience, he located these virtues in the heroes of the past but, like Shakespeare, insisted on portraying them in modern dress.6 Steinbeck agrees with White that Malory was a great novelist and with Rexroth that the Morte was a work of pure nostalgia. (Steinbeck, pp. 337-338).
Since Arthur, for White, lives more in Malory's imagination than in ancient Camelot, The Once and Future King, of necessity, takes place in the fifteenth century where Arthur is king rather than the "mythical Edward." Indeed, one of the most appealing themes of the novel is the deliberate confusion of dates, times, histories and realities. In a letter to Cockerell, White tried to explain:
… I am putting myself as far as possible in Malory's mind which was a dreamer's and bundling everything together in the way I think he bundled it … I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. Malory did not imagine the armor of your century (he imagined that of his own and I will stick to him through thick and thin) but he did imagine dragons, saints, hermits, etc…. So I am taking 15th Cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic and serious humor are concerned)…. (Malory has just told me that I am welcome to speak for him) … and he says to tell you that I am after the spirit of Morte d'Arthur seen through the eyes of 1939…. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.
(Warner, pp. 133-134)
If Cockerell were not already confused, an elaborate diagram of this triangular relationship, complete with a White dressed for shooting and a gowned Malory, probably completed the task.
Moreover, Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, is equated with William the Conqueror, the dates of his reign being 1066-1216, giving Arthur difficulty with recalcitrant Saxon barons. The book is replete with such phrases as "if you happen not to have lived in the Old England of the twelfth century, or whenever it was" (Once, p. 200) or "Seven hundred years ago or it may have been fifteen hundred according to Malory's notation" (Once, p. 317). Anachronisms such as Pellinore's horn-rimmed glasses and references to the Order of the Garter abound. These were the true Dark Ages:
… with lots of stories of the mythological families such as Plantagenets, Capets and so forth…. Legendary kings like John had been accustomed to hang twenty-eight hostages before dinner; or, like Philip, had been defended by "seargents at mace," a kind of storm trooper…. This at all events, is what Ingulf of Croyland used to tell us, until he was discovered to be a forgery.
Arthur's Camelot served as an oasis between those Dark Ages—"the Nineteenth Century had such an impudent way with its labels" (p. 532)—and our own, far darker age; it was a time so safe that "merry bands of pilgrims telling each other dirty stories on the way to Canterbury" (p. 424) could feel secure. Still, Arthur goes off and battles the Roman emperor, but the battle is not extensively described. Thus, our epic narrator will be relating his tale from at least two perspectives, being able to view Malory and his sources at the same time. This will, in turn, yield a genuine twentieth-century perspective, an Einsteinian view of the unity of time and space, making it truly epic in the Joycean sense, partially revelatory of the author's own personality. White often referred to his work as an epic and filled it with the concommitants of the form, elevated language, authorial intrusions, apparent digressions and extensive catalogues.
Fortunately, Malory's tale left a sufficient number of interstices, making it possible for a modern author to do more than translate the tale into contemporary idiom. First, White eschews any real interest in the box scores of the tournaments, referring the reader directly to Malory:
If people want to read about the Corbin tournament, Malory has it. He was a passionate follower of tournaments—like one of those old gentlemen who nowadays frequents the cricket pavilion at Lord's—and he may have had access to some ancient Wisden, or even to the score books themselves…. But the accounts of old cricket matches are inclined to be boring for those who did not actually play in them, so we must leave it unreported. The only things which are apt to be dull in Malory are the detailed score-sheets … and even they are not dull for anyone who knows the forms of the various smaller knights.
Moreover, White was aware that he and a good deal of his audience were far too incredulous to be able to take the Grail miracles on faith. White sends the reader back to Malory for such descriptions: "That way of telling the story can only be done once" (p. 436). Information is not the essence of this retelling. He contents himself with having the miracles retailed to an anxious Guenever and Arthur sitting at court, listening to the returning knights who are, presumably, entitled to their delusions.
But these are negative differentiations and, of themselves, would hardly constitute an original contribution to the growth of the legend. White makes contributions in four major areas. First, he fills gaps in Malory, such as Arthur's childhood as a pupil of Merlin, comprising the entire Sword in the Stone, and performs a similar task for the Orkney children's early years.
This, in turn, helps set up the second differentiation between White and Malory. White takes far greater care in describing character and motivation, factors often slighted in epics of action. Arthur, for instance, is seen as partially a victim of Merlyn, a tutor of genius living backwards in time, who plagues him by making him think and then leaves him before he arrives at any conclusions. The concept of a magician who began in 1939 and whose life goes backwards until 1400 is one of the major masterstrokes of the novel, one of its central symbols, yielding humor and historical perspective. Thus, when Arthur decides that the Might of the Round Table should be used to dictate Right, Merlyn is reminded of a certain young Austrian whose name he characteristically forgets, confusing the king but leaving a sagacious smile on the face of the reader. For Merlyn, as for White and his novel, all of history exists synchronically, at once, rather than as a procession to some great goal such as the Grail represented for Charles Williams. The Orkney children are explained as victims of the Freudian nightmare of the overly possessive, seductive mother, modeled after Constance White herself; Portnoys in armor.
Third, White used himself as a model for Lancelot. Flying in the face of Tennyson, the Pre-Raphaelites and popular literature, White chooses to interpret Lancelot's self-designation as Le Chevalier Mal Fet to refer to physical ugliness. This ugliness causes him to feel inferior and unloved, with a desperate need to excel in all skills. Also, like his progenitor, his legendary kindness results from a great fear of his own natural sadism and cruelty, carefully checked. Thus, events merely described, albeit magnificently, in Malory, are explained in The Once and Future King and the explanations seem to work. Ambiguities such as Lancelot's title cry out for elucidation. Indeed, White points out the many possibilities of the phrase, ranging from the eponymous "Ill-Made Knight" to the "knight who has done badly." The only lacunae in Malory that White leaves are the scenes of sexual congress, keeping them between the lines rather than the sheets.
Finally, White attempts to unravel certain unavoidable inconsistencies in Malory, resulting from the conflicting legendary sources. Some, such as the uneven nature of Gawain, boorish at times and grandly noble at others, explained by C. S. Lewis as the conflict between Gael and Gaul, are attributed to complex psychologies resulting from childhood traumas. Gawaine is seen as the victim of a nasty temper which mellows with the years but re-emerges as a re- sult of the conflict between loyalties to king and former country. TLS (Aug. 7, 1959, ix) felt that the greatest achievement of The Once and Future King was in its ability to make good people interesting.
On a more trivial level, White merges Malory's two Elaines, creating a pathetically moving character. He also explains why although only a Pellinore can chase a Questing Beast, Sir Palomides ends up doing so. It seems it was a matter of transfer of affection to the animal's psychiatrist whom she turned to in despair over Pellinore's marriage.
Malory may need amplification, at times correction, as when he insists that Guenever had golden hair but his basic picture is a correct one: "As Malory pictures him, Arthur of England was the champion of a civilization that is misrepresented in the history books" (p. 534). White had every reason to feel grateful to Sir Thomas Maleore, Knight, to whom he dedicated The Sword in the Stone, both for what he created and what omitted. As an anonymous TLS reviewer pointed out (Dec. 25, 1959), had Milton gone through with his notion of writing a great epic about Arthur, he might have finished it for good. The candle flickering in the wind given by Arthur to young Thomas at the end of The Once and Future King was still burning when White seized it and passed it on.
Before any discussion of each of the volumes of the tetralogy in isolation, both as originally published and as revised and combined, it should be noted that, from the first, the project was conceived of as a unit, with the end implicit in the beginning. Since suspense is a useless literary quality in a universally known story, the tragic effect is best enhanced by constant adumbration and irony, taking advantage of the gap in knowledge between character and reader. White begins this in the first volume, having Merlyn "stare tragically into the fire" after the Wart offers to fight all the world's evils (Once, p. 182). At the coronation, the magician is made to refer to Arthur's future as his "glorious doom" (p. 209). In subsequent volumes, phrases such as "if you had read the last book" occur,7 replaced in the revised whole by "if you remember" (Once, p. 315). But the strongest links are the parallels drawn between the major families and in the symphonic structure of each work, despite their tonal differences.
Each book opens with a cinematic close-up of its dominant figure and follows him through his lessons with his particular tutor of genius; Merlyn for Wart and Kay; Saint Toirdealbach, originally St. Torealvac in the less Gaelic early editions, for the Orkney children; and Uncle Dap for Sir Lancelot. The opening pages set the tone and major theme as well. In The Sword in the Stone, it is a whimsical view of Sir Ector's manor; in The Witch in the Wood, it is a comic scene in which the Orkney children rehearse the ancient wrong which will later have tragic consequences; and, in The Ill-Made Knight, it is the pained, young Lancelot brooding over his ugly face in the distorting mirror of his kettle hat. The hat, like the Orkneys' unicorn, links the books as a recurring symbol.
In the latter case, the Orkney boys attempt to get their mother's attention by capturing a unicorn for her. Using a kidnapped maid as a mother substitute as well as the required virgin, they butcher the unicorn instead of sequestering it. Agravaine, the most intense of mother protectors, stabs it because it violated the mother's lap, much the same way that he later cuts off his mother's head when she sleeps with Sir Lamorak. Mordred, characteristically, stabbed Lamorak in the back. Gareth, in telling Arthur of his mother's death, uses the phrase "like the unicorn" (p. 429) and the tale of the previous volume is successfully and powerfully evoked.
Finally, each of the volumes ends in a recapitulation of the major themes, much as in the movements of a Brahms symphony, a composer whose works White often whistled to his appreciative hawks. In volume one, all of the animals young Wart has met shout their peculiar forms of encouragement to him, paralleling their original lessons, as he pulls out the sword; King Pellinore's wedding guests include all the figures of volume two, now neatly coupled off as in a Shakespearean comedy; Lancelot's book ends with all the people in his life reacting characteristically in congratulating him on having performed a miracle and he, in turn, regresses to the state in which we originally met him: (p. 514)
In the middle, quite forgotten, her lover was kneeling by himself. This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he was allowed to do a miracle. "And ever," says Malory, "Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten."
Finally, in volume four, the defeated Arthur remembers Merlyn, the ants and the geese, before shuffling off to Avalon to await his return. The effect of all this is to give the reader the impression of a great sym- phony, each movement discreet but related by leitmotif, separate in tone and rhythm but alike in structure and thoroughly integrated by an author fully in control of his material. The TLS reviewer almost seemed surprised that the tetralogy, when finally published, made "a unity whose tone appears now as something more, much deeper and more serious than a casual reading of the earlier volumes would lead the reader to suppose" (Apr. 25, 1958, p. 224).
The Sword in the Stone, begun and finished in 1937, after a renewed interest in Malory pulled White out of his bitter depression reflected in the tone of Burke's Steerage, was "a wish fulfillment of the things I should have like to have happened to me when I was a boy" (Warner, p. 98). It fulfilled his wish not only for a motherless boyhood but also for a useful and sagacious old age as a Merlyn, even down to magic dishes that washed themselves, a bachelor's dream. It was written quickly and easily, a work of pure fantasy, "a preface to Malory" who says nothing about Arthur's days with Sir Ector.
The joys and responsibilities of education, particularly of a future king, provide the dominant themes. Merlyn, whom Arthur or Wart discovers on an unconscious quest, uses his magic to transform the boy into a series of animals that provide him with the beast equivalent of The Mirror for Magistrates. His very first transformation makes him a perch, taking him to the king of the moat to "see what it is to be a king."
The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch—by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains.
(Sword, p. 59)
Subsequently, hawks teach him not to let go, owls to kill only for food, and finally badgers to keep digging and to love his home. In the separate The Sword in the Stone, a snake discourses lengthily on H. Sapiens, in a manner reminiscent of Kipling retelling Darwin, but this was later omitted. Other adventures involve Robin Wood, whom the uninformed call Hood, Morgan Le Fay and, in Sword only, stones and trees who talk too slowly for people to understand, like phonograph records at low speeds.
But the two major educational experiences and recurring themes in the tetralogy were added after World War II, having originally been part of the projected volume five, "The Insolence of Man," and eventually The Book of Merlyn. In the first of these, Wart finds himself as an ant, one of six out of 250,000 species in the world that wars on its own kind, doing so to defend territory. The colony is a para-Fascist set-up whose language includes only numbers and orders and two value phrases, "done" and "not done," meaning good and bad, right and wrong, sane and insane. In the words of one sign: "EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY" (Once, p. 122). A stray ant of a different colony sets off a war and "Antland, Antland, Uber Alles" is broadcast constantly over antennae, punctuated by blessings of Ant the Father, chauvinistic appeals to the Master Ant race, standard exhortations to war including preventive reaction strikes and a hymn called "The Earth is the Sword's" (pp. 121-130).
This very realistically described fantasy was the product of much reading and many experiments with ants to confirm White's theory that all wars are territorial not, as Marx insists, economic. White modified that theory in The Book of Merlyn to include the possibility that humans needed war to keep up the flow of adrenaline. His conclusions about territory could well have come from reading Konrad Lorenz, whom he often referred to in passing.8 The experiments themselves, which made even Julian Huxley recognize him as an authority (Garnett, p. 115), were similar to the ones carried out by the fictional Mr. White of The Elephant and the Kangaroo and were a consuming passion for some time.
The other side is provided by the lyrical presentation of Wart's visit with the beautiful geese, creatures whom White, according to The Godstone and the Blackymor, had only recently sworn off hunting (p. 188). These pacific but organized creatures fly so high that they do not understand what Arthur means by boundaries or by war and think all fighting is childish behavior. Indeed, White is sufficiently impressed to create a great deal of lovely lyric poetry to ascribe to these geese, some of it left untranslated (Once, pp. 165-177). At the end of his life, Arthur
remembered the belligerent ants who claimed their boundaries and the pacific geese who did not…. The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing—literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines…. The aireborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok and would to Man if he could learn to fly.
The necromancer who conjured up all these visions and helped point their morals was a practitioner of White magic and the most complete self-portrait White had yet put in any book. He already had described himself as Mr. Pupillary in They Winter Abroad, the Professor in First Lesson, and Soapey Sponge in Gone to Ground, and would do so even more egregiously in The Elephant and the Kangaroo and Mistress Masham's Repose ; but this incarnation as a teacher of young lads had extra-literary dimensions. In America at Last, he questions the wisdom of his collegiate lecture tour by asking "what place does Merlin have talking to grown-ups?" (p. 233) and in 1960 he wrote to Garnett "Seven years ago, a living Wart discovered in me a real Merlin" (Garnett, p. 289). He was referring to his relationship to Zed, a young boy, an involvement which dominated his later years. It was a role which alternately attracted him and frightened him with its power to possess, as well as with its sexual implications. Thus, Merlyn gives Arthur every chance to think on his own, leaving him alone at the end. The results are truly tragic.
White gave his alter-ego many of his most prized possessions, his owl named Archimedes, his beard, his knitting, his sympathetic but irascible temperament, and, of course, his ideas. These ranged from explosions of misogyny (p. 73) to disapproval of accidental assonances in speech (p. 119), derived from T. E. Lawrence, and included his views on war, government, history, fate and education itself. "The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails" (p. 183). This is true not only, as Wart thought, when it is raining and there is nothing else to do.
The views on war and might, outlined above, were described by Stephen P. Dunn in the Kenyon Review (Spring, 1962, p. 365) as Shavian liberal. They included the eschewal of might even to obtain right and the necessity of substituting civil law for revenge and "gamesmania." Thus, Merlyn's description of King Lot: "He goes in for war in the same way as my Victorian friends used to go in for fox-hunting" (p. 235). When Wart exults in the fun at the Battle of Bedegraine, Merlyn reminds him that peasants actually die in these upper-class games. He convinces Arthur to make war less sporting and more horrible, perhaps thereby ending it forever.
But Merlyn vanishes, neglecting to tell Arthur who his mother is, war breaks out again, and the dream is destroyed. Merlyn is also the mouthpiece for the decidedly non-Shavian Tory view of feudalism, believing the peasants happier in the days of Camelot than they are now as marginal farmers or industrial workers, happier when they were under the protection of the benevolent and paternal Sir Ector. But for all this, White the narrator views White the character with a great deal of ironic perspective. Merlyn is irascible, unfairly using spells to punish those who argue with him, hopelessly confused and often incompetent. His curses, such as "Castor and Pollux, Blow me to Bermuda" (p. 90) are often granted in their literal sense; he conjures up clothes from the wrong era (p. 34); he loses his pants at the boar hunt (p. 151).
Presently a curious black cylindrical hat appeared on his head. Merlyn examined it with a look of disgust, said bitterly, "and they call this service!" and handed it back to the air.
Four other hats sketched for us by the author appear:
"That's no excuse. Naturally I meant the one I was wearing.
But wearing now, of course, you fool. I don't want a hat I was wearing in 1890. Have you no sense of time at all?
Merlyn took off his sailor hat and held it out to the air for inspection.
"This is an anachronism … a beastly anachronism."9
Merlyn so dominates The Sword in the Stone that Arthur is seen as little more than a screen for his projections. Young Wart is sympathetic, lovable but decidedly stupid. He is conscientious but a most reluctant king. The spectacle of his foster father kneeling in front of him causes him to curse his new royal role: "I wish I had never seen that filthy sword at all (Once, p. 207)." It is this character, the well-meaning plodder cursed by a tutor of genius, that Arthur will carry throughout.
Kay, first Wart's master and then his seneschal, is a problem in Malory which White tackles. From the beginning, Kay is seen as a boy with the proverbial chip on his shoulder, lauding his legitimacy over Wart while resenting the bastard's relationship with Merlyn. Mostly he is tactless, offering Wart a shilling for getting his sword, but Arthur is usually too generous to notice. This streak never vanishes and helps explain the combination of caddishness, shown in his behavior to young Galahad, and the nobility he displays in Malory.
The ambiance of the narrative is the innocence of childhood, idyllic in its country setting, even Edenic in its perfect climate, and mainly jocular. The various adventures are filled with good-humored edification and marvelous parodies, such as King Uther's national anthem:
God save King Pendragon
Long may his reign drag on,
God save the King.
Send him most gorious
Great and uprorious,
Horrible and Hoarious,
God save our King.
(Once, p. 141)
Other jokes include Sir Ector's after-dinner speech, filled with modern clichés; Pig Latin in the King's note to Sir Ector announcing the coming of his boar-hounds "(canibus nostris porkericis)" (p. 132); and dialect humor featuring a cockney hedgehog. Other sections, the joust between Pellinore and Sir Grummore, arranged by Merlyn to demonstrate the futility of chivalry as it had deteriorated, are pure joyous farce. Finally, anachronism, as previously demonstrated, provides irony. All this is given ballast by the typical White attention to the details of his historical reconstruction, such as in describing Sir Ector's manor:
The castle of the Forest Sauvage is still standing and you can see its lovely ruined walls with ivy on them…. They were round and stuck out from the wall into the moat so that the archers could shoot in all directions…. Inside the towers there are circular stairs.
Also painstakingly described are the ritual of the boar hunt and the lives of the animals visited:
The Wart felt so strange that he took the furry atomy without protest and popped it into his mouth without any feelings that it was going to be nasty. So he was not surprised when it turned out to be excellent, with a fruity taste like eating a peach with the skin on, though naturally the skin was not so nice as the mouse.
The reader finds this difficult to deny.
Reviewers were delighted with the book, invoking such comparisons as Lewis Carroll and late Twain (Spectator, Sept. 2, 1938, p. 382) quite accurately. Others found James Stephens, even Tolstoy. Basil Davenport proclaimed it a "classic" (Saturday Review, Jan. 7, 1939), the Book of the Month Club bought it as did Walt Disney, making White rich enough to have to move to avoid Inland Revenue. Move he did, as a lodger with Mr. and Mrs. McDonagh of Doolistown, Ireland, where he remained for six years (Warner, p. 118).
David Garnett, as well as other critics, suggested that some of the farce was tiresome and should be removed, particularly Galapos, the Fascist giant whom White excised grudgingly, and Robin Wood whom he stubbornly retained. He was reluctant to part with Galapos, feeling it his only anti-Fascist contribution, from a man who claimed to know Fascism, having been beaten frequently at Cheltenham. After the war, more of the farce was removed, much of the language simplified and the comic drawings omitted. Sections from the unpublished Book of Merlyn were added, as were passages on Might versus Right (Once, p. 207). Also, a new theme, the Norman domination of the Saxon, was introduced, "Saxon" being substituted for "Socialist" or "Bolshevist" or "Lollard agitator" as the bêtes noires of the conservatives.
Even with these changes, David Garnett's description of The Sword in the Stone as "wood magic" (New Statesman, September 3, 1938) is still probably the best available. The Edenic theme of childish spring innocence has been established and the snake will not appear until the end of the next, the summer volume. The book exists, as Merlyn does, and dreams do, in many planes at once, historical, mythical and animal, a genuinely idiosyncratic classic of English literature, written for an audience of children on the assumption, indeed the hope, that their elders will eavesdrop.
The Witch in the Wood was another story altogether. It, too, was written rapidly and easily but the result was an almost universally acknowledged disaster. Commonweal (Nov. 24, 1939) even accused it of heresy. White's own assessment of it was that "it may not be any good" (Garnett, p. 45) but he turned his back on the wreckage, like the experienced pilot he was, and began volume three which he predicted was "going to be a cracker" (Garnett, p. 61). Normally White was not so cavalier about his own failures but the blow had been expected and the desire to get on to the next book, which would confront his own problems, was great enough to propel him forward. Later, as The Queen of Air and Darkness, a title previously given to Morgan LeFay rather than to Morgause (Sword, p. 150), cut by almost three-quarters after painful surgery, it reappeared as volume two of The Once and Future King. The pain of revision evoked this epistolary outburst to Cockerell:
What a comfort to think that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace several times. I bet he re-wrote the last chapters most of all and that is why they are quite unreadable. The Witch in the Wood is nearly sending me mad.
(Warner, p. 133)
The original difficulties were threefold. The rollicking farce tone, far more dominant in this volume than its predecessor, clashed with the serious events of sin and tragedy. Moreover, the pace could not be sustained without becoming tiresome. Third, the foremost difficulty, White's identification of Morgause with his own mother was so complete that he lost the authorial detachment that the writer of epic, particularly comic epic, needs. The personal grudge, as Garnett pointed out, could be felt and it poisoned the good nature of the volume.
From underneath all of the farce, a great deal of which remained and was quite effective, three major, related themes emerge. In the skillfully restructured volume two, they are introduced immediately, not submerged until p. 122 as they were in the original version. The four Orkney children are in bed retelling their favorite story to make themselves forget that the mother they worship is ignoring them and that their father, King Lot, is off fighting Arthur. The story concerns the Ancient Wrong, a working title for the tetralogy (Warner, p. 176), in which Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, killed Queen Igraine's husband and forced her to bed. The child fathered out of wedlock was Arthur but the children do not know that. Arthur was secretly brought to Sir Ector by Merlyn who, although remembering to tell Arthur about his father, typically neglects to mention his mother. Queen Igraine gave birth to Morgan Le Fay and Morgause and, thus, when, at the end of the volume, Arthur is seduced by Morgause, he is sleeping with his own sister and fathering a bastard who must be kept secret. The epigraph for the volume, omitted in the original version, sets the tone:
When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother's curse?
(Once, p. 211)
The old wrong, the new wrong of the birth of Mordred and the present wrong of the Battle of Bedegraine all coexist with the playful summer fun of Camelot at its joyous, Edenic zenith; the snake is now in the garden.
White took advantage of his own domicile in Ireland and Malory's neglect of the Orkney background to probe the nature and extent of the conflict between Gael and Gaul. Each of the four sons is differentiated and carefully delineated. As White remained in Ireland, the later version absorbed more Gaelic influence, such phrases as "England's difficulty, we used to say, is Ireland's opportunity (p. 225)," changes to Gaelic spelling (p. 237) and even a brogue for Gawain. The Gaels, remarkably similar to the modern Irish of The Elephant and the Kangaroo, are given atavistic characters of dark mysticism, intuition, barbarism, suspicion, intensity and childishness.
So much of the volume, in both of its versions, is given over to farce and description that the plot is hardly advanced. Arthur continues to be taught by Merlyn that the Gaelic wars are not to be enjoyed, even if armored aristocrats are rarely killed. Pellinore abandons the Questing Beast for Piggy whom he marries in an elaborately and deliciously described ceremony, the setting for Arthur's tragic sin. Various comic characters take music hall turns. The funniest sequence describes an attempt to cheer up a despondent Pellinore by having his friends dress up as a Questing Beast, only to have the original fall in love with the impostor.
But this book belongs to the Orkneys, particularly Morgause. She dominates it, almost smothering it the way she did her children, even in the revised version. It is not entirely a benign influence. In asking Garnett to help revise The Witch in the Wood by excising the "Wodehouse and Waugh" sections, White admitted that Morgause was meant to be the villain and that she was his mother (Garnett, p. 87). He had previously described his mother to Garnett as a "witch who chased away husband, lover and son" (p. 75). It was a love-hate relationship which surfaced in the dedication to Loved Helen and in Costanza or Constance, the love interest in They Winter Abroad. It made all his women, as Garnett observed into bitches or nannies (America at Last, intro. by David Garnett, p. 11). In a careful reading of the Bible, White even managed to find, as had James Joyce, a strained relationship between Mary and Jesus:
… he (Peter) refers so distantly to the B.V.M. as (Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joseph) I believe that Jesus was estranged from his mother since the time of his ministry and continued so until his crucifixion.
(Warner, p. 170)
Rae Garnett's suggestion that he read the Russian classics helped him overcome some of this in his portrait of Guenever, but certainly never all of it.
Morgause is shown only as seducer, of her children and of Arthur, the latter young enough to have been one of them, as of Sir Palomides and King Pellinore, whose son was her final lover.10 When Pellinore resists her, she brands him "queer." She is introduced to the reader while boiling alive a black cat, one she is said to resemble, in an attempt to become invisible. White always denigrated cats for their independence, lack of manners and what he considered their promiscuity (Garnett, p. 273). Cinematically spliced into this scene is the recitation of the origins of the England-Cornwall feud, ending in a blend of the two major themes:
"We must avenge our family."
"Because our Mammy is the most beautiful woman in the high-ridged, extensive ponderous, pleasantly-turning world."
"And because we love her."
Indeed they did love her. Perhaps we all give the best of our hearts uncritically—to those who hardly think about us in return.
The final scene, the seduction of Arthur, was elaborated considerably from the version in The Witch in the Wood, both in description and implication. First, the reader is conveyed to North Humberland where Merlyn, about to fall asleep for centuries, finally remembers what he has forgotten to tell Arthur. Then, we cut back to the palace where Arthur, asleep and dreaming of weddings and women, is awakened. White explains it this way:
Perhaps it was because Arthur was always a simple fellow, who took people at their own valuation easily. Perhaps it was because he had never known a mother of his own, so that the role of mother love, as she stood with her children behind her, took him between wind and water.
Morgause's most tragic seduction, that of the offspring of her incestuous union with Arthur, happens offstage but is painfully described near the end of the novel:
… these were not the heart of tragedy. What does it matter if Antony did fall on his sword. It only killed him. It is the mother's not the lover's lust that rots the mind. It is that which condemns the character to his walking death. It is Jocasta, not Juliet, who dwells in the inner chamber. It is Gertrude, not the silly Ophelia, who sends Hamlet to his madness.
The heart of tragedy does not lie in stealing or taking away…. It lies in giving, in putting on, in adding, in smothering without the pillows. Desdemona robbed of life or honour is nothing compared to Mordred robbed of himself—his soul stolen, overlaid, wizened, while the mother character lives in triumph, superfluously and with stifling love endowed on him, seemingly innocent of ill-intention. Mordred was the only son of Orkney who never married.
Neither did T. H. White.
The four children are not lumped together, however. They are partly differentiated by their reactions to events, particularly to the story of the Ancient Wrong. Gawaine is furious about the affront to the family; Agravaine reacts coldly to the insult to his mother; Gareth nobly empathizes with the raped woman; Gaheris phlegmatically follows. They retain these characteristics in maturity. Gawaine, well-meaning, will commit horrible acts when vexed, but will forgive Lancelot for killing him. Gareth will try unsuccessfully to warn Lancelot of Mordred's plot. Agravaine will kill his mother in a jealous rage over Sir Lamorak and Gaheris will follow.
Meanwhile, back at Camelot, Arthur with the unreliable help of Merlyn, is maturing, his values beginning to take shape:
He had fair hair and a stupid face, or at any rate there was a lack of cunning in it. It was an open face, with kind eyes and a reliable or faithful expression, as though he were a good learner who enjoyed being alive and did not believe in original sin. He had never been unjustly treated, for one thing, so he was kind to other people.
His naïveté, particularly his lack of belief in original sin, a dimension omitted from the first version, is introduced to transform Camelot into Eden and Arthur into Adam. It also helps to deal with a question that vexed Steinbeck, the need for epic heroes to have significant stupidity as part of their natures (Steinbeck, p. 350).
Like the man in Eden before the fall, he was enjoying his innocence and fortune….
So far as he was concerned, as yet, there might never have been such a thing as a single particle of sorrow on the gay, sweet surface of the dew-glittering world.
Even the climate is Edenically immutable.
To intensify the tragedy, White has Arthur, like Oedipus, ignore the warning of prophets, in this case Merlyn, about Lancelot and Guenever. Refusing to be told the future, he seals his destiny (p. 285). Indeed, destiny is a theme of volume two, Merlyn repeating the tale of Rabbi Jochanan which Arthur always disliked. It was originally introduced to explain why Kay could not have the Wart's adventures. In this tale, Elijah the prophet, travelling with Rabbi Jochanan, was treated kindly by a poor man whose cow subsequently died and abused by a rich man whose wall he mended. The prophet explained to the perplexed Rabbi that the mended wall concealed a treasure and that the poor man's son, not his cow, was originally destined to die (p. 88). The Wart was not convinced then and the King is not now: "I could never understand why the cow died" (Witch, p. 151). The tragic atmosphere is heightened by Merlyn's attempts to remember what he has not told Arthur and the King's half-hearted search for the secret of his parentage.
Merlyn succeeds in "the moment towards which he has been living backwards for so many years" (p. 246) in eliciting in Socratic fashion the idea of the Round Table from Arthur's reluctant brain, the idea of using Might only for Right. Merlyn even has to teach Arthur to use his royal prerogative and summon him. First, Arthur is shown two contrasting scenes from the vantage point of his castle. one of bucolic peace and one of martial violence, reminiscent of the Shield of Achilles (p. 220). Next, he is led to a Hobbesian conclusion about human nature, making it necessary to suppress the instinct towards violence. Finally, he is convinced, through Merlyn's hindsight, that these ideas can only prevail through Fabian education, not through cursed Might itself. In a passage added after the War, Merlyn explains:
There was just such a man when I was young—an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos…. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate…. the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available and not impose them on people.
Total pacifism, once White's position and Merlyn's attitude during the Boer War as well as in the Oxford Pledge, is now spurned so that Hitler may be opposed (p. 232). The Orkneys can legitimately have national unity imposed on them at Bedegraine, in opposition to political entropy which pulls apart confederations (p. 231). Moreover, Bedegraine is a total, modern war, no longer insulating the ruling class from the consequences of their decisions. Bishops bless both sides and assure them of victory. In earlier versions, the battle is described indirectly in a letter from King Lot in the role of outraged Victorian sportsman, accompanied by a Colonel Blimp illustration, less powerful but more amusing than what replaced it: "I do not know what war is coming to. Obviously the fellow is no sportsman. Also, he has absolutely no idea of the rules of the game. It is always the same with these upstarts. Send a dozen handkerchiefs" (Witch, p. 105).
Other post-War revisions were more beneficial, getting out most of the Waugh and Wodehouse and removing the Charlie Chan accent from Sir Palomides. Some farcical scenes, such as the drunken Saint, were restored only at Richard Garnett's insistence (Garnett, p. 100). The whimsical drawings, including the Ace of Spades in all death chapters, were also removed. White brought more authorial distance to Morgause, intensified the Gaelic influence with newly-acquired lore, and underlined with renewed urgency the conflict between Might and Right. Most significant, however, was the emphasis on Edenic innocence lost and tragic experience gained. This dominates the new version and is underscored for the nodding reader by this added passage, following an elaborate family tree, and made powerful by the use of monosyllables:
Even if you have to read it twice, like something in a history lesson, this pedigree is a vital part of the tragedy of King Arthur. It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail, and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy of sin coming home to roost. That is why we have to take note of the parentage of Arthur's son Mordred and to remember when the time comes that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so and, perhaps, it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.
The word "perhaps" applied to Morgause is quite a concession. Steinbeck, being less rigid in his moral stance, could not understand why Malory named his book Morte (Steinbeck, p. 313), even though he had read White.
The resulting volume is much tighter and more effective as a bridge than its predecessor but it still is a rather rickety span. The frolicking sections of summer madness still stand apart from the more serious themes, as if the whole melange had been centrifuged. The authorial distance needed for epic is still not sincerely there, either in regard to Morgause or, the new villain, Hitler. However, Pellinore's wedding is one of the finest set pieces of medieval evocation in the entire tetralogy. Finally, the newer version does get us to The Ill-Made Knight, the indisputable gem of the collection.
2. Charles Williams, Selected Writings, ed. Anne Ridler (Oxford, 1961)—hereafter cited as Williams.
4. T. H. White, The Once and Future King (Berkeley Medallion: New York, 1969), p. 320)—hereafter cited in the text as Once.
5. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (London, 1965), pp. 32-34.
6. The dominant view of modern scholarship seems to be that Malory who wrote the Morte d'Arthur was neither from Warwickshire, nor in Newgate prison. See William Matthews, The Ill-Framed Knight (Berkeley: 1966), among others. White, of course, had no suspicion of this in 1939 and probably would have ignored it. Thus, he has Arthur dub young Malory Sir Thomas of Warwick.
7.The Ill-Made Knight (London, 1941), p. 12.
8.The Master (Middlesex: Penguin, 1964), p. 12.
9. T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone (New York: Dell, 1963), p. 124.—all future references will appear in the text as Sword.
10. T. H. White The Witch in the Wood (New York, 1939), p. 74.
D. Thomas Hanks, Jr. (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Hanks, Jr., D. Thomas. "T. H. White's Merlyn: More Than Malory Made Him." In The Figure of Merlin in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Jeanie Watson and Maureen Fries, pp. 99-120. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Hanks offers a critical reading of the figure of Merlyn in the first two books of White's The Once and Future King, noting that the magician evolves from the playful figure of The Sword in the Stone to a much more Malory-like depiction of a serious and somber character in The Witch in the Wood.]
King Arthur comes to us from our misty past, and we love him. Whatever dux bellorum or Celtic folk-hero may have originated him, he lives in our literature and in our minds as the preux chevalier—warlike to the warlike, gentle to the weak, chivalrous to all. he and his Round Table bring to us the best of two worlds: glorious battle, and the rule of Right. We love him.
Inseparable from Arthur is Merlin. Magically invincible, all-knowing, unpredictable, Merlin satisfies a longing otherwise met for us by no one but (fitfully) the modern scientist. Arthur without Merlin would be meat without salt. These two come to our time primarily from Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur.
T. H. White (1906-1964) spent decades studying the Morte Darthur. The fruits of his study first appeared as separate books, then as his tetralogy, The Once and Future King (1958),1 an immediate success and the progenitor of Disney's Sword in the Stone and the Lerner-Lowe Camelot. The King of the book's title is Arthur. Inseparable from Arthur is the wizard Merlyn (White's spelling).
Merlyn is a major character in the The Once and Future King. One could almost say he is two of the major characters. White makes him a largely comic figure in Book 1, though he has serious overtones there; in Book 2, he becomes a largely serious character—with comic overtones. Overall, Merlyn becomes the chief shaping force in the first two books of The Once and Future King.
Merlyn in Book 1
Merlyn is largely a figure of fun from first to last in Book 1 of King. Thus he first appears as a cranky old man drawing water from a well and not enjoying it. When "the Wart," as Arthur is called in Book 1, first meets him, he is saying,
‘Drat the whole thing! [as the clanking bucket hits the lip of the well] … You would think that after all these years of study you could do better for yourself than a by-our-lady well with a by-our-lady bucket, whatever the by-our-lady cost.’
‘By this and by that,’ added the old gentleman, heaving his bucket out of the well with a malevolent glance, ‘why can't they get us the electric light and company's water?’
The description that follows reinforces Merlyn's comic nature:
Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair…. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him. He has a worried expression, as though he were trying to remember some name with began with Chol but which was pronounced in quite a different way, possibly Menzies or was it Dalziel?
This picture of Merlyn as a figure of fun continues throughout Book 1, or The Sword in the Stone. 2 Thus forty-five pages after his first appearance White shows Merlyn knitting his beard into three rows of a night-cap he is constructing (75), and throughout book 1 he often muddles his magical spells.
The most dramatic example of his "muddling" is perhaps the instance in which Merlyn becomes enraged by the Wart's stubbornness in asking for a magical adventure for Kay. Merlyn throws his spectacles to the floor, stamps on them, and exclaims, "‘Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda’"—whereupon he vanishes "with a frightful roar." He does get blown to Bermuda, he tells the Wart on his return, but "‘I did not do it on purpose’" (90).
Merlyn has similar bad luck with many of his spells. They sometimes work awry, as in the Bermuda episode; at other times they do not work at all. On the morning of a boar hunt, for example, he appears in a pair of "running breeches" in which he looks rather like a bearded boy scout (145). He later tears these breeches and stops "to mend them up by magic" (148), but cannot get the magic to work and so must continue the hunt while holding up his trousers with his hands (151).
As these examples have shown, Merlyn is clearly a comic figure for much of Book 1. In fact, for his final appearance in that book Merlyn rejoins the Wart, now King Arthur, in the form of a "dunce cap … which you lit at the top end" (208). The Wart lights it and watches it grow; "when the flame had quite gone out, Merlyn was standing before him in his magic hat" (208).
Merlyn is not merely a comic figure in Book 1, however. He never becomes totally uncomic, but the essential seriousness of his role becomes evident in this Book. He is, after all, the tutor to the future King Arthur; White does not forget that. He makes him the ideal tutor, giving Merlyn a relationship to Time, then a relationship to God, which make it possible for his magic to shape ideally the development of the king-to-be.
Merlin and Time
Part of Merlyn's skill as a tutor comes from White's most innovative addition to his character: Merlyn lives "backward" in time. This unusual characteristic appeared above in Merlyn's reference to "the electric light and company's water," one of the anachronisms with which White peppers his text. These anachronisms arise naturally from Merlyn's uncommon relationship to time: he seems to have been born sometime in the twentieth century, and during the course of King he lives backwards to his imprisonment under a stone in Cornwall (35).
That explains much of his wide knowledge; living backward, he knows the future, which is his past. Thus he knows at one point that an adventure with Robin Hood awaits both Kay and the Wart (91ff). He also knows when Hob has left the mews, so it is safe for his tutor to send the Wart there to spend the night as a hawk (76). And—to look ahead—he is able to tell Arthur, in Book 2 of King, "You will win the battle [of Bedegraine]" (284).
Though his relationship to Time aids Merlyn in his continuing tutorial of the King Arthur-to-be, there is also comic potential in a character who "lives backward." White presents that potential as he introduces the idea, and the problems that go with it, early in King. Merlyn explains to the Wart how he knows "the future":
‘Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, but you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too…. But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having second sight.’
He stopped talking and looked at the Wart in an anxious way.
‘Have I told you this before?’
‘No, we only met about half an hour ago.’
‘So little time to pass?’ said Merlyn, and a big tear ran down to the end of his nose. He wiped it off with his pyjamas and added anxiously, ‘Am I going to tell it to you again?’
Clearly, living backwards is not easy. Neither is it always comfortable. At the close of Book 1 Arthur says he wishes he could "encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it." Merlyn responds, "[Y]ou would be conquered, and you would suffer for it." Then he stares tragically into the fire—because his backsight tells him not only that Arthur "would" be conquered, but he will be conquered (181-82).
Merlyn's "backsight," and his "insight," which allows him to know what is going on in the present at far-removed places (91-92), are the reliable forms of his magic. As you saw above, some of his other magic is considerably less reliable (as when it will not mend his "running breeches"). He also possesses another form of magic—or rather, to be accurate, he has been deputed to exercise another form of magic. That magic is absolutely reliable, but it is not, strictly speaking, Merlyn's magic. Here White enters the realm of the mystical, developing a hint from Malory (see below) as he makes his Merlyn an agent of God.
Merlyn and God
Merlyn's relation to God begins to appear early in Book 1, as Merlyn tells the Wart a story of the prophet Elijah and the Rabbi Jachanan. The moral of the story: "‘Say not therefore to the Lord: What does thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’" (88-89). The point—which the young Arthur does not see—is that Merlyn has been "sent" only to the Wart. He cannot do transforming magic for Kay, as the Wart has been requesting. Or, as Merlyn puts it, "‘I cannot change Kay into things. The power was not deputed to me when I was sent’" (90). The reader is left to discern who "sent" Merlyn, but "the Lord of all the earth" is pretty clearly the Sender. (See below for a discussion of Merlyn as Godly in Book 2.)
Merlyn's God-given power of transforming the Wart into various animals produces the most significant episodes of Book 1. When at the close of Book 1 the Wart draws the sword from the stone—which will make him finally King Arthur—it is then that he is cheered and somehow aided by
… hundreds of old friends…. there are badgers and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares and wild geese and falcons and fishes and dogs and dainty unicorns and solitary wasps and corkindrills and hedgehogs and griffins and the thousand other animals he had met…. they all spoke solemnly in turn.
Their speeches all repeat advice the animals had given him earlier, during a series of adventures when Merlyn had turned him into a fish, a hawk, an ant, an owl, a goose, "countless different animals" (178), and a badger.
Concerning these animals, I must somewhat belatedly note that White's chief interest in Book 1 is to create a boyhood for King Arthur. Malory does not touch upon Arthur's boyhood except to note that the infant Arthur was left with Sir Ector. White develops this slight hint into his Book 1, The Sword in the Stone ; he makes Arthur's a fantastic, magical boyhood. Merlyn is his means. Or rather, Merlyn's transformations are his means. Merlyn has been "sent" to answer the young Arthur's questions (34), to be sure, but his preeminent duty is to transform the Wart into animals so that the boy may learn those matters a king must know.
Thus, transformed into a perch, the Wart learns from a four-foot-long pike "what it is to be a king" (51). What the pike teaches is "Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right" (52). (White's King Arthur is later to spend much of his reign trying to replace that medieval dictum with the rule of law.)
Later, as a hawk, the Wart learns "about never letting go" (205; and see 77-85). Becoming an ant, he conceives a hearty distaste for the ant-hill mentality which produces propaganda and fascism (122-30). In contrast to this adventure—which leaves a bad taste in the boy's mind—he then becomes a goose. From the boy's point of view, this adventure lasts longer than any other of his transformations; it teaches him the beauties of an active, strong culture which nonetheless does not wage war (164-77).
These magical adventures, administered by Merlyn the "tutor," fill the void Malory left in Arthur's childhood. They also teach the Wart values he is to pursue throughout the remainder of King as he becomes King Arthur and sets about reforming England.
To summarize: Merlyn, in Book 1 of King, is in great part a figure of fun. That figure the Disney studios later built into the Merlyn in their feature-length cartoon, "The Sword in the Stone." In King he is also, however, the God-sent tutor to the developing King Arthur. As tutor, he transforms "the Wart" and puts him into the position of learning the values King Arthur must support. Merlyn thus becomes not only the chief shaping force in Book 1, but also the chief source of Arthur's characterization throughout King.
Merlin in Book 2
The Merlyn of White's second book3 remains recognizable as the former tutor to "the Wart." Thus he grouches at a dull King Arthur early in the book," ‘I suppose you will learn some day, … but God knows it is heartbreaking, uphill work’" (222). What he wants Arthur to learn "is this thinking-for-yourself business" (224). He is still a figure of fun, too; in his first appearance in Book 2 Arthur throws a stone and knocks "Merlyn's hat off as clean as whistle, and the old gentleman chased him featly down the stairs, waving his wand of lignum vitae" (226).
He is preparing to resign his post as tutor, though. That is why he insists on Arthur's learning to think for himself. He is also a more serious figure than was the Merlyn of Book 1. Now, in Book 2, Merlyn is much more the character White found in Malory.
A brief review of Malory's Merlin will aid in realizing how White has used and changed him in Book 2 of King. 4
In Malory, Merlin first appears as a sorcerer who transforms King Uther Pendragon into the form of the Duke of Tintagel so the king may lie with the Duke's wife, Igraine. He continues to work various spells throughout the first several books of the Arthuriad. He is also a prophet; he knows Arthur will be born of the union of Uther and Igraine, for example. In addition, he acts as an advisor to Arthur and to his barons, both in peace and in war, and he even becomes a military leader; he brings 10,000 reinforcements from France to England, arranges food and supplies for the trip, and secretly marches the troops to the Forest of Bedegraine.
Merlin is to a degree a fearsome figure in Malory; twice others call him demonic, which perhaps explains why he orders Uther to deliver the infant Arthur to him unchristened. At the same time, he is not wholly un-Godly; he seems to arrange the original "sword in the stone" through intercession with Christ, and he once chides Arthur for pushing a battle so far that God has become angry with him. Merlin has his human side, too; he becomes infatuated with one Nenyve and pursues her until the exasperated lady imprisons him under a stone in Cornwall. Finally, I should note that to Merlin goes the credit for the original idea of a "Round Table."
White uses Malory's Merlin, as I said, and part of his Merlyn is simply Malory transposed. He also goes well beyond Malory.
White and Malory's Merlin
White makes his Merlyn echo Malory's as a prophet, a worker of spells, a military aide, and a lover besotted with Nimue/Nenyve, who fears his demonic nature.
White's "living backward" innovation explains for his Merlyn the prophetic powers found in Malory's Merlin, who on the eve of the battle of Bedegraine advises Arthur to speak with the besieging kings, because "ye shal overcome hem all, whether they wyll or nylle."5 Malory's Merlin also tells the kings besieging Arthur that they cannot prevail (Malory 12), and he tells Arthur, years in advance, of Arthur's final battle on Salisbury Plain, when Arthur's son Mordred will fight against him (Malory 49).
He does sometimes pass on information of a less gloomy kind; he knows all about Excalibur, for example, and helps Arthur get it from the Lady of the Lake (Malory 35). All these examples, of course, support the role of Merlin as prophet of events to come. That role, I repeat, White also gives to his Merlyn through his ingenious idea of Merlyn's "backsight."
White also accounts for the Malory-Merlin's perplexing failure to pass on vital information. In Malory, Merlin does not tell Arthur of his parentage until after the wars have begun and until after Arthur has already impregnated Morgause, his half-sister. That incest is a major thread in Malory's tragedy of Arthur; moreover, as Sir Ulphuns points out, Merlin should have told Arthur and all the others—especially the enemy kings and barons—that Arthur was the child of Uther and of Igraine, since thus the enemy kings would have recognized Arthur as rightful king and the wars would never have happened.6 Instead, Merlin tells Arthur this news after the battles have begun and after Arthur has lain with Morgause (Malory 29). Malory does not attempt to explain this strange action—or rather, inaction—on Merlin's part.
White does explain it for his Merlyn, who, as I mentioned above, lives backward in time. Merlyn early in Book 1 tells the Wart, "one gets confused" living backward, and the confusion makes it difficult to stop from happening what he knows is going to happen. As he explains it, it's "like drawing in a mirror" (35). Thus Merlyn, confused, complains to Arthur at various times throughout Book 2 that there is something he has forgotten to tell him—and the something is vital to Arthur (see, for example, 266, 284-85).
That something finally comes back to Merlyn, on the very night of Arthur's meeting Morgause. Unfortunately, it comes back to him in bed. Sleepy and fuddled with thoughts of a fair lady, Merlyn decides "it would do in the morning" and goes back to sleep, not wholly sure whether he is in his own future or his past (White 310-11). By morning, Morgause has seduced Arthur and the seeds of tragedy have been sown.
White's Merlyn, as appeared earlier, is not only a prophet but also, like Malory's Merlin, a worker of spells. In Malory, Merlin appears as a straightforward sorcerer, if sorcerers can be straightforward. Thus he is able to change Uther's outward appearance to that of Igraine's husband; he casts an "enchauntemente" on King Pellinor to prevent his killing King Arthur after a joust; he later turns Arthur and himself invisible to prevent King Pellinor's seeing them; he is able to vanish from sight when he wishes; and, in the evil tradition of sorcerers, he magically constructs a bed whose useful property is to drive mad any man who lies on it (Malory 4-5, 34, 35-36, 46 and 58).
White's Merlyn, on the other hand, never uses his magic to harm anyone—except, inadvertently, himself. He is, White has him assure readers, a practitioner of "White magic," (38-39); and his early spells lean heavily toward crowd-pleasers. Thus he animates the breakfast dishes for the Wart (33-34) and produces a mulberry tree and a snowstorm for the people of Sir Ector's castle upon his arrival there with the Wart in tow (39). He does this—and his other magic tricks—by speaking into mid-air and demanding "Snow storm," "Hat," or what you will. A reader is left unsure of whether Merlyn has a "familiar spirit" in the good old tradition of witches and warlocks, or whether he is, like Prospero, somehow allied with spirits of air like Ariel.7 At any rate, his magic is White magic, harmless to others.
Early in Book 2, Merlyn the magician becomes Merlyn the military advisor. Here White again acts upon Malory's prior characterization of Merlin; I noted above that Malory's Merlin featly secures and secretly marches into place some 10,000 troops borrowed from Kings Ban and Bors (Malory 17); he also arranges an "anti-spy" ordinance, ordering that "no man of warre" may travel in Arthur's land without a pass (Malory 16-17). That ordinance precludes anyone's spying on Arthur's troops. Merlin then, prior to the battle which is to decide Arthur's kingship, arranges to use scouts to spy out the land; these scouts meet with enemy "foreryders" and make them tell which way the enemy host is coming (Malory 17).
Merlin then caps his performance as military advisor by suggesting a night attack on the eleven enemy kings. The attack takes place and is successful; 10,000 of the enemy are slain and the long day of defeat begins for the eleven kings. Malory's Merlin also advises the ambush which is later to be a major element in the final defeat of the eleven kings, and finally suggests the morning's battle plan, which Arthur and his captains adopt and follow to success (Malory 17-18).
White's Merlyn—that is, the serious Merlyn of Book 2—is also a military advisor. Prior to the decisive battle of Bedegraine the narrator notes that Merlyn has "made suggestions about the way to win"; those suggestions involve "an ambush with secret aid from abroad" (244). That aid is the aid from Kings Ban and Bors which White found in Malory. Furthermore, White's Merlyn does not merely advise; in King he leads the footmen in the Battle of Bedegraine. As Arthur returns victorious from his part of the battle, in fact, he meets a weary Merlyn who announces the defeat of the Gaelic "infantry" (299, 303).
Neither in Malory nor in White is the magician's life all work and no play. In both stories Merlin/Merlyn encounters a young woman with whom he becomes infatuated. As I noted earlier, in Malory Merlin falls to doting upon Nenyve, a lady in waiting to the Lady of the Lake. He is constantly near her; she takes advantage of the situation to learn "all manner of things" from him—i.e., she learns how to do his magic. Merlin realizes he will meet his end through Nenyve; he tells Arthur, in fact, that he will be "put into the earth quick" by her, and that he cannot avoid this fate (Malory 76).
The fate comes upon him quickly; after a brief tour of France and Cornwall, he and Nenyve come to a great rock in Cornwall "whereas was a grete wondir and wrought by enchauntement that went undir a grete stone" (Malory 77). The fair Nenyve, "by hir subtyle worching," entices Merlin to go under the stone to describe its marvels to her. She then imprisons him there and leaves. Somewhat later King Bagdemagus, one of the knights errant, comes to the rock and hears Merlin "make a grete dole"; Bagdemagus tries to lift the stone, but can't. Merlin ceases his "dole" long enough to assure the helpful knight it's no use—he must stay where he has been imprisoned (Malory 81).
White's Merlyn, as one might expect, must also undergo imprisonment. As he tells Arthur in Book 2, he is soon to be "‘locked up’" in a tumulus by "Nimue" (White's version of Nenyve). He adds that he is rather looking forward—or backward—both to Nimue and to the rest she will provide him. Arthur, alarmed, asks him to avoid both Nimue and the rock; Merlyn replies much as Malory's Merlin had before him. This is his "Destiny," he says; he cannot avoid it (222-24, 286). Much later the narrator simply reports, as Guenever and Lancelot meet, that Merlyn "was now safely locked up in his cave by the fickle Nimue" (335).
White's Nimue only appears for a moment in the text (325-27). Malory gives rather more play to his Nenyve, not only explaining that she is leading Merlin on in order to learn his magic, but also explaining why she cannot abide Merlin and wishes to rid herself of him. She is afraid of him, it turns out, and does not wish to lie with him, because "he was devyls son" (Malory 77).
Merlin's demonic nature shows up elsewhere in Malory. As I noted earlier, Merlin directs that the infant Arthur be delivered to him "uncrystned" (Malory 6); on the eve of the Battle of Bedegraine, moreover, two enemy spies meet in the woods and one warns the other, "‘Beware … of Merlion, for he knowith all thynges by the devylles craffte’" (Malory 74).
White downplays this demonic attribute. To be sure, Gawain and his brothers, when young, do refer to Merlyn as a "‘wicked magician’" and a "‘nigromancer’" who practices "‘infernal arts’" (216), but they are biased. Although Merlyn himself does later say that he has heard his father was a demon (232), he does not seem particularly moved by, or even interested in, the idea—and he certainly does not act like a demon in the course of the book.
White's Merlyn: Malory Transcended
Thus far I have discussed for Book 2 primarily White's adapting to his own uses the Merlin he found in Malory. White did considerably more than simply translate Merlin, however; he developed the already-impressive magician he found in Malory into the major shaping force in book 2 of his Arthuriad, thus fulfilling the characterization of Merlyn in his (non-Malorian) Book 1. He did this by developing Merlyn's role as a messenger of God and by developing his role as Arthur's advisor and guide.
White found in Malory the hint that Merlin, demonic or not, had an inside track with God. Thus when Uther Pendragon lay dying, his barons asked Merlin "what counceill were best" as Uther lay speechless. Merlin's response: "Ther nys none other remedye … but God wil have His wille. But loke ye al barons be before kynge Uther to-morne, and God and I shalle make hym to speke" (Malory, 6-7). The alliance seems to work. Uther does speak; he names Arthur his heir, then dies.
In the days following Uther's death England falls into disorder. Merlin, again Godly, goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury and advises him to send for lords and gentlemen of arms to come to London at Christmas on pain of excommunication so that "Jesu … wold of His grete mercy shewe [by] some myracle … who sholde be rightwys Kynge of the reame" (Malory, 7). The "myracle" is the appearance of the "sword in the stone" which eventually gives Arthur his kingship both in Malory and in White.
Later, Merlin a third time appears to be allied with God. As the battle of Bedegraine becomes a rout, with Arthur and his allies victorious, Merlin rides up to Arthur and says,
"Thou hast never done. Hast thou nat done inow? Of three score thousande thys day hast thou leffte on lyve but fyttene thousand! Therefore hit ys tyme to sey ‘Who!’ for God ys wroth with the for thou woll never have done."
Arthur, obedient either to Merlin or to God, or to both, ceases doing battle.
In short, Malory's Merlin has definite Christian overtones. These overtones appear only three times, however, and are not a major part of his characterization. In White, on the other hand, Merlyn's relation to God is of major importance.
Recall Merlyn's Godliness is Book 1, where he implies he was sent by God to be the Wart's tutor. In Book 2 White identifies Merlyn with Christianity when Arthur, in his "first council" as king, confers with Sir Ector, Kay and Merlyn. Arthur says if he can win the upcoming battle, he will "harness Might so that it works for Right." He will do so by establishing an Order of chivalry, the members of which will be able to use Might, but only on the side of Right. Finished with stating this idea, Arthur turns to Merlin and asks him to respond.
The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling [,] and said the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis.
Arthur is not Christ, nor is Merlyn Simeon, but the point is clear. Merlyn uses Simeon's words to show a "savior" has appeared, and in doing so again identifies himself as a servant of God, as he did in Book 1.
Merlyn's alliance with Christianity, or at least his approval of the tradition, appears again not long after the just-described scene. Discussing war with Merlyn and Arthur, Kay proposes that one should start wars to make people do what is wise, good—to save them from themselves, in short. Merlyn, furious, briefly recounts Hitler's plunging the world into misery in such an attempt, then adds:
The thing which this fellow [Hitler] had overlooked … was that he had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But … Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers…. On the contrary he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.
In short, as the preceding passages show, White has taken some hints of Merlyn's alliance with God from Malory's account and turned them into the suggestions that Merlyn is sent by God to prepare Arthur to "save" the English. White has also allied his Merlyn with Christ, or at least with Christ's techniques.
The final hint White found in Malory and expanded in his own Merlyn concerns the magician's role as counsellor to Arthur.
In Malory, there is no doubt that Arthur takes a great deal of advice and counsel from Merlin. This begins early; Merlin takes care to arrange that the newborn Arthur shall be given to him immediately after birth "for to nourisshe thereas I wille have it" (Malory 4). When the narrative resumes as Arthur becomes King, Merlin takes and retains control. Recall the earlier-cited passage, "Hast thou nat done inow?" (Malory 24), in which Merlin chides Arthur for pushing the battle too far and addresses him in the distinctly disrespectful "thou" form. Arthur meekly follows Merlin's bidding, first observing "Ye sey well" in the respectful form (Malory 24), then adding" ‘as thou haste devised so shall hit be done" (Malory 25).
That obedient utterance seems to set the pattern of the Merlin-Arthur relationship. Malory later observes, in the Book of Torre and Pellinor, that "the moste party dayes of hys lyff [Arthur] was ruled by the counceile of Merlyon" (Malory 59). Arthur even asks Merlin's advice concerning a wife, and receives only grudging permission to wed Guinevere—with Merlin serving as ambassador to King Leodegrance to arrange the wedding (Malory, 59-60).
White goes well beyond Malory. In Book 1, especially, there is no question that Merlyn is "the Wart's" mentor. It is he who decides what the Wart is to be transformed into, and when; it is he who guides the "nourrishing" which eventually produces an Arthur capable of pulling the Sword from the Stone. He further guides Arthur in Book 2, particularly concerning war and the role of Might in Arthur's new kingdom.
Even in Book 1, Merlyn does not approve of the use of armed might, which he refers to slightingly as "games" (see 56-72). This disapproval—not found in Malory—is more evident in Book 2. Here, as Chapter 2 opens, Merlyn and Arthur discuss the recent battle, the first against King Lot and the Gaels. Arthur's attitude is that the battle was "‘good, … jolly, … [and] fun’" (223). Merlyn asks how many "kerns" died, and when Arthur does not know points out that some seven hundred perished. At this, Arthur reconsiders, saying "It was not fun, then. I had not thought" (223).
Merlyn proceeds to stimulate Arthur's thinking, pointing out that King Uther, Arthur's father, promoted a kind of chivalry based on the principle "Might is Right"—a principle Arthur has not yet questioned. Arthur agrees he has never seriously questioned the principle, but adds that he will now think about it (225).
In a related passage, Merlyn later suggests that there is one good reason, and one only, to fight a war—and that reason is to stop war, which is "perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species" (232). Reverting to a previous theme, Merlyn presents his views of chivalric warfare as games, or sport, where the nobles fight each other for fun, but the common soldiers get killed. He adds,
Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles … in which the poor man will be the only one who dies. That is why I have been asking you to think.
"To think" is what Arthur proceeds to do after this lengthy passage of extra tuition from Merlyn. The magician's guidance bears fruit, as I have earlier hinted; during Arthur's first council, the topic of which is "chivalry" (246), Merlyn watches and listens impassively. The narrator, though, says, "You might say that this moment was the critical one in [Merlyn's] career—the moment towards which he had been living backward for heaven knows how many centuries, and now he was to see for certain whether he had lived in vain" (246).
He has not lived in vain, as Arthur soon shows. Arthur begins by saying he has decided battles are not "fun" because people die. He notes, however, that Merlyn, who opposes warfare in general, is helping him win battles; there must be some reason. The reason, Arthur decides, is "if I could be the master of my kingdom by winning these two battles, I could stop them afterwards and then do something about the business of Might" (247). As the event shows, the "something" Arthur chooses to do is to abolish the rule of Might and replace it with "Right": first with his Round Table, then with law and justice.
The Round Table is another of Malory's topics, of course; White found it in the same passage where Merlin agrees to act for Arthur as marriage ambassador to King Leodegrance. Having agreed to the task, Merlin travels to Leodegrance's kingdom, where he finds the king eager to wed his daughter to the new King. Leodegrance resolves to send a gift along with Guinevere: "I shall gyff hym the Table Rounde whych Uther, hys fadir, gaff me" (Malory 60). So he does, and Arthur sends Merlin throughout the land to find knights to fill the Table. Leodegrance brings one hundred knights for the table, which leaves fifty seats vacant. Merlin, at Arthur's request, finds an additional twenty-eight "of moste prouesse and worship" (Malory 60), and the remaining twenty-two come and go during the remaining adventures of the Table.
White also introduces the Round Table into King, as Arthur's means of regulating Might and preventing its ruling Right. As Arthur conceives it, his Table will consist of knights who will use Might, since they have been trained to do so and insist upon doing so—but they will use Might only to protect or enforce Right (247-48). This is the dream which Lancelot later joins him in, and it embodies White's chief theme: Right, not Might, must rule.
Arthur certainly arrives at this idea under Merlyn's guidance in King, as he says himself (see above). White's development of Merlyn's role as counsellor for Right over Might found its germ in Malory. There, the credit for the idea of the "Table Rounde" goes to Merlin. As the Queen of the Waste Lands tells Sir Percival, late in Malory," … Merlyon made the Rounde Table in tokenyng of rowndness of the worlde, for men sholde by the Rounde Table undirstonde the rowndeness signyfyed by ryght" (Malory 541). White takes this idea of Merlin's having originated the Round Table, combines it with Merlin's role as Arthur's tutor and chief counselor, and arrives at Merlyn's teaching Arthur to think for himself—specifically, to think of the Round Table, the Table which signifies "Right" instead of "Might".
The Round Table is not the final answer, though, as both Malory and White realized. In Malory, knighthood degenerates—except for the best knights, who seek out the Holy Grail and are translated from the Round Table to Heaven. Something similar happens in King as Arthur watches helplessly and sees his knights devolve into followers of the games-mania the Table was intended to stop. Arthur deliberates on his next step:
Long ago, when I had my Merlyn to help, he tried to teach me to think. He knew he would have to leave in the end, so he forced me to think for myself…. Merlyn approved of the Round Table. Evidently it was a good thing at the time. It must have been a step. Now [I] must think of making the next one.
In King, Arthur's next step is to send his Knights of the Round Table to seek the Holy Grail, which only postpones the mania he has been trying to stave off. The step he has thought of fails him, as does his invention of Law and Justice (433, 482). Finally, all this thinking, the thinking he has been so carefully taught by Merlyn, seems to fail him. Depressed and miserable on the eve of the Battle of Salisbury Plain, his final battle, Arthur sits sorrowing in his tent. White describes him thus:
He had been broken by the two battles he had fought already…. His wife was a prisoner. His oldest friend was banished. His son was trying to kill him. Gawaine was buried. His Table was dispersed. His country was at war. Yet he could have breasted all these things … if the central tenet of his heart had not been ravaged. Long ago, when his mind had been a nimble boy's called Wart—long ago he had been taught by an aged benevolence, wagging a white beard. He had been taught by Merlyn…. The service for which he had been destined had been against Force, the mental illness of humanity. His Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to justice: these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred.
Arthur now thinks the effort has failed. Near defeat, and near death, he once more—dutifully—thinks, as Merlyn had taught him to think. He can at first think nothing but helpless, despairing thoughts. His head falls to the table and he weeps. Then he dreams Merlyn enters the tent—or perhaps Merlyn does enter, immediately to vanish. The king, rejuvenated by this final visit (White's invention) of his revered counsellor, "began to think again, but now it was as clearly as it had ever been" (638).
He thinks back to the "lessons" of Book 1, when Merlyn sent him to "the belligerent ants, who claimed their boundaries, and the pacific geese, who did not" (638). He decides (638-39) that man, too, must do away with national boundaries and fashion "a new Round Table … without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there" (639). This vision of a Round Table of Nations United contents him; he decides that though he has failed and must die, humans will one day arrive at peace. In the meantime, he can die peacefully.
This end, too, comes from a hint in Malory. The Queen of the Waste Lands said it:
"… men sholde by the Rounde Table undirstonde the rowndenes signyfyed by ryght. For all the worlds, crystenyd and hethyn, repayryth unto the Rounde Table, and when they ar chosyn to be of the felyshyp of the Rounde Table they thynke hemselff more blessed and more in worship than they had gotyn halff the worlde."
Thus Malory's "Rounde Table" becomes White's answer to the problem of war, and White both adopts Malory's Merlin and transcends him as White makes him the means of teaching Arthur, and all readers of The Once and Future King, to realize the answer for themselves.
All must join at the Table.
In August of 1941 White wrote of his approach to Malory in a letter to his friend David Garnett: "Malory states the actions and some few of the conversations, but he does not pursue the motives and characters behind them, which is what I tried to do" (Garnett 91).
White provided "motives" for his Arthur chiefly by means of Merlyn, the character "behind" Arthur. The largely-comic Merlyn of Book 1 is clearly the chief influence upon the boy growing kingly. That influence flowers, still under Merlyn's guidance (and dei gratia) in Book 2. There Arthur propounds the evil of war, the institution of his Round Table, and the beginnings of the peaceful rule of law.
It is wholly appropriate for White's Merlyn to greet this new Arthur with "Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace [Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your promise]" (Luke 2:29, Vulgate).
1. Rpt. New York: Berkeley, 1966.
2. White first published The Sword in the Stone as a separate book, in 1939. He later revised it considerably, deleting and/or replacing entire chapters, as he made it the first of the four books of King.
3. Book 2 is subtitled "The Queen of Air and Darkness" in King. White first published this book in 1939 as The Witch in the Wood, then much revised it for King.
4. Few scholars have examined White's use of Malory. Of those few, only Maureen Fries has dealt at length with Merlyn, whom she sees both as Arthur's mentor and as the representation of the "the thinking … man" as opposed to Arthur, "the doing man." She suggests the two characters represent a "split in consciousness," a split which has tragic results as soon as Merlin [sic] leaves the action: "The Rationalization of the Arthurian ‘Matter’ in T. H. White and Mary Stewart," PQ 56 (1977): 258-65; quotations from 264. Two other scholars have dealt with White's use of Malory, though they have largely ignored Merlyn: Richard West's brief "Malory and T. H. White" in Orcrist 7 (1973): 13-15, is a sensible and suggestive general treat- ment of White's Malory; a more comprehensive reading of King in the context of Malory's work appears in Francois Gallix's "T. H. White et La Legende du Roi Arthur," Mosaic 10:ii (1977): 47-63. Gallix briefly discusses Merlyn's role in White's plot, but only notes White's use of Malory's Merlin without developing the point at length.
5. Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford U.P., 1971): 12. I have chosen to use the corrected one-volume edition rather than Vinaver's fine three-volume edition. I have, however, consulted the three-volume edition and its notes upon occasion. Hereafter, I refer to the one-volume edition parenthetically as Malory.
6. Malory 30. Malory seems confused here; Merlin had told the enemy kings that Arthur was Uther's son, and no bastard, upon the eve of the first battle against the rebel kings. They refused to believe him (Malory 11-12). Perhaps the seeming confusion is merely Sir Ulphuns' ignorance of Merlin's earlier deed. Still, Merlyn did not tell Arthur.
7. White has The Tempest in mind as he does Merlyn's magic. After Merlyn's "‘Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda’" adventure, he reports he has visited "the still vexed Bermoothes" (King, 90; cf. The Tempest, I, ii, 229).
Fries, Maureen. "The Rationalization of the Arthurian ‘Matter’ in T. H. White and Mary Stewart." Philological Quarterly 56 (1977): 258-65.
Galix, François. "T. H. White et La Legende du Roi Arthur." Mosaic 10:ii (1977): 47-63.
Garnett, David, ed. The White/Garnett Letters. New York: Viking, 1968.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. London: Oxford U.P., 1971.
West, Richard. "Malory and T. H. White." Orcrist 7 (1973): 13-15.
White, T. H. The Sword in the Stone. 1958; rpt. New York: Berkeley, 1966.
James Reynolds Kinzey (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Kinzey, James Reynolds. "The Once and Future King." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 4, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1888-96. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Kinzey offers a critical summary of The Once and Future King, describing how White's personal history influenced its creation.]
About the Author
Terence Hanbury White was born on May 29, 1906, in Bombay, India. His father, Garrick Hanbury White, a district superintendent of police, and his mother, Constance White, had a tempestuous marriage. White's mother, who was considered beautiful, had been berated by her own mother for being unmarried at almost thirty. In response she swore she would marry the next man who asked her. She did, and the result was a disaster.
When he was five, White's parents placed him in school in England. They returned to India (and to their quarreling) while Terence—Tim, as his friends later called him—lived with his mother's parents, the Astons. When he was seventeen, his parents finally divorced, and even though his family life had never been good, White was devastated. An only child, White continued to feel alone and insecure throughout his life.
To escape the sadness of his personal life, White turned to learning, just as Merlyn advises the young Arthur to do in The Sword in the Stone : "The best thing for being sad … is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails." White was a brilliant student at Queen's College, Cambridge, taking first class honors with distinction in English. He was later appointed head of the English department at Stowe School. Learning, for White, was clearly not confined to books. During a tour of America near the end of his life, White often delivered a lecture, "The Pleasures of Learning," in which he would list all the things he had learned to do. The list included archery, carpentry, knitting, flying airplanes, riding show horses, and training falcons.
Most of all, White wanted to learn to write. In 1936, he resigned his teaching position to devote his full attention to writing. Since his college days, White had been interested in Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Morte Darthur, which recounts the story of King Arthur and his knights, and he now began writing his own work based on Malory's material. The publication and success of his first novel, The Sword in the Stone, gave White the financial independence to continue. To escape the coming war, he moved to Ireland, where he devoted himself to hunting, fishing, falconry, and developing his Arthurian novels.
The books came quickly. The Witch in the Wood (later rewritten as The Queen of Air and Darkness ) was published in 1939 and was followed by The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. He finished The Candle in the Wind by 1941, but did not publish it until its inclusion in The Once and Future King —a collection of White's first four Arthurian tales—in 1958. The Book of Merlyn, also completed by 1941, was omitted from that collection and published posthumously in 1977.
Between 1940 and 1958, White continued to write, publishing the fairly successful Mistress Masham's Repose ; The Goshawk (1951), a nonfiction account of his attempt to train a falcon; The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (1954), a translation from the Latin; and other books. Yet White's powers seemed to have faded, and he never wrote anything that matched the power of his Arthurian novels.
In 1958, the publication of The Once and Future King, a best seller in both the United States and England, revived White's popularity. The saga's 1960 stage production as Camelot made White not only a wealthy man but a celebrity, and resulted in a successful speaking tour of the United States.
While on a Mediterranean cruise, the fifty-seven-year-old White suffered a fatal heart attack and died on January 17, 1964, in Piraeus, Greece—some thirteen years before the publication of The Book of Merlyn. He is buried in Athens, within sight of Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus.
White's modern retelling of the story of King Arthur and his knights presents the reader with an extremely full range of literary experiences. The Once and Future King contains entertaining comic episodes and moments of the highest tragedy; it deals with profound philosophical issues and, at the same time, offers exciting action. The principal characters—Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and Merlyn—are heroic, but White takes care to portray their human flaws as well as their attributes. As a result, they are believable people, with whom readers can identify.
The Once and Future King is an engrossing story and an excellent introduction to one of the most important legends in English literature. The Arthurian legend is often referred to as "the matter of Britain," and many critics consider it—along with the King James Bible and the work of Shakespeare and Milton—one of the four cornerstones of English literature and culture.
White's title, The Once and Future King, is drawn from the epitaph attributed to Arthur's tomb by the medieval English writer Sir Thomas Malory: "And many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic iacet Arthurs, rex quodam, rexque futurus" (Here lies Arthur, king once and king to be). White's use of this quotation is appropriate, because he is, in a sense, translating Malory's Morte Darthur for modern readers. Malory wrote in fifteenth-century English, a language that many readers would find difficult to understand. White's book is not strictly a translation of the Morte Darthur, however, but rather a modern retelling of the story of Arthur. White infuses the material with his own concerns and philosophy of life. In his turn, he is doing what Malory did when that author compiled the French romances of King Arthur and produced an English version.
Throughout literary history different generations have interpreted the story of King Arthur in their own ways. Historically, Arthur was probably a Briton (Celtic) warlord who fought to repulse Saxon invaders around A.D. 460; for Nennius, a church historian writing around 800, Arthur is a Christian king who carries the banner of the Blessed Virgin into battle; for the Welsh minstrels of the twelfth century, he is a mythical hero who takes on some of the attributes of their ancient Celtic gods; for Geoffrey of Monmouth, around 1140, Arthur is the High King who unites England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and who challenges Rome. The French, with their interest in royalty and courtly love, add The Round Table, and in 1190 the French author Chrétien de Troyes adds the love affair of Lancelot and Guenever. Around 1220, the Cistercian monks develop the legend of the Holy Grail. But it was Malory who turned Arthur into the King of Chivalry, and turned his legend into the foundation of English literature that it remains today.
Modern writers, too, have seen Arthur in the mirror of their own times. For example, the nineteenth-century British poet Alfred Tennyson turned Arthur into a Victorian gentleman in his poem, "Morte d'Arthur." Thus White continues a long literary tradition when he makes Arthur confront the problems of the twentieth century. White created his Arthurian novels between 1937 and 1941, and the concern most on his mind was war. World War II was destroying Europe, and although he lived in neutral Ireland, White could not escape the fear generated by the war.
Malory wrote about his Arthur during the War of the Roses, and White finally came to believe that the central theme of the Morte Darthur was the need to find an antidote to war. In his attempt to find this antidote, Arthur examines the relationship of humankind to the animals, the workings of justice, and other philosophical questions about the nature of civilization. The tragedy of Arthur is that philosophy provides no answers. The evil in the world lives inside the hearts of those he loves best, Lancelot and Guenever, in his own heart, and, finally, in the hearts of all people.
The Once and Future King is set during the Dark Ages, about 1200, in England, which Arthur calls Gramarye. Most historians think the actual Arthur—if there was one—lived much earlier, probably during the fifth century. Even though White presents a great many details about life in medieval England, he intentionally mentions modern things that could not possibly have existed at the time of the story, such as cannons and top hats. He uses anachronism partially for humorous effect, but also to demonstrate that the human problems of the Dark Ages were similar to the problems of the twentieth century.
Themes and Characters
The major character of The Once and Future King is Arthur, whom Merlyn affectionately nicknames "Wart." One of the strengths of White's novel is that it keeps its focus on Arthur; in many versions of the Arthurian legend, the major emphasis falls on Lancelot and Guenever.
White does not portray Arthur as an all-powerful legendary hero but as a good, honest person, not very clever but willing to work hard to understand the lessons Merlyn teaches him. This is most obvious in The Sword in the Stone, where Merlyn changes Wart into different animals so that the boy can learn the ways of nature. Even after Merlyn departs, Arthur must struggle in order to rule justly and keep the kingdom at peace.
Arthur's chief flaw, which helps to bring on his downfall, is his excessive goodheartedness. This trait makes him unwilling to acknowledge evil in those around him. He is deliberately blind to the evil of Queen Morgause, and will not recognize the adulterous behavior of Lancelot and Guenever. Even though Lancelot and Guenever are basically good, their actions are evil—an evil that will destroy all that Arthur has aimed for and accomplished. Yet Arthur refuses to face what is occurring.
The most delightful character in the novel is the wizard Merlyn, who "lives backward in time," remembering the future and predicting the past. Merlyn gives voice to White's philosophy and at times launches into excessively long speeches. White, however, undercuts Merlyn's preachiness. Clearly the cleverest person in the novel, Merlyn is also a bungler who forgets to tell Arthur a crucial piece of information that might save the kingdom.
Perhaps the most enigmatic character in the novel is Lancelot. Even though Lancelot is the greatest of all knights, White portrays him as cursed by an ambiguous secret flaw, an undefined darkness inside that prevents him from ever being at peace with himself. Lancelot is very conscious of his own faults. He knows that his adultery with the Queen goes against the laws of his church, and he does not want to hurt his beloved friend Arthur. Still, he cannot not stop himself. In Lancelot's futile struggle, White portrays a basically good man torn by his failure to live up to his own standards. In many ways, Lancelot is the novel's most completely human character.
Guenever is less fully developed than either Lancelot or Arthur. Throughout his career, White had difficulty portraying women, and felt more at ease imagining the minds of animals than the mind of a woman. He wanted Guenever to appear "good," and as narrator he is always making excuses for her, but in the end she appears a little selfish. She is neither as high-minded and idealistic as Arthur nor as religious as Lancelot.
The truly evil character in the book, however, is Queen Morgause, Arthur's half-sister. She seduces the King and gives birth to Mordred, who will eventually destroy the Round Table. Since she is Arthur's half-sister, both she and Arthur commit the sin of incest, even though it is clear that Arthur does not know that they are related. But Arthur is not sinless, for he realizes that she is the wife of King Lot and knowingly commits adultery. It is ironic that he commits the same crime for which he brings Guenever and Lancelot to justice.
Morgause's evil is all the more chilling because she demands total love from her sons but offers none in return. Poisoned against Arthur, these sons—Mordred, Gareth, Gaheris, Gawaine, and Agravaine—are the King's foremost rivals. Arthur understands that Morgause's sons have their reasons to oppose him. In this way, White shows that people who might appear to be enemies often have understandable reasons for believing and behaving as they do.
Education is a major theme in The Once and Future King. For White, a close acquaintance with the forces of nature is fundamental to human education and its most important result, self-reliance. At the end of the first book, when Arthur tries to pull the sword from the stone, he imagines his animal friends around him, urging him to use all his powers.
The other principal theme of the story is the quest for an antidote to war. As the story progresses, Arthur's view of the proper use of power undergoes a series of changes. He moves from the realization that "might" is not right, to the hope that might can be used for right, to the belief that might should not be used at all. Finally, he comes to believe that people should strive to reach God through a search for the Holy Grail, and that an earthly human society built on justice can at least help people to live civilized lives.
As Arthur's thinking progresses, White introduces the reader to a number of philosophical ideas. But the narrative of human tragedy overtakes the philosophizing. Arthur's father sinned when he took another man's wife and Arthur sinned when he committed adultery with his half-sister Morgause. These sins set into motion forces that inevitably destroy Arthur's dreams.
In his retelling of the Arthurian myth, White places greater emphasis than did Malory on the tragic elements of the story. White's tragic theme—the sins of the past that return to destroy the hero—gives shape to the story, and recalls the themes of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (c. 429 B.C.) and other Greek tragedies.
Because readers are already familiar with the characters and the outcome of the story, White has the freedom to break off on narrative and philosophical tangents, such as Wart's transformations, King Pellinore's pursuit of the Questing Beast, or a discussion on the nature of civilization. The narrative depth is complemented by a richness of style—the prose of White's descriptive passages, even those only peripheral to the action, has been widely praised.
One of White's surest strengths is his characterization. He makes these mythical characters come alive, and he makes them understandable human beings. The human scale of his characterizations allows him to refer irreverently to the Queen as "Jenny" or to the mighty Arthur as "Wart." He uses psychology for some of his insights into character and action, but refrains from falling into psychological jargon or letting his observations intrude on the story.
White's absolutely unique achievement, however, is his evocative descriptions of what it is like to be an animal, such as a fish or a bird. The scenes in which Merlyn turns Wart into various creatures are, for many readers, the most memorable scenes in the novel. Years of careful observation of the natural world went into these passages.
Because White's purpose was to show the cruelty of war and the evils of humanity, there is a great deal of fighting and lopping off of heads in the book. Additionally, White's use of cruelty to animals as a device to reveal the villainy of his evil characters may disturb some readers. Queen Morgause boils a cat in an attempt to find a magical bone, and her sons brutally betray a unicorn and sever its head. However, these actions—appearing as they do in a book that celebrates the beauties of nature—are clearly used to establish certain characters as excessively vicious and depraved.
White does exhibit considerable cultural bias against people of Celtic descent, whom he depicts as incapable of logical thought. The Scots are the villains of the story, a plot element inherited from Malory. But White makes numerous negative references to the Irish that are extraneous to the story. The reasons for this were evidently personal. White wrote most of the novel while living in Ireland. At first he proclaimed himself Irish (his father was half-Irish), tried to learn Gaelic, and worked for acceptance in his adopted society. Unfortunately, his efforts failed. Because of the history of English-Irish conflict, wartime Ireland feared an English invasion and held all Englishmen suspect. White was deeply hurt by what he felt was unjust treatment.
C. M. Adderley (essay date spring 1992)
SOURCE: Adderley, C. M. "The Best Thing for Being Sad: Education and Educators in T. H. White's The Once and Future King." Quondam et Futurus 2, no. 1 (spring 1992): 55-67.
[In the following essay, Adderley highlights the importance of education on the development of the main protagonists in the first three books of The Once and Future King.]
One of the major themes which can be detected throughout the body of T. H. White's fiction, from his early mimetic novels They Winter Abroad and First Lesson to the posthumously-published diaries in America at Last, is that of education; specifically, what constitutes a good education. The list of teachers who appear in White's work is quite bewildering: the Professor, an intellectual bore in They Winter Abroad, the aging Cambridge don Mr. Belfry in First Lesson, the sinister Professor Mauleverer in Darkness At Pemberley, and the doddering Professor in Mistress Masham's Repose are just a few, and a case could be made for many other characters being educators in a less strict sense. This would seem, then, to be something of an obsession for White. Every writer of conscience feels him or herself to be an educator of some description, but White's search for the perfect educational system contains an element of despair which goes beyond the degree of interest natural to an intellectually-inclined mind. An examination of his background reveals circumstances which one would not immediately suppose to be conducive to a love of learning; happily, he managed to react strongly against this background, and instead of merely complaining, he made suggestions on how to improve the system.
Of White's experience at prep school, little can be learned; but it is certain that his first contact with education after prep school was neither pleasant nor particularly educational. In September 1920, he was sent to Cheltenham College, into an environment of fear and violence, with its strict discipline and frequent beatings presided over by the housemaster, a "sadistic, homosexual, middle-aged bachelor with a gloomy, suffused face." This housemaster, it seemed to White, operated through his equally sadistic prefects. Although homosexuality and sadism were, of course, officially frowned upon, they seem to have been tacitly condoned as a means of enforcing discipline. It was the commonplace normality of the violence and sexual outrage which impressed itself so vividly on the mind of the young T. H. White. He became, in his own estimation, a sadist and flagellant. At Cheltenham the philosophy was that learning was something one did to avoid punishment, and punishment was something to be borne with patience or else to be meted out with enthusiasm.
White's thoughts on Cheltenham were later written down in verse. A letter to L. J. Potts, his tutor at Cambridge, contains the manuscript of a poem entitled "Dr. Prisonface." The poem describes the titular character with bitter irony as the master of a public school in Surrey. The aim of Dr. Prisonface's education is to teach the pupil how to play cricket well, "or taste the fires of hell," to believe that work is "really not important / But must be done," and that, above all, "Bodies are beastly, love a sneaking vision, / Beauty forbidden, foul, and fancy low." The effect of this dictatorship on the pupil is that he will be taught, and come to believe, that natural sexual tendencies are to be avoided, and to approach them, if he ever does, with shame and self-loathing:
He'll fall at intervals and take a whore,
Shamefully take her in the night time and
afterwards hate himself
All the more, and do it more.
White wrote this poem whilst teaching at a prep school, which he had to leave because of "the lack of people to teach the boys cricket" (Letters to a Friend 28). It seems incredible, given this background, that White should spend two years as an English teacher at the highly respectable public school at Stowe, and still more incredible that he should not react against education bitterly; but he did not. White was a thinker, and set about trying to think of a way education could be accomplished painlessly.
It was precisely this store of unpleasant experiences which made White feel more than adequately qualified to discuss alternative forms of education and the teacher-pupil relationship. The ideal relationship takes the form of a very old man teaching a very young boy. This theme reaches its climax in The Once and Future King, where the teachers are Merlyn the enchanter, Toirdealbhach the Irish priest, and Uncle Dap, the swordsman who teaches Lancelot his craft. In the final volume of the work, "The Candle in the Wind," this relationship is extended, so that in the last chapter Arthur himself becomes the teacher, Tom of Newbold Revell, the pupil. Kurth Sprague has pointed out that White's disapproval of Mordred and Galahad finds expression in the fact that they are excluded from this particular type of relationship (pt. 2 ch. 3).
The most notable feature of the first of these teachers, Merlyn, is his backwards life: "I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind" (White, The Once 29). This has the obvious benefit of accounting for Merlyn's second sight, but it also raises a problem spotted by John K. Crane, who notes that "in training Arthur, he is actually trying to reverse fate but, since he lives backwards in time, knows what will of necessity happen because it has already happened for him" (191n1). This is true: Merlyn knows that Arthur will fail; but his second sight also tells him that Tom of Newbold Revell will carry the idea on to a new generation. Merlyn's education has been designed to make Arthur think for himself, and this is what Arthur enables the rest of mankind to do in the last chapter. By keeping Arthur's story alive, Tom (Thomas Malory) is keeping alive the dream of civilization Arthur had. Merlyn knew what would happen, but his efforts were not supposed to reverse fate: that the dream is to be kept alive is the fate.
Besides this, Merlyn's backwards life has a more important, and more subtle bearing on his role as a teacher. White attributes the ultimate downfall of Arthur, in part at least, to the ancestral wrongs suffered by the Cornwall/Orkney faction: Arthur's attempt on Mordred's life, the rape of Igraine by Uther Pendragon, the conquest of the Gaels in remote history. It is, White argues, a sense of the past which causes war: "It was as if everything would lead to sorrow, so long as man refused to forget the past" (666). Merlyn, whose past lies in the future, is able to be an idealist, to leave this sense of ancestral wrong behind. He teaches the Wart "to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin" (666). This faculty enables him to concentrate less on the causes of strife than on the consequences. This unique perspective on cause and effect makes him the only person able to teach the Wart, who must grow up to become the idealist-king.
The Orkney boys, on the other hand, are largely ignored by the adults in their life, especially their mother. Their education is left to the drunken Irish "saint," Toirdealbhach:
He was a source of mental nourishment to them—a sort of guru, as Merlyn had been to Arthur, who gave them what little culture they were ever to get. They resorted to him like hungry puppies anxious for any kind of eatable, when their mother had cast them out. He had taught them to read and write.
Like Merlyn, Toirdealbhach is to some extent White's self-portrait, evident from such facts as the heavy drinking, of the priest's being the source of innumerable anecdotes (as any reader of The Age of Scandal can readily attest), and of actually signing himself "poor TORDEALBAC Ó ZEALAZAIN."
Toirdealbhach is normally fairly brusque with the boys, often because of his lecherous "heresies" concerning Mother Morlan. In The Witch in the Wood, White's earlier version of "The Queen of Air and Darkness," the affection of Torealvac (the earlier spelling of that name) for the boys is more evident. When they come to him for lime, to make bullets which he described to them in connection with Connar MacNessa, he digresses into a long story about how he killed a supernatural eel, and White records: "You see, he had told the boys the story to get out of providing the lime, for people really did make bullets in the way he mentioned" (82). This kind of affection is largely omitted from "The Queen of Air and Darkness," giving the impression that the saint cares little about the boys’ education. As Sprague notes:
St. Toirdealbhach with his poteen and stories of old wrongs and ancient bloodshed is ineffectual in weaning the Orkney boys from their mother's wickedness, and is successful only in promulgating a superstitious and bloody-minded attitude toward life.
Uncle Dap, Lancelot's tutor, is "a genuine maestro" whose "branch of learning was chivalry" (White, The Once 336). This somewhat narrow field of study makes him rather pedantic, so that apparently insignificant breaches of the rules of heraldry make him frantic. But apart from being an expert on chivalry's theoretical side, he is also "one of the finest swordsmen in France" (337) whose pride in Lancelot is tremendous. When Lancelot falls in love with the Queen, Dap is annoyed at what he regards as the squandering of great talent: "Is the finest knight in Europe to throw away everything I have taught him for the sake of a lady's beautiful eyes?" (349) he demands. The implication is that Dap regards Lancelot very much as his own creation, and his pride stems more from this than from a genuine affection for his pupil's character. This seems to be common with all the teachers. They are not allowed any emotional proximity to their students—perhaps White, remembering the clandestine homosexuality of Cheltenham, recognized the danger of this only too well. Even Merlyn's affection for the Wart is prompted more by the sense of achievement. His moment of crowning glory comes when Arthur expounds the theory—which he has deduced for himself—of might for right. "The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling, and said the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis" (255). In her edition of The Book of Merlyn, Sylvia Townsend Warner cites Luke 2.29 as the source of the Nunc Dimittis reference, adding that "This has come to be used in a general sense, signifying ‘I've seen it all now; I can die happy’" (White, The Book 29). However, the religious impli- cation of the words give them a far deeper meaning. They are uttered by Simeon when Christ is first presented at the temple. Simeon has been told by God that he will not die until he has seen the Messiah, the Savior of the Jewish people. In the same way, Merlyn has been awaiting the blooming of the savior of Gramarye, and his unusual utterance marks the arrival of the King bearing Merlyn's own great idea. Like Christ, Arthur will attempt to propagate the idea of humane decency; like Christ, he will be sacrificed by his people, for his people, because of his adherence to this idea; like Christ, he will live on afterwards—not physically, or even spiritually, like Christ, but as a pure idea, contained in the words set on paper by Sir Thomas Malory and eventually in typeface by William Caxton. This idea comes across even more strongly in the long-suppressed conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, where the enchanter lists all those who have written about King Arthur and where, in the last chapter, Arthur does not die, but goes to live in the badger's sett with all his animal friends.
Of course, being the perfect teacher means next to nothing without fairly good pupils. In her biography of White, Warner points out how The Sword in the Stone afforded White the opportunity to explore the relationship in its most ideal form on both sides:
In fact, The Sword in the Stone had allowed him two wish fulfillments. He gave himself a dauntless, motherless boyhood; he also gave himself an ideal old age, free from care and contradiction of circumstance, practising an enlightened system of education on a chosen pupil, embellished with an enchanter's hat, omniscient, unconstrainable and with a sink where the crockery washed itself up.
The ideal teacher is a very old man; the ideal pupil is a very young boy. As Sprague observes, "White found the extremes [of age] easier for him [to write about] than the middle years. With few exceptions, his most memorable characters are likely to be those who are either elderly, or children" (326). At Stowe, he had advocated emotional sincerity, the philosophy that the most important thing was "what you felt and whether your feelings were genuine, personal and sincere," and he clearly felt that this virtue was most likely to be present at the extremes of age. The very young were open to new ways of thinking, and the very old carried the authority of experience. In between were the cynics, competitive and self-seeking. It is these cynics who are most easily affected by the wicked Seventh Sense he describes in The Ill-Made Knight (394-96). In the last months of his life, White kept a detailed diary of his American lecture tour, published as America at Last, in which he records:
What place does Merlin have talking to grownups? They are past listening. All my life I have got on better with children and adolescents, found them more receptive, affectionate and grateful for truth. They ask better questions, consider your answers more seriously, and are at closer, vivider, more intimate grips with life.
The innocence connected with the helplessness of these extremes was evidently most attractive to White.
The Wart fits the bill admirably. He is willing to learn, idealistic, and receptive to the truth, though he does not accept every word from Merlyn unquestioningly. Instead, he carefully considers everything and weighs its value. For example, in the original version of The Sword in the Stone, published twenty years before the final version appeared as the first part of The Once and Future King, the Wart and Merlyn discover that King Pellinore has been imprisoned by the giant Galapas. Merlyn advises caution, on the grounds that "A chap who doesn't know enough to keep himself out of the clutches of one of these giants isn't worth troubling about" (White, The Sword London 283, New York 262); but the more idealistic Wart maintains that rescuing him would be the right thing to do. It is true that this chapter has a deeper, allegorical meaning—it is a satire on fascists, and on the policy of appeasement pursued by the British government in the decade preceding World War II—but it is also meant to throw some light on the Wart's heroism and idealism.
Innocence is a trait which remains with the Wart all his life, even when as a king, he is subjected to others' cynicism and violence. It is this quality, inherent in his youth, which enables him to rescue the prisoners from Morgan le Fay: "Nobody can get into the Castle Chariot, except a boy or girl…. Fairies are magic too, and only innocent people can enter their castle" (White, The Once 101). The suggestion is that this very lack of experience—the lack of the seventh sense—enables children to accomplish seemingly impossible feats of idealism. The Wart is an optimist. As a young man, White describes him as "a simple fellow, who took people at their own valuation easily" (322). He has a simple faith that things are exactly as they appear. Since there is no deceit in him, he cannot conceive of any in the world. When Merlyn transforms him into a fish, he accepts it sim- ply as the way of things, expressing no surprise at all. He simply "knew that he was turning into a fish" and "found it difficult to be a new kind of creature" (41), but there is no mention of any degree of astonishment at this magical metamorphosis. Magic, White is saying, can happen in a world to which one reacts honestly and directly: it is, in fact, natural. Later, when the Wart has become King Arthur, the magic has disappeared with his childhood:
"Do you remember anything about the magic you had when you were small?"
"No. Did I have some magic? I can remember that I was interested in birds and beasts. Indeed, that is why I still keep my menagerie at the Tower. But I don't remember about magic."
"People don't remember," said Merlyn.
Toirdealbhach's education is something which the Orkney boys run to when neglected by their mother—which is to say, fairly often. Like the Wart, they are apt to be open to new modes of thought, but the lack of discipline and consistency in their lives perverts their way of thinking. The function of Toirdealbhach's limited education towards the aims of The Once and Future King is not so much to create their personalities as to throw them into sharp relief. When the saint talks, each of the boys' reactions are significant and typical. A conversation about warfare concludes:
"I incline my agreement with Toirdeal-bhach," said Gareth. "After all, what is the good of killing poor kerns who do not know anything? It would be much better for the people who are angry to fight each other themselves, knight against knight."
"But you could not have any wars at all, like that," exclaimed Gaheris.
"It would be absurd," said Gawaine. "You must have people, galore of people, in a war."
"Otherwise you could not kill them," explained Agravaine.
These comments say more about the individuals making them than about warfare as a subject for discussion: Gareth's kindly and sensible regard for those who have no immediate stake in the conflict is touching and sympathetic; Gaheris has never troubled to think what a world would be like without warfare, and simply reacts with surprise; Gawaine ridicules this interruption of what he considers a glorious part of the noble life; and Agravaine, the sadist, can think only of killing. The roles played by each of these characters later in the novel have their beginning in this conversation.
Like the Wart, Lancelot is a perfect pupil, but for a completely different reason—out of a sense of badness, rather than goodness. His physical ugliness, constantly and consistently insisted upon by White, has provided a fertile source of controversy for commentators. Sprague maintains that it is designed to show that Guenever "is a woman who is not attracted by mere surface beauty" (239). Crane sees something of more universal significance in this odd portrait of the courtly lover: Lancelot "realizes all too clearly the presence within himself of this powerful negative force" and "seems in the long run a man who, despite his tremendously sincere effort to be pure, is either haunted or, at times, overwhelmed by man's incapacity to be so" (100-01). Herschell Woodley Lott takes this a stage further:
White ponders the question, if Lancelot is Arthur's best, what can be expected of the average man? Interestingly, White very skillfully portrays Lancelot's face as misshapen "as ugly as an African Ape" in order to suggest the moral ugliness of the best of men.
There may be something in all of these opinions, but the true solution is more complex. In the first place, Lancelot's ugliness is an exterior symbol of his interior cruelty. White was careful to portray Lancelot, like Agravaine, as a sadist. The difference is that Lancelot is a sadist with a conscience. When he is cruel, as he is to Guenever during their hawking expedition (see The Once 348), he instantly feels guilty about it. It gives him something he needs to compensate for, both physically and psychologically, and is the source of his otherwise inexplicable inferiority complex, his belief that he is evil: "I am a bad man, I know," he tells Arthur, "but I was always good with arms. It was a consolation to me in my badness, sometimes, to think—to know that I was the best knight in the world" (487). It is this which makes Lancelot such a good pupil. Sensing himself to be evil, he is constantly striving to be good. Arthur and the Round Table enable him to forget, temporarily, his own baseness, which is why he loves them so much; Elaine and Guenever, between them, bring this baseness painfully home to him. Yet his love for Guenever, transcending baseness, is "the profound feeling of his life" (405) and cannot be bad in itself. Elaine, on the other hand, reminds him exclusively of the chasm in his soul. It is significant that, when he discovers he has slept with Elaine instead of Guenever, his ugliness becomes even more evident: "When he began to cry, the gross lines of his face screwed themselves up fantastically" (392). This is more than just the feeling of betrayal at losing his virginity, which he would have lost if he had in fact slept with Guenever, as he thought he was doing. Before Lancelot discovers that it is a trick, White observes that "He was miserable" (391), but his horror on finding that it is Elaine, instead of Guenever, is far deeper, since it reflects his perceived baseness without the compensation of a transcendental love.
The ideal system of education combines the best of these pupil-teacher relationships with an enlightened approach to education. From White's point of view, only people with considerable practical experience had any right to be teachers. Throughout his life, he collected techniques, learning such diverse skills as translating medieval Latin and flying aeroplanes. Often, these projects were undertaken in self-defense. In one of his American lectures, "The Pleasures of Learning," he said:
Everything collapsed at a critical time in my life and ever since I have been arming myself against disaster. In case, in the next disaster that jumps on me, to be ready with defense. That is why I learn…. It is this sense of danger that makes me do the fantastic things that I have always done all my life.
(quoted in America 6-7)
The purpose of education, for White himself, was to learn to be self-sufficient. Having received no security from his family, he had to learn to depend on himself, and the motivating force behind this selfeducation had to come from within himself. Being a hard-earned lesson, he naturally believed it to be one of supreme importance. The skills he acquired were designed to protect him from the world, the hostile world which was always subtly attempting to sabotage his individuality. This is the feeling behind the famous passage from The Sword in the Stone :
"The best thing for being sad," said Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.
(The Once 185-86)
The importance of experience in education—stressed by the list of things to learn, following immediately upon the above-quoted speech—cannot be overstated. "Education is experience," Merlyn remarks, "and the essence of experience is self-reliance" (41). The Wart's education is based exclusively on this principle, that to learn about people, their virtues and vices, it is necessary to view them from a new perspective, without the natural bias towards one's own species. Consequently, Merlyn's scheme is to transform the Wart into a series of different animals, each of which has a different comment on the human condition. From this patchwork of experience, the Wart gains the various skills and perceptions which will make him an exceptional king.
Since White, when writing, considered himself also a teacher, it would have been unethical for him to describe something of which he did not have practical knowledge. His experience as a fisherman, for example, lends the chapter in which the Wart is turned into a fish a certain credibility, in spite of the fantastic nature of the events narrated. Similarly, his familiarity with the sport of falconry allowed him an interpretation of the hawks—rather convincing, in a strange way—as being like a military élite, with a rough form of military discipline and justice. Reading The Goshawk makes one aware that even the mad Colonel Cully is a perceptive characterization, for Gos, White's hawk in that book, is equally dangerous, unpredictable and bad-tempered. For a while, White kept an owl, which he called Archimedes, who turns up as Merlyn's familiar (see Warner 97). Like Merlyn, White had an interest in snakes, but unlike the wizard, was unable to transform his pupils into one of them, and had to be content with the next best thing: "I remember the snake craze well," one of the boys from Stowe recalls, "as we used to wander around the neighbouring countryside looking for them" (quoted in Warner 67). His knowledge of ants came from the experiments he conducted on them in Ireland, to see whether or not they waged war on each other (see Warner 194-95). His appreciation of geese stems from the amount of time he spent hunting them although, as he relates in the short story "Giving Up Shooting" in The Godstone and the Blackymor, his love for them eventually persuaded him to stop killing them.
The Wart's visits to the animals, generally speaking, are concerned with the central theme of might and right. The other episodes are usually straightforward adventures designed to test and reinforce such royal virtues as courage and humility. For example, when deciding what message the goat should bear when escaping from Madame Mim, the Wart shows his selflessness by choosing the single word, Kay, and remaining behind himself. "He did not use his own name because he thought Kay more important, and that they would come quicker for him" (The Sword London 87; New York 75). Next comes the Wart's lesson in practical chivalry. He has always wanted to be a knight, partly because of his heroic spirit, and partly because knighthood is the highest ideal to which his society aspires. Merlyn shows him the actual way in which the knights, the "brainless unicorns" (The Once 55) fight, without revealing the savagery of actual battle, to which the Wart will later be subjected of necessity. The light tone of the book requires a combat in which no one will really get hurt, and the affectionate, child-like knights, Grummore and Pellinore, are the perfect choices. The ferocity of the combat awakens the Wart's sensitivity, though Merlyn knows perfectly well that they will feel nothing through all the armor they are wearing. The comedy of this scene arises mainly from this discrepancy. On the one hand, both knights are equipped to receive and deal out terrible wounds, but their natures are such that they do not want to do it. "Oh, come on, Grummore," protests Pellinore. "I do think you are a cad not to yield. You know very well I can't cut your head off" (66). The satire is evident, but very gentle; the bitterness is not present here, though Crane argues that "When Pellinore and Grummore fight, the situation is hilarious; but the fact that, at the very sight of each other, they must fight is horrifying" (83). There are no grounds for this argument—White was having fun in The Sword in the Stone, and such bitterness is reserved for later books in the series.
The ordeal with Colonel Cully is a straightforward test of courage, though the Wart also shows his resourcefulness by distracting the goshawk with a ruse just when he is getting dangerous. The same can be said of the raid on Morgan le Fay's castle (or the Anthropophagi in the British edition) and on the giant Galapas. The Wart absorbs all his lessons, remaining kindly and willing to learn all his life, and they "strengthen his arm at a crucial moment. For White departs from Malory in one important respect: the sword does not come out of the stone at Arthur's first pull. At that moment his friends come to his aid" (Starr 123). With all the animals giving him advice on how to draw the sword, White is suggesting that the very education Merlyn gave him has enabled the Wart not just to be a good king, but to become king in the first place. This is followed by a chapter in which, according to Crane, "England heaps hoards of useless gifts upon Arthur at his coronation, [and] White is definitely peeping around the corner at the hungry faces which have foregone their food so that the heaping and hoarding tradition might be continued" (Crane 83). This is surely to mistake White's tone grievously. For one thing, the animals’ love for Arthur is evident from the fact that they helped him draw the sword from the stone: this is a show of that love. No mention has been made in the entire novel of "the hungry faces"; in fact, when in chapters one and fourteen White describes the villeins, he says that "Everybody was happy … neither the villein nor the farm labourer starved" (The Sword 130). The animals who give the Wart these gifts do so out of sincere affection for one who has been their friend and listened to their problems, and each is a reflection of the giver's individuality. It is hard to see how "four or five dirty leaves with fleas on them" donated by "An anonymous hedgehog" (211) forces anyone to forego his or her food, nor how the menagerie to which "the Wart's friends resorted in their old age, on wing and foot and fin, for the sunset of their happy lives" (212) can be considered, in the context of the novel, as one of a collection of "useless gifts."
Education is the theme which most clearly gives The Once and Future King its structure. The Sword in the Stone describes the education which makes the idealistic pursuit of Utopia possible. Merlyn educates the Wart in such a way that he can see the faults inherent in society. When he is king, Arthur tries very hard to rectify these faults, by channeling might for right. "The Queen of Air and Darkness" describes how a neglected education can destroy the potential of that Utopia, for later in the novel Mordred, himself a product of Morgause's neglect, is able to use the unique personalities reinforced by this absence of definite education to his own ends. The Ill-Made Knight describes not merely the best example of the Utopian ideal, but also, paradoxically, the means by which it will be destroyed, for it is Lancelot's illicit love which gives Mordred the tool he needs. This destruction is narrated in the final volume, "The Candle in the Wind." From a chaotic and muchneglected childhood education, White has constructed The Once and Future King to illustrate the importance of education for good—or for evil.
Crane, John K. T. H. White. New York: Twayne, 1974.
Gallix, François, ed. Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence between T. H. White and L. J. Potts. Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1984.
Garnett, David, ed. The White/Garnett Letters. New York: Viking, 1968.
Lott, Herschell Woodley. The Social and Political Ideals in the Major Writings of T. H. White. Diss. U of Southern Mississippi, 1968. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1970. 715393.
Sprague, Kurth. From a Troubled Heart: T. H. White and Women in "The Once and Future King." Diss. U of Texas at Austin, 1976. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1978. 781483.
Starr, Nathan Comfort. King Arthur Today: The Arthurian Legend English and American Literature, 1901-1953. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1954.
Warner, Sylvia Townsend. T. H. White: A Biography. London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto and Windus, 1967.
White, T. H. The Age of Scandal. London: Jonathan Cape, 1950.
———. American at Last: The American Journal of T. H. White. Ed. David Garnett. New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1965.
———. The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to "The Once and Future King." Ed. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Austin: U of Texas P; London: Collins, 1977.
———. Darkness at Pemberley. London: Gollancz, 1932.
———. First Lesson: A Novel. Written under the pseudonym of James Aston. London: Chatto and Windus, 1932.
———. The Godstone and the Blackymor. London: Jonathan Cape, 1959.
———. The Goshawk. London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.
———. A Joy Proposed: Poems by T. H. White. Ed. Kurth Sprague. London: Bertram Rota, 1980.
———. Mistress Masham's Repose. New York: G. P. Putnam's. 1946.
———. The Once and Future King. London: Collins, 1958.
———. The Sword in the Stone. London: Collins, 1938.
———. The Sword in the Stone. New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1939.
———. They Winter Abroad. Written under the pseudonym of James Aston. London: Chatto and Windus, 1932.
———. The Witch in the Wood. London: Collins, 1940.
Richard Mathews (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Mathews, Richard. "Shining Past and Future: The Persistence of Camelot (T. H. White's The Once and Future King)." In Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, pp. 96-117. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
[In the following essay, Mathews describes The Once and Future King as a work of nonlinear mythic time travel, noting that White "skillfully employs the novel—and all the techniques of modern fiction—to relate an ancient tale with all the requisite fantastic elements."]
T. H. White, like Morris and Tolkien, began his life with personal separation and loss. He was born in India, the only child of parents who "loathed each other and were separated," and White adds that he spoke Hindustani before he spoke English.1 He was brought to England in 1911, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents; his father, and later his mother, returned to India. He was educated at Cheltenham, an English public school (what would be called a private school in the United States), followed by a year of private tutoring to prepare him for Cambridge University, where he entered Queens’ College in 1925. At Cheltenham, one special teacher, C. F. Scott, encouraged White as a writer and introduced him to Morte d'Arthur. At Cambridge he demonstrated his sustained interest in the book by submitting an essay on Malory as part of his Tripos exam, an essay that one of his teachers recalls as "clearly the germ of The Sword in the Stone " (Warner, 38). However, White was diagnosed during this time with TB and given possibly less than a year to live. He postponed his studies and left England for a sustained period of recovery in the warmer climate of Italy. There he regained his health, both his writing and thinking maturing in the process; he wrote and published a volume of poems and, in 1929, earned a First Class degree with Distinction from Cambridge.
His attraction to the Arthurian stories remained strong, fresh, and alive over the next years as White taught for a time at a prep school and wrote and pub- lished nine books, several under the name James Aston (a surname borrowed from his grandparents). Then in 1938, The Sword in the Stone was published in London by Collins. It appeared the following year in New York, issued by G. P. Putnam's Sons, and was chosen as a Book Club selection, which guaranteed a large initial sale. In addition, Disney immediately began negotiations for screen rights. White quickly completed his second book in the cycle, The Witch in the Wood (1939). The success of these two books cemented his commitment to tell the full story, to complete the series of novels that eventually became The Once and Future King.
Many aspects of this perennial fantasy classic are interesting to explore. First, there is the direct connection to ancient British literary sources. Malory himself wrote his great work as a compilation of oral and written sources that extended from the fifthcentury Latin histories of Gildas, Bede, and Nennius through French and English texts of the Middle Ages. Among other essential sources is the great Welsh body of stories The Mabinogion, which has served as an important source of the fantastic for such other modern fantasists as Evangeline Walton and Lloyd Alexander. White also consciously affirms fantasy's significant linguistic roots, its primary concern with language. He sets his story in the England of "Gramayre," thereby making an explicit connection with Middle English and Old French vocabulary, which preserved the link between gramma, something written (gramayre was "knowledge"), and also magical knowledge, or occult learning.2 In Arthur's Gramayre, learning becomes not only magical but utopian. The book, like all the best works in the fantasy genre, is driven by philosophical and utopian impulses. That White created it in the shadows of the terrors of World War II only adds complexity to its utopian attempts. It is a book that celebrates, in the midst of horrors, a bright and shining moment and the civilized fellowship for justice and right principles symbolized by the round table—the perfection of an unbroken circle. And it mixes history and imagination, past and future, in intricate patterns suggested by the "Once and Future" of its title.
White wrote and published the work in stages, almost like a serial, in three separate books; the most magical, exuberant, and poetical fantasy is found in the first, The Sword in the Stone. The appeal of this first volume to young readers—the reason Disney so quickly optioned it—seems similar to that of Tolkien's Hobbit, which had been published successfully just the year before and in a sense helped to prepare an audience for White's book. White starts his story with the loss of a lunatic governess and the need for "eddication." Young Arthur is known as Wart, which is short for Art—itself short for Arthur and also a pun on art, which is emphasized again at the end of the book when a young literary artist is appointed to learn and retell the tale.
In a departure from the pioneering writing in the fantasy genre by Morris and MacDonald, White begins his work with a strong comic touch. Sir Ector and Sir Grummore Grummursum are bumpkin aristocrats whose manners and malapropisms offer charm and amusement. Although the appeal of the writing to youngsters is unmistakable, it is also ideal read-aloud fiction, for only adults can fully appreciate the wit and allusion at every turn. White's narrator's voice thrives on anachronisms, first establishing itself with tongue in cheek and a twinkle in the eye, as in the description of Sir Grummore speculating about sending the boys to Eton, then adding the narrative remarks
It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.3
Young Arthur's first real adventure beyond the bounds of the castle occurs as he follows Kay's hawk into the wilds of an ancient forest that White refers to as "the great jungle of Old England." But although there are real dangers there, the beasts are made to seem dwarfish and slightly comic: "There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle" (Once, 18). When Wart has become truly lost, he meets King Pellinore, who is engaged in a lifelong pursuit of the Beast Glatisant, also known as the Questing Beast. Pellinore, who has inherited this quest as the "Burden of the Pellinores," tracks the thing by its "fewmets … the droppings of the beast pursued" (23). Pellinore's description of the monster only adds to the comic effect:
this Beast has the head of a serpent, ah, and the body of a libbard, the haunches of a lion, and he is footed like a hart. Wherever this beast goes he makes a noise in his belly as it had been the noise of thirty couple of hounds questing.
However much the Questing Beast is a creature of fantasy, Merlyn, whom Wart next stumbles upon, be- comes the primary locus of the fantastic in The Sword in the Stone. 4 He is befuddled, bumbling, and slovenly, and the narrator notes his scatological features:
some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair…. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him.
This initial image of Merlyn "streaked with droppings … among the stars" encapsulates the oxymoronic ridiculous, sublime, and earthy transcendence of White's style and vision. Merlyn is absentminded, subject to particular confusion with regard to time, and sometimes gets his spells muddled. But he works real magic, no doubt about it. And his destiny to be Wart's tutor begins to shape the rest of the story. There is delight in clever realization as young Arthur becomes aware that he has found his teacher: "his eyes sparkled with excitement at the discovery. ‘I must have been on a Quest!’" (37).
White elects to adopt a body of existing mythic material as the basis of a story in the modern fantasy mode. He skillfully employs the novel—and all the techniques of modern fiction—to relate an ancient tale with all the requisite fantastic elements. His sources include all of Malory's, especially the thirteenth-century French Vulgate cycle, plus history (to the extent that Arthur is a historical figure) and literature, including two prominent Victorian writers who themselves contributed to the store of Arthurian literature—Morris (of whom he approved) and Tennyson (whom he mocked). Morris's striking early poems in The Defence of Guenevere (1858) were only part of the story of his immersion in the subject; his early paintings and sketches mostly interpreted scenes from Malory,5 and he was planning to use the poems in Guenevere as "the basis for an epic on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table" until unenthusiastic critical response to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, published the following year in 1859, discouraged him (MacCarthy, 147). Still, it is right to see Malory in the background of all of Morris's novels and as a continuing locus for fantasy up to the present. White is writing from both sources and mythos Morris himself might have chosen to write about had Tennyson's Idylls not been published.
As the tale progresses, however, White develops a narrative voice of great originality. The narrator's confidence seems to increase, and the voice matures and expands. It is a literary voice conscious of telling a great and interesting story and of telling it in certain intentional ways, as is evident by the comic anachronisms and explanations in the early pages. But White uses the distance and narrative awareness to increasing advantage as the book continues. Even in this first section, there are serious asides: "for this part of the story is one which deals with troubled times" (Once, 40). The author (as well as Merlyn, since he is living backward through time) is aware of the tale's largeness and of how it fits into or links with contemporary experience. The anachronisms so frequent in the narrative serve to place the fantasy in a contemporary context—and ultimately to relate the whole story to the crisis of values, the idea that "right is might" raised by World War II. "People in those days had rather different ideas about the training of dogs to what we have today," the narrator tells us (42-43).
There is not the same attention to language that we find in Morris or in Tolkien, but White is consciously playful in and attentive to this dimension as well. For instance, Merlyn pronounces words backward as he transforms Wart evolutionarily backward into a fish to begin his education metamorphosed into a small perch. There is wittiness typical of White in the sort of magic of correspondences that would allow words said backward to cause one to devolve into a fish. Wart is able to speak with a giant perch, who is known as King of the Moat,
his vast ironic mouth permanently drawn downward in a kind of melancholy, his lean, cleanshaven chops giving him an American expression, like that of Uncle Sam. He was remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless—but his great jewel of an eye was that of a stricken deer, large, fearful, sensitive and full of griefs.
This wonderful, complex description suggests something about evolutionary origins but also comments politically on the contemporary image of America on the brink of war. The lesson is simple: "Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right" (52). And in a second, Wart almost loses his own will (and his life) as he is nearly swallowed by the giant fish whose mouth opens
horrible and vast, skin stretching ravenously from bone to bone and tooth to tooth. Inside there seemed to be nothing but teeth, sharp teeth like thorns in rows and ridges everywhere, like the nails in labourers’ boots, and it was only at the last second that he was able to regain his own will, to pull himself together, to recollect his instructions and to escape.
Particularly in this first section White presents an ecology of transformation. As in Ovid, form is not fixed but changeable, and the differences between apparently separate forms can be bridged by magic. The book moves simultaneously forward (Wart) and backward (Merlyn) in time; a creature's droppings, or "fewmets" (its past), may lead the hero toward his future destiny; Merlyn is first described as "streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown" (29), so we see in the magician the waste and wonder of the universe, its excrement as well as its stars. King Pellinore is linked to his Questing Beast not only by its droppings but by a need for it as the object of a quest. It gives purpose to his life, and a sort of love extends between them that becomes apparent when the beast languishes whenever the king is distracted from his pursuit. Finally, the book's ecology is developed through White's incorporation of another great English myth, that of Robin Hood, the green man of the woods. He is drawn into the story when Wart is concerned that Kay's education is being shortchanged because all the adventures are being allotted to the Wart. The two of them share an excursion into the deep forest, where they come to know (and to aid) the outlaw Robin. In reality, we are told, his name is Robin Wood ("like the Wood that he is the spirit of," 118), and we learn that he, like the future king, struggles for justice, endeavoring to use might for right. In the forest they help defeat the evil Morgan le Fay, Kay slays her monster Griffin, taking its head as a trophy, and Wart takes home Wat in hopes that Merlyn may help him regain his wits—which he does through "analytical psychology and plastic surgery" (119).
Just prior to the Robin Hood excursion with Kay, Wart endures his first experience as a bird when he is transformed into a merlin (cf. Merlyn/merlin) to spend the night with the hunting birds. His courage is tested and he becomes acquainted with an even more lethal and literal pecking order than that which he observed as a perch. The chanted "Ordeal Hymn" affirms that "Life is blood, shed and offered / … Strength to the strong and the lordly and lonely. / Timor Mortis Exultat Me" and concludes, "Timor Mortis are We" (82-83). The most deadly of the hunting birds, Colonel Culley, strikes in "the terrible moonlight," but Wart stands his ground and proves himself courageous, escaping with a scratch, bloody lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth, anachronistically pronounced by the colonel, ringing in his ear.
In another solitary test after the Robin Hood experience, Wart becomes an ant—an episode interpolated from White's Book of Merlyn. 6 In contrast to the clear individuality and unique valor tested with the birds, Wart experiences here a kind of machine society in which no individual thought is allowed. Its correspondence to Hitler's fascist state is made explicit in the programmed broadcasts of "Antland, Antland Over All" together with specific justifications and preparations for war against other ants. Wart finds this experience terrible: "A question was a sign of insanity to them. Their life was not questionable: it was dictated" (128). Set in context in this first book, the ants accelerate the questioning of an existence that dictates that creatures destroy one another, particularly others of their own species.
White is inspired in his creation of a fantasy that combines the talking-animal tradition with the Arthurian mythos. By having his young hero Wart undergo metamorphoses White allows him to enter other worlds, which are at the same time part of the "real world." This novel's "real world" is a mythical Arthurian Middle Ages, at once real and unreal, but in Merlyn's realm of Gramayre, magic is part of the real. White's pure invention, which allows him to transform a single chapter of Malory devoted to Arthur's childhood into a full-length novel with complex characterization, wit, and multidimensional thematic development, can be further enjoyed in the original, separately published 1938 novel The Sword in the Stone ; chapters 6, 11, 13, 18, and 19 are notably different from the revised versions in The Once and Future King.
White's process of composition for the complete Arthurian cycle extended from about 1936 to 1941, when he submitted a five-part manuscript to Collins, his London publisher, including The Candle in the Wind and The Book of Merlyn. His idea for the conclusion, after his writing had taken a darker turn in The Witch in the Wood and The Ill-Made Knight, was to return to the tone of the opening section—a concept now separately preserved and posthumously published as The Book of Merlyn. Given the wartime paper shortages, Collins resisted issuing such a large work in a single volume (Tolkien had faced a similar problem with his Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion). White's book did not see print until 1958, when he agreed to shorten it by incorporating the ant and goose episodes in the first part and by re- ducing the work to four parts. Collins may have sensed from the first that the novel had become too much of an essay, for White had constructed an almost intellectual finish to what began with such poetic and imaginative exuberance in The Sword in the Stone. Although the idea of the final book seems appropriate, neither the style nor the narrative posture of what is now Merlyn seem to follow from The Candle in the Wind —nor do these chapters recapture the zest of the opening pages. Even the language of the first book is filled with a lyrical, romantic voice of youth. Later, as the story takes its darker, more tragic turn, the style becomes more prosaic, discursive, and meditative, and verse disappears from the pages entirely.7 But at the start, White, like Morris in his early prose romances, tells his tale in prose and in verse, using both to embody and enhance romance. One example of the poetic prose is this description of young Wart just before his transformation into a bird:
It was too beautiful to sleep…. He watched out at the stars in a kind of trance. Soon it would be the summer again, when he could sleep on the battlements and watch these stars hovering as close as moths above his face—and, in the Milky Way at least, with something of the mothy pollen. They would be at the same time so distant that unutterable thoughts of space and eternity would baffle themselves in his sighing breast, and he would imagine to himself how he was falling upward higher and higher among them, never reaching, never ending, leaving and losing everything in the tranquil speed of space.
These reflections on the nearness of infinite distance not only convey the starry-eyed idealism of the young Arthur but suggest the large, utopian project of White's book. Two areas of his thematic exploration have to do with the nature of time and the prospect of lifting humanity to greater heights. "Never reaching, never ending" is an appropriate reflection of the title's once/future coupling and of the prospect of human perfectibility that is at the heart of Arthur's yearnings. The marvelous image of a human face so bright that the very stars become like moths to flutter around it, attracted by its light, is audacious and impressive. The rhythm of the prose is sweeping and uplifting, and the pure poetry of impulse in this entire first section is reinforced by the frequency with which White incorporates verse into his chapters. As Arthur experiences flight a few pages later, the boy/bird is so overcome with the "intense beauty" of dawn that he is "moved to sing" and finds himself amid thousands of geese on wing: "Each squadron of them was in different voice, some larking, some triumphant, some in sentiment or glee. The vault of daybreak filled itself with heralds" (167). White supplies the lines for some of what they sing: "See, on each breast the scarlet and vermilion, / Hear, from each throat the clarion and carillion" (167). The thrilling chorus is an introduction to a portion of the book incorporated from what was to be the ending, and it is among the geese that young Wart first begins to grapple with the stirrings of sexual attraction and love. In a deft parallel of motifs from Arthurian legend, White also suggests a link between love and war by incorporating antiwar debates into the text.
The pacifist dilemma arises explicitly among the geese when a young female begins to speak with Wart. She is so horrified and angered by his suggestion that the geese might fight and kill one another that she refuses to have anything more to do with him. Wart explains that he is bringing a different perspective and that the ants fight one another naturally over boundaries. She replies that "there are no boundaries among the geese…. Those ants of yours—and the humans too—would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air" (170). The comment is hopeful, and ironic in view of the importance of air warfare during World War II; perhaps space exploration will afford the perspective White imagines. In this instance, Wart reflects the standards of the day as he replies, "I like fighting…. It is knightly," but Lyo-lyok succinctly dismisses the remark: "Because you're a baby" (170).
Arthur's coming-of-age provides the linear narrative structure for White's story, and his style evolves into a more serious mode as the maturation takes place. One can almost see the work encapsulating the evolution of the modern fantasy genre from works considered appropriate reading for young people (such as Alice in Wonderland or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Hobbit) to works clearly intended for adults. Though The Sword in the Stone was marketed for young readers, its layers of allusion, wit, poetry, and intellect are obviously best appreciated by adults. White's prose includes "dozens of unattributed quotations from William Shakespeare, John Webster, Geoffrey Chaucer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Roger Aschame, the Peterborough Chronicle," Thomas Malory, and many other sources.8 He also places himself within the context of the emerging fantasy genre when he mentions by name "the great W. H. Hudson" (176), author of an early time-slip fantasy, A Crystal Age (1887), which places emphasis on utopian, ecological consciousness; Hudson is better known for Green Mansions (1904) and the children's fantasy A Little Boy Lost (1905). White also has Merlyn refer to Mark Twain's "insufferable Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," (Merlyn, 30) in the context of objecting to the unmerited pride and complacency of twentieth-century man in thinking he has advanced (ironically, though, Twain seems to have tried to show something akin to White's own view rather than to Merlyn's misreading).
In chapter 20 the book takes a giant leap ahead. Time suddenly passes quickly—first one year since Merlyn's arrival, then six years more in a single sentence. Wart has become page, servant, and squire to Kay, who is about to become a knight, a station for which Wart, a child of unknown parentage, is not eligible. Yet Kay's overreaching and young Wart's worthiness have become clearer over time. White provides character definition and foreshadowing as Wart hears Merlyn describe the initiation for knighthood:
"If I were a knight," said the Wart, "I should insist on doing my vigil by myself … and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it."
Wart's comments are a reflection of the scapegoat archetype, the Christ impulse, and White's personal loneliness. Perhaps they are an expression of White's essential belief in the loneliness of the human condition. The education and seriousness of the writing slowly deepen as the section moves toward its end and both boys mature. Kay separates himself from Wart, and the boy becomes despondent. Merlyn's advice expresses acceptance of the condition and something of White's own methods for dealing with depression: "The best thing for being sad … is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails" (183). In the course of the book, we come to see that this is White's best hope for humanity as well: that over time sadness may lead humanity collectively to learn.
Wart's last visit to the animals—the end of his education at Merlyn's transforming hands—is to the badger: "Except for Archimedes, he is the most learned creature I know" (183). Wart first encounters a charming little hedgehog whose quaint dialect, anachronistic singing of such popular songs as "Home Sweet Home" and "Genevieve," and interspersing comic malapropisms are delightful and insightful: "all's fear in love and war, that we do know" (186). Like the wise fool in Shakespeare, the hedgehog seems to presage Arthur's life to come. The badger comes across as an absentminded Cambridge scholar at work on a treatise for his doctorate degree, "which is to point out why Man has become the master of animals" (190). He proceeds to relate a marvelous fable of creation in which all embryos are initially alike, but God allows each to choose two or three specialized qualities they most want to develop. All the animals express their choices, until at the very end of the sixth day God turns to man, who has waited until last and slept on his decision. And man says, "I think that You made me in the shape I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and that it would be rude to change" (192); man therefore remains a "defenseless embryo." God, delighted, says, "He is the only one who has guessed Our riddle, out of all of you, and We have great pleasure in conferring upon him the Order of Dominion" (193). This is an ironic echo of Tolkien's belief that "we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker" ("FS," 52), but for all its irony it rings true. White struggled personally with issues of the nature and existence of a creator, with belief in God, and with whether or not he should become active in a church. His friend and best biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner, also a fantasy author (Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman, 1926; Kingdoms of Elfin, 1977), records his religious struggles throughout her biography. Though White never shared Tolkien's faith, neither did he have Morris's confidence in the vitality and significance of the real. He lives up to the "white" of his name in portraying the moment of bright hope and idealism but in the end moves into darkness with far more uncertainty than Tolkien does. Nonetheless, these three masters of fantasy—each an accomplished poet and prose writer (as is Le Guin)—affirm and uplift the act of creation, celebrated in the figure of the poet or writer and, in White's case, as previously stated, illustrated in the pleasure of the narrator's voice and in the poet's appearance in its concluding pages.
At this juncture, the badger storyteller seems shy about Wart's praise for the parable but confesses doubts about God's granting of dominion and about God's blessing, for he points out "that Homo Sapiens is almost the only animal which wages war…. There are five ants, one termite that I know of, and Man" (193-94). The Wart confesses that he would go to war were he a knight, for in the trial of battle are to be found the virtues of great deeds, courage, endurance, and comrades whom you love. Badger poses a question: "Which do you like best, … the ants or the wild geese?" (194). The question remains explic- itly unanswered, but the questions and the choice remain: in this case the vertical low versus high is compounded by the individualism of the geese versus the collectivism and fascism of the arts.
The first section then rapidly closes with the departure of Merlyn, the announcement of the death of King Uther Pendragon, young Arthur's drawing of the sword from the stone, his coronation, and Merlyn's return as royal adviser to announce that King Uther was his father and to address him as King Arthur.
Book 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness, begins with a glimpse of childhood that dramatically contrasts that of the first book. The four brothers—Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth—sons of Queen Morgause, recite the story of how Pendragon had his way with their Gaelic grandmother Igraine. The resulting child was Arthur (it unfortunately slipped Merlyn's mind to tell Arthur this fact). Meantime, Morgause is working dark magic, boiling a cat alive in a caldron in the dead of night. She is one of three sisters—Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Elaine—all of them witches and daughters of Igraine and the Earl of Cornwall. The first chapter of book 2 recites a history of racial warfare that pits Gall against Gael—Cornwall, Orkney, Lothian against England—a seemingly endless history of revenge. Raised with no father, the brothers, the narrator tells us, adored their mother "dumbly and uncritically, because her character was stronger than theirs" (213). She seems to have neglected them, however, her attentions having been devoted instead to satisfying her own appetites. The boys were therefore brought up "through indifference or through laziness or even through some kind of possessive cruelty—with an imperfect sense of right and wrong. It was as if they could never know when they were being good or when they were being bad" (214).
The tone of the second book is immediately more somber, its view of children and of childhood more horrific. Here the children are immediately caught up in cycles of witchery, rape, seduction, and revenge. The animal imagery so sensitively wrought in Arthur's childhood now suddenly turns horrid—the black cat boiled alive by Queen Morgause, the senseless slaying and gruesome decapitation of an enchanted, innocent unicorn by the boys (they had hoped to attract their mother's attention and thus maybe something resembling love). Another gruesome image is Morgause's horrifying spell for love, which calls for a "Spancel"—
a tape of human skin, cut from the silhouette of the dead man…. the cut had been begun at the right shoulder, and the knife—going carefully in a double slit so as to make a tape—had gone down the outside of the right arm, round the outer edge of each finger as if along the seams of a glove, and up on the inside of the arm to the armpit. Then it had gone down the side of the body, down the leg and up it to the crotch, and so on until it had completed the circuit of the corpse's outline…. it made a long ribbon.
It is this dark charm that Morgause throws around the sleeping Arthur to cause him to love her and that gives life to his illegitimate son Mordred.
The second book is about the darker fruits of love and its results. Merlyn warns Arthur about Gwenever and reveals his foreknowing also of the treacherous love that will result in his imprisonment by Nimue; King Pellinore languishes in love for the Queen of Flanders's daughter; and the Questing Beast, pathetically, falls in love with a costumed puppet beast constructed by Sir Palomides and Sir Grummore in their attempt to shake Pellinore from his lovelorn depression. At the end of the section, while Arthur and the guests celebrate during the wedding feast of King Pellinore and his queen, a young boy excels at games. He is Lancelot, son of King Ban of Benwick, Arthur's ally at Bedegraine. So the eventual rival for Gwenever's love has been brought into the story's action.
It is greatly ironic that in this book of revenge, deceit, and treacherous love Arthur should conceive the vision of his Round Table, at which no one serves as head. As Arthur envisions it, "we must catch them young" to break the old habits of warfare: "We must breed up a new generation of chivalry for the future" (265). Arthur has conceived with youthful idealism of man's perfectibility and is driven to carry out the reconception of civilized behavior that will allow him to move beyond his history of brutality and deception in the cycles of destiny. Merlyn tries to convey a parable about destiny and seeks to explain how cycles of time will be reconceived by Einstein (286), and though he sees no way to escape destiny, he does tell Arthur, "It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back" and explains that on Arthur's tombstone "the once and future king" will be inscribed in Latin (287). Only several chapters later, too late, does Merlyn awaken with a start to realize he has forgotten to tell Arthur an essential, simple thing—his mother's name, Igraine, "that very Igraine … that the Orkney children had been talking about in the Round Tower at the beginning of this book" (310). But Merlyn's thought escapes him, "the image of Nimue already weaving itself in his sleepy brain" (311). In a dramatically parallel scene, Arthur awakens with a start to see the "black-haired, blue-eyed beauty" Morgause standing over him with the Spancel tape in her hand, and nine months later this half-sister twice his age gives birth to Arthur's first son, Mordred.
White turns into explicit critic and lecturer at the end of book 2. He reproduces a genealogical chart drawn by Merlyn and urges it on the reader: "Even if you have to read it twice, like something in a history lesson, this pedigree is a vital part of the tragedy of King Arthur." Then he concludes his lecture:
It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost. That is why we have to take note of the parentage of Arthur's son Mordred, and to remember, when the time comes, that the king had slept with his own sister. He did not know he was doing so, and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.
Book 3 begins once more in childhood, this time with the 15-year-old Lancelot, but now the story is weighted with tragedy. Lancelot is not the handsome hero of storybooks; White tells us he "looked like an African ape" (317). But Arthur had spoken briefly to the boy at the King Pellinore's feast, and Lancelot seemed to understand Arthur's vision immediately: "You want to put an end to the Strong Arm by having a band of knights who believe in justice rather than strength. Yes, I would like to be one of those very much. I must grow up first" (316). Now at 15 Lancelot is training and "thinking of Arthur with all his might. He was in love with him" (315).
Having set the story moving, it is almost as though White steps back to watch it unfold; he comments on it and interprets it for the reader, playing a role greater than that of storyteller. Merlyn, on a sort of honeymoon with Nimue, materializes in the French court at King Ban's castle to declare that Lancelot "will get the hope of his heart thirty years from now, and he will be the best knight in the world" (325). He also brings the boy news of Arthur's marriage and of the Round Table before he and Nimue abruptly depart.
Typical of White's interpretive distance as narrator, he observes,
There was a feature about the great families which centered round the doom of Arthur. All three had a resident genius of the family, half-way between a tutor and a confidant, who affected the characters of the children in each. At Sir Ector's castle there had been Merlyn, who was the main influence in Arthur's life. In lonely and distant Lothian there had been St. Toirdealbhach, whose warlike philosophy must have had something to do with the clannishness of Gawaine and his brothers. In King Ban's castle there was an uncle of Lancelot's, whose name was Gwenbors…. known to everybody as Uncle Dap.
Upon Merlyn's departure, Lancelot, now 18 years old, determines to go at once to Camelot. He departs with Uncle Dap, who, because he is a wise, humane man and a scholar of chivalry, knows "that he had taught the finest knight in Europe" (328).
Once on English soil, young Lancelot does not wait long to prove himself. He chances upon a black knight with whom he jousts and delivers him a skillful fall. The knight removes his helm to reveal himself as Arthur and immediately recognizes and welcomes Lancelot, then takes him to Camelot, where he knights him and presents him to Gwenever with the prediction, "He is going to be the best knight I have" (331). White recounts some of Lancelot's deeds that quickly earn him great fame and respect, but he also leaves part of the telling to his literary sources: "There is no need to give a long description of the tourney. Malory gives it" (349). Increasingly, White extends the realm of his fantasy by referring to literary and actual history, past and recent. The anachronistic allusions present from the first have helped to build these connections, and as the book moves toward its conclusion, White places ever greater emphasis on these links to various other points in temporal reality. Many authors in the fantasy genre use this technique to place their works more firmly in a familiar context. Although many elements of the created fantasy detach characters and text from reality, most of the best authors in the genre use techniques such as this to provide alternative connections.
White accomplishes this also through increasing emphasis on his narrator's interpretation and analysis. For example, White uses the utopian aspects in his book to place Arthur within a real context in the history of ideas:
He was a kind of conscientious, peace-loving fellow, who had been afflicted in his youth by a tutor of genius. Between the two of them they had worked out their theory that killing people, and being a tyrant over them, was wrong. To stop this sort of thing they had invented the idea of the Table—a vague idea like democracy, or sportsmanship, or morals—and now, in the effort to impose a world of peace, he found himself up to the elbows in blood…. He was one of the first Nordic men who had invented civilization, or who had desired to do otherwise than Attila the Hun had done, and the battle against chaos sometimes did not seem to be worth fighting.
Arthur suffers an internal conflict as he realizes the difficulty of his struggle and as he ultimately comes to sense that he must choose sides in his assumptions about man's innate impulses toward goodness or evil. Since evidence of treachery and injustice abounds, he recognizes frequently that even "civilization" may be bad, and when he sees the deaths, greed, and suffering it has wrought he laments, "I wish I had never invented honour, or sportsmanship, or civilization" (366).9
The book's two most heroic characters—Arthur and Lancelot—both suffer from this type of double vision. In Lancelot's case, he faces this frightening double reality in himself and in external action. It is perhaps most dramatically presented in his encounter with a lady and her husband, a knight who is trying to cut her head off. Lancelot interposes himself in the quarrel to try to exact a promise from the knight that he will not kill the woman. He won't promise, and the lady states that he would not keep his promise even if he gave it. The knight will not fight with Lancelot, whom he has recognized by his argent as Arthur's most valiant knight, but he distracts Lancelot's attention for a moment by calling for him to look behind him at pursuing soldiers (there are none), and "at the same moment the knight leaned over to his near side and swapped off the lady's head" (360). Lancelot turns white with fury, but when he threatens to kill the murderer, the knight immediately throws himself on the ground and begs for mercy: "Lancelot put up his sword and went back from the knight, as if he were going back from his own soul. He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind" (361). Recognizing these very qualities in himself, Lancelot has tried to create their opposite in his character and actions, just as Arthur has tried to do on a larger scale with civilization. Lancelot embodies the struggle at a more personal and emotional level; Arthur personifies it in the political and philosophical sphere.
Perhaps the difference between Arthur and Lancelot is their difference in foreknowledge, for however imperfectly Merlyn has prepared the king, he has at least forewarned him of the tragic aura that will surround his life. Lancelot is no less filled from birth with the seeds of tragedy, but he is more the innocent than is Arthur, for his education has shown him less of the world's power, cruelty, and temptations. He experiences those things step-by-step, as do ordinary humans who lack wizard tutors. So in an act of valor in which he rescues Elaine from consignment to eternal torture in a boiling cauldron, he is robbed of his virginity—through deception and the sorcery of a secretly administered love potion he is doomed—by the very one he saves. He makes the point himself as he realizes what has happened:
When I was little, … I prayed to God that he would let me work a miracle. Only virgins can work miracles. I wanted to be the best knight in the world. I was ugly and lonely. The people of your village said that I was the best knight of the world, and I did work my Miracle when I got you out of the water. I did not know it would be my last as well as my first.
White's task as author becomes increasingly to explain his characters’ psychology. He has brought the cast of Malory's Morte d'Arthur vividly to life, and now he gives us an explanation of their psyches, their visions and ideals, the significance of their lives. White is a master of this unusual narrative technique. The opening of chapter 16, for example (386-89), discusses the various states of mind of Gwenever, Elaine, Lancelot, and Arthur as Elaine prepares to descend on the court at Camelot with Galahad, Lancelot's son. The readers now are surely no longer the children who would easily enjoy "The Sword in the Stone." Book 3 is, in a sense, an act of scholarship performed on Malory, a work of interpretation, almost an extension of White's Cambridge undergraduate essay on Malory. Yet White creates in his narrator a point of view even more complex than that of Merlyn, who in living backward through time knows much more than the characters he passes; he derives considerable wisdom and insight from this knowledge, however befuddled it may sometimes be. Regardless of his peculiar path through time, Merlyn is still a magician, in touch with the supernatural and able to control and command natural forces. Interestingly, however, he is no more free than mortals of destiny, which encircles even magic with its tragic forces. White as author and narrator does not lay claim to magic or to control over nature (except to the extent that we as readers are aware that he is the creator of all that we behold), yet he is a tremendous force of reason and explanation, seeking always to clarify the actions he describes. Like the scholar, he seeks through logic and articulation to illuminate and set in context the significance of people and events.
In explaining Gwenever's state of mind, White offers a representative lecture from the point of view of a literary sensibility far beyond Malory's England. Interestingly, it is also a reference to a masterpiece of literary realism, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina:
Yet the thought [of unfaithfulness] was probably there, unconscious and undetectable except to women. The great Anna Karenina, for instance, forced Cronsky into a certain position by the causeless jealousy of a maniac—yet that position was the only real solution to their problem, and it was the inevitable solution. Seeing so much further into the future than he did, she pressed towards it with passionate tread, wrecking the present because the future was bound to be a wreck. So with Gwenever.
White treats this anachronistic character as though she were a real person and in the process directly compares his own book and its characters with the international literary mainstream.
Besieged by temporal pressure, Arthur concludes that he has made a mistake in attaching the Round Table to a "temporal ideal" and concludes, "If we are to save it, it must be made into a spiritual one. I forgot about God" (434). He decides to change the emphasis of his knights’ quest from goals of justice in this world to a search for spiritual perfection, manifest in the quest for the Grail. This reach beyond the world, a typical feature of the fantasy genre, seems to have been at the heart of the book from the first. After all, Merlyn, the sword, the transcendent perspectives on time, the inevitable purity and tragedy of Lancelot's love—all of these have moved toward the nonmaterial. Yet White, like Arthur, seeks to grasp the symbol of transcendence within time.
Arthur articulates the goal; his knights set forth to achieve it. Lancelot, who knows his tragic loss of purity will keep him from this end, still enacts an extraordinary miracle. A knight from Hungary, Sir Urre, has been suffering enchanted wounds that will not heal "until the best knight in the world had tended them and salved them with his hands" (511). Arthur allows each of his knights to try, and Lancelot moves forward last of all, knowing his guilt and imperfections, believing himself incapable of miracles. But when he dresses the wounds the impossible happens, and the crowds erupt in celebration as Arthur exclaims, "It shut like a box! It shut like a box!" (513). White creates a scene full of vitality and exuberance, in extreme dramatic contrast to Lancelot's internal state of mind: "This lonely and motionless figure," White writes, "knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle." Then White quotes Malory: "And ever Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten" (514).
This closing of the hemophiliac knight's wounds is a true miracle, a work of magic realism, since its accomplishment is dependent on the belief of all in the very definition of the enchantment. It is perhaps a minor miracle by comparison to the attainment of the Grail but a purer one in terms of consequence than the tragic, miraculous rescue of Elaine. And as White points out, the real miracle is that he has been allowed to perform a miracle. Lancelot enacts the Grail's very message—forgiveness of imperfection, grace to accomplish the impossible. And in closing the open wounds of knighthood, Lancelot in a sense heals the gaping sore that Arthur's withdrawal of the sword from the stone (however unintentionally) has promoted.
The fourth and final book of The Once and Future King turns toward the dark winds that blow against the vulnerable light of a single candle lit in darkness. Mordred's treachery is the inverse of Lancelot's miracle of healing and of Arthur's quest for honor, law, and spirit. Mordred is incapable of forgiveness. He distills and reenacts a strand of vengeance more ancient and unshakable than the faint light of Arthur's chivalry or law:
He became, on this matter, everything which Arthur was not—the irreconcilable opposite of the Englishman. He became the invincible Gael, the scion of desperate races more ancient than Arthur's, and more subtle. Now, when he was on fire with his Cause, Arthur's justice seemed bourgeois and obtuse beside him.
The final pages unfold a dark drapery of destiny. The utopian flames of Camelot flicker and are extinguished as desperate, ancient impulses toward conquest, power, and revenge overtake the history whose outcome is foreknown to reader and narrator alike. Arthur's enemies will turn his very laws against him and his ideals of justice upside down. Still, in a narrative voice fully mature and reflective, White takes control as artist, shaping the final book with an artis- tic and patient editorial hand. The narrative voice, now far from the youthful, comic tone of the first book, portrays the very qualities of patience, forgiveness, insight, and perspective that the villains lack. Thus the young Arthur, once referred to in the shorthand "Art" and "Wart," gives place to "art" and "author" as the book concludes. King Arthur's final act is to find a boy, young Tom Mallory, whom he sends away from the final battle charged with the telling of the tale: "you are a kind of vessel to carry on the idea, when things go wrong, and … the whole hope depends on you alive" (637). Arthur makes explicit to the 13-year-old page that his "idea of those knights was a sort of candle … I have carried for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind…. you won't let it go out?" (637). The boy assures him he will keep it burning, and White's story deftly folds itself into art as it becomes part of literary history, for we know that Thomas Malory did keep the candle burning by creating a compelling and enduring vision that has been reinvigorated in the fresh text we are completing.
A twentieth-century writer, White created a sort of cyclic, mythical time travel. Compounded of Merlyn's backward temporality, the text's historical, linguistic, and literary anachronisms, and the prophetic "once and future" motif, the book's temporal perspective is nonlinear. Like Tolkien in his posthumously published time-travel story The Lost Road, White suggests that time travel is not only fully appropriate to fantasy but that unlike in science fiction, the time traveler in fantasy requires no machine to perform the task. Thus at the end of the book, as Arthur thinks about and re-creates his life in his imagination, "[t]he old King felt refreshed, clearheaded, almost ready to begin again." The book's conclusion is biblical in its paradox of alpha and omega, its end as its beginning: "Explicit Liber Regis Quondam / Regisque Futuri / The Beginning" (639).
White, finally more like Morris than like Tolkien, imagines his king as a mythopoeic, horizontal hero, one who seeks to establish a continuum between the transcendent supernatural, or spiritual, universe and the social order within history. He makes the point through the narrator's editorial comments, through Arthur's final reflections as he insists on the illusory futility of wars fought over "political geography"; such wars are particularly senseless because "the imaginary lines on the earth's surface only needed to be unimagined". White explained his understanding of his political and social message in a letter to his former tutor at Cambridge: "You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war, [and] (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal" (Merlyn, xvi). The difficulty of finding a plausible utopian model in the face of World War II is immense, but as Arthur faces his final war, he imagines his new Round Table:
a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.
For White as for Morris, the hero is not a king who rules from above, handing down his edicts from a position of authority, but a mutually acknowledged leader among brothers—the Round Table is surely a symbol of equality and commonwealth as well as of the cyclic nature of alpha and omega, or the eternal ideal—and the path through fantasy and magic leads paradoxically to reason. The world they imagined through the fantastic seemed driven by the hope "that they might come to reason."
1. Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 23, 26; hereafter cited in the text. The author is quoting White from a lecture entitled "The Pleasures of Learning," given on a U.S. lecture tour during the last year of his life.
2. The impulse is strikingly similar to that of Tolkien, who asserted, "The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval" ("FS," 24).
3. White, The Once and Future King (New York: Ace Books, 1987), 10; hereafter cited in the text as Once.
4. White's final publication of The Once and Future King was composed of revised versions of the three parts that had originally been published individually in book form: The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Witch in the Wood (1939, significantly revised as "The Queen of Air and Darkness" in Once), and The Ill-Made Knight (1940). A concluding section not previously published, "The Candle in the Wind," was also added.
5. Morris's sole surviving oil painting, called Queen Guenevere or La Belle Iseult (1857-1858), is now in the Tate Gallery in London. Only the title of his first painting, now lost, survives: Sir Tristram after His Illness in the Garden of King Mark's Palace Recognized by the Dog He Had Given Iseult. After Dante Gabriel Rossetti proclaimed "that the Morte d'Arthur and the Bible were the two greatest books in the world" (MacCarthy, 97), Burne-Jones and Morris enthusiastically selected scenes from Le Morte d'Arthur as subjects for their commission to paint murals (with Rossetti, Arthur Hughes, and others) in the Oxford Union. Morris's subject was "How Sir Palomydes loved La Belle Iseult with exceeding great love out of measure, and how she loved not him again but rather Sir Tristram" (MacCarthy, 130).
One of the most useful sources for information on Arthurian legend is the "Camelot Project" on the Internet: [http://rodent.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/mainmenu.htm].
For general background, here is a brief excerpt from the free online reference material:
King Arthur is the figure at the heart of the Arthurian legends. He is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine of Cornwall. Arthur is a near mythic figure in Celtic stories such as Culhwch and Olwen. In early Latin chronicles he is presented as a military leader, the dux bellorum. In later romance he is presented as a king and emperor. One of the questions that has occupied those interested in King Arthur is whether or not he is a historical figure. The debate has raged since the Renaissance when Arthur's historicity was vigorously defended, partly because the Tudor monarchs traced their lineage to Arthur and used that connection as a justification for their reign. Modern scholarship has generally assumed that there was some actual person at the heart of the legends, though not of course a king with a band of knights in shining armor—though O. J. Padel in "The Nature of Arthur" argues that "historical attributes of just the kind that we find attached to Arthur can be associated with a figure who was not historical to start with." If there is a historical basis to the character, it is clear that he would have gained fame as a warrior battling the Germanic invaders of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Since there is no conclusive evidence for or against Arthur's historicity, the debate will continue. But what can not be denied is the influence of the figure of Arthur on literature, art, music, and society from the Middle Ages to the present. Though there have been numerous historical novels that try to put Arthur into a sixth-century setting, it is the legendary figure of the late Middle Ages who has most captured the imagination. It is such a figure, the designer of an order of the best knights in the world, that figures in the major versions of the legend from Malory to Tennyson to T. H. White. Central to the myth is the downfall of Arthur's kingdom. It is undermined in the chronicle tradition by the treachery of Mordred. In the romance tradition that treachery is made possible because of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere.
White uses elements from both traditions in his novel.
6. White incorporated this episode in his revised section based on The Sword and the Stone after his publisher persuaded him that a fifth book, "The Book of Merlyn," would make the volume too long and would not be its most appropriate conclusion. The material was published posthumously as The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to "The Once and Future King" (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977); hereafter cited in the text as Merlyn.
7. As if to underscore the change, White does include a final verse duet sung by Lancelot and Gwenever: "their voices, no longer full in tone like those of people in the strength of youth, were still tenacious…. If they were thin, they were pure." The song is sadly beautiful and courageous, and it ends, "All might, all gone" (540).
8. T. A. Shippey, "The Once and Future King," in Frank N. Magill, ed., Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press, 1983), 1,153.
9. The emphasis here on the heroic "invention of civilization" in Arthur's court is in marked contrast to Robert E. Howard's barbaric empires, which are discussed in the next chapter.
Debbie Sly (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Sly, Debbie. "Natural Histories: Learning from Animals in T. H. White's Arthurian Sequence." Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology 4, no. 2 (2000): 146-63.
[In the following essay, Sly suggests that White's first book of The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, essentially offers a male worldview of the natural world that comes into conflict with the inherent pacifist ideals of White's Arthurian cycle.]
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Alan Lupack (essay date fall 2001)
SOURCE: Lupack, Alan. "The Once and Future King: The Book That Grows Up." Arthuriana 11, no. 3 (fall 2001): 103-14.
[In the following essay, Lupack studies the unique presentation of age progression as shown in the lives of Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and Merlyn in The Once and Future King.]
T. H. White's The Once and Future King is an experiment in artistic structure, in which the book grows up with the characters. As characters age, genres change from children's story to bildungsroman to romance to tragedy. The Book of Merlyn was intended as the final stage of this process, a philosophical dialogue which reflected upon all the whole of Arthur's life and experience.
Works that attempt the formidable task of telling the whole story of Arthur must find a way to deal with the range of characters and themes and the multiplicity of tales that constitute the Matter of Britain. The story of Arthur is, after all, many stories even as it is one story. The history of Malory criticism alone illustrates this point. And Malory, like his successors, felt the need to tell many stories (actually many more than the eight that Vinaver defined) in order to tell the one story of Arthur. Tennyson too found it necessary to tell a variety of stories, each one so independent that it could be read on its own—or even, as the Balin idyll was in 1885 and as various idylls have been since, printed without the support of any of its fellows. Though each idyll tells a different tale, the interactions among them reveal a theme and a reinterpretation of the Arthurian world that, as with the various tales in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, is more than the sum of its parts. Yet the multiple idylls are necessary as a structural device that allows Tennyson to treat the diversity of the Arthurian legend, which can overwhelm an author or undermine a work of art. The attempt to tell the whole Arthurian story despite the range of material it includes no doubt explains the fact that the most common form for treating the Arthurian legend in the latter half of the twentieth century was the trilogy (or in some cases the tetralogy or pentalogy), as is demonstrated by the work of such novelists as Gillian Bradshaw, Vera Chapman, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen Lawhead, Mary Stewart, Fay Sampson, Persia Woolley, and others. Since there are so many recent examples, it is easy to forget that one of the earliest and still most important sequences of novels to tell Arthur's story was that written by T. H. White.
Since most people now read the 1958 version of The Once and Future King, we tend to think of it as a single finished book, though a long one that is divided into four parts. Within each of those parts and within the book as a whole, there are some obvious structural devices employed to tie everything together. Evans Lansing Smith has commented on White's ‘cunning use of the conventional devices of form that give extraordinary shape and significance to the novel's mythic materials’ which involves a ‘scheme of parallelism among the books’ and a ‘plot structure’ in each of the books that ‘oscillates between opposing settings in the progressive development of its plot, which culminates in a reconciliatory climax which recapitulates the entire action of the individual book.’1 I do not intend to dispute or to discuss the specific parallelisms or reconciliations of the four parts of the novel. Instead, I want to focus on the shifting plans that White had for his Arthuriad and ultimately the structural experiment that is made clear by, but survives the excising of, The Book of Merlyn.
Much of the unity of the individual parts is due to the fact that each of the first three parts was published separately, as The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood (a title later changed to The Queen of Air and Darkness ), and The Ill-Made Knight. Though initially White thought in terms of a tetralogy, he developed a five-part structure and actually submitted to his publisher a five-volume work, concluding with The Candle in the Wind and The Book of Merlyn. But his new plan required that he rewrite the first three books for thematic consistency with the concluding pair—and to be part of one book, not separate parts in a serial publication. In a letter to his publisher Collins (Dec. 8, 1941) accompanying what he thought of as a completed manuscript, White said: ‘The last two books are like a hat made to fit on top of the first three as re-written. They would not fit on the first three as originally published. Anybody who bought the last two after having read the published volumes would be quite puzzled and annoyed. They have not got a unity of their own, suitable for separate publication.’2 While it is not unusual for a multi-volume sequence to be published as an aggregate volume—as Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy and Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel pentalogy were—what is unusual about White's book is that his sequence ended with two volumes that were written as a capstone to the previous ones and not meant to be published by themselves.
In a 1939 journal entry, White talks of the parts of the Arthuriad as his ‘quadruplets.’3 White originally planned for a tetralogy that was to be the story of ‘the Doom of Arthur’ and even intended that the fourth volume would ‘be in the form of a straightforward play or tragedy.’4 But at some stage he decided to shift from a four-part to a five-part book. In a letter to his friend David Garnett (dated June 8, 1941), White outlines the five-part structure. He writes that ‘the final epic, which will be called The Once and Future King [sic], will have five books. (1) The Sword in the Stone, boyhood and animals. (2) The Witch in the Wood —that bloody bitch Morgause. (3) The Ill-Made Knight —Lancelot & the middle years. (4) The Candle in the Wind —final bust up with the sons of Morgause—none to blame except because of her—ending with the aged Arthur weeping and smashed on the eve of his last battle with Mordred. (5) The Book of Merlin. ‘5
At the same time that White was developing this five-part structure, his conception of the book was shifting from a classical tragedy to something more in line with what he says he ‘suddenly discovered,’ that is, that ‘the central theme of Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war.’6 Nevertheless, his sense of the work as a tragedy is still evident. In the 1958 Once and Future King, at the end of The Queen of Air and Darkness, White writes that though most of Malory's book—and by implication his own—deals with knights and quests, ‘the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.’7 And White's book is better as tragedy than as treatise. Still, The Book of Merlyn remains important in understanding White's artistry in The Once and Future King, not so much because it is the most blatant exploration of the theme of war, which remains part of the point of the book in its ultimate revision, but mainly because it is the key to a brilliant experiment in artistic construction.
There is throughout White's sequence of books an awareness of time. The most obvious example of this is the fact that Merlin lives backwards in time. Because of this unusual quality, White is able to introduce any number of anachronisms into the book. As Marilyn K. Nellis has observed, ‘Anachronism penetrates conversations, appearance, customs—constantly tying the modern world to the medieval for the incidental humor of the resemblance as well as for social comment.’8 White's playing with time is not, however, just for purposes of humor and satire; it is part of the very fabric of the book.
Towards the end of The Sword in the Stone, Kay asks Merlin not to leave him and Wart. Merlin replies that he must go and adds, ‘We have had a good time while we were young but it is in the nature of Time to fly’ (199)—a strange statement for a character who is living backwards in time to make. Merlin is, after all, growing younger. Perhaps Merlin's departure is just another lesson about life that Merlin is teaching his young students, but it seems also to mark a passage, to be a sign that afterwards Kay will enter the adult world and Wart will become King Arthur and, time having flown, he will have responsibilities that will require him to apply his youthful education—perhaps without having as good a time as he has had as a youth. And since Merlin is getting younger but T. H. White was not, it may mark an authorial lament about the nature of the world and an authorial comment about the nature of his book. (More about the latter in a moment.)
In The Sword in the Stone, Arthur's nickname Wart marks him as a different figure from the hero of romance, a child who must learn to be king by learning about the world around him, the animals that live in that world, and from them and their political systems about man and his. In The Queen of Air and Darkness, Gawain and his brothers continue the childhood theme, sometimes with a darkness that it did not have in the earlier book. With a mother who is more of a figurative than a literal witch but who nonetheless casts a spell over her children, most of the brothers become psychopaths. Arthur, who is called ‘the young king of England’ (220), is beginning to mature. He arrives at the idea of Might for Right; and Merlin says ‘the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis’ (248) because his pupil has begun to think for himself and what he thinks is noble.
Early in The Ill-Made Knight when ‘Guenever was twenty-two,’ White introduces a long passage on the development of a seventh sense in middle age. This seventh sense is a sense of balance that is gained with experience of the world. It is the reason ‘Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty’ (378). White speaks of this quality before Guenever or Lancelot has developed it because it is just this aging and balancing process that is the subject of the third and central book of his Arthuriad.9 Midway through The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot has fathered Galahad, lived with Elaine for a time, and returned to Camelot and resided there for fifteen more years. White calls attention to the new generation at court ‘for whom Arthur was not the crusader of a future day, but the accepted conqueror of a past one—for whom Lancelot was the hero of a hundred victories, and Guenever the romantic mistress of a nation’ (421). White emphasizes the passage of time with a deliberate cliché: ‘Indeed, a lot of water had flowed under the bridges of Camelot in twenty-one years’ (421). And when Lancelot returns from the quest for the Grail, Guenever gives him time to get over what she sees as his selfish holiness but is also aware that ‘a woman could wait too long for victory—she could be too old to enjoy it’ (475). Towards the end of this installment of his book, White writes that ‘Now the maturest or the saddest phase [of Camelot] had come, in which enthusiasms had been used up for good, and only our famous seventh sense was left to be practised. The court had "knowledge of the world" now’ (477). The characters have reached mature, worldly-wise, and a bit world-weary middle age. At the very end of the book, when Lancelot, after healing Sir Urry, weeps like a child who had been beaten, the force of the scene is different from that of its parallel in Malory. In the medieval author, the sense is that Lancelot is chastised by his own sinfulness in the face of the blessings God has bestowed on him. In White's tale, Lancelot's ability to work a miracle, a blessing that he thought had been taken from him when he lost his virginity by sleeping with Elaine and that he believed would never return because of his sinfulness with Guenever, has been granted to him once again; and the generosity of God brings him back momentarily to the ethic of his childhood, a time before he had developed his seventh sense.
In The Candle in the Wind, Arthur, prevented from reconciling with Lancelot by Gawain's anger and Mordred's innate iniquity, is referred to as ‘the old man’ (602); and when Mordred taunts Guenever before suggesting that they marry, the Queen tells him that she is ‘old enough to be your mother’ (602), a detail that Malory finds no need to mention. The pattern of aging characters continues into The Book of Merlyn where, on the first page, Arthur is said to have ‘an old man's misery’10 and is repeatedly described as old or referred to as ‘the old man’ or ‘an old man’ (cf. 69, 98, 105, 115, 130). Even Lancelot and Guenever are seen to have aged. When Lancelot goes to the convent for a last meeting with the Queen, he climbs ‘the convent wall with Gallic, ageing gallantry’ (132); and when she dies and Lancelot returns to claim her body, the hero of romance is depicted as an old man ‘with his snow-white hair and wrinkled cheeks’ (132).
It is perhaps not remarkable that characters in a novel, even a novel based on a romance, age or that the author so clearly calls our attention to their aging. But this awareness of aging does intensify the tragedy. As C. N. Manlove has observed, ‘Time is at the centre of White's work as it is only at the end in Malory: we watch the Dark become the Middle Ages, and the Middle turn into the later Middle Ages; and we see the central characters aging. The story may have been given to White, but his peculiar emphasis on the fading of the dream and on the movement of time heightens the poignancy of the loss.’11 What is remarkable is that White reflects this aging in the macrostructure of his book. In a rather brilliant structural experiment, at the same time that the characters age in the sequence, the book itself is growing up with them.
In the letter cited above in which White wrote to David Garnett of his book's five-part structure, he noted that The Sword in the Stone would be about ‘boyhood and animals,’ that the subject of The Ill-Made Knight was ‘Lancelot & the middle years,’ and that The Candle in the Wind would end ‘with the aged Arthur weeping and smashed on the eve of his last battle with Mordred.’12 This account of the structural divisions of the book is clearly tied to the aging of the characters. White's comment that ‘The last two books are like a hat made to fit on top of the first three as re-written‘13 indicates that he saw these two books as a sort of diptych of Arthur's old age. What we have then is a pair of tales at the beginning depicting the youth of Arthur and of Gawain and his brothers, a central book depicting ‘the middle years,’ and another pair of tales focusing on an aged Arthur.
The Sword in the Stone is a children's book. As Elizabeth Brewer points out, ‘The fact that White intended The Sword in the Stone to be a children's book in the manner of Masefield's Midnight Folk which he so much loved and admired differentiates it from the subsequent parts of The Once and Future King, and surely affects the way in which we should interpret it.’14 The turning of Arthur into various animals, the adventure with Robin Hood, the talking owl Archimedes, Merlin's botched spells—all are the stuff of a tale for young readers. The distance from this book to the almost pessimistic philosophizing (some might say pseudo-philosophizing) of The Book of Merlyn seems great, but part of White's artistry is to make the process gradual, like aging itself. Looking from the first book to the fifth is like seeing an acquaintance from youth after many years and being surprised at how much the person has changed. But reading through the books in sequence makes the aging process less startling, like living with a person and seeing small changes day by day.
The other frame of the opening diptych, The Queen of Air and Darkness, also has elements of a children's book—though ultimately a darker and more ominous one than The Sword in the Stone. Arthur is the young king learning to think for himself; but much of the book is set in the Gaelic world of Lothian, and many of the adventures are those of a children's tale even though ‘the snake is now in the garden.’15 The killing of the griffin from The Sword in the Stone is paralleled by the hunting of the unicorn in The Queen of Air and Darkness. Both are adventures with a fabulous beast, but the latter—a revolting slaughter of a beautiful animal, an offense against the nature that Wart learns to love and respect in the first book and a double travesty because it is done to please an uncaring and unpleasable mother—is a sign of the deep dysfunctionality of the Lothian clan. This is then a step beyond the idyllic world of the first book but, despite ominous foreshadowing, the characters have not yet reached the world of adult trouble that later books depict. It seems as if White was trying in this second part of his pentalogy to write a bildungsroman in which Arthur comes of age and is no longer in need of his tutor but also to link it through both comic and disturbing elements to the part that comes before.
Similarly, the second installment of White's Arthuriad depicts love affairs, another step toward the adult world. But the love interest of Pellinore in the second book is much different from that of Lancelot in The Ill-Made Knight, and it has far less dire consequences. Pellinore's love-sickness because of his affection for the Queen of Flanders' daughter, called Piggy, remains largely comic; and the episode of the Questing Beast's falling in love with the artificial Beast created by Grummore and Palomides to distract the pining Pellinore is completely comic. In this book Lothian is at war with Camelot, a situation that would seem to provide a forum for treatment of the theme of finding an antidote to war. It does so to a certain extent in the scenes set in Camelot, but in Lothian the three knights from Arthur's court are not even aware of the war and no one bothers to tell them about it.
In this second part of the Arthuriad, White also demonstrates how Gawain and his brothers are shaped into the men they will become under the influence of their horrible mother and depicts Arthur's planting of the literal and figurative seed of the future tragedy. Perhaps even more importantly, the book portrays Arthur's maturation. In contrast to some of the arrested sons of Lot and Morgause, who are doomed not by fate but by the Freudian influence of their mother, Arthur learns to think for himself, and Merlin declares through the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ that his student is ready to face the world on his own. He proves that he is by arriving at the notion that Might is not Right but should be used for Right and by fighting in a new way, attacking the knights and thus providing a disincentive for the nobles to think of war as a lark. These demonstrations of Arthur's maturation make The Queen of Air and Darkness a bildungsroman that bridges the gap between his childhood and his maturity.
The Ill-Made Knight moves into the world of adult concerns and dangers. One marker of the change, for example, is seen in Morgan's Castle Chariot, to which Lancelot is brought by Morgan and her three sister queens/witches: it ‘no longer had its fairy appearance as a castle of food [as it did in The Sword in the Stone ], but its everyday aspect of an ordinary fortress’ (343). The book was also conceived as belonging to a different genre. As Elisabeth Brewer points out, White repeatedly wrote in his letters to Potts and others that it was to be a ‘Romance.’16 With the adventures and quests and especially the love interest that that genre usually implies, the book concerns itself with love and religion and strife.
The sequence ages again in its fourth part, The Candle in the Wind, which White first wrote as a tragedy; and, as John K. Crane has observed, ‘In changing it from its original form as drama to novel, White seems to have done little more than remove the stage directions and convert a few long speeches from spoken lines to narrative passages.’17 The book not only remains highly dramatic but maintains the tragic situation. Lancelot and Arthur share a love for each other that is almost as strong as their love for Guenever. Arthur is very much aware of the affair between his wife and his champion; and yet he chooses to overlook it because he puts the good of his kingdom and of his friend above his own pride. ‘One of White's great triumphs’ Martin Kellman writes, ‘is to make this attempt to avoid the truth, indeed to be above jealousy, a sign neither of cowardice nor ignorance but an indication of a profoundly noble nature.’18 Arthur's nobility and Lancelot's inability to yield totally to a seventh sense make the tragedy all the more moving. But when the King is confronted with an accusation and his entire system of law and justice depends on his condemning those he loves, he can no longer look the other way. Mordred, like all true scoundrels, uses against the one he would destroy that person's own goodness.
White intended to end his Arthuriad with The Book of Merlyn. When White sent the five-part book to Collins, his publisher, Mr. Collins quoted to White from a reader's report that said ‘The Introduction of the animals in the last book suggests The Sword in the Stone, but the purpose is sadly different. White has changed into a political moralist. Fun and fancy have abdicated in favour of a purpose. Nor do I see what can be done about it, if the author feels that way.’19 Of course, the philosophical tone of the last part of the Arthuriad is not terribly inconsistent with the rest of it. As John K. Crane has observed, in the Sword in the Stone ‘the nature of man is either directly or obliquely discussed continually.’20 And the same can be said for the other parts of the sequence. But The Book of Merlyn is different not only from The Sword in the Stone but from all the books that precede it in White's cycle. What the reviewer missed, however, is that it was intentionally a very different sort of thing, a philosophical dialogue, not, to be sure, as profound as Plato's but of the same genre. He also missed the fact that this change in genre is a key to White's structural experimentation. It is the capstone in the construction of the sequence, a speculative reflection on the nature of man and on the problem of Might. And it is the last stage in the aging of White's book, which mirrors the aging of the characters. Thus, in the five parts of White's Arthuriad, the book grows up from a children's story to a bildungsroman, to a romance, to a tragedy, to a philosophical treatise.
When White published the 1958 Once and Future King, he did not of course include The Book of Merlyn. Most critics would agree with the judgment of Sylvia Townsend Warner that ‘It is difficult to read the fifth Arthur [The Book of Merlyn ] without exasperation. It could have been so good and it is so bad. The fault is not in the choice of theme: abolition of war is an interesting subject…. The fault lies in the book's schizophrenia. Giving the impression of having been written by two different people it does not seem sincere. Written by one man, it seems demented.’21 Elisabeth Brewer offers a different criticism: ‘Interesting as The Book of Merlyn is, it would have made a strange ending to the story of Arthur, had its author been able to carry out his original intention of concluding his epic with it as a fifth book. For what reader, after reaching the tragic end of the story, when Arthur, old and defeated, faces death at the hand of his own son, really wants to attend a Privy Council of animals, including the sentimental and sentimentalised hedgehog, for another dose of polemic and facetious humor at the end?’22
Brewer, however, also recognizes that ‘the return to the animals at the end of Arthur's story [in The Book of Merlyn ] is ingenious, too, in that it creates a circular pattern, somewhat similar to the older Arthurian tradition, in which the appearance of the Lady of the Lake with Excalibur marks the beginning of Arthur's career as king, while the return of the sword to her at the end signals its close.’23 This circularity is only a part of the structural completion that The Book of Merlyn offers. For the dialogue about war not only occurs in Arthur's old age but it is also the ‘old age’ of the book, the final part and the culmination of the growing up of the Arthuriad. While the earlier genres are clearly related to stages in the lives of the characters, from youth to maturity, the philosophical dialogue of this final part is the culmination of the growing up of the book. It provides an opportunity for reflection on the experiences of Arthur's whole life and thus may be said to be the final stage in his growth and development. It is in one sense the maturest of genres because it looks back on the experiences of his life, from the youthful enthusiasm of a young boy learning about the world to the tragedy of an aging king forced to condemn his beloved wife and make war against his best friend. This is not to imply that themes as serious or as ‘mature’ may not be treated in the other genres that make up The Once and Future King, including a children's story. Indeed, the questions of education, maturation, love and friendship, and government and morality that the other books treat are serious and important. But White has structured his books in such a way that this final part grows out of the others and depends on the experiences gained in them for its themes and insights. Therefore, it is important to recognize that, in spite of its clumsy execution, The Book of Merlyn strives for both aesthetic and philosophic fulfillment.
But the ending of the 1958 book is, as Brewer points out, ‘a far more satisfying and elegant conclusion.24 White's final revision of his Arthuriad demonstrates that the artist has triumphed over the polemicist.25 In fact, it is hard to imagine a better ending than that of the 1958 version—for several reasons. First of all, the omission of The Book of Merlyn forced White to move its chapters about the ants and the geese to The Sword in the Stone, where they are more suitable as part of Arthur's education about man's role as a political animal. The 1958 ending also seems appropriate to the concern with time throughout the sequence. In the end, time, so essential to the book, is part of its ultimate theme. There is not enough time to solve the great problems like war and human iniquity and the tragic consequences that result from them, and not enough time to teach the things that make it possible to solve these problems, not even enough time for someone like Merlin who lives many lifetimes. Thus art and culture, embodied in the young Tom Malory, become crucial so that one is not always starting anew, so that values and ideals can be preserved and absorbed even when Merlin or some Merlin figure like T. H. White is not around to teach. In addition, though the return to the animals of the first part was eliminated, another circular pattern is completed in the 1958 book. Given the emphasis on the aging of the characters throughout the sequence, it is only fitting that the ending introduce a child so that the cycle can begin again. His presence, accepted because of the pattern of anachronism and the muddled medieval time in which the story takes place, allows White to announce that the conclusion of his tale is not ‘The End’ but ‘The Beginning.’
White's Merlin said that ‘the best thing for being sad … is to learn something’ (183). The ending of the 1958 Once and Future King implies that the best answer to macrocosmic sorrows like war is indeed to learn something—from the examples of books like Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and White's own sequence.26 And White returns to a youth, not Wart but a young Tom Malory, who will learn and then inspire others to learn. In this ending, White suggests a different kind of return of Arthur from that hinted at in Malory, a return of the sort seen over and over again—in the literature and music and art created through the ages, a tradition to which White himself adds an innovative and experimental novel.
1. Evans Lansing Smith, ‘The Narrative Structure of T. H. White's The Once and Future King,’ Quondam et Futurus 1.4 (Winter 1991), p. 39.
2. Cited in Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto & Windus, 1967), 187.
3. Cited by Elisabeth Brewer in T. H. White's The Once and Future King (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 17.
4. T. H. White, Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence between T. H. White and L. J. Potts, ed. François Gallix (New York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1982), 109 and 111.
5.The White/Garnett Letters, ed. David Garnett (New York: Viking, 1968), 85-86.
6. Letter of Dec. 6, 1940, in Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence between T. H. White and L. J. Potts, ed. François Gallix (New York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1982), 120.
7. T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958; rpt. New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1966), 312. All other citations to The Once and Future King will be to this easily available edition and will be given in the text by page number.
8. ‘Anachronistic Humor in Two Arthurian Romances of Education: To the Chapel Perilous and The Sword in the Stone,’ Studies in Medievalism 2.4 (Fall 1983), 73.
9. As Martin Kellman has observed, ‘The tone [of The Ill-Made Knight], mostly somber, autumn and twilight, the season and time of transition, is appropriate because the lovers and the court are aging and maturing’ (129).
10. T. H. White, The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King, Prologue by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), 3. All other citations to The Book of Merlyn will be to this edition and will be given in the text by page number.
11. ‘Flight to Aleppo: T. H. White's The Once and Future King,’ Mosaic 10.2 (1977), 71.
12.The White/Garnett Letters, ed. David Garnett (New York: Viking, 1968), 86.
13. Cited in Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto & Windus, 1967), 187.
14. ‘Some Comments on "T. H. White, Pacifism and Violence,"’ Connotations 7.1 (1997/98), 129.
15. Martin Kellman, T. H. White and the Matter of Britain (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), p. 103.
16.T. H. White's The Once and Future King (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 76.
17.T. H. White (New York: Twayne, 1974), 111-12.
18.T. H. White and the Matter of Britain (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), 123.
19. Cited in Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto & Windus, 1967), 188.
20.T. H. White (New York: Twayne, 1974), 79.
21.T. H. White: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto & Windus, 1967), 182.
22.T. H. White's The Once and Future King (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 150. See also Martin Kellman, T. H. White and the Matter of Britain (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), who observes that ‘ … both volume one, The Sword in the Stone, and volume four would be weakened by the absence of material later donated to them from the abandoned book. Moreover, Merlyn is so different from them in style and tone and so uneven in quality that it would have been somewhat of a disruption, being too long for a coda.’ Kellman adds: ‘I believe White chose correctly when he did not include it in the 1958 edition of The Once and Future King’ (131-32).
23.T. H. White's The Once and Future King (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 152.
24.T. H. White's The Once and Future King (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), 164.
25. Elisabeth Brewer remarks that ‘although The Book of Merlyn might seem to represent White's last word on the subject of Arthur, since it was not published until so long after the rest, his final revision of The Candle in the Wind before the tetralogy eventually appeared in 1958 enabled him to end it more judiciously and with more decorum. So, although it was not until November 1948 that White at last decided that he would have, in effect, to discard The Book of Merlyn and that he would insert the visits to the ants and to the geese into The Sword in the Stone, in doing so he surely made the right decision’ (T. H. White's The Once and Future King, [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993] 150-51).
26. The 1958 ending also seems to resolve some of the ‘schizophrenia’ that Warner complained of. As John K. Crane observes, ‘Though Arthur debates the improbability of perfection at great lengths in his tent in the final chapter, the fact that he seeks a boy to carry his message into the future seems to indicate that neither it nor the theme is one of fatalism and consequent resignation’ (T. H. White [New York: Twayne, 1974],115).
Heather Worthington (essay date summer 2002)
SOURCE: Worthington, Heather. "From Children's Story to Adult Fiction: T. H. White's The Once and Future King." Arthuriana 12, no. 2 (summer 2002): 97-119.
[In the following essay, Worthington traces White's deliberate evolution of The Once and Future King from its children-oriented beginnings in The Sword in the Stone to the more adult progressions found in the last two books.]
The fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
The myth of King Arthur has been appropriated and adapted by many writers and in various ways, but most frequently as a vehicle for contemporary, sometimes personal, anxieties and concerns. The nineteenth-century revival of interest in the myth, as exemplified in William Morris's ‘Defence of Guinevere’ (1858), Swinburne's ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ (1882), and Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1886)1 in the main took the fifteenth-century Le Morte Darthur (1485) of Malory as its inspiration. However, in the twentieth century T. H. White is unusual in taking Malory's text as the inspiration for his Arthuriad The Once and Future King. As Elisabeth Brewer notes, White's epic ‘is probably the last major retelling of the story based on Malory, set in the Middle Ages and in the chivalric tradition. Most subsequent writers have gone further back in time to a more primitive age.’2The Once and Future King, while far from being the only interpretation of the Arthur story in the twentieth century, is thus arguably the last successful adaptation of Malory's work as opposed to those other fictional Arthurs whose origins can be traced back to an earlier, less chivalric time.3
Where Malory's Le Morte Darthur imagines an essentially adult world, White's inspired notion was to construct what he called ‘a preface to Mallory (sic),’4 and imagine a childhood for Arthur. The gap in Arthur's story between his birth as documented in Malory and his later succession to the throne of England is accounted for in The Sword in the Stone, the first volume of White's Arthuriad. The successive volumes chart Arthur's progress into manhood and old age, culminating on the eve of his death, a progression which follows the form of a biographical narrative: to some extent White's reinterpretation of the Arthurian myth functions as a biography. Further, the text has its own life story. The narrative structure which takes Arthur from childhood to maturity is paralleled in the textual structure; the five novels comprising the whole text themselves evolve from children's stories into adult fictions, an evolution that mimics the pattern of a biography and which positions childhood experience as the foundation of the adult subject. Within this context White used his own experiences of childhood, both positive and negative, the latter evidenced particularly in his portrayal of women. I suggest that The Once and Future King allowed White a textual space in which to explore his ambivalent feelings towards his mother and women generally, and to some extent project his own homoerotic and sadistic tendencies into the narrative. In the best psychoanalytic tradition, these feelings and tendencies are not overtly expressed, indeed, they are repressed, but it is well nigh impossible to read White's text without being aware of the psychoanalytic implications.5 Therefore, although my project here is not to attempt a psychoanalytic reading of The Once and Future King, the paper will be informed, but not structured, by Freudian analytic theory.
The most widely available version of White's text is based on the 1958 edition of The Once and Future King, which comprised four books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. 6 The first three volumes had been issued as individual texts in 1938, 1939, and 1940 respectively, but before their incorporation into the tetralogy of 1958 all three were revised. The alterations to book 3 were relatively minor editorial improvements, but book 1 had whole episodes deleted and new episodes inserted, and book 2 underwent a major restructuring: a change of title from the original The Witch in the Wood, a loss of over half its pages, and a rewriting of the remaining content. The first two books are concerned mainly with childhood, and in unrevised form contain portrayals of female power and sexuality, albeit in a largely negative light. The subsequent revised editions omitted or diluted these portraits of women in what amounts to a textual/sexual repression of the feminine. Following Malory, White's Arthurian world attempts to embody a masculine domain, where women are figured as either incidental or disruptive. Consistent with this ideology, the feminine as socially disruptive is, as Stephen Knight suggests, a central theme in Tennyson's Idylls and it could be argued that The Once and Future King is simply maintaining tradition.7 White had his own reasons for containing the feminine, but as Freud has said, the repressed always returns, and despite their textual excisions and narrative exclusions women play a greater role in White's text and the eventual downfall of Arthur than their constrained representation would seem to expect.
This paper has two interconnected strands: the textual evolution from children's story to adult fiction, and the representations of women and their subversive function within the texts and the myth. The Sword in the Stone is the depiction of an idyllic childhood, largely free from women. In The Witch in the Wood /The Queen of Air and Darkness, White introduces, in the character of Morgause, themes of sex and sexuality, constructing a textual and narrative adolescence, while The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind explore the convoluted social and sexual relationships of Arthur's adult life. The simple and fantastical narratives of childhood develop into the realism inherent in the complex psychological narratives of modern adult fiction. As White himself said, with reference to Malory's text: ‘I read it … knowing how Launcelot would behave in any circumstances, how Arthur, how Gawaine. They were real people.’8 In his own interpretation of the story, White attempted to create a similarly real cast of characters. Within the fantasy world of The Sword in the Stone, the young Arthur is a believable child; in the two books concerned with the grown-up Arthur, despite the medieval setting, the masculine personae are equally credible to the adult reader. However, White found the portrayal of women more problematic, and where the fantastic nature of The Witch in the Wood /The Queen of Air and Darkness had allowed him a free rein in his portrayal of the caricatured mother-figure of Morgause, he had to enlist the help of a female friend, Ray Garnett, in the construction of a more realistic Guenever.9
In text and manhood, growth proved difficult for Arthur and author, and the complex topic of woman functions as a focus for these textual and sexual difficulties. The extent to which White's women subvert their restricted narrative function is explored in this paper, which, following the text's own evolutionary pattern, is divided into two sections: children's stories and adult fictions.
The Sword in the Stone (book 1 of The Once and Future King ) has its genesis in Malory, but its creation of a childhood for Arthur is unique to White. He drew heavily on his own experience of childhood, concentrating on the happy time spent with his grandparents, his parents being stationed in India. The young Arthur, nicknamed the Wart by his foster-brother Kay, has no family of his own, and is the ward of Sir Ector: ‘The Wart was not a proper son … it was different, not having a father and a mother … being different was wrong.’10 Even his nickname, purportedly the abbreviated West Country dialect version of his given name, is etymologically more suggestive of an unwanted growth on the family body. In Freudian terms, apparently possessing neither mother nor father, the Wart is outside the Oedipal triangle that is essential to the development of a normal gendered subjectivity: distortions of Freud's Oedipal construct are a recurring theme throughout The Once and Future King. White himself underwent psychoanalysis in an attempt to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, an experience which left him with some knowledge of Freudian methodology and which probably colored his perspective on women, particularly his mother. After her death he wrote in his diary: ‘she managed to bitch up my loving women.’11 In The Sword in the Stone, Sir Ector does not appear to have a wife, and indeed, the world of Arthur's childhood is almost exclusively masculine: the absence of women appears to guarantee the stability and happiness of the Wart's early life.
Remembering his own dysfunctional youth, White's construction of the perfect imaginary childhood rested on the exclusion of the feminine. This is made obvious from the very first page of the text: the opening sentences of the narrative depict the Wart's governess: ‘[she] had red hair and some mysterious wound … believed to be where she sat down.’ (3) Such a wound is suggestive of menstruation and disorderly feminine sexuality; the governess succumbs to that female malady, hysteria, and is eliminated from the text on the first page. This prompt dismissal performs two functions; firstly it permits the narrative to construct the masculine domain which it posits as essential to an idyllic childhood, and secondly it creates a textual space for the introduction of Merlyn as the Wart's tutor. In The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn conflates the roles of authoritative father figure and caring mother figure with his educative function, obviating the necessity for a normative Oedipal structure.
The educational aspect of The Sword in the Stone, combined with the masculine setting, is strongly reminiscent of an English public school (i.e. a private educational establishment). This similarity is reinforced by the figure of the Nurse, who functions as a school matron. Within this scholastic environment, Merlyn seeks to educate the Wart, not, however, using conventional methodologies. Rather, using magic, he changes the young Arthur into a series of animals, allowing the experience of the natural world to act as an educational tool. Man, this process would seem to suggest, learns better from nature than from nurture. What might be considered normal lessons take place within the castle walls, a separation of locations that marks the divide between nature and culture. Not all of the Wart's adventures involve his transformation; he is sometimes allowed to be himself, although magic is usually involved somehow. Further, in each of the Wart's excursions masculinity is valorized and privileged, albeit through a screen of schoolboy humor appropriate to the public school atmosphere of his education. Where women are encountered, they are marginalized, masculinized or demonized: silly Mrs. Roach, with her hysterical illness and brood of little roaches; the goose Lyo-Lyok, who inspires fondness in the Wart ‘in spite of her being a girl’ (173); the militaristic female peregrine falcon in the mews; or Maid Marian, with her masculine skills and boyish attributes. But the most significant encounter with the feminine for the Wart is found only in the original version of The Sword in the Stone (1938), in an episode deleted from the revised edition, although retained in bowdlerized form in the Disney cartoon of the same title.
Here, the Wart meets woman as demon in the shape of Madame Mim, self-advertised specialist in necromancy. She is portrayed as a devouring mother-figure prefiguring Morgause in The Witch in the Wood, and reminiscent of the cannibalistic witch in Hansel and Gretel.12 The encounter occurs when the Wart's best arrow is carried away in mid-flight by the gore-crow that is Madame Mim's familiar. The clumsiness of the deletion of this episode is evident in the 1958 edition, where the theft occurs, but is never properly explained, nor is the arrow retrieved.13 The unexpurgated 1938 version of the text relates how, in pursuit of his arrow, the Wart and Kay fall into the clutches, and hutches, of Madame Mim. In contrast to the traditional depiction of witches as ugly old crones, she is ‘strikingly beautiful with coal black hair.’14 Here beauty functions as a mask concealing the negative aspect of the female. There are sexual and sadistic overtones in her treatment of the boys; she pinches Kay to check his plumpness and strips the Wart naked as she ‘prepare[s] to have her will of him’ (SS [The Sword in the Stone ] 91). Merlyn's subsequent rescue of the children offers the first direct portrayal of the male/female conflict recurrent throughout the four volumes of the text when he and Mim fight a wizards' duel. This is a battle between masculine reason and feminine guile, where Merlyn's victory is a triumph for phallocentric rationality: he subverts the rules of wizardly duelling by refusing to make the proper and reciprocal response to Mim's various shape-changes. Instead, he uses the medical knowledge gained in his backwardly-lived life and, in ‘a master stroke … turned himself successively into the microbes, not yet discovered, of hiccoughs (sic), scarlet fever, mumps, whooping cough, measles and heat spots’ (SS 96), from which combination Madame Mim immediately expires. The world of White's narrative is only safe for the boys when women are absent. The later edition of the book refigured Mim as Morgan le Fay, ‘a fat, dowdy middle-aged woman with black hair,’ (109) and the episode is stripped of is sexual connotations in an evident textual repression of feminine power.
The concentration on nature in The Sword in the Stone and the absence of sexuality are proper to a children's story: they are also evocative of a prelapsarian world, where sexuality, specifically female sexuality, would be disruptive, threatening the stability apparently offered by the masculine world created by White. This theme recurs later in the Arthuriad, when the destruction of the Round Table and of Arthur's kingdom is directly attributed by him to the female line in history; while he stops short of mentioning Eve specifically, the biblical allusion is clear.15 Here, however, the Wart is firmly fixed into a masculine and homosocial context, defined through and by his relationships with positive masculine figures as opposed to the negative depictions of femininity. Appropriately, in leaving his idyllic, male-dominated childhood behind, the rite of passage that accomplishes the Wart's transition into manhood is exclusively masculine. The traditional drawing of the Sword from the stone is an acquisition of symbolic phallic power, enabling Arthur to take his rightful place in the patriarchal hierarchy of men. Arthur's childhood ends with the conclusion of the first book of The Once and Future King : with his kingship comes his history, and the secret of his birth is revealed. He is no longer differentiated by a lack of parentage, but through his acquisition of the royal heritage handed down by his now dead father, Uther Pendragon. The textual continuation of Arthur's narrative in The Witch in the Wood /Queen of Air and Darkness enacts in itself the conflict between the sexes, and the idyllic masculine childhood of Arthur is contrasted against the dysfunctional, matriarchal regime of Morgause.
The first part of White's The Once and Future King is a child's book and a story of a childhood: the Wart is a child and his concerns those of childhood. The second volume retains the childlike theme in the absurd antics of the protagonists and the schoolboy sense of humor that accompanies their actions, but, like an adolescent, the text veers between childishness and adult sexuality. Underneath the comedic and farcical depiction of Morgause there is an edge of misogynistic bitterness. If White used his imagination and his own experience of happy childhood for The Sword in the Stone, then it was the unhappy aspects of his youth that he worked out in The Witch in the Wood, specifically his relationship with his mother. Elisabeth Brewer suggests that White felt ‘an overwhelming compulsion … to revenge himself on his mother, caricatured in the figure of Morgause.’16 It is in this text that the results of his psychoanalytic experiences are most evident. The original text of The Witch in the Wood is a long, sprawling narrative of 281 pages, divided into thirty-four chapters, of which only five are concerned with Arthur, marginalizing both him and the masculinity associated with him. The remainder is devoted to Morgause and her four sons in Lothian. Brewer posits the title The Witch in the Wood as a connecting device between Morgause and her textual prototype Madame Mim, finding no direct reference in the text to the ‘wood’ of the title.17 However, the first edition of the text mentions ‘the melancholy pinewood from which the Queen derived her name,’18 a direct association of Morgause with untamed nature as figured in the forest whose wildness mirrors the disorderly life in the castle of Lothian.
White's alternative construction of childhood features four boys: Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth. Unlike the Wart, they know their parentage, although their father is away for most of the narrative and they are left to the somewhat erratic mercies of their mother Morgause, for whom they have a blind and jealous adoration. She is Freud's narcissistic woman; her desire is centered on herself, but she seeks confirmation of her desirability in the mirror of the desperate affection of her sons and the lust she invokes in other masculine figures.19 Morgause conforms to Baudrillard's conception of woman as appearance; without depth, her femininity is a masquerade that includes a role as a mother.20 A reincarnation of Madame Mim, Morgause is again represented as the devouring female, castrating rather than castrated. The Oedipal model absent from The Sword in the Stone is present in The Witch in the Wood, but in a distorted form; in a Freudian context, Morgause, simultaneously the object of desire to her sons and also the threat of castration, fulfils the mother-role and subsumes the role of the father, thus subverting the Oedipal norm. White's mother and father had finally divorced after a long and bitter battle, in which White found himself an object of contest. He later wrote:
Of hapless father hapless son
My birth was brutally begun,
And all my childhood o'er the pram
The father and the maniac dam
Struggled and leaned to pierce the knife
Into each other's bitter life.21
While there is no obvious struggle between Morgause and her husband king Lot, his departure from the court leaves her in sole charge of their four children, as White was eventually to be left in the sole custody of his mother.
In keeping with the construction of the narrative as a children's story, sexuality is concealed in comedy and farce, emerging slyly in episodes such as that of the unicorn, where, in an attempt to seduce Sir Grummore, Morgause plays the virgin in a unicorn hunt. There is a darker side to the tale when, in trying to fulfill what they assume is their mother's desire, her sons try to capture the unicorn for her. A serving girl, Meg, is forced to take the role played originally by Morgause, a conflation of maiden and mother which leads Agravaine to butcher the fabulous beast when he sees the unicorn's horn laid across the lap of Meg/Morgause. The symbolism is obvious, although understated: the death of the unicorn represents the loss of childhood innocence that follows the acquisition of sexual knowledge. Further, the episode conveys something of the confusion of the adolescent mind in matters of sex.22 Where sexuality is covert and implicit in the narrative, violence and brutality are overt and explicit: the slaughter of the unicorn is described in graphic detail, and there are other references to the seemingly mindless cruelty of children in the boys' fights and the calculated cruelty of adults in the beatings they receive from both mother and father.
Morgause's irrational alternation between suffocating love and cold indifference for her children leads to an inconstancy and uncertainty in the boys' relationship with her that will distort their future involvement with women. Gawaine's violent temper results in the death of a woman, while Agravaine's implicitly incestuous involvement with Morgause makes him so possessive of her that he later murders her in a fit of jealousy, when, aged seventy, she takes young Sir Lamorak to her bed (451). In contrast to the plethora of masculine role models in Arthur's childhood, the Orkney boys' role models are parodic and ineffectual, not to say effete; their lessons come from culturally constructed humanity, not the natural world enjoyed by the Wart. The role of tutor, encompassed in the single figure of Merlyn in The Sword in the Stone, is, in The Witch in the Wood, divided between the incompetent Anglo-Indian Sir Palomides in the castle, and the heretical, drunken Irishman Saint Torealvac in the village.23 The visiting knights King Pellinore and Sir Grummore are resistant to the blandishments of Morgause but have sexual problems of their own, as do all the adult male figures. Pellinore yearns for the dominatrix Piggy, and Saint Torealvac drunkenly and libidinously pursues Mother Morlan in direct contravention of his religious vows, while the physical problematics of masculine sexuality are parodied in the scene where Pellinore, Sir Palomides, and Sir Grummore attempt to toss the caber in the tournament arranged by Morgause. As Alan Macdonald suggests, ‘[t]he language which describes their attempt is full of double entendre,’24 and the efforts of all three men are required to raise the wooden pole: ‘the caber rose magnificently erect … [t]he three knights who supported it gazed up along its barrel as if in adoration’ (WW [The Witch in the Wood ] 152-53). This description of the co-operation in the erection and the ensuing adoration of the phallic symbol is both homosocial and homoerotic, albeit couched in schoolboyish humour.
In contrast to this disorderly, sexualized world, the chapters devoted to Arthur and his battles to become established as monarch and construct his capital of Carlion depict a masculine haven of rationality.25 Arthur's success in his wars with the northern kings can be seen as the triumph of patriarchal Right over the Might represented by the matriarchal Celtic tribes.26 The masculine domain of Arthur's childhood is here translated into the Round Table: a chivalric invention of Arthur's which promises to use Might only in the pursuance of Right. This seems to offer both stability and an outlet for aggression, a homosocial refuge from the dangerous and irrational femininity represented by Morgause. But the passage of time reduced the drama of the second book of The Once and Future King : in the revision of The Witch in the Wood into The Queen of Air and Darkness Morgause loses her status as a witch, with all the concomitant attributes of witchery, and is reduced to the more prosaic and less magical status of Queen. The more lurid elements of her character and actions are toned down, and her share of the fiction is reduced by more than half, textually repressing her previously dominant role. The sprawling narrative of The Witch in the Wood, strained in its attempt to contain disruptive sexuality, is largely restored to order in the later version. Nevertheless, the dénouement of both versions brings the text and Arthur fully into the adult world in a climax which White considered to be the cause of Arthur's downfall: ‘the real reason why Arthur came to a bad end was because he had slept with his sister.’27 In her seduction of Arthur, it is unclear whether Morgause uses magic, or whether it is the maternal image that she presents, accompanied by her sons, which draws Arthur to her. Either way, the act is one of incest, literally as they are half-brother and sister, or metaphorically in Freudian terms if it is the mother figure that he desires. Arthur is presented as an innocent victim, but for Morgause it is a conscious act that initiates the eventual destruction of the masculine authority inherent in Arthur's Round Table. The product of their illicit union is Mordred, who will kill his own father.
There is a common assumption in many societies and cultures that childhood innocence ends with the subject's sexual initiation. White's representation of the relationship between Arthur and Morgause was tailored to the audience of children for which his book was designed. There are no salacious details, only the information that ‘Morgause had a baby by her half brother.’ (323) However, with the sexual act, Arthur loses his innocence, and so does the text, and there can be no return to childhood stories. Arthur's sexual coming of age opens the way for the personal relationships of adult life, and the style and content of the remaining books of White's Arthuriad are more serious in tone than their predecessors. This alteration in register not only enacts the maturity of the narratives and their personae, but is also the result of a closer adherence to the original tale penned by Malory. The early lives of Mordred and Lancelot are incorporated into the adult fictions that comprise the remaining two texts of the The Once and Future King, fictions which expose the private lives of the protagonists that Malory had subjugated to the demands of public life in Le Morte Darthur. Mordred's youth is briefly summed up in the fourth book, The Candle in the Wind : ‘He had been brought up alone with Morgause … she had loved him and forgotten him by turns, an insatiable carnivore who lived on the affections of her dogs, her children and her lovers.’ (553) She inculcates him with her own hatred of his father, Arthur, who is also the key figure of Lancelot's boyhood. Lancelot had ‘already fallen in love with Arthur’ (328) before taking up his membership of the Round Table, after a childhood not dissimilar to that of Arthur in that it occupied a masculine space, with Uncle Dap replicating in a militaristic mode Merlyn's role as tutor and mentor. Women are absent from the initial relationship between Arthur and Lancelot, and the homoeroticism implicit in Lancelot's love for Arthur subverts the cultural construction of masculinity inherent in the Arthurian myth.
The narrative register of The Sword in the Stone and The Witch in the Wood /Queen of Air and Darkness is that of children's fiction, playful, imaginative, fantastic, and satisfyingly horrific in an appropriately childish way. The transition from the texts of childhood and the childhood of the texts to maturity for both texts and characters is accomplished in a neat segue which concludes the second volume and introduces the themes of the third. The final lines of the former are: ‘in tragedy, innocence is not enough’ (323). To complete his interpretation of the Arthurian myth it was necessary for White to leave the innocence of childhood behind and to concentrate on the problems that come with the onset of adulthood, problems which will culminate in death, and thus fulfill the requirements of tragedy. Already, the representations of the feminine can be seen to subvert the masculine authority of the myth; women wield more influence than is justified by their minor roles. The textual repression evident in deleting Madame Mim from The Sword in the Stone, and the reduction of Morgause's role in The Queen of Air and Darkness do not entirely destroy their subversive potential. While Mim's replacement Morgan le Fay remains a cartoon caricature of femininity, the increased realism in the portrayal of Morgause in The Queen of Air and Darkness confers an authority upon her which was lacking in the caricatured self-centred nymphomaniac of the earlier version. In The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, the feminine will come to play an increasingly important role, specifically in the destruction of the Round Table. The women portrayed are no longer the grotesque creatures of childish fantasy, caricatured or cartoon- like and easily elaborated, easily dismissed; they are living, breathing beings, who elicit an adult response in the men of the text and in the mind of the reader.
The Ill-Made Knight purports to be the story of Lancelot and his quest to be the best knight in the world; however, it reads rather as a love story, a romantic fiction in the modern tradition as opposed to the heroic romance of Malory's Le Morte Darthur. In planning the third novel in his tetralogy, White gave much thought to the characterization of Lancelot. The earlier texts contained elements of his own childhood, real and imagined, and to some extent he identified with the youthful Arthur and the figure of Merlyn. In The Ill-Made Knight, White openly declared his affinity and identification with the fictional Lancelot, directly comparing his hero to himself in a list of ‘people he was like,’ a list which included Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia.28 Further, he compiled a collection of Lancelot's character traits as he interpreted them from Malory's original text, a task which, as Sylvia Townsend Warner suggests, was not problematic for White: ‘The fellow's character I understand already: it is my own.’29 Among the eighteen traits listed, White specifically refers to Lancelot as ‘probably sadistic … Aware of some big lack in himself … Homosexual? Can a person be ambi-sexual—bisexual or whatever?’30 Lancelot embodies some of White's own troubling sexual proclivities, for which he had sought psychoanalytic help, and the text supports this: ‘the boy thought there was something wrong with him. All through his life … he was to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware and ashamed’ (329). White's own youthful anxieties are written into the portrayal of the young Lancelot. The title of the novel itself suggests the tensions inherent in Lancelot's sexuality; ‘Ill-Made’ can be read not only as physically unattractive, but also as ‘made ill,’ specifically psychically unstable. The repression of his homoerotic desire for Arthur literally sickens Lancelot.
This argument is supported by Alan Macdonald's proposition that ‘[t]he homoeroticism which White's language originally gave expression to still informs the text in various coded ways—in Arthur and Lancelot's love.’31 Research suggests that White was aware of this coding; before its incorporation into The Once and Future King, his amendments to the original The Ill-Made Knight include the alteration of the adjective ‘queer’ to ‘strange’ in association with Lancelot, while ‘Arthur's lover’ becomes ‘the hero-worshipper.’32 Handsome, and straightforwardly heterosexual, Arthur represents the perfect alternative to the flawed persona Lancelot sees himself to be, and thus becomes initially the focus of his desire for normality, a desire that is subsequently complicated by repressed homoerotic overtones. This, however, is a desire for which there is no discursive space in the masculine culture of Arthurian myth, and it must remain unspoken, even if implicit in the text. Instead, Lancelot sublimates his love for Arthur into a love for Arthur's queen, Guenever. This sublimated love has its genesis in pain, albeit emotional rather than physical, when Lancelot deals roughly with Guenever: ‘The young man knew … that he had hurt a real person, of his own age’ (348). That their relationship should be founded in pain is in keeping with the sadomasochistic element of Lancelot's characterization, being also a displacement of his own pain onto another subject. The narrative moves away from the fantasy of childhood into the fantastic reality of adult life, a move encapsulated in the (temporary) elimination of Merlyn from the text. He also is affected by love, willingly entering into the imprisonment that results from his long foreseen affair with Nimue: effectively, the loss of innocence inherent in his sexualization removes him from the world of childhood. This is an anomaly; Merlyn is living backwards and therefore returning to the imagined asexuality associated with images of childhood. However, the mature and increasingly Christian world of the text and narrative has no space for Merlyn's wizardry and there is no other adult role available to him. With Merlyn's departure, the magic of the first two books of The Once and Future King is lost, to be replaced by the miracles which are the adult version of magic, a magic converted into and legitimated by religion.
The comedy of The Sword in the Stone and The Witch in the Wood /Queen of Air and Darkness is largely absent from The Ill-Made Knight. Marriage is the accepted end of comic works, symbolizing the union of opposites, resolving the tensions in society and making new life possible. The conclusion to The Witch in the Wood /Queen of Air and Darkness perverts this normative ending as the illicit union between Arthur and Morgause lays the seeds of later tragedy. The opening of The Ill-Made Knight appears to offer a more acceptable union when Arthur marries Guenever, but the outcome will still be tragic. The incestuous enactment of the Oedipus complex in The Witch in the Wood /Queen of Air and Darkness, where Arthur succumbs to a doubly forbidden desire for the mother-figure of his half-sister Morgause, reappears in a modified form in the triangular relation- ship between Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot in The Ill-Made Knight. Guenever has elements of her predecessors Madame Mim and Morgause; she shares some of their physical features, being beautiful with ‘hair so black it was startling’ (344), and further, functions as a mother-figure, although she is childless. The text suggests that ‘perhaps she loved Arthur as a father, and Lancelot because of the son she could not have’ (498). Her marginal position in the world of the text, where her actions are circumscribed by the imagined medieval culture, does not prevent Guenever from sharing center-stage with Lancelot: her textual significance exceeds her allocated social role. Arthur, in contrast, becomes a more shadowy figure, being off-stage as often as on.
It is Arthur's observation of the burgeoning love between Lancelot and Guenever that prompts him to take Lancelot off to the Roman wars. Here, once more in an all-male environment, there is no personal conflict. But the return to England and the presence of the feminine disrupts this masculine contentment, as Lancelot realises: ‘Queen Guenever was on the beach to meet them … she was able to come between them after all’ (354). It is in an attempt to avoid confronting his own desires that he undertakes his quests, sublimating desire into violence.33 The descriptions, often detailed, of the injuries inflicted by one knight upon another, or of the punishments meted out to the vanquished, have strong elements of homoerotic sadism, as in the tale of Sir Turquine. His pleasure lay in taking his prisoners ‘into his grimly castle, where he took off all their clothes and whacked them to his heart's content’ (357). Following Malory, and contiguous with medieval traditions of Courtly Love and questing, in six of Lancelot's first seven quests women are involved either as deceitful opponents or as maidens requiring rescue. In the implicitly masculine practice of questing for adventure, women figure as disruptive or subversive factors. Most significant among these women is Elaine, who seduces Lancelot by getting him drunk and making him believe she is Guenever. Lancelot equates his loss of virginity with the loss of his chance to become the best knight, rather in the mode of a sportsman believing sexual intercourse the night before a big match will ruin his performance, fearful that feminine sexuality somehow depletes masculine power.
As a result of this encounter, Elaine bears Lancelot's son Galahad, who will achieve the chivalric perfection denied to his father. Here, deviating from Malory, White is conflating Elaine, mother of Galahad, with Elayne of Ascolat.34 This combined figure functions as a cipher in White's text, enabling the physical union of Guenever and Lancelot that he had previously resisted. Elaine is an unattractive character, rousing no sympathy or empathy in the reader of the text, and, further, is instrumental in causing Lancelot's descent into madness. It is the conflicting demands of Elaine as the mother of his child, and of Guenever as his lover, combined with his guilt in deceiving Arthur, which drive Lancelot temporarily insane. White borrows from medieval literary convention in which the man driven mad by love flees to the forest, and Lancelot becomes the Wild Man of the woods. When he recovers his sanity, the possibility of a normative family structure for Elaine, Lancelot, and their son is eliminated by the removal of Elaine from the narrative. Her textual conflation with the Lady of Ascolat enabled White to write her suicide into the narrative.35 The distorted Oedipal triangle of Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot is reinstated, with Guenever in the ascendant. Denying the role allocated to her within the narrative conventions of the genre, she refuses to be repressed or subservient to men, both textually and figuratively. White declared that ‘Much more important than what sort of person was Lancelot is what sort of person is Guenever? She must have been a nice person, or Lancelot and Arthur … would not have loved her.’36 Despite his own aversion to women (‘I dislike the shape of women very much and can scarcely bring myself to draw it’37), White's portrayal of Guenever attempts to be sympathetic and true to life. After the misogynistic sketches of women in the earlier books, Guenever, although possessing ‘all the proper qualities for a man-eater [permits] both Arthur and Lancelot, the people whom she apparently devoured … full lives and … things of their own’ (497), unlike her predecessors Mim and Morgause. However, the suggestion of permission implies that Guenever is in control, conferring upon her an authority more usually associated with the masculine and can be read as indicative of White's own confused conceptions of femininity. Nonetheless, the portrayal of a ‘real’ woman illustrates the text's maturity in the shift from cartoon story to psychological novel.
Depictions of knightly activities notwithstanding, the majority of The Ill-Made Knight 's forty-five chapters are concerned with personal and sexual relationships, although the sexual activity is never explicit, rendering the book perfectly acceptable as children's fiction. The fun and the fantasy of The Sword in the Stone are missing, and the interpersonal dialogues and examination of personal motivations that replace them are more suited to an adult audience. But this is not all that is at issue. While White's descriptions of adult behaviour, particularly the love-talk between Lancelot and Guenever, are rather stilted and awkward, when he permits himself to speak of Malory's England, he waxes lyrical, and his prose flows free and uncluttered. The temporary peace between Guenever and Lancelot is reflected in the now-pacified Britain over which Arthur rules; in this adult world ‘all the tyrannous giants were dead, all the dangerous dragons … where the raiding parties had once streamed along the highways … now there were merry bands of pilgrims telling each other dirty stories on the way to Canterbury’ (445). The world has grown up with the narrative, and there is no space for the creatures of fantasy, only for the ribald realities of humanity. The peace brings with it an undesirable side effect, as Arthur notes: ‘We don't get much of the old fighting in these decadent days’ (448). The decadence is, though, still evident in the behavior of the Orkney brothers when Agravaine kills his mother Morgause for taking a lover, and Mordred in turn stabs her young lover Lamorak. The (masculine) violence and aggression, the Might that Arthur had routed through the Round Table in the cause of Right, denied the outlets of war, ‘is working wicked channels for itself’ (456).
The solution to the ‘feud, open manslaughter … [and] bold bawdry’ (456),38 is decided between Arthur and Lancelot. The individual quests of earlier times will be replaced by a communal quest which will involve all the knights of the Round Table; a quest for the Holy Grail. The transition from children's story to adult fiction is complete as childhood fantasies of the magic found in nature are replaced by hopes for a miracle, a religious concept constructed in culture. The masculine ethos inherent in questing notwithstanding, the object at the center of this endeavor to unite the feuding knights and restore the Round Table to its purpose can be read as feminine. In his account of the quest for the Holy Grail, the close adherence of White's narrative to Malory's text with its associations with medieval convention places White's version in a feminized frame. The unobtainable object of desire in the tradition of Courtly Love was female, and in the knights' previous quests, women frequently figured prominently. The pagan religions of Britain which Christianity replaced had often centered on a female goddess figure,39 and in Christian mythology, the Grail has been associated with the feminine, specifically the maternal: in Freudian analysis, the (unattainable) Grail would be the mother and the return to the security of the womb: in Jungian terminology, ‘the vessel … has a maternal meaning.’40 The figure of the mother haunts White's text, even in the moment when it most strives to be masculine. Questing is a masculine pursuit, open only to the men in the narrative, who believe they are seeking a route to a union with a (masculine) God, but their access is through the feminized image of the Grail. Lancelot aspires to the Grail, subsuming his love for Guenever and his repressed desire for Arthur into a legitimated passion for an idealized male God, but is barred from fully entering into the holy presence, ostensibly because of his sins of pride and lust.41
Unsuccessful in the Grail Quest, Lancelot at length resumes his earthly union with Guenever, and the court at Camelot, with the Round Table much reduced in number by the Grail Quest, now entered ‘the maturest or saddest phase, in which the enthusiasms had been used up … the court had "knowledge of the world" now, it had the fruits of achievement, civilization, savoir-vivre, gossip, fashion, malice and the broad mind of scandal’ (504). These attributes are shared by the modern adult fiction that the text has become. As the novel, so ‘the court was modern’ (505). After maturity comes senescence and decay, and the fourth novel in the tetralogy, The Candle in the Wind, plays witness to the final disintegration of Arthur's ideals and hopes. The final chapters of The Ill-Made Knight see the arrival of Mordred at Camelot and the beginning of the end. Mordred sets in motion the events that will lead to the exposure of Lancelot and Guenever's adultery, an exposure which could result in the death of Guenever and the exile of Lancelot, and which will disrupt the delicate equilibrium at Camelot. With the coming of Mordred, both he and the court in their shared obsession with gossip and fashion become feminized: the text describes Mordred and his followers as ‘sleek cats’ (505), waiting the opportunity to denounce the lovers. There remains, nonetheless, a last victory for the masculine world of knighthood.
The Ill-Made Knight ends as it had begun, with Lancelot, and reverts to Malory's text for its closing words. The Round Table gathers for the final time at Arthur's bequest in an attempt to assist Sir Urre,42 whose eternally bleeding wounds can be staunched only when ‘the best knight in the world had tended them and salved them with his hands’ (541). Lancelot is granted the miracle that had been denied him in the Grail Quest; as the perfect knight he felt he could not in the event be, he heals Sir Urre. Lancelot, the ‘Ill-Made Knight,’ despite the ‘something at the bot- tom of his heart of which … he was ashamed’ (327), and despite knowing ‘a secret which was hidden from the others’ (544), performs a miracle cure. ‘"And ever" says Malory, "Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten"’ (544). The pleasure/pain association of sadomasochism is evident in White's text if not in Malory: for Lancelot, no pleasure is possible without a concomitant measure of pain. In figuring Lancelot as a chastised child, the final line in the novel returns briefly to childhood, but as the text itself states, The Ill-Made Knight is ‘a story of love in the old days, when adults loved faithfully—not a story of the present, in which adolescents pursue the ignoble spasms of the cinematograph’ (539). It is rather a fiction for and about adults, not children.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of his self-declared affinity with Lancelot, the third volume of White's tetralogy is the longest. The final volume, The Candle in the Wind, in contrast, is the shortest, or at least it was until the savage cuts made to The Witch in the Wood reduced it as The Queen of Air and Darkness to less than half its initial length. Where the first three texts were original works, planned and contrived as novels, as Sylvia Townsend Warner states ‘[t]he last volume of Arthur was not new ground. It existed already, in the form of a play, called "The Candle in the Wind."’43 Elements of the dramatic structure can be seen in the novel; dialogue outweighs narrative, and the plot evolves in a series of scenes, mostly set in interior locations. Outdoor action is reported in speech, rather than enacted on the page, and the introductory and closing chapters function as prologue and epilogue. This said, the necessity of enclosing a long story in the small temporal and physical spaces of the theatre adds dramatic impact to White's text. The emphasis on dialogue rather than action is appropriate for a modern adult novel and in keeping with the now mature characters, who speak rather than act, although Lancelot, and Arthur to a lesser extent, still perform their knightly roles. However, if The Sword in the Stone was Arthur's story, and The Ill-Made Knight Lancelot's, The Candle in the Wind belongs to Mordred.
The return of Mordred is to some extent the return of the repressed. For Arthur, Mordred is the physical reminder of past sin come back to haunt him. The sin is doubled by Arthur's misguided and youthful attempt to have the infant Mordred drowned, set adrift with other babies in a medieval story reminiscent of the biblical account of Herod's actions after the birth of Jesus. Full details of Mordred's childhood are not given in the text, merely that he had spent it as an only child in the company of Morgause. This sets up a direct contrast between Arthur's idyllic (masculine) childhood and the dysfunctional (feminine) boyhood of Mordred, the pattern of which has already been related in The Witch in the Wood. In this sense, Mordred is the feminized alter-ego of Arthur, a twisted black shadow of his father. The psychical representation is reflected in his physical appearance: latterly dressed entirely in black, he is ‘a thin wisp of a fellow, so fair-haired that he was almost an albino … one shoulder was higher than the other. He had been born slightly crooked’ (454-55). Deprived of positive male role models, inculcated by Morgause with a hatred of his father, Mordred's mission in life is to replace Arthur as king. Arthur's own antecedents are questionable; White suggests that Arthur's time with Sir Ector was more to cover the somewhat premature date of his birth than for any other reason. But where Arthur surmounts this difficulty and becomes king, Mordred's illegitimate status and above all the unspoken but incestuous nature of his parents' relationship bar him from the throne.
Mordred plans to use Guenever as the instrument of his revenge by forcing Arthur to acknowledge publicly her adultery with Lancelot. For the first time, the topic of adultery and its implicit sexual activity is openly featured in the narrative, situating the text firmly as an adult fiction. There is no discursive space for childhood in this final volume, although the men retain a certain childishness: Arthur with his concern over fair play and Lancelot with his desire to be best, and even Mordred with his attitude of ‘it's not fair,’ all display a schoolboy nature. Their passions and concomitant actions are entirely adult, however. Lancelot and Guenever are trapped together in her boudoir, and while he escapes, she is left to face Arthur's justice. In his new codified legal system Guenever's adultery lays her open to charges of treason, and Arthur is forced to condemn her to death by burning. The recurring theme of sadism is evidenced in Mordred's apparent pleasure at the prospect of Guenever's suffering: ‘It will be a cruel death … They are using seasoned wood, and there will be no smoke and she will burn before she suffocates’ (607). Her last minute rescue by Lancelot and the lovers' subsequent escape to Joyous Gard (sic) forces Arthur's hand; he must be seen to retrieve his queen and punish the offense against his sovereignty and the state. The situation is finally resolved by the Church, which reinstates the queen and exiles Lancelot.
The focus in the narrative upon the relationship between Arthur and Mordred, and necessarily Guenever, disrupts the delicate equilibrium previously achieved by Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur, a dis- ruption completed by Lancelot's exile. The distortion of the Oedipal triangle of the previous texts is here returned to a simulacrum of the normative scenario: Arthur, Guenever and Mordred form a family grouping of father, mother and son, in function if not in fact. The original Oedipus story was a tragedy, and White uses both the structure of the classic tale to fulfill the demands of tragedy inherent in the Arthurian myth, and Freud's reconstruction of the story as an illustration of the effect of childhood on the adult subject. Mordred, left to care for Guenever in Arthur's absence, plots to kill his father and marry Guenever, his mother-substitute: ‘My father committed incest with my mother. Don't you think it would be a pattern, Jenny, if I were to answer it by marrying my father's wife?’ (652). His pattern would be an enactment of the Oedipus complex as theorized by Freud.44 Parallel to this reconstruction of family relations as a destructive force, The Candle in the Wind reiterates White's insistence on the feminine as disruptive. Mordred is already feminized by his upbringing, with its lack of masculine example; here, in his gradual descent into madness, he appears to become his mother Morgause: ‘robbed of himself … while the mother-character lives in triumph … She existed in him like a vampire’ (647-48). Such a statement posits Morgause as the instigator of Arthur's downfall while Mordred functions merely as her instrument, permitting a displaced triumph of the feminine over the masculine.
It appears to be White's accusing voice that speaks through the narrator when he says ‘it is the mother's not the lover's lust that rots the mind’ (647), in a speech which is used to ascribe the cause of Mordred's madness. Arthur's voice, heard later in the text, is more reasoned, but his deliberations on the origins of war return repeatedly to the feminine, naming Guenever and Morgause and including ‘Sisters, mothers, grandmothers’ (668) in a retrospective matriarchal lineage. He stops short of adducing the blame in the final resort to Eve, the first mother and instigator of the Fall, but the implication is evident: the feminine, against which masculinity defines itself, is dangerous and disruptive. The threat to Guenever brings Arthur and later Lancelot back to England to face Mordred in what will be the last battle for father and son. Lancelot and Guenever will survive, but her disruptive femininity will be confined in a convent, and Lancelot will offer his devotion to the masculine God who was always a possible contender for Lancelot's love and a rival to both Arthur and Guenever. At the conclusion to The Queen of Air and Darkness the text suggests that Arthur's story is ‘the tragedy of sin coming home to roost’ (323), referring to the sin of incest. Despite this textual insistence, the narrative continually positions women as the agents of destruction. The Arthurian myth, like every other discourse, ‘has its subtext, its underside or antagonist positioned within it, and this subtext speaks through the cracks.’45 The subtext of The Once and Future King is feminine: the women in the text slip through the chinks in the knightly armor and displace the phallocentric masculine authority of Malory's original text. In White's narrative, the repressed feminine subtext and the female figures through which it is articulated return with a vengeance to claim parity with the masculine surtext.
In the closing pages of The Candle in the Wind, perhaps in despair at the present, Arthur turns both to the future and the past. The story of the past is entrusted to a pageboy to be carried into the future. White uses this device as ‘a farewelling obeisance to the old master [Malory] who had conducted him for so long.’46 The pageboy is of course the young Thomas Malory, who will ensure that Arthur's story is passed on through the male line to future generations, maintaining the homosocial context that is essential to the myth. Arthur's history as he relates it to the boy is couched in the language of children, and the adult fiction makes a gesture back to the children's stories that were its foundation, and to the perfect, largely masculine world of Arthur's childhood. This movement back to the past is further enhanced by the dreamlike reintroduction of Merlyn, that figure of fantasy firmly banished from adult life. In his dream, Arthur remembers the lessons learnt from nature in childhood, and concludes that the stateless existence of birds offers an end to war. On awakening, he plans a new Round Table, but, contradicting the drift of his dream, decides that ‘the hope of making it would lie in culture’ (676). Ultimately, it would appear, the cultural constructions and constrictions of adult life and fiction will triumph over the natural magic of children's stories.
In 1941 White submitted a fifth volume of his Arthurian epic for publication, The Book of Merlyn. Collins refused to publish it, and it was not in fact issued in print until 1977. The text, perhaps because unrevised, is confused, repetitive, and disorderly. It is patterned on the events of The Sword in the Stone, a return that seems to be the reversion to childhood experienced by the old and senile. It expands the brief, dreamlike appearance of Merlyn on the eve of the last battle in The Candle in the Wind, and takes the aged Arthur back to his childhood in a long and rambling attempt to analyze the warring nature of mankind. In the company of the animal friends of his boyhood, Arthur participates in an anthropomorphic round table discussion. All those present are male, yet the solution they decide upon, a world free of national boundaries and possessions, modelled on that of the White-Fronted Geese, is found in Arthur's memories of the female goose Lyo-lyok, and is expressed in her voice. Finally, then, nature and the feminine are seen to triumph—but only in the fantasy world of childhood.
1.The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson (1886) was the edition in which the Idylls were presented in their final form.
2. Elisabeth Brewer, T. H. White: The Once and Future King (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), p. 18.
3. There have been many twentieth-century reworkings of the Arthurian myth, but authors as diverse as Bernard Cornwell, Mary Stewart, Rosemary Sutcliff, Steven Monaco and John Berger have utilized earlier sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1156) and Nennius (fl. c.830), the author or compiler of the Historia Britonum, relating the story to the Roman occupation of Britain and the conflict between the old Celtic pagan religion and Christianity. Marion Zimmer Bradley interweaves elements of Malory's tale with Celtic mythology and a type of historicism in The Mists of Avalon (New York: Ballantine, 1982, and London, 1986), which is a feminist reading of the Arthuriad, but White is exceptional in his reliance upon and close adherence to Malory's interpretation of the myth in Le Morte Darthur.
4. Letter from White to L. J. Potts, January 14, 1938. Cited in Brewer, T. H. White, p. 18.
5. Elisabeth Brewer's T. H. White makes reference to White's interest in and treatment with psychoanalysis, as does Sylvia Townsend Warner in T. H. White: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). Alan Macdonald's article ‘A Lost Story of Perversion: T. H. White's The Witch in the Wood’ in The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas, Austin 23:4 (1993), pp. 106-129 also makes reference to psychoanalysis, while Florence Field Sandler's somewhat simplistic paper ‘Family Romance in The Once and Future King,’ in Quondam et Futurus 2:2 (1992), pp. 73-80, reads the text as a palimpsest of the Oedipal triangle that Freud referred to as ‘the family romance.’ See Sandler, p. 73.
6. A new edition of The Once and Future King which now includes The Book of Merlyn was published by HarperCollins (London) in 1996. However, this paper draws on the earlier 1958 edition of The Once and Future King and on the individual first edition volumes of The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood, The Ill-Made Knight and The Book of Merlyn.
7. Stephen Knight, Arthurian Literature and Society (London: Macmillan, 1983), p. 157.
8. T. H. White's journal for April 28, 1939, cited in Brewer, T. H. White, p. 17.
9. ‘Ray Garnett had come to White's rescue as he was struggling with the character of Guenever.’ Brewer, T. H. White, p. 88.
10. T. H. White, The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958), p. 8. All references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.
11. Warner, T. H. White p. 28.
12. Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 109.
13. See The Once and Future King, pp. 51-52.
Chapter 6 ends with the theft, and chapter 7 goes on to talk of other, apparently unconnected matters.
14. T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone (London: Collins, 1938), p. 79. All references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text abbreviated as SS.
15. White, The Once and Future King, pp. 668-9.
16. Brewer, T. H. White, p. 50.
17. ‘Morgause is … never seen in a wood: there are no woods in Dunlothian as far as one can tell.’ Brewer, T. H. White pp. 51-2.
18. T. H. White, The Witch in the Wood (London: Collins, 1940), p. 139. All references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text abbreviated as WW.
21. White's diary entry for December 1, 1938, cited in Warner, T. H. White, p. 21.
22. See chapters 10 and 11 in The Witch in the Wood.
23. This is in The Witch in the Wood; in The Queen of Air and Darkness the boys' tutor is solely Saint Toirdealbhach, which is the full Gaelic spelling of Torealvac, while Sir Palomides is a companion of King Pellinore and Sir Grummore.
24. Alan Macdonald, ‘A Lost Story of Perversion,’ p. 128.
25. In chapter 2 and in subsequent chapters of The Witch in the Wood, Arthur's castle is called Carlion. (WW p. 19). In the multi-volume The Once and Future King, in the equivalent chapter of The Queen of Air and Darkness, the same castle has the more usual name of Camelot. (SS p. 224).
26. Evan Lancing-Smith, ‘The Narrative Structure of T. H. White's The Once and Future King’ in Quondam et Futurus 1991, 1:4 pp. 39-52, p. 43.
27. White's letter to L. Potts, 28 June 1939, cited in Brewer, T. H. White, p. 49.
28. White's journal of 27 September 1939, cited in Brewer, T. H. White, p. 83.
29. Warner, T. H. White, p. 150.
30. Warner, T. H. White, pp. 148-49.
31. Macdonald, ‘A Lost Story of Perversion,’ p. 128.
32. Macdonald, ‘A Lost Story of Perversion,’ p. 126.
33. Denied the physical violence available to medieval knights, White sublimated his own repressed sadism into a lifelong affair with hunting of various kinds—shooting, hawking, fishing—and took refuge in alcohol. See Brewer and Warner.
34. Brewer, T. H. White, p. 78.
35. The Lady of Ascolat is Tennyson's ‘Lady of Shalott.’
36. White's journal of October 10, 1939, cited in Brewer, T. H. White, p. 87.
37. Warner, T. H. White, p. 152.
38. White is here quoting from Roger Ascham's sixteenth-century criticism of Malory's text. The Once and Future King paraphrases, refers to, or quotes from many medieval texts, including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Peterborough Chronicle, in addition to his close reworking of Malory.
41. An alternative reading is that Lancelot's repressed homosexuality excludes him from the perfect union of masculine and feminine offered to the successful Grail seeker.
42. White's account has ‘Urre’ spelt without the acute accent on the ‘e’ that might perhaps be expected. (SS p. 541).
43. Warner, T. H. White, p. 175.
44. Sigmund Freud, ‘Archaic Features and Infantilism of Dreams’ in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), pp. 235-49, p. 243.
45. Stephen Frosh, Sexual Difference: Masculinity and Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 41.
46. Warner, T. H. White, p. 178.
Crane, John K. "The Once and Future King." In T. H. White, pp. 123-62. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974.
Extensive critical analysis of The Once and Future King.
Kertzer, Adrienne. "The Sword in the Stone: Education and the Child Reader." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 281-90. West Lafayette, Ind.: ChLA Publishers, 1985.
Describes White's attempts to directly appeal to a child reader in The Sword in the Stone.
Manlove, Colin N. "Flight to Aleppo: T. H. White's The Once and Future King." Mosaic 10, no. 2 (winter 1977): 65-83.
Studies the theme of "might versus right" in The Once and Future King.
Sprague, Kurth. "The Troubled Heart of T. H. White's The Once and Future King." Arthuriana 16, no. 3 (fall 2006): 9-152.
Examination of the role of women in The Once and Future King.
Additional coverage of White's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 22; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 37; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 30; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 160; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Modern British Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 12; and Supernatural Fiction Writers, Ed. 1.