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|The Once and Future King
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1958
refered to by:
The Lord of the Rings
The Chamber of Secrets
|TH White's The Once and Future King is steeped in learning and literature, and yet it is not quite respectable in the way that the works of, say, Kingsley Amis or Virginia Woolf are. Maybe it has been contaminated in the minds of critics by popularity and Walt Disney animation. Nevertheless, it is a serious work, delightful and witty in many ways and yet very sombre overall. The volume published as The Once and Future King is actually four works separately composed over about 20 years. The first, The Sword in the Stone, concerns the lost childhood of Arthur, future king of England, and his education by Merlyn. The second, The Queen of Air and Darkness, tells the story of adolescent sons of Orkney (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth) and their mother, Morgause, who, unbeknownst to him, is Arthur's half-sister. The third, The Ill-Made Knight, takes up the story of Sir Lancelot and his uneasy relation- ship with Queen Guenever and with Arthur. The fourth, briefest book, The Candle in the Wind, concerns the end of the Round Table and Arthur's death.
White, born in India in 1906, was a brilliant student at Cambridge in the 1920s, when he was already reading Malory's Morte d'Arthur. He clearly saw in Malory's cycle the British version of the Oresteia - an epic creation myth in which the violation, even the unintentional violation, of a cluster of taboos eventually leads to the disintegration of the nation created, even though, in White's work, almost everyone involved is reasonable, compassionate, and well intentioned. The outlines of the story are well known: the young Arthur, rushing to find a weapon for his foster brother, Kay, pulls a magic sword from a magic stone, revealing himself as the rightful king of England. He then engages in several wars, and during one of these he finds himself in Orkney, where he is seduced by means of a charm into sleeping with his half-sister Morgause. The child of this union is Mordred. He then duly marries Guenever, but she subsequently falls in love with the greatest knight of the Round Table, Lancelot, who has come from France.
The Orkney brothers, including Mordred, repeatedly use Guenever and Lancelot's adultery as an excuse for forwarding their own resentments, until finally all loves and friendships have been sacrificed. Morgause is beheaded by her own sons. Lancelot mistakenly kills Gareth and Gaheris, Guenever is nearly burned at the stake. Lancelot kills Agravaine during a raid and Gawaine in battle. Arthur is left bereft, only to die at the end, wondering if it is possible to govern at all.
The Once and Future King is full of insights, scenes, and flourishes that are really quite astonishing. No doubt because of the material, for one thing, it is one of the few English novels that are utterly frank about the power of love and sex. Morgause is portrayed as a beautiful but trivial and silly woman, a witch like her sister Morgan le Fay, but not serious enough to do real spells. The harm she does is in the seductive and yet neglectful way she rears her sons, deforming their emotional lives so they are always subject to violent jealousies, outbursts and hatreds. At one point they hear that she has gone with a couple of visiting knights to search for a unicorn but hasn't found it (not being a virgin of course - and there is the implication that Agravaine has witnessed her seduction of one of the visiting knights that was the real purpose of the hunt).
So the brothers persuade the kitchen maid, who is a virgin, to accompany them on a unicorn hunt of their own - they are intent upon winning their mother's attention by presenting her with a unicorn's head. The unicorn does indeed come to the kitchen maid and lays his head in her lap. Both moved and frenzied by the beauty of the unicorn, the four boys kill it and attempt to take the head as a trophy, creating only pain, grief and mess with their efforts, and then getting in trouble when they return home.
White seems to know all there is to know about boys. Arthur and the knights of the Round Table are so many boys grown into manhood, seething with ambitions, conflicting desires, strong emotions and barely recognised motives. At one point he writes of the Orkney brothers: "The idea which the children had was to hurt the donkeys. Nobody had told them it was cruel to hurt them, but then, nobody had told the donkeys, either . . . So the small circus was a unity - the
| beast reluctant to move and the children vigorous to move them, the two parties bound together by a link of pain to which they had both agreed without question. The pain itself was so much a matter of course that it had vanished out of the picture, as if by a process of cancellation."
White's novel is intense and rich. The first volume, which tells the story of Arthur's education (he is transformed into several animals and birds), is a treasury of English natural history and increasingly obscure forms of sport, such as falconry and boar hunting. The same is true in the third volume, which tells how Lancelot became the greatest knight. White writes: "Uncle Dap was the only one in the family who took Lancelot seriously, and Lancelot was the only one who was serious about Uncle Dap. It was easy not to be serious about the old fellow, for he was that peculiar creation which ignorant people laugh at a - genuine maestro. His branch of learning was chivalry." And then White shows convincingly what a maestro of chivalry would know and how he would think. White uses the inherent flexibility of prose to deliver a lot of information, not only background information that makes it easy for the modern reader to picture 12th- and 13th- century England, but also good analogues to modern society - jousting as a form of cricket, for example - that work not only to clarify what might be confusing, but also to show the continuity of English life from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.
The Once and Future King is about male society, but White is not a misogynist. His portrait of Guenever is sympathetic and rich. Of particular note is the moment when Lancelot and Guenever first fall in love. They are out hawking, and Guenever makes a mistake in her task of helping Lancelot with his hawk. He rebukes her, and then, when her feelings are hurt, he suddenly recognises that "she had been giving kindness, and he had returned it with unkindness. But the main thing was that she was a real person". The recognition of common humanity is the source of their inconvenient and passionate love.
The Once and Future King is full of comic scenes. One of the ways White deals with some of Malory's absurdities is to make them funny, as with King Pellinore and the Questing Beast or the visit of King Pellinore and Sir Palomides to Orkney. But he never forgets that underlying the good fellowship and prosperity that Arthur brings to "Gramarye", or medieval England, are violence, rape and incest. And there is human nature, too. In his efforts to substitute "right" for "might", Arthur discovers that the human urge to win, to prevail, to gain status and revenge offers a constant challenge to any system of governing that hopes to promote cooperation rather than conflict.
In the final volume, White does explicitly what is always tempting to the novelist - he analyses the circles of relationships that begin with the most intimate and move toward the most impersonal and political. He is intent upon discovering the links between the personal and the political, between love and power, between the family and the nation. The promise of such an analysis is that the proper arrangement and resolution of personal relationships, with all their betrayals and disappointments and pleasures and satisfactions, will result in social peace and, conversely, proper laws and governance will result in healthy intimacies.
The underlying premise of the novel as a form is that such rationalisation and reconciliation is possible, because the novel always tries to set the individual into the social context. Merely making the links implies that a good fit is possible - if not for this protagonist, then for some other, less recalcitrant one. It is not that liberal social institutions have created the novel, it is that the novel is in its very organisation liberal, because the individual always continues to exist and be compelling and the social group always continues to exist, also, containing in its very existence the idea that the individual can be reconciled to it. King Arthur recognises before he dies that he has not succeeded in creating the kingdom he hoped for, owing, of course, to the effects of his own sins. But he is the once and future king. The novel ends with the implication that upon his return, he will try again, with better results.
- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 3 June 2006
|BOOKS BY T.H. WHITE:|
The Once and Future King
A retelling of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur's birth to the end of his reign, based largely on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. After White's death, a conclusion to The Once and Future King was found among his papers; it was published in 1977 as The Book of Merlyn.
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, firstname.lastname@example.org
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