Friday, July 11, 2014

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Background Information
          This is one of those classic books that needs no introduction…
            ….or is it?  In the past couple months, as I’ve been reading this book, I’ve been talking about it to friend and co-workers, and it turns out that actually very few people are familiar with this book.  It could be that I’m just hanging out with the wrong crowd, but I’d better start out by giving some brief background information here just to be on the safe side.

            This book is a re-telling of the King Arthur saga.  The Once and Future King, published for the first time in 1958, is actually a combination of several shorter books that were written earlier, and 3 of which were originally published separately back in the 1930s: The Sword in the Stone (1938)(W), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939) (W), The Ill-Made Knight (1940) (W), and The Candle in the Wind (written in 1941, but not published on its own) (W). 
            Author T.H. White wanted to publish all the books together in a complete volume as early as 1941, but the war, and the accompanying paper shortage, made such a massive book unfeasible, so it wasn’t until 1958 that The Once and Future King was published as a complete book.

            The last 3 books in the The Once and Future King are a re-telling of Thomas Malory’s 15th century epic Morte D’Arthur (W).  The first book, The Sword in the Stone, is more of an original story, since it focuses on King Arthur’s boyhood and education—something that Malory had left out of his narrative, and so a gap in the original story that T.H. White filled in with his own imagination.  The Sword in the Stone is nowadays most famous because of the 1963 Disney animated movie (W).

            The publishing history of some of the books in this tetralogy is a bit of a mess.  I won’t go into too much detail here (all this information is available elsewhere on the Internet anyway) but basically there are 3 different versions of The Sword in the Stone: the British version, the American version, and the version included in The Once and Future King.  The Queen of Air and Darkness was originally published as The Witch and The Woods, and apparently there’s substantial differences between the original and the version included in The Once and Future King.  There’s also a 5th book, The Book of Merlyn (W), which T.H. White had wanted to include as the last chapter of The Once and Future King, but which his publishers had rejected.  Parts of The Book of Merlyn that T.H. White really wanted to save were then taken out and inserted into The Sword in the Stone.  And apparently many of the books underwent some revision to include T.H. White’s growing concern about the evils of warfare between their original publication and their inclusion in The Once and Future King.
            But whatever the muddled history of the individual parts of this book, The Once and Future King has been regarded as a complete and independent whole ever since its publication in 1958 and it is with the final result that most reviews (including this one) must concern themselves.

My History With This Book, and Why I’m Reading It Now
            (Advanced Warning: this section may only be of interest to me.  Feel free to skip it and go straight to the review below.)

            As a child I grew up on Disney films (back then, Disney was all we were allowed to watch at my house) and so I am very familiar with the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone, which I have watched more times than I could count.  But I never read the book.

            Starting in 6th grade, I became very interested in Greek and Roman mythology, and went on a reading kick about the old Greek epics that lasted for some years.  My mother, seeing this new interest, gave me a copy of The Once and Future King, and told me that she had enjoyed this book very much as a girl, and that I might enjoy it as well given my new interest in mythology.
            I regret to say I never touched the book, and it sat unread on my bookshelf for years until I gave it away.  Partly this was because when I discover a new interest I tend to go deeper rather than wider—that is, I preferred to keep reading in more and more detail about the Trojan War epics rather than become more knowledgeable about wider mythology. 
            And partly this was because I’ve always been a slow reader.  Some children read through anything and everything and don’t really care what they’re reading as long as their reading something, but this was never me.  Since it always takes me ages to get through a book, I tend to be a lot more cautious about which few books I do commit myself to.

            So I never read this book as a child.  But over the years, it did kind of nag at me.  Had I missed out?  Should I have read it?
            The unread Once and Future King always came back to my mind every time I learned a new detail about the King Arthur saga.  The more I heard about the complicated relationships in the King Arthur saga, the more they sounded interesting to me—the love triangle between Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot, for example. 
            One night in high school a friend and I watched the movie Excalibur (W).  Excalibur, as Roger Ebert says, is more or less a train wreck of a film [ROGER EBERT’S REVIEW HERE], but at the very least it does gives you a glimpse of the complex story, and I was further intrigued. 
            Listening to the history of Britain on This Sceptred Isle  gave me some information on the historical King Arthur.  Although I had always thought of King Arthur as the epitome of Englishness and Anglo-Saxon culture, the oldest legends about King Arthur portray him not as an Anglo-Saxon, but as the one of the old race of Britains who fought against the Saxon invaders (W).  The connection between legend and real history further interested me.
            At another point, I learned the interesting fact that the King Arthur legend was actually developed by the French, not the English. 
            And finally, after recently reading through a graded reader version of the King Arthur stories with my Young Learners class, I decided I was now at last curious enough to finally read about the saga for myself, and found The Once and Future King in my local book store.

            Of course, T.H. White’s young adult novel The Once and Future King is not the most historical or the most authentic portrayal of King Arthur.  But I viewed it as the easiest point of entry into the subject.  It would be a painless way to get my head around the basic outline of the story before I decided if I wanted to read any deeper on it, in the same way that, years ago,I had first read Olivia Coolidge’s young adult book The Trojan War before I decided I wanted to move on to The Iliad.

The Review
            Having just gotten through a rather long digression setting up my interests in this book, I suppose I should begin by saying which of those interests got paid off, and which didn’t.

            First of all, of the Britain Arthur who fought the invading Saxon hordes, there is nothing in this book.  It turns out those stories were never in Malory, but from older sources such as Historia Brittonum (W), and T.H. White used only Malory as his source material. 

            In fact, anyone looking for any sort of historical context for King Arthur will be frustrated with this book, because it is filled with anachronisms from start to finish.  This is something T.H. White acknowledges in a playful way right from the first chapter, in which Sir Ector and Sir Grummore are talking about Eton (the famous posh English finishing school) and drinking port, and then the narrator takes a moment to admit that of course “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” (p. 10).
            Then, once the narrator has admitted that anachronisms are going to be employed in this re-telling, everything is fair game after that—all sorts of historical figures and other legends and events are referenced out of any sort of real chronology.  (Both the fictional Robin Hood (W) and the real John Ball (W) are contemporaries of King Arthur in White’s version).  The fun with anachronism is further developed by having the character of Merlyn be forced to live his life backwards in time—Merlyn’s earliest memories and reference points are all from when he was a young man in the 20th century, but Merlyn gets older as he goes farther and farther into the past.
            Since the original legend of King Arthur is itself an anachronism (a medieval legend that projected medieval customs and values of chivalry backwards onto an older time) I suppose being playful with the chronology is the only way the story could be re-told.

            So, to sum up, don’t read this book for historical context.

            However, the itch that this book does scratch very well is to give the modern reader a good idea of Malory’s version of the Arthur saga.  T.H. White’s re-telling pretty much captures all the major beats of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.
            Malory wrote in pre-Shakespearean English, so unfortunately he’s not very accessible to modern readers, or at least not easy for them.  The Once and Future King is a much preferable option if you want to know Malory’s story, but not struggle through the old English. 
            (Actually interestingly enough, just as T.H. White has paraphrased and updated Malory for modern audiences, Malory himself, back in his original day, translated and adapted the original French legends into what was, at the time, plain and readable English to make the old stories more accessible to the Englishmen of his day.)

            Of course I’ve not actually read the original Malory myself, so I can’t talk with full authority on how faithfully T.H. White adopts him.  But based on my research (Internet summaries of Malory, other people’s reviews, the publisher’s introduction, skimming sections of Morte D’Arthur in the bookstore, et cetera) I’m fairly sure this is a faithful adoption of at least the main structure of the story.  All of the more whimsical and humorous stuff in the book is, I suspect, pure T.H. White.
            T.H. White himself is constantly referencing Malory in The Once and Future King, so as to leave the reader in no doubt as to what story he is adapting.  It often seems like T.H. White is satirizing (fondly) his original source material, and I sometimes got the feeling that I would have to read Malory in full in order to be fully in on all the jokes going on in the book.
            I’ll give an example: large parts of the first book, and about half of the second book, are taken up by the story of King Pellinore and the Questing Beast.  King Pellinore is introduced as a knight who has a family duty to seek out and capture the Questing Beast, but as the story continues it becomes clear that he and the Questing Beast live in this bizarre symbiotic relationship—King Pellinore is given purpose in life by the fact that he has to hunt the Questing Beast, and the Questing Beast in turn gets all her purpose from being sought, and if either one or the other gets distracted from this never-ending Sisyphean quest, then the other goes into deep depression. 
            As the first couple books in The Once and Future King have a mostly humorous tone, the whole bizarre relationship is milked for humor.  It was moderately funny, but as the story went on, I began to tire of it—I thought it was not nearly funny enough to justify all the space T.H. White was giving it, and I began to feel he was beating the joke into the ground.
            Then, near the end of the second book, there’s a rather bizarre section in which Sir Palomides is forced to give therapy to the Questing Beast.  And T.H. White concludes: “Fortunately for Sir Palomides and Sir Grummore, the Questing Beast saw reason at the last moment, before the cavalcade set out—otherwise they would have had to stay in Orkney and miss the marriage altogether. Even as it was, they had to stay up all night. She recovered quite suddenly.  The drawback was that she transferred her affection to the successful analyst—to Palomides—as so often happens in psycho-analysis—and now she refused to take any further interest in her early master.  King Pellinore, not without a few sighs for the good old days, was forced to resign his rights in her to the Saracen.  This is why, although Malory clearly tells us that only a Pellinore could catch her [the Questing Beast] we always find her being pursued by Sir Palomides in the later parts of the Morte d’Arthur.” (p.307)

            I had assumed the bizarre story of King Pellinore and the Questing Beast was just T.H. White’s invention, but it turned out it all came directly from Malory.  T.H. White had taken something from his source material about King Pellinore’s family duty to pursue the Questing Beast (W), and then had pushed the concept to all its logical absurdities.  And then he even invented this bizarre back story to explain away a continuity error in Malory.  And once I realized that the whole thing was an extended joke on the original source material, I started to appreciate it all the more.
            I wonder how many other “inside” jokes I missed by not having read Malory.  I suspect a good few.

            The humor, whimsy and jokes are very heavy in the first two books of this tetralogy.  But Malory had written a tragedy about King Arthur’s life, and so, by necessity, the books have to get more somber and serious by the last two as the nature of the events they retell become more somber.
            (According to the Publisher’s Introduction, T.H. White viewed Morte D’Arthur as comparable to an epic Greek tragedy, writing “The whole Arthurian story is a regular Greek doom, comparable to that of Orestes. Uther started the wrong-doing upon the family of the duke of Cornwall, and it was the descendant of that family who finally revenged the wrong upon Arthur. The fathers have eaten sour grapes etc. Arthur had to pay for his father’s initial transgressions, but, to make it fairer, the fates ordained that he himself should also make a transgression (against the Cornwalls) in order to bind him more closely in identification with the doom”. (T.H. White, quoted in publisher’s introduction by Sylvia Townsend Warner).

          This book is normally classified as young adult literature, but apparently there’s some debate over whether the later books in the tetralogy are really appropriate for young adults because the tone of the later books get darker, and sexual infidelity becomes a major part of the plot.
            I suspect this was probably a bigger concern 50 years ago than it is today.  By today’s standards, I think there’s very little in here that will shock young adult readers.

            Of more concern for the young adult reader are the long boring digressions that T.H. White frequently goes off on.  Even for me now, at my venerable age, they really tried my patience.  In the middle of a 10 page digression describing life in the Middle Ages (p.529-539), I got frustrated and wrote at the bottom of one of the pages, “Oh for love’s sake!! When is this digression going to end?”  (I should add that the pages are all densely printed, so these were 10 looong pages.) 
            Granted not all of the digressions go on for ten whole pages, but there are a lot of boring descriptive passages throughout. 
            I would hate to think what 13-year-old me would have made of these long descriptions.
            (In fact I was talking to a co-worker who had to read this book for his high school English class.  When I mentioned all the long boring digressions T.H. White goes off on, he immediately became passionate.  “I know, right?  Now imagine having to read that when you were 15!” he exclaimed.)
            If you have the patience to muddle through all of this description and digression, however, the more narrative passages of the book can be quite good. 
            The characters are quite good as well.  Mark Twain used to complain that Malory made all his characters sound exactly the same, but T.H. White does a good job of exploring the feelings and motivations of all the characters in the Arthur tragedy. 
            So reading this book is some frustration mixed with some reward.  Over-all I would recommend the book, but be forewarned ahead of time. 

Anti-War Themes
          Much of the book is given over to reflections on war, a subject T.H. White was obviously very concerned about.  (Not surprisingly, given the time period in which he was writing.) 
            It’s quite clear from the book that T.H. White was very concerned about the subject of war, and had some strong emotions on it, but exactly what he wanted to say about it is not so clear.  For all the hand-wringing about the evils of war that this book does, nothing like a clear position is ever really laid out, and the ideas that are put forth seem quite muddled.
            Much is said about the evils of war in the second book, but the book does not seem to be arguing for a pacifist position.  In fact it’s exactly the opposite—the book seems to be arguing a “peace-through-strength” type position.  This view is taught by Merlyn to King Arthur and Sir Kay.  At the time, it appears as if Merlyn represents the views of the author, since the role of Merlyn generally in these books is to teach and dispense advanced wisdom, and because he always wins all the arguments.
            The ideas are somewhat clumsily laid out, but here is an excerpt of Merlyn trying to teach Arthur that war is very terrible, but that the best way to abolish war is not by pacifism, but by all the nations of the world uniting against aggressor nations.  When I was a young man, he [Merlyn] said, “there was a general idea that it was wrong to fight in wars of any sort.  Quite a lot of people in those days declared that they would never fight for anything whatever.”
            “Perhaps they were right,” said the King [Arthur].
            “No. There is one fairly good reason for fighting—and that is, if the other man starts it.  You see, wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species.  They are so wicked that they must not be allowed.  When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop him.” (p. 232)
            The boys, King Arthur and Sir Kay, are reluctant to accept this for the obvious reason.  But both sides always say that the other side started them.” (p. 233). 
            A long debate ensues between the boys and Merlyn, in the course of which Merlyn tells them: “Any reasoning man…who keeps a steady mind, can tell which side is the aggressor in ninety wars out of a hundred.  He can see which side is likely to benefit by going to war in the first place, and that is a strong reason for suspicion.  He can see which side began to make the threat of force or was the first to arm itself.  And finally he can often put his finger on the one who struck the first blow.” (p. 234)

            As someone who is sympathetic to the pacifist position myself, I didn’t agree with these sections at all, and as Merlyn developed his arguments, I wrote in the margins all the reasons he was wrong. 
            But I’ve decided not to include all my thoughts in this book review because, now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not quite sure Merlyn’s peace-through-strength argument represents the views of the author after all.  And if T.H. White himself is not even taking these views seriously, it seems pointless for me to waste a lot of time arguing against them.
            The end of the book seems to take a different tone.  At the end, as his empire deteriorates into factional fighting and violence, King Arthur begins to question whether force can really be used to bring about true justice.  The younger King Arthur had been taught by Merlyn to use the power of good force to counter the evil force in the world, but the older king Arthur has learned that once force is put in motion it becomes a power that can not be controlled.  King Arthur had used his Knights of the Round Table to use force to conquer the old evils, but once all the old evils had been vanquished then the Knights of the Round Table, who had been taught to use force to solve their problems, started to quarrel with each other in arguments that quickly degenerated into destructive violence.

            Exactly what is going on here, I’m not sure.  Did T.H. White intended all along for the last books in the series to refute the arguments of the earlier books, even though they were originally published separately and with a gap of several years between publication dates?  Or did he change his mind as time went on?  Or is he trying to advance both arguments?

            The last chapter of The Once and Future King contains another long digression on the subject of war, in which many questions are asked, but few answers given, leading me to believe T.H. White was still quite confused on the subject himself as he wrote.

            (To add to the muddle, all the books have been revised over time, which makes it more difficult to trace the development of ideas.  And then there is the fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which contains more musings on the subject of war.  But unfortunately for T.H. White’s vision, the publishers never agreed to publish the fifth book during T.H. White’s lifetime.  Instead, some parts of the anti-war parts of The Book of Merlyn were chopped up and inserted into The Sword and the Stone.)

Historical and Cultural Significance of This Book
          Here’s a fun fact for fellow history buffs—In addition to being the inspiration for the 1963 Disney movie The Sword in the Stone, this tetralogy was also the basis for the 1960 musical Camelot The success of the musical Camelot, in turn, was the reason that the press in the early 1960s started referring to John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration as “Camelot”—at least according to Wikipedia (W).

Comparison of the Book with the Disney Movie
            Back in its day, the Disney Sword in the Stone was somewhat of a box office disappointment for the Disney Company.  Walt Disney’s disappointment over The Sword and the Stone’s performance lead to some tension between him and Bill Peet (W), who had been the story supervisor on The Sword and the Stone, and this is part of the reason Bill Pete later quit the Disney company.  (Some of this made it into Bill Pete’s Autobiography (A), a book I actually read once long ago when I was still in my Disney fan phase.)

            I personally remember the Disney movie quite fondly.

            It would have been impossible to do a faithful adaptation of the book.  The book The Sword and the Stone has some delightful whimsical and wonderful moments, but it also has some rather depressing parts, gets a bit preachy in sections and also, like the whole tetralogy, it has a lot of T.H. White’s boring descriptions and digressions.  (The chapter about the geese in particular really put me to sleep.)

            I think, on the whole, the Disney movie did a good job of capturing the whimsical wonderful sections of the book while avoiding its pitfalls.

            But there are a few missed opportunities.  There are some really funny parts of the book which I think absolutely should have made it into the Disney movie, and I somewhat wonder how the screenwriters missed these golden opportunities.  The Disney movie is poorer for failing to have included these sections.
            To quote all the best parts of The Sword and the Stone here would be to spoil the book for any future readers, so I won’t give all my favorite parts now.  But I will quote just one example of a section that the Disney movie criminally missed out on in the adaptation.
            The scene is Wart (the name for the young King Arthur) meeting Merlyn for the first time, and having breakfast at Merlyn’s house:

            “Have some mustard,” said the magician, when they had got to the kidneys.
            The mustard-pot got up and walked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.
            “Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Where-ever did you get it?”
            At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit, but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a tea-spoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.
            “It’s not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it is inclined to give itself airs.” (p. 33-34)
            And then after breakfast as Merlyn and Wart (young King Arthur) are leaving the house:
            “Excuse me a moment,” he [Merlyn] added as an afterthought, and, turning round to the breakfast things, he pointed a knobbly finger at them and said in a stern voice, “Wash up.”
            At this all the china and cutlery scrambled down off the table, the cloth emptied the crumbs out of the window, and the napkins folded themselves up.  All ran off down the ladder, to where Merlyn had left the bucket, and there was such a noise and yelling as if a lot of children had been just let out of school.  Merlyn went to the door and shouted, “Mind, nobody is to get broken.” But his voice was entirely drowned in shrill squeals, splashes, and cries of “My, it is cold,” “I shan’t stay in long,” “Look out, you’ll break me,” or “Come on, let’s duck the teapot.” (p. 36)

          On another note, I was disappointed to find out that my favorite part of the Disney movie, the wizard dual between Merlyn and Madame Mim, was not included in this edition.  As mentioned above, the muddled publishing history of The Sword and Stone means that there are three versions of the book published: the British version, the American version, and the version included in The Once and Future King. The chapter with Madame Mim was only in the original British version, and was cut out of the subsequent editions.

Connections with Other Books I’ve Read
1). The Magicians by Lev Grossman
          It turns out that Lev Grossman is a huge fan of this book.  The back cover of my edition (ACE Books, New York) includes a blurb from Lev Grossman: “I have read [this]book more times than any other in my library.
            Actually that doesn’t surprise me so much.  I fancy I can see a lot of stylistic similarities between T.H. White’s prose, and Lev Grossman’s.
            It also turns out that long sections of The Magicians were meant as tributes to The Once and Future King (the parts when the students were turned into various animals, and particularly the part when they were turned into geese.)  I completely missed that when I read The Magicians. 
            In my review of The Magicians, I criticized the book for being too much of a tribute to other fantasy books and too few original ideas.  Had I known at the time that large sections of the book were also borrowed from The Once and Future King, I suspect I would have been even harder on it in my review.

2) The First Total War by David Bel
          In his book The First Total War, David Bell  argues that before the French Revolution, war was regarded as a normal part of human society, and something of a sport for the gentry.  After the French Revolution, war became regarded as an absolute evil.  The irony of this ideological change, however, was that it didn’t end war—what it did was just make wars all the more terrible.  Before, wars were regarded as sport between gentlemen, and fought according to gentlemanly rules.  Afterwards, wars were regarded as only permissible in cases where the other side could be characterized as absolutely evil and when the other side was absolute evil, then all methods were deemed legitimate to stop them.  And the result was a much deadlier type of total warfare in the 19th and 20th century.
            I’m not sure I agree entirely with Bell’s thesis.  (I think you could make the case that total warfare had always existed.)  But the character of Merlyn in The Once and Future King would definitely be sympathetic to Bell’s ideas, because he argues something very similar.  Like Bell, Merlyn argues that warfare in the medieval period was allowed to flourish simply because it was regarded as a sort of sport for the nobles. 
            Merlyn goes onto argue that if the sporting rules of medieval war were disregarded and total war was employed, then the nobles would soon feel the real pain of war and give up their sport. 
            It’s in this second part that Merlyn differs from Bell.  Bell argues that the age of total warfare hasn’t caused humans to give up on war—we’ve just made it more terrible.
            But David Bell’s book was published years after T.H. White was dead, so obviously T.H. White never had a chance to read it.  T.H. White the author seems to be on board with Merlyn’s ideas of “bring the pain of war home to the enemy,” and the theme of Arthur using total warfare against an outraged nobility makes up much of the second book.

How I Used this Book to Annoy a Scotsman
          As mentioned above, much of the second book is devoted to discussing the rights and wrongs of warfare.  King Arthur is fighting to consolidate his empire against a revolt from the Gaelic Confederation.  Arthur has doubts about whether he is doing the right thing in putting down the revolt, since he reasons that the Gaelic race may well have good reason to revolt against him.  But Merlyn, continuing to elaborate on his “peace-through-strength” doctrine, advises King Arthur that he is doing the right thing in fighting the Gaelic Confederation, since it was the Gaelic Confederation that started the war by revolting against his authority, and whenever anyone else starts a war, it is the duty of everyone else to fight against the aggressors:
            “Uther,” he [Merlyn] said at length, “your lamented father, was an aggressor. So were his predecessors the Saxons, who drove the Old Ones away.  But if we go on living backward like that, we shall never come to the end of it.  The Old Ones themselves were aggressors, against the earlier race of the copper hatchets, and even the hatchet fellows were aggressors, against some earlier crew of esquimaux who lived on shells.  You simply go on and on, until you get to Cain and Abel.  But the point is that the Saxon Conquest did succeed, and so did the Norman Conquest of the Saxons. Your father settled the unfortunate Saxons long ago, however brutally he did it, and when a great many years have passed one ought to be ready to accept a status quo.  Also I would like to point out that the Norman Conquests was a process of welding small units into bigger one—while the present revolt of the Gaelic Confederation is a process of disintegration. They want to smash up what we may call the United Kingdom into a lot of piffling little kingdoms of their own. That is why their reason is not what you might call a good one.”
            He scratched his chin and became wrathful.
            “I never could stomach these nationalists,” he exclaimed. “The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide.  If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.” (p. 231)

            I have a Scottish friend out here in Cambodia who is an ardent nationalist, and strongly in favor of the Scottish independence vote in September.  Since he’s also quite interested in King Arthur, I brought up this book with him one night.
            “I’m reading The Once and Future King right now,” I told him.  “Have you ever read it?”
            “No, people keep telling me I should read it,” he said, “but I’ve never gotten around to it.”
            “I’d be curious to see what you think of this passage,” I said, and handed him the book opened up to page 231, with the above passage underlined.
            He read silently for a moment, and then threw the book back at me.  “Well, THAT’S why I’ve never read that book!” he exclaimed.  “What a complete load of hooey!   And what about all those anachronisms?  Arthur wasn’t after the Norman Conquest!  And there was no such thing as the United Kingdom in King Arthur’s day!”

            The anachronisms, as mentioned above, one just has to accept with this book as part of T.H. White’s playful attitude towards history.
            As for the anti-devolution sentiment expressed by Merlyn—it’s hard to say.  As mentioned above, I’m somewhat confused on the extent to which Merlyn’s views in the second book represent the views of the author T.H. White.

Other Notes
            I suppose I should probably wrap things up here, not because I’ve exhausted everything there is to say on this book, but because this review is getting too long.
            There’s a lot to more to say about this book—my edition is 639 pages, but that’s with small print.  I suspect with normal sized print this book would probably be about 1,000 pages, and there’s a lot more stuff in here to chew on than I’ve written about.  But I’ll leave it for someone else.  I’ll just make a couple last brief notes here:

* I haven’t even touched on the religious themes in this book, but religion makes up a good deal of the last two books in the tetralogy.  This is interesting because T.H. White himself was not a religious person (W), but he has inherited a lot of religious mystic stories from his original source material Le Morte D’Arthur.  For the most part, White plays it straight with these stories, and takes it for granted that in the Arthurian world he’s writing about (if not in real life) God, miracles, sins, and saints all exist and are real to his characters.  And so the agnostic T.H. White writes at length about Lancelot’s relationship with God, for example.  But I fancied I did catch hints of subversion here and there.

* Although the book is decidedly ahistorical, history geeks like me will have fun catching numerous references to real life kings and historical figures throughout English history. 

* I have to say that after having finished this book, I’m very interested in reading the original Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory.  Although at the moment I’m not sure if I’m going to try and tackle it sooner rather than later.  (I may try to thin out my current reading list first before taking on any new ambitious reading projects.)

Link of the Day
Can civilisation survive really existing capitalism? | Noam Chomsky

Bonus link--Stealing from facebook: I quite like this picture circulating facebook--Nationalism: teaches you to take pride in stuff you haven't done and hate people you've never met.


Darrell Reimer said...

Huh. It's getting harder to foil the bots, isn't it?

I can't recall, Joel: have you read Mary Stewart's Arthur books? They're an interesting mesh of religious-political intrigue. Here's my take on the first book.

Joel said...

I'm not sure the system to foil the bots was ever foolproof to begin with. But I guess that's where manual deletion comes in, and I've just now removed the Bot comment.

I haven't even heard of Mary Stewart until just now, but I read your blog post and have been doing some brief reading on Wikipedia and amazon. It seems like her series fizzles out before covering the whole Arthurian saga. Are the last books just as good as the first few?

Darrell Reimer said...

I understand The Wicked Day is a disappointment, but I've never read it. I'm under the impression the first three novels were the intended books, the last two after-thoughts encouraged by market demand. The first three are the only books of hers I own.

Joel said...

Well, based on your review, and some other reviews around the web I've been reading right now, it does indeed sound like that series might be worth checking out. Tracking down English books in this part of the world is a bit hit and miss, but I'll add it to my list of books to check for when I rummage through used bookstores.
I think what I want to do first is try to tackle the original Morte D'Arthur before I read another modern version of the Arthur saga though. I think I can better appreciate the changes these other authors are making if I know the original material they are riffing off

Joel said...

Hmmm... re-reading this review, I worry that I may have gotten so distracted by my nitpicks that I forgot to praise the strengths of this book sufficiently. Yes, it does have it's downsides, but over all it does a very good job of conveying all the glorious drama of the original legend. There's a lot of drama going on here between the love triangle of Lancelot-Arthur-Guenevere, and the tension between Gawaine's family clan and Arthur's authority. It's definitely worth the read.