The King formerly known as Wart

Don’t get me started. It’s been almost two months since I wrote here and probably more than three since I finished reading the subject of this post: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I originally prefaced the following with a short excuse, but that soon grew like a malignant tumor, spreading to other excuses, webbing it all together in a spongy gob of self pity that my doctor gently told me was unforgivable. I don’t think I should waste any time trying to explain it.

Without knowing Malory’s Le Morte D’Artur, I’m at a huge disadvantage for understanding White’s whole take on the Arthurian Legend. I’m as familiar with Arthur as the average reader. I’m up on the sword and the stone, Merlin’s benevolent instruction, the Lady in the Lake, Excalibur, the Black Knight, and Lancelot and Guinevere’s betrayal. The tendons tying it all together? That’s what I picked up The Once and Future King for. White takes the story to a new height, using it as 50% of his source material, alongside what I suspect to be a healthy dose of shrooms, or snuff, or cocaine, or whatever kind of drug they used back in the 30’s and 40’s. (Laudanum?) So I can’t say I finished this book with what I’d like to say is an official take on the Arthurian legend firmly in hand. White takes inspiration from the Mona Lisa but paints instead the granny smith-faced The Son of Man, appearing both stately and irreverent all at once.

T.H. White’s nimble prose presents a picture book version of the Arthurian legend, expanding upon the fantastical elements, downplaying the truer emotion and motivations of its adult characters in favor of the whimsy of the imaginary and the legendary. Lancelot and Guinevere’s love is a foretold phenomenon and a foregone conclusion, serving as the portend of Arthur’s downfall. Seeing to it that the mythologizing is blown completely out of proportion, White shows Arthur learning from the birds in the air, the fish in the sea, and the animals on the land (I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne…). He’s surrounded by a tremendously comical cast of bumbling role models and nitwits, from the oath-driven King Pellinore, whose fate is the neverending hunt for the Questing Beast, and the murmuring Sir Grummore Grummursum to the dim but caring foster family of father Sir Ector and brother Kay. In later books we’re introduced to the troubled, darkly stooge-like brothers Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine, the beleaguered, stoic Lancelot, then the tortured, though maybe self-torturing, Guenever. The cast grows wide and more brooding the deeper you go. The stories grow up too, told always with a wise voice but adjusted for an audience that begins in self-centered childhood, where the world’s troubles are all fictions to the one learning from them. It can be puzzling to see characters come and go, vanish entirely for vast swaths of chapters, but White makes up for it with enchanting writing and moral murkiness, especially when the put upon Lancelot is trotted out as the knight savior of the realm.

I only just learned that the four books that make up the entire novel were published separately in serialized form, something I should’ve caught on to immediately. Knowing this, each section makes more sense as a self contained story, finishing its own small arc without culminating in anything particularly earth shattering. It also explains the tonal shifts. Where once we’re treated to belly laughs and chortles, we’re then shown poignant moments of self reflection, guilt, and pain beyond any of our own experience. It’s rare that I find a novel that really makes me laugh (maybe I don’t seek them out enough in the first place), but here, and especially in Book One, The Sword in the Stone, White’s characters devolve into nonsense frequently.

The frequent forays into misunderstanding tend to be quite hilarious, and exude a cheery love for wordplay. Adopting Merlin’s point of view, traveling back in time, White portrays the sheer absurdity of it all, a modern soul journeying through the ages, grumbling about war, and at one point, simmering with rage as he invokes the memory of a certain maniacal German dictator to make a point to an arrogant young lord. Strange isn’t it that the leaders of the past need a lesson from the future to avoid the mistakes of all out war and social repression? It brings a kind of sad commentary to the maxim that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.

This hyperawareness of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich provides a thrumming subtext and firmly anchors White’s version of the legend in the cultural landscape and commonplaces of the near-mid twentieth century. White’s very appropriation of Malory’s text is a sign of the legend’s agelessness, but his reinterpretation of it shows that no single telling will travel through the ages, but instead serve to reflect the current state of affairs. Not that that’s a bad thing. but it ages strangely: not in its historical context, but in the way it addresses the reader as someone familiar with reference points that have long become obsolete.

I’ll cut this analysis short, since I’d be reaching too far for details I’ve since forgot. The Once and Future King is loaded with social commentary, questioning leadership styles, the bases for loyalty and retribution, and the pragmatism of chivalry. Towards the end of the book, Arthur dwells on the breaking up of the Round Table. After championing the knights for decades, he sees that they have met their end, having eradicated corruption only to replace it. The idea of Arthur’s reign ending with the forcible retirement of brutal, bored swordsmen with no enemies is depressing, in that he has accomplished his mission at the expense of a simmering half-life of greed and vainglory. He may not show up much in the second and third books, but his tiredness is contrasted nicely with his youthful vigor in The Sword and the Stone. The Arthurian Legend ends with his doom, and there is no continuing of his legacy. The backwards-traveling Merlin has his work cut out to achieve the peace that Arthur has discovered in his senior years.

To bring us up to speed, right now I’m working on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, having finally finished Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. Collins so far is demonstrating his claim to fame for cliffhangers and intrigue, though when Walter Hartright passes the narrative on to Miss Halcombe, the going gets tedious. I don’t realize it until I grab other authors of the era, but his prose is exacting and stuffy occasionally. Very well worded, but not so entertaining when it is. Then we have Fussell’s study on poetry, which is a revelation for me, delivering a passionate primer on its mechanics, functions, and intent. He may be stiflingly pedantic at times, but avoids falling off that precipice, bringing a masculinity to the material that I think is essential for discussing an art form so popularly maligned with the passing of the years. Again, I have no clue what I’ll chit chat about next. I’ve got some other books under my belt, and a bevy of movies too. Probably another movie roundup is called for. It’s not just horrors this time. So until next time.

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