Monday, 4 May 2009

T.H. White: The Once and Future King

T.H. White's The Once and Future King is easily the most accessible Arthurian work of the 20th century. It appeals to audiences of all ages and to readers on many different levels. Its use of humor and anachronistic references help ground the reader in the subject matter in a way that no one before or since has accomplished.

The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy novel written by T. H. White. It was first published in 1958 and is mostly a composite of earlier works.
The title comes from the supposed inscription of the marker over King Arthur's grave: HIC IACET ARTORIVS REX QVONDAM REXQVE FVTVRVS — "Here lies Arthur, the once and future king."

The Once and Future King is a tetralogy consisting of four previously published works: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.

T. H. White uses The Once and Future King as his own personal view of the ideal society. The book, most of which "takes place on the isle of Gramarye," chronicles the raising and education of King Arthur, his rule as a king, and the romance between his best knight Sir Lancelot and his Queen Guinevere (which he spells Guenever). It ends immediately before Arthur's final battle against his illegitimate soOne often quoted passage from the book is the story which the badger calls his "dissertation," a retelling of the Creation story from Genesis.
Plot summary
The story starts in the last years of the rule of king Uther Pendragon.

The Sword in the Stone chronicles Arthur's raising by his foster father Sir Ector, his rivalry and friendship with his foster brother Kay, and his initial training by Merlyn, a wizard who lives through time backwards. Merlyn, knowing the boy's destiny, teaches Arthur (known as "Wart") what it means to be a good king by turning him into various kinds of animals: fish, hawk, ant, owl, goose, and badger. Each of the transformations is meant to teach Wart a lesson, which will prepare him for his future life.
In fact, Merlyn instills in Arthur the concept that the only justifiable reason for war is to prevent another from going to war then, and that contemporary human governments and powerful people exemplify the worst aspects of the rule of Might.
The Queen of Air and Darkness, White sets the stage for Arthur's demise by introducing the Orkney clan and detailing Arthur's seduction by their mother, his half-sister Morgause. While the young king suppresses initial rebellions, Merlyn leads him to envision a means of harnessing potentially destructive Might for the cause of Right: the Round Table.
The Ill-Made Knight, shifts focus from King Arthur to the story of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever's forbidden love and its effect on Elaine, the mother of Lancelot's son, and the King.
The Candle in the Wind unites these narrative threads by telling how Mordred's hatred of his father and Agravaine's hatred of Sir Lancelot caused the eventual downfall of King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Lancelot, and the entire ideal kingdom of Camelot.n Mordred. Though White admits his book's source material is loosely derived from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), he creates a personal reinterpretation of the epic events, filling them with renewed meaning for a world enduring the Second World War.
The book begins as a quite light-hearted account of the young Arthur's adventures, Merlyn's incompetence at magic, and King Pellinore's interminable search for the Questing Beast. Parts of The Sword in the Stone read almost as a parody of the traditional Arthurian legend by virtue of White's prose style, which relies heavily on anachronisms. However, the tale gradually becomes darker until Ill-Made Knight loses much of the original humor and The Candle in the Wind is mirthless.

In the first book, The Sword in the Stone
We see Arthur's education at the hands of Merlyn, a learned but frazzled character who is living backwards. (Thus, he already knows what's going to happen; he strives, therefore, to impart on his subject the importance of doing right.) Arthur is here called the Wart, a nickname given him by his foster brother, Kay, son of Sir Ector, lord of a castle in the Forest Sauvage. As a student of Merlyn, Wart encounters three different kinds of governments--feudalism in his daily life with Ector, totalitarianism in his time as an ant, and anarchy in his time as a goose. As always, Merlyn's point is that knowledge is power. One of the prime lessons of this education is that a goose (or any winged animal) can see beyond boundaries on land. In other words, a man's worth is not only based on how much land and property he has; also, a government is not nearly as important as its leader.

Wart's adventures continue with Merlyn and with Kay until the fateful day of the tourney, at which Wart pulls the Sword from the Stone.
Arthur the King faces many troubles right away, including a strong claim from Lot, King of Orkney. His wife, Morgause, is the subject of the second book,

The Queen of Air and Darkness (originally The Witch in the Wood). The sons of Orkney, Gawain foremost among them, cause no end of trouble for Arthur and Lancelot throughout the last three books.

The Ill-Made Knight, the third book, is concerned mainly with Lancelot, who is portrayed by White as being amazingly ugly though competent in arms. Despite this ugliness (and probably because of this competence), Guinevere falls in love with him. The book ends with their at-long-last tryst.

In the last book, The Candle in the Wind, Arthur becomes the main character again. His past comes back to haunt him as Mordred arrives in Camelot. The bastard uses the Lancelot-Guinevere affair to his advantage in breaking apart the Round Table.

The book ends
with Arthur telling the story to a young man named Tom on the eve of the Battle of Camlann. Overall, the book has a different feel from other Arthurian tellings. These books have humor, chiefly in the form of Merlyn and of King Pellinore, whose efforts in hunting the Questing Beast and at fighting Sir Grummore Grummersom are shot through with gentle and broad humor.

Finally, there is the theme of war.
White, a pacifist, fills his hero, Arthur, with a war-weariness and a determination to do what is right: "Might for Right." From the very beginning, Arthur has to fight to keep what he has earned. He fends off challenges from Lot and from outsiders; he tries to keep his Round Table intact in the face of a serious challenge from Mordred and the sons of Orkney; he tries to keep his kingdom intact by fighting for his very life against Mordred and his growing number of allies.

He fights, fights, fights. His tone at the end of the fourth book, in the chat with young Tom, is one of acceptance of his fate. However, even weighed down by the knowledge of certain death, he finds the strength to encourage young Tom to survive the battle and tell the story.
Now, since The Once and Future King ends on the eve of the Battle of Camlann, the book has no mention of what eventually happened to Arthur. T.H. White wrote The Book of Merlyn to tell that story. Left out of the set by the publishers, this book was published in its own right several years later. In it, Merlyn returns to Arthur and returns Arthur to happier days, when he visited the ants and geese and came face to face with the war-crazed ants and the happy-go-lucky geese. Buoyed by this return to the innocence of his youth, Arthur intends to ask Mordred for a truce.

But fate intervenes: Echoing Malory, White has a snake cause the fateful, final battle. We see the end of Arthur and of Lancelot and Guinevere. We see the end of an era. But we see the future, too, and it is filled with hope.
This condemnation of the evils of war is a vast departure from the Welsh war songs that began the story of Arthur. As the 20th century winds down, we see many more departures from the common theme. Two of the greatest and most successful departures are written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart.

Characterisation in the work
Perhaps most striking about White's work is how he reinterprets the traditional Arthurian characters, often giving them motivations or traits more complex or even contradictory to those in earlier versions of the legend. For example:
Arthur is a well-intentioned king as trained by Merlyn, but it seems that his greatest flaw is his inability to adapt once Merlyn leaves him: he comes off as well-meaning yet rather ineffectual Lancelot is no longer the handsome knight typical in the romantic legends but is instead portrayed as the ugliest of that lot. He is also a sadist, a trait he represses, but which leads to bouts of self-loathing. He seeks to overcome his flaws through full devotion towards becoming Arthur's greatest knight Merlyn lives through time backwards, making him a bumbling yet wise old man who is getting younger It is also interesting to note that White allows Thomas Malory to have a cameo appearance towards the end of the final book. Also of note is White's treatment of historical characters and kings as mythological within this world that he creates. In addition, due to his living backwards, Merlyn makes many anachronistic allusions to events in more recent times; of note are references to the Second World War, telegraphs, tanks, and "an Austrian who … plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos" (i.e. Hitler).
Usage of Political Ideals
Underscoring the story of Arthur's life, from his youth and education to the end of his reign, is a well thought out commentary on how mankind should govern itself, written in the context of the Second World War. The political stand points are totalitarianism, communism, anarchy, and socialism.
When Arthur first ascends to the throne, the country is ruled by what he calls Fort Mayne, or the rule of the strongest. The barons and nobles ride around the countryside doing whatever they wish--being unpleasant, exploitative, and sometimes murderous. Despite the ongoing question of whether humanity is naturally evil, through most of the book King Arthur is optimistic that there is a means to curb humanity's tendency toward violence and cruelty. The latter three parts of the book show the progression of his search for a solution. His first solution to the rule of power is to crush it with power ("Might is Right"). As a young king, he conquers rival barons in a war in which Arthur dispenses with gentlemanly protocols so as to force the barons to experience the horrors of war firsthand. However, this is clearly not a permanent solution, but merely perpetuates the problem.
His next move is to channel power into something worthy. He reinvents Chivalry, and forms the Round Table, making it a goal for his knights to use their Might to rescue maidens and right wrongs ("Might for Right"). However, this solution does not last for long. Once all the wrongs are righted, and England settles into a golden period of peace and lawfulness, the knights grow bored, and things at court start to go badly. Pettiness and squabbling arise, and society stagnates. This is what Merlyn calls "Games-Mania": the knights become caught up in Jousting and Tourneys, to the point that vicious rivalries are established, especially the Orkney-Lancelot one. A better solution is needed.
Arthur's next move is to seek the solution from outside the mundane world. He sends his knights on a quest for the Holy Grail — aiming their power toward God instead of toward worldly things ("Might for God"). This, however, is a failure, too, because any knight who achieves the quest is perfect, and thus no longer suitable to live in an imperfect world. The other knights who fail are for a time positively affected by the quest (Sir Lancelot in particular), but it does not take long for them to fall back into their old ways. In addition, many knights who fail the quest (Gawaine) feel humiliated by Lancelot and Galahad, and many good knights end up dying in the quest for the Grail.
Arthur's final solution as king is to formalise power: he reinvents Civil Law ("Right is Right"). Instead of power being wielded by the knights, it now belongs to the state. An example of this would be the replacing of trial-by-battle with trial by jury. This solution comes back to bite Arthur when the affair between Guinevere and Launcelot is exposed: adhering to his new law means that he must punish his beloved wife and his best friend, by banishing Lancelot and burning Guinevere. However, he knows that Lancelot will rescue her, and Lancelot does indeed end up rescuing Guinevere and they escape to his castle together. However, in the process he unintentionally kills the unarmed Gaheris and Gareth.
Almost everyone considered Gareth the "best" or most "knightly" of the Orkneys; he was knighted by Lancelot, and his brother Gawaine loved him. When Lancelot kills Gareth and Gaheris while they are unarmed during the rescue of Guinevere, not recognising them in his fury, Gawaine flies into a rage and Arthur into deep depression. Gawaine tells Arthur he has no choice but to go to war with Lancelot so Gawaine can extract vengeance.
The book ends with Arthur, weary and aged, in his field pavilion on the eve of the final battle between his knights and Mordred's Thrashers. He reflects upon where he has gone wrong, and whether humans can ever learn to renounce violence. Before going forth, Arthur charges a young page (Malory) with keeping alive his legend and his ideals until a better day.
This is where The Book of Merlyn fits in: Arthur is taken to Merlyn's cave, where he meets many of his old friends from The Sword in the Stone — animals with whom he has spent time. He then spends some time as an ant, and as a goose, experiencing the structure of their societies. The ant is a fiercely territorial animal, with a rigidly structured life. The goose, on the other hand, is free, without any boundaries or borders, flying where it wants. Arthur spends an idyllic few days as a goose, before he is dragged back to Merlyn's cave. He realises that boundaries, which don't actually exist, but are purely mental constructs in human minds, are the real cause of the strife in the world, and that humanity should do away with them if he wants to achieve a successful and peaceful society.
Film, television and theatrical adaptations
Walt Disney made an adaptation of The Sword in the Stone in 1963. This movie reflects more the sense of humour of Disney's team of animators than White. The movie adds a more comical side to the original story, including song and dance, as in most Walt Disney films. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical Camelot (which was made into a movie in 1967) is also based on The Once and Future King, and features White's idea of having Thomas Malory make a cameo appearance at the end. Warner Bros. has announced that they will be releasing a film adaption with Kenneth Lonergan directing. also lists the title "The Once and Future King (2008)," but refers to a story about an Australian farmer who could possibly be an heir to the throne of England.