Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Once And Future King

Consistently in my Top Ten books, read at a formative age!

The Sum of the Parts

Like many Great Works (all of Shakespeare’s plays, for example) a modern editor could improve on individual sections of The Once And Future King, not least of which would be better scenes for the women in the stories. But the achievement of the entire work definitely fulfils Aristotle’s notion that the Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts. Why did it strike such a chord with me when I first read it? In The Sword in the Stone Wart’s surprising destiny taps into the common childhood fantasy that you are fated for greater things. Then along comes a great teacher to release innate qualities inside you, as Merlyn does for Wart or, in other famous fantasy books, Dumbledore does for Harry Potter at Hogwarts and Aslan the Lion does for the Pevensey children in Narnia.
Every parentless child in literature needs a "teacher figure"

The "Evil Austrian"

After the whimsical comedy of The Sword in the Stone, subsequent books see the deeper exploration of White’s bigger purpose – a plea for Right over Might. White was alarmed by the rise of Nazism during the composition of the novels and an "evil Austrian" is clearly referenced at one point; in context it is obvious White is thinking of Hitler. TH White had expressed to his friends that he thought the Matter of Britain (the Arthurian cycle) was the British version of the Greek Oresteia, a mythological tragedy that could capture the spirit of the nation. Thus jousting is equated with cricket, for example. The whole of The Once and Future King is an “antidote to war” (White’s own words) and a plea for fair government. Fair government! Now, THAT’S an idea!
Poster for John Boorman's film and Morgan Le Fey

The Queen of Air and Darkness

In Book Two, the Round Table is formed, King Pellinore goes in search of the Questing Beast and Arthur grows into his kingship. Most chapters take place in Orkney where Morgause, the Orkney Queen referenced in the book’s title, brings up her four sons: Gawain, Gaheris, Agravaine and Gareth.
Plenty of domestic wrangling, rough-and-tumble behaviour and derring-do takes place between the four brothers and, inevitably, being the youngest of four brothers myself, these four characters kept me turning pages to find out what they got up to next. In fact, their different personalities and their fates affect the rest of the work profoundly. It was easy to become hooked on an epic read with four brothers vying for their mother’s attention. I found The Queen of Air and Darkness very easy to identify with, not that my brothers and I ever beheaded a unicorn!

The Ill-Made Knight

And just when you thought you knew everything about the Arthurian tales, White’s third book provides a portrait of Sir Lancelot that defies all expectation.  He is ugly and tortured, yet becomes lovable and beloved, partly because of his critical self-awareness and partly because of his aspirations to be the best that he can be, in all things, despite his hideous appearance.  He is a relentless perfectionist.  Gareth, the youngest Orkney brother – me, in my imagination – remains loyal to Lancelot even when it is clear Lancelot’s love for Guinevere and his relationship with Elaine are causing painful complications and repercussions.
Lancelot, Guenevere and Arthur, the archetypal love triangle

Sir Galahad

Lancelot’s and Elaine’s pure son, Galahad, emerges as different to his father, not so much a perfectionist but an impossibly fine white-hot-blue-ice god-on-earth. Galahad is eye-hurtingly dazzling and annoying in his sheer uncompromising goodness. Lancelot never fulfills his own quest to be the best knight in the land because he cannot control his heart (and balls), but his illegitimate son, Galahad, attains physical and spiritual perfection.
The pure Sir Galahad and Santiago Cabrera as Sir Lancelot from the BBC TV series Merin

The Candle in the Wind

Before Elton John’s song was ever conceived, the phrase The Candle in the Wind was the title of White’s originally-published finale to The Once and Future King – the unravelling of the painfully sad outcomes for the legendary characters. The book ends with a poignant and witty encounter between Arthur and “Tom of Warwick,” the future Sir Thomas Malory, who is commissioned to write an account of all that has befallen – the book that becomes Le Morte d’Arthur.
King Arthur and "Tom of Warwick" in the musical Camelot

The Book of Merlyn

Published posthumously (1977) this additional volume of The Once and Future King is White’s explicit exploration of his anti-war sentiments.  Merlyn returns to Arthur on the battlefield and presents more evidence of the Laws of the Natural World (animals are harmonious and productive; humans are primitive and destructive.) The Circle of Life, in Merlin’s philosophy, is superior to the Ravages of War. Boyhood should beat American Sniper. Right should always beat Might and Mankind is doomed until he learns the lesson.

Themes and a warning

So what is The Once and Future King about beneath its Epic Narrative, its Giddy Satire, its Domestic Melodrama?  The Tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? Themes include War, Peace, Justice, Chivalry, Love, Marriage, Families, Adultery, Incest, Friendship, Loyalty, Betrayal, Education, Ignorance, History, Fate, Self-determination, Courage, Cowardice, Magic and Time itself; one of TH White’s funniest conceits is that Merlyn lives his life backwards through Time.
Right is, or should be, Might.  Might should not rule Right.

Sleeping under a hill…. In Glastonbury, maybe?

The Once and Future King seems to mark the end of the Dark and Medieval Ages and bring the reader into Modern Times and it also seems to be warning, in the same vein as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that if the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb are amongst us then we are no further forward than we were in the Dark Ages. Right is not yet Might everywhere. Might often still prevails. Somewhere though, on the island of Avalon, King Arthur sleeps with his Knights of the Round Table, ready to emerge when Britain needs them most and re-establish a metaphorical Camelot for our time.
The Round Table hanging in Winchester Great Hall