Friday, March 1, 2013

The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

One of N. C. Wyeth's luminous illustrations for
The Boy's History of King Arthur, which,
despite being a girl, I adored.
I was immersed in Arthurian legend as a child, and then later, on a slightly more highbrow level in college, paddled through Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tennyson and others. I'd developed a been-there-done-that smugness that my reading on the subject was complete, or at least adequate.

Then my favourite literary list-maker, Anthony Burgess, tossed the four novels of T. H. White's tetralogy onto his Best Novels list and into my path:  The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.  Bless 'im.  I instantly saw that this version of the legends is like no other.

For one thing, it's damned funny. White has a gentle humour -- never scathing or sardonic. His characters have foibles galore. They may be mythical, but they are far from super-human. The future King, at first a bumbling lad known only as the Wart to those in his adoptive father's household, wanders off into the forest in search of an escaped falcon and comes home with Merlyn in tow. The boy has at least enough sense to grasp that Merlyn has some exceptional qualities and would likely be a good tutor for King Ector's son Kay and himself. He presents his new friend to Ector, and what ensues is the all-time best transcript of an employment interview.
"Oh, sir," said the Wart, "I have been on that quest you said for a tutor, and I have found him. Please, he is this gentleman here, and he is called Merlyn. He has got some badgers and hedgehogs and mice and ants and things on this white donkey here, because we could not leave them behind to starve. He is a great magician, and can make things come out of the air."
"Ah, a magician," said Sir Ector, putting on his glasses and looking closely at Merlyn. "White magic, I hope?"
"Assuredly," said Merlyn, who stood patiently among the throng with his arms folded in his necromantic gown, while Archimedes [the owl] sat very stiff and elongated on the top of his head.
"Ought to have some testimonials," said Sir Ector doubtfully. "It's usual."
"Testimonials," said Merlyn, holding out his hand. Instantly there were some heavy tablets in it, signed by Aristotle, a parchment signed by Hecate, and some typewritten duplicates signed by the Master of Trinity, who could not remember having met him. All these gave Merlyn an excellent character.
"He had 'em up his sleeve," said Sir Ector wisely. "Can you do anything else?"
"Tree," said Merlyn. At once there was an enormous mulberry growing in the middle of the courtyard, with its luscious blue fruits ready to patter down. This was all the more remarkable, since mulberries only became popular in the days of Cromwell.
"They do it with mirrors," said Sir Ector.
"Snow," said Merlyn. "And an umbrella," he added hastily. Before they could turn round, the copper sky of summer had assumed a cold and lowering bronze, while the biggest white flakes that ever were seen were floating about them and settling on the battlements. An inch of snow had fallen before they could speak, and all were trembling with the wintry blast. Sir Ector's nose was blue, and had an icicle hanging from the end of it, while all except Merlyn had a ledge of snow upon their shoulders. Merlyn stood in the middle, holding his umbrella high because of the owl.
"It's done by hypnotism," said Sir Ector, with chattering teeth. "Like those wallahs from the Indies. But that'll do," he added hastily, "that'll do very well. I'm sure you'll make an excellent tutor for teachin' these boys."
Kay may be the King's son, but Merlyn expends most of his tutoring efforts on the Wart, turning him into various kinds of fish, birds and animals so the boy can learn the wisdom of other species. This is not an endlessly gratifying project, and Merlyn is often irate with his student's thick-headedness.  I don't remember any other Arthurian writer suggesting either that the young Arthur was a bit dim nor that Merlyn's exasperation with him ever produced untoward results.
Merlyn took off his spectacles, dashed them on the floor and jumped on them with both feet. "Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!" he exclaimed, and immediately vanished with a frightful roar. The Wart was still staring at his tutor's chair in some perplexity, a few moments later, when Merlyn reappeared. He had lost his hat and his hair and beard were tangled up, as if by a hurricane. He sat down again, straightening his gown with trembling fingers.
"Why did you do that?" asked the Wart.
"I did not do it on purpose."
"Do you mean to say that Castor and Pollux did blow you to Bermuda?"
"Let this be a lesson to you," replied Merlyn, "not to swear. I think we had better change the subject."
The second novel, The Queen of Air and Darkness, opens on a more somber note with an introduction to Queen Morgause -- a lackadaisical witch (possessing nowhere near the conjuring genius of her sister, Morgan le Fay), exquisite and unfaithful wife of King Lot of Orkney and mother to his four sons, Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth and Agravaine. These are the Gaels, the "Old Ones" of Britain, as contrasted to the Anglo-Saxons of the south, including Arthur. The clannish Old Ones settle matters by violence and blood feud and sorcery. When Arthur establishes his court, endorsing justice and chivalry, the sons become Knights at his round table, but their loyalties are always uncertain. While he is dealing with them in his newly peaceful realm in the south, the bumbling southern King Pellinore and his companions wash ashore in Orkney, and the somewhat insatiable Morgause toys with the idea of seducing them. She comes to see that it's a lost cause.
The Queen had recognized the impossible. Even in the miasma of her Gaelic mind, she had come to see that asses do not mate with pythons. It was useless to go on dramatizing her charms and talents for the benefit of these ridiculous knights ...With a sudden turn of feeling she discovered that she hated them. They were imbeciles, as well as being the Sassenach... [Gaelic term for 'Saxon']
Arthur embraces the motto "Right, not Might", but he employs warfare as an acceptable means of getting his point across. As he prepares for a battle with the Old Ones, he realises that war is largely a sport for the nobles. The peasants (kerns, or villeins) are incited to fight and die by their overlords, who usually escape unharmed. This is but one of the seemingly (and depressingly) eternal truths that White illustrates. War is a game of rich old men sending younger, poorer men off to fight and die.
Between the armies there was a serious racial enmity. But it was an enmity controlled from above -- by nobles who were not sincerely anxious for each other's blood. The armies were packs of hounds, as it were, whose struggle with each other was to be commanded by Masters of Hounds, who took the matter as an exciting gamble. The nobles of the inner circle on both sides were in a way traditionally more friendly with each other than with their own men. For them the numbers were necessary for the sake of the bag, and for scenic purposes. For them a good war had to be full of "arms, shoulders and heads flying about the field and blows ringing by the water and the wood." But the arms, shoulders and heads would be those of villeins.
The Ill-Made Knight is hardly how most Arthurian writers would characterise Lancelot. Everyone knows that he's the golden boy -- handsome, debonair, blond. Not in T. H. White's book, he's not. He's homely bordering on ugly. He is driven by his love of Arthur (and later of Guenever) to become the best knight in the world. Finally, he is just a bundle of moral conflicts. White brilliantly remarks that it was not simply a triangle between Arthur, Guenever and Lancelot, but actually a quadrangle, with God in the fourth corner. And it was the relationship between Lancelot and God that is perhaps the most complex. Arthur is a decent man; Guenever is to be loved. Lancelot's lot is to wrestle with his moral bearings.
On top of this stain there was the torture of knowing that Arthur was kind, simple and upright -- of knowing that he was always on the edge of hurting Arthur dreadfully, although he loved him. Then there was pain about Guenever herself, the tiny plant of bitterness which they had sown, or seen sown, in each other's eyes, on the occasion of their first quarrel of suspicion. It was a pain to him to be in love with a jealous and suspicious woman. She had given him a mortal blow by not believing his explanation about Elaine instantly. Yet he was unable not to love her. Finally there were the revolted elements of his own character -- his strange desire for purity and honour and spiritual excellence.
White consistently shows Arthur as a simple man, but always in a positive light. He has his blind spots, to be sure, but he tries to think things through, as his childhood tutor had taught him. He is far from a witless cuckold. And maybe, White hints, he's the wisest one in the book.
Arthur was not one of those interesting characters whose subtle motives can be dissected. He was only a simple and affectionate man, because Merlyn had believed that love and simplicity were worth having.
Arthur realises that his utopian society is still somewhat violent and contentious, and he decides that the best channel for these energies is a religious quest:  "What I mean is, that the ideal of my Round Table was a temporal ideal. If we are to save it, it must be made into a spiritual one. I forgot about God."  And so begins the quest for the Holy Grail.

On a few occasions, White tells readers that he's not going to discuss this or that in great detail, and if the reader wants detail, he can reach for Malory.  Details of great battles, he says, are like reading an account of a cricket match long past -- interesting only for the cricket fanatic. If you want details on all the travails of the Grail quest, he says, Malory is your man. White plants himself in the castle with Arthur and Guenever, waiting for the survivors to return and tell their tales. Gawaine comes home and tells that his warring ways were ineffective. Lancelot got close enough to see the Grail but was not pure enough to get nearer than that. The knights whose spiritual purity let them achieve their goal (including Gawaine's son, Galahad) were never seen again -- perfection disappears, Arthur sadly and sagely concludes. Meanwhile, Lancelot, whose spiritual purity allowed him at least a glimpse of the Grail, finds life at court a bit vacuous in comparison to the spiritual retreat of the Quest.
"Arthur, you mustn't feel that I am rude when I say this. You must remember that I have been away in strange and desert places, sometimes quite alone, sometimes in a boat with nobody but God and the whistling sea. Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt I was going mad? Not from the sea, but from the people. All my gains are slipping away, with the people round me. A lot of the things which you and Jenny say, even, seem to me to be needless: strange noises: empty. You know what I mean, 'How are you?' 'Do sit down.' 'What nice weather we are having!' What does it matter? People talk far too much. Where I have been, and where Galahad is, it is a waste of time to have 'manners.' Manners are only needed between people, to keep their empty affairs in working order. Manners makyth man, you know, not God. So you can understand how Galahad may have seemed inhuman, and mannerless, and so on, to the people who were buzzing and clacking about him. He was far away in his spirit, living on desert islands, in silence, with eternity." 
In stark and painful contrast to Lancelot's upright courage is Mordred, King Arthur's hate-filled bastard son with Morgause. Arthur forces himself to respond to Mordred's venom and scheming with justice and forbearance, but it's clear to all that the monster will not stop until he's destroyed everything the King achieved. And here it is again, that sense that might may, after all, prove right in the end.  The older, cruder and more primal tribes will always likely prevail over the more advanced and cerebral ones, and they'll be relentless gadflies in the meantime.
Small flecks in the iris of Mordred's eyes burned with a turquoise light, as bright as the owl's. Instead of being a foppish man with a crooked shoulder, dressed in extravagant clothes, he became a Cause. He became, on this matter, everything which Arthur was not -- the irreconcilable opposite of the Englishman. He became the invincible Gael, the scion of desperate races more ancient than Arthur's, and more subtle. Now, when he was on fire with his Cause, Arthur's justice seemed bourgeois and obtuse beside him. It seemed merely to be dull complacency, beside the savagery and feral wit of the Pict. His maternal ancestors crowded into his face when he was spurning at Arthur's ancestors whose civilization, like Mordred's, had been matriarchal: who had ridden bare-back, charged in chariots, fought by stratagem, and ornamented their grisly strongholds with the heads of enemies.
At the end of the fourth and final book, A Candle in the Wind, as he's preparing for the final battle with Mordred, a weary and old King Arthur sinks into a  reverie so poignant that my heart aches to think of White as he wrote it.  
...long ago he had been taught by an aged benevolence, wagging a white beard. He had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly: that good was worth trying: that there was no such thing as original sin. He had been forged as a weapon for the aid of man, on the assumption that men were good. He had been forged, by that deluded old teacher, into a sort of Pasteur or Curie or patient discoverer of insulin. The service for which he had been destined had been against Force, the mental illness of humanity. His Table, his idea of Chivalry, his Holy Grail, his devotion to Justice: these had been progressive steps in the effort for which he had been bred. He was like a scientist who had pursued the root of cancer all his life. Might -- to have ended it -- to have made men happier. But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent.
Looking back at his life, it seemed to him that he had been struggling all the time to dam a flood, which, whenever he had checked it, had broken through at a new place, setting him his work to do again. It was the flood of Force Majeur
So he had sought for a new channel, had sent them out on God's business, searching for the Holy Grail. That too had been a failure, because those who had achieved the Quest had become perfect and been lost to the world, while those who had failed in it had soon returned no better.
Ultimately, in the light of one last moment of universal truth, Arthur considers the twin responsibilities of leaders, whether good or evil, and of the people who put them into power.
Was it the wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?
And on this bleak, haunting note, Arthur concludes his reflection. 
What was Right, what was Wrong? What distinguished Doing from Not Doing? If I were to have my time again, the old King thought, I would bury myself in a monastery, for fear of a Doing which might lead to woe.  

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