Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Once and Future King

T.H. White The Once and Future King (1958)
I was about to read Philip Purser-Hallard's Trojans, the final part of his thus far exceptional Devices trilogy, when I saw this in the second-hand book store and bought it with the idea that a little homework couldn't hurt. Devices refers to large chunks of Arthurian legend, and I seem to recall White's book having been described as the definitive work bringing it all together into roughly the shape we recognise today; except it turns out that I was actually thinking of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur of 1485 to which The Once and Future King itself refers and which I am similarly yet to read; but I've started so I may as well finish.

The Once and Future King, rather than being the definitive version, brings Arthurian legend into the twentieth century in so much as that it's a modern novel written in a contemporary style whilst relating a tale set in the twelfth century or thereabouts. All those Arthurian occurrences are traditionally dated to times prior to even Egbert of Wessex, the first Saxon king and arguably the first English king by some definition; so the six-hundred year relocation initially unsettled me. At first it seemed like White just needed a way of bringing Robin Hood into the Arthurverse - curiously something which likewise occurs in Philip Purser-Hallard's The Locksley Exploit albeit with more satisfying purpose, to my mind - which demands the reader avoid thinking too hard about what Richard the Lionheart may or may not have been up to around the same time.

Even more disconcerting, at least for me, was that the first of the four books of The Once and Future King turns out to be The Sword in the Stone, as famously adapted by Walt Disney. I've never seen the animated film but would guess it's probably fairly true to the book, given that the tone of the book, occasionally harking back to the absurdity of Cervantes as it does, somewhat foreshadows Harry Potter and even the Monty Python version of this tale. Try to read this without thinking of John Cleese and the rest:

Sir Ector blushed deeply and called out: 'Ah, Grummore, come over here a minute, will you? I want to introduce a friend of mine, old chap, a chap called Wood, old chap—Wood with a W, you know, not an H. Yes, and this is King Pellinore, Master Wood—King Pellinore.'

'Hail,' said King Pellinore, who had not quite got out of the habit when nervous.

'How do?' said Sir Grummore. 'No relation to Robin Hood, I suppose?'

'Oh, not in the least,' interrupted Sir Ector hastily. 'Double you, double owe, dee, you know, like the stuff they make furniture out of—furniture, you know, and spears, and—well—spears, you know, and furniture.'

I was expecting more frowning, more grunting, more faces set sternly against the northern wind, which isn't to say I was necessarily disappointed so much as that it took more getting used to than I had anticipated. White talks quite directly to his audience as though we're sat before him upon the hearth rug, and so we have references such as to Merlyn putting his fingers together like Sherlock Holmes, and we are left with a strong impression of The Once and Future King having been written for English school boys at the upper end of the 1950s educational ladder.

Children believe such things to this day, and think that they will only be able to bowl well in the cricket match tomorrow, provided that they are good today.

As an aside, even without the references to Merlyn and his unsettling knowledge of centuries to come, anyone who enjoyed Marc Platt's Lungbarrow as I did might appreciate why I should raise an eyebrow at this passage:

'Would you show me your home?'

'Certainly,' said the badger, 'though, of course, I don't use it all. It is a rambling old place, much too big for a single man. I suppose some parts of it may be a thousand years old. There are about four families of us in it, here and there, take it by and large from cellar to attics, and sometimes we don't meet for months. A crazy old place, I suppose it must seem to you modern people—but there, it's cosy.'

At the risk of committing what is probably literary treason, there's a problem with The Once and Future King, or at least I experienced one. It's nothing to do with kids turning into Disney owls, the twelfth century remodelling, the disconcerting contemporary asides, or any of White's screwing around with the source material, all of which is done with a purpose which becomes gradually apparent. The problem is that said purpose takes so long to emerge from the narrative. I can understand the writer not wanting to play all of his cards at once, but as soon as we're past The Sword in the Stone it really gets to rambling and bumbling to itself with no clear indication of where we might be heading, and while the book remains readable throughout, personally I was a little bored in places. I'm putting this down to my never having read Le Morte D'Arthur.

That said, the point of it all is beautifully expressed once it becomes apparent why White felt compelled to write in the first place. The Once and Future King evokes the age of chivalry in contrast to White's era, and unfortunately also to our own - it might be argued. His invocation of Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich, and the pseudo-Darwinian cult of power as its own justification, as given by Agravaine during the first chapter of the fourth book, is hard to miss.

'We could say that we were in favour of a national movement. For that matter, we could join them together and call it national communism. But it has to be something broad and popular, which everybody can feel. It must be against large numbers of people, like the Jews or the Normans or the Saxons, so that everybody can be angry.'

White also seemingly predicted Death in June and other neofolk types who have built careers on simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery, such as the controversial idea and image of Adolf Hitler as a great bloke who was only saying what everybody was thinking.

Mordred had begun dressing with this dramatic simplicity since the time when he had become a leader of the popular party. Their aims were some kind of nationalism, with Gaelic autonomy, and a massacre of the Jews as well, in revenge for a mythical saint called Hugh of Lincoln. There were already thousands, spread over the country, who carried the badge of a scarlet fist clenching a whip, and who called themselves Thrashers.

Once this novel stops messing about and gets down to the business of what is on its mind, it becomes a formidable work, and so much so as to oblige me to forget having been bored; and given the chilling accuracy of White's analysis of the rise of the Nazis, his argument seems unfortunately well-suited to our own era, and to how we respond to what is happening in our world.

At last he had sought to make a map of force, as it were, to bind it down by laws. He had tried to codify the evil uses of might by individuals, so that he might set bounds to them by the impersonal justice of the state. He had been prepared to sacrifice his wife and his best friend, to the impersonality of Justice. And then, even as the might of the individual seemed to have been curbed, the Principle of Might had sprung up behind him in another shape—in the shape of collective might, of banded ferocity, of numerous armies insusceptible to individual laws. He had bound the might of units, only to find that it was assumed by pluralities. He had conquered murder, to be faced with war. There were no Laws for that.

I suppose now I need to read Le Morte D'Arthur.

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