Thursday, September 17, 2009

255. The Once and Future King – T.H. White

History: This book 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 ARTHURUS REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS — "Here lies Arthur, the once and future king."
Though it has been in print for less than half a century, it has already been declared a classic by many, and is often referred to as the "bible" of Arthurian legend. White recreates the epic saga of King Arthur, from his childhood education and experiences until his very death, in a truly insightful and new way. This is not, however, the first complete novel of Arthur's life. In the fifteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Morte d'Arthur, the first complete tale of Arthur's life. Since then, a countless number of books have been written on the subject, yet none can compare to The Once and Future King.
Plot: 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 Merlin, a wizard who lives through time backwards. Merlin, 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, Merlin 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. Merlin magically turns Wart into various animals at times. He also has more human adventures, at one point meeting the outlaw Robin Hood, (who is referred to in the novel as Robin Wood). The setting is loosely based on medieval England, and in places it incorporates White's considerable knowledge of medieval culture (as in relation to hunting, falconry and jousting). However it makes no attempt at consistent historical accuracy, and incorporates some obvious anachronisms (aided by the concept that Merlin lives backwards in time rather than forwards, unlike everyone else).
The Queen of Air and Darkness is the second book in the four-part work. Although it is the shortest book in the series, it is a vital point in the story for several reasons:
• Arthur invents the idea of the Round Table, which was central to the plot of the third and fourth books.
• Arthur also defeats barons those rebelling against him, thereby securing his role as king.
• Arthur's understanding of "might vs. right" is explored more deeply in this book.
• The Orkney faction is introduced. These four children (Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth) become major characters for the rest of White's work.
• King Pellinore gets married and has several children who will become important in The Ill-Made Knight.
The novel begins with the four Orkney children, Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth, telling each other stories late at night. As they speak, it becomes clear that they have great respect and love for their mother, the beautiful Queen Morgause, although she does not devote herself entirely to motherhood, but has a desire to understand and unlock her magical powers whilst her husband, King Lot, is off to war against King Arthur. We also learn that Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, had raped Morgause's mother, Igraine, making Morgause Arthur's half-sister (although no one is yet aware of this fact except for Merlyn, who had forgotten to tell it to Arthur).
Arthur is still being tutored by Merlyn, although the relationship between the two has changed. Instead of seeing Merlyn as an almighty sage, Arthur treats him as more of a friend throughout the novel. Despite this, Merlyn still attempts to teach Arthur how he can create a perfect society out of his newly-formed kingdom. Arthur is unimpressed, and would rather be off fighting wars than taking care of peasants.
Meanwhile, back in the Orkney Isles, the four Orkney children are bored and seek a story from their own tutor, St. Toirdelbach, a very different teacher from Merlyn. He tells them a story, but quickly becomes annoyed with the boys, and threatens to hit them with his shelleleigh if they refuse to leave him alone. This is one of White's best examples of how different the loveless childhoods of the Orkney children were from the happy childhood of Arthur. As the children are walking on the beach after visiting St. Toirdelbach, Sir Grummor Grummursum and King Pellinore arrive on the shore in a magic barge. Along with them is a Saracen knight named Sir Palomides who has apparently befriended them between the previous book and their arrival on the Orkney islands. The trio had previously been in Flanders where Pellinore fell in love with the Queen of Flander's daughter. The knights entered the boat and had been unable to turn it around, causing Pellinore to become so lovesick, he no longer wishes to hunt the Questing Beast, his lifelong passion.
Arthur, meanwhile, is preparing for the battle against Lot's Gaelic warriors which lies ahead. He has begun to buy into the idea of chivalry, and of "might vs. right." He announces to Merlyn that he plans to first put down Lot's rebellion and then use that power to enforce justice throughout his kingdom.
Morgause is pleased that the three bumbling knights have landed because they have no idea that England is at war with Orkney. She takes advantage of their ignorance and attempts to make them fall in love with her. She attempts an unsuccessful unicorn hunt with the knights. The boys consult St. Toirdelbach and then attempt to catch a live unicorn to present to their mother. They almost succeed but Agravaine kills the unicorn in a fit of rage (the boys were pretending the virgin who lured the unicorn was their mother and Agravaine hated the unicorn for touching their "mother"). The other three brothers are angry, as they believe Agravaine has ruined their chances of getting a reward from their mother. Only Gareth feels sorry for the unicorn. Morgause is not pleased at all that they succeeded where she failed; on the contrary, she has them whipped.
Meanwhile, on the plains of Bedegraine, Arthur is making final preparations for his battle. Arthur announces his idea of the round table, and Merlyn informs Arthur that another king has such a table. Ironically, this king is the father of Arthur's future wife, Guenever (sic). Sir Kay, Arthur's foster-brother, says that he believes that if war will help the conquered race to live a better life, they should be conquered. Merlyn angrily informs him that there is a certain Austrian who shared Kay's views, and "plunged the world into bloody chaos." This is an allusion to Adolf Hitler.
Sir Palomides and Sir Grummore, concerned about King Pellinore's lovesickness, plan to impersonate the Questing Beast and lure him back to chasing it. Their plan backfires when the real Questing Beast appears and chases them; they spend the night caught half-way up a cliff.
Morgause, frustrated that the knights have not fallen for her, decides that her children matter more to her. Gareth rushes to the stables to tell his brothers that she loves them, and he arrives to find that Gawaine and Agravaine are in a heated argument. Agravaine wants to send a letter to Lot, informing him of the three knights and telling Lot that Morgause is cheating on him. Gawaine is infuriated by the idea, and he considers it betrayal to their mother. The argument ends when Agravaine threatens Gawaine with a hidden knife, and Gawaine nearly kills him. White explains that Gawaine was never able to get over these kind of sudden passions he underwent, and that they would plague him for life.
Merlyn knows that his time with Arthur is nearly up, as he will soon be locked up for a thousand years. Arthur is distressed, and asks why Merlyn can't avoid the imprisonment that awaits him. Merlyn tells Arthur a parable which explains that no-one can escape fate (the famous story of a man who learns of his death, then rides to escape death, but ends up running into Death while escaping.) He also warns Arthur about Guinvere and Lancelot, but Arthur is too saddened by Merlyn's departure to take the warning to heart.
Early the next morning, King Pellinore is walking alone on the beach when he spots Palomides and Grummore stuck on the cliff, with the Questing Beast waiting for them below. He explains that the beast has fallen in love with them (as she thinks that they are her mate when they were in disguise), and refuses to slay the creature. He simply holds it down while Grummore and Palomides escape to Morgause's castle. Pellinore is reunited with Piggy, the daughter of the Queen of Flanders. He returns to the castle to find that the Questing Beast is waiting outside the castle. Around this same time, Merlyn has begun his journey to find Nimue and passes by them. He advises the pair of knights to psychoanalyse the Questing Beast. They do so, but it backfires and the Questing Beast falls in love with Sir Palomides instead. Pellinore gives up chasing the beast then and Sir Palomides takes up the job.
Arthur has engaged Lot in a fateful battle which would determine who would rule Britain. Arthur overcomes Lot with a sneaky ambush in the night, despite Lot's larger number of soldiers. Contrary to the code of "chivalric" battle (or White's version, at any rate) he also attacks the enemy knights first rather than the foot soldiers. Arthur seemingly finally realizes the wrong behind slaughtering the peasants for the fun of the rich knights, as Merlyn had insisted in his lessons. Assisted by the French noblemen, Ban and Bors, Arthur wins the battle.
The defeated Lot returns home, and the three English knights are shocked to learn that Orkney has been at war with England. Morgause heads south to England in order to reconcile with the English, and brings with her children and the three knights. Arthur holds Pellinore's wedding to Piggy, as he remembers Pellinore fondly as being the first knight he ever met. At the same time, St. Toirdelbach also has a marriage. After the ceremony, Morgause seduces Arthur and becomes pregnant. It is then that Merlyn, far away in North Humberland, remembers that he had forgotten to tell Arthur that Morgause was Arthur's half-sister. Therefore, Arthur's adultery is also incest, a very grave sin. Morgause becomes pregnant with Mordred, who will one day come to ruin his father's kingdom.
The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, is based around the adventures, perils and mistakes of Sir Lancelot. Lancelot, despite being the bravest of the knights, is ugly, and ape-like, so that he calls himself the "Ill-Made Knight". Lancelot is more appealing as a truly tragic figure: ugly, moody, deeply religious, supposedly cruel but fanatically legalistic in compensation, prone to madness, superb as a knight, and full of love for both Arthur and Guenever. As a child, Lancelot adored King Arthur and spent his entire childhood training to be a knight of the round table. When he arrives and becomes one of Arthur's knights, he also becomes the king's close friend. This causes some tension, as he dislikes Arthur's new wife Guinevere. In order to please her husband, Guinevere tries to befriend Lancelot and the two eventually fall in love. T.H. White's version of the tale elaborates greatly on the passionate love of Lancelot and Guinevere. Suspense is provided by the tension between Lancelot's friendship for King Arthur and his love for and affair with the queen. This affair leads inevitably to the breaking of the Round Table and sets up the tragedy that is to follow in the concluding book of the tetralogy - "The Candle in the Wind".
Lancelot leaves Camelot to aid people in need. Along the way, he meets a woman who begs him to climb a tree and rescue her husband's escaped falcon. After he removes his armor and does so, the husband appears and reveals that he only wanted Lancelot to remove his armor so that he can kill the knight. Despite being at a disadvantage, Lancelot manages to kill the man and tells the wife "Stop crying. Your husband was a fool and you are a bore. I'm not sorry" (though he reflects that he is). Later, he comes across a man attempting to murder his wife for adultery. Lancelot attempts to protect the woman (who denies the charges) by riding in between the two; however the man manages to cut off his wife's head. The man then throws himself at Lancelot's feet and asks for mercy to avoid being killed. It was revealed later that the man was punished by being charged to take his wife's head to the Pope and ask for forgiveness. Finally, Lancelot comes to a town where the inhabitants beg him to rescue a young woman named Elaine, who is trapped in a tower. The tower is full of steam and she is forced to sit in a tub of boiling water. He manages to save her and her father has him spend the night. That night, the servants and Elaine devise a plan in which the servants get Lancelot drunk and trick him into thinking Guinevere is in the house. When he awakens in the morning, he discovers that he actually slept with Elaine. Furious at the loss of his virginity (which he believes also cost him the ability to work miracles) and frightened at the thought that Elaine might have a baby, he leaves. He later confesses the affair to Guinevere, who forgives him. They later discover that Elaine did have a baby, which she named Galahad (Lancelot's real name). She brings the baby to Camelot to show to Lancelot and again tricks him into sleeping with her. Guinevere is furious at this (as she asked Lancelot not to do that) and Lancelot goes mad and runs from the castle. He is later found by Elaine's father (who does not recognize him) and is kept as a fool until Elaine recognizes him and cares for him. He lives with Elaine for some time, but then returns to Camelot. When Galahad grows older, he is brought to Camelot as well, to be knighted.
The Ill-Made Knight also deals with the quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur notices that the drop in crime has caused the Knights of the Round Table to fall back into their old habits (especially Gawaine, Agravaine, and Mordred, who found their mother in bed with one of Sir Pellinore's sons and Agravaine murdered both in a fit of rage). In order to give the Knights a new goal, he sends them to find the Holy Grail. The quest ends when Sir Galahad, Sir Percival, Sir Bors, and Sir Pellinore's daughter find the grail. Sir Lancelot apparently saw the four in a room, with the Grail, an old man, and several other knights; however he was unable to enter the room himself (when he tried he was knocked out). One of the knights returned with the news that the Grail could not be brought to England and as a result Sir Galahad and the other knight brought it to Babylon (and neither of them could return to England as well). Sir Pellinore's daughter died when she allowed her blood to be taken to cure a dying princess.
Later on, Elaine commits suicide after Lancelot tells her that he will not return to stay her permanently. The book ends with Lancelot performing a miracle, which is a miracle in and of itself due to the fact that he is not a virgin (which had been the requirement for being able to do so).
The fourth book, The Candle in the Wind begins with Mordred and Agravaine, both discontent. Mordred hates his father, King Arthur, and Agravaine hates Sir Lancelot. Their views are not shared by Gawaine, Gareth, or Gaheris. The relationship of Lancelot and Guinevere has gone on for some time and everyone in the court knows of it. No one, however, publicly speaks of it as law would require Lancelot to be killed and Guinevere to be burned at stake. In order to wreak their revenge, Mordred and Agravaine decide to go to the king and officially charge the Queen with adultery. Troubled by this, King Arthur agrees to leave on a hunting trip to give the knights a chance to catch the Queen with Lancelot, although he does say that if they are caught, he hopes that Lancelot will be able to kill all witnesses and adds that if the two fail in backing their claims, he will see to it that they are pursued by the law themselves. At the same time, he confesses to Guinevere and Lancelot a terrible secret: When Mordred was born, Arthur had been told by many people that the child would be evil, as a result of the incest. Pressured, the king commanded all babies born on the day Mordred was born to be placed on a boat which was then sunk. Mordred managed to survive this however, and Arthur lived with the guilt of causing the death of the other babies.
When the king leaves for his hunting party, Lancelot prepares to sneak over to Guinevere's room. Before he can leave, Gareth visits him and warns him of Mordred and Agravaine's plot. Lancelot receives him warmly, but does not take the threat seriously as he does not believe that Arthur would entertain such an idea. He leaves for the Queen's room without weapons or armor, assuring Gareth that they would all laugh together about this when the king returned. In Guinevere's room, Lancelot laughingly tells her of Gareth's warning. Unlike him however, the queen takes the threat seriously and tries to convince the knight to leave before they are caught. Too late however, they find a group of knights attempting to break into Guinevere's room. Lancelot manages to kill one of them (later revealed to be Agravaine) and takes his weapon and armor to defeat the rest. Mordred, however, escapes to tell Arthur of the Queen's faithlessness. Lancelot is forced to flee Camelot, however promises to return to rescue Guinevere.
Though unwilling to kill his wife, Arthur is forced to obey his own laws and prepares for her execution. Mordred faces scorn and anger from his brothers, who are furious with him for turning in the queen and accuse him of being a coward for running away from his fight with Lancelot. Arthur later explains to them that Mordred survived because Lancelot was unwilling to kill Arthur's son. When Mordred learns that Lancelot will return to prevent Guinevere's execution, he demands that Arthur put more guards in the town. While Gawaine refuses to take part in the events, Gareth and Gaheris are stationed as additional guards. Just as Guinevere is about to be burned, Lancelot rides in and rescues her. Much to Gawaine's horror however, it is discovered that in his haste to reach the queen, Lancelot murdered Gareth and Gaheris before he could recognize them. Guinevere and Lancelot flee to France, however they request forgiveness from the Pope. It is granted and Guinevere is permitted to return to Camelot. Lancelot remains in France, where Arthur is forced to fight him for honor. During the siege, Gawaine receives a blow to the head that gravely injures him. In Camelot, Mordred is left to rule in Arthur's stead. He corners Guinevere and tells her that he intends to overthrow Arthur's rule and take her as his wife (as revenge for Arthur sleeping with Mordred's mother). Guinevere manages to send a message to Arthur and upon hearing the news, Gawaine dies. The book ends with Arthur, on the eve of his final battle with Mordred, sending a young page named Thomas back to his homeland to keep the ideals of Camelot alive. This becomes the analogy with the title of the book. Thomas is to keep the Candle lit, as Arthur did in the Wind (analogizing life's turns).
Review: 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:
• 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". Arthurs youth was not dealt with in Mallory. Another important addition by White to the legend of Arthur is that of humor. The Arthurian legend has been told with so much reverence and importance for many centuries. White, however, adds humor to the story, giving his novel versatility. When T. H. White decided to write The Once and Future King, he realized that his task would be an ambitious one. He faced the challenge of telling a tale which has been present for centuries, in a new way which would make it of interest to readers. His recreation of the Arthurian legend more than lives up to that challenge. The addition of new themes, anachronism, characters such as King Pellinore, and new adventures gives the novel a unique flair without straying too far from the traditional legend.
There is no question that White feels an academic education is far superior to an athletic education. Time and again he makes the point that "education is experience and the essence of education is self-reliance." Wart's experience with the animals/birds/fish teach him that knowledge is power. I [agree with] the comment that schools have been forced to lower their standards in order to accomodate athletics. White also commented that schools promote the lazy and idle along with the industrious. He definitely feels education is extremely important. Education is one of the themes of the book.
Being the pacifist that he was and writing during WWII, White makes the point repeatedly that violence/agression is not the answer to life's trials. Wart's whole education by Merlyn (White) is directed towards a sensitivity to life and a respect for it. White illustrates this through the various governments Wart experiences — totalitarianism/Fascism (the ants), feudalism (Sir Ector), and total freedom/almost anarchy (the geese). Again, White states that it doesn't matter what government is in place, what truly matters is the kind of leader. As long as those in control are good and moral then the people will prosper. In The Queen of Air and Darkness he makes the point again that agression is not the answer when he compares Hitler (the Austrian who imposed his will on the world) to Jesus Christ (the philosopher who made his ideas available).
Opening Line: “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.”
Closing Line: “The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.”
Quotes: “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
“There is no excuse for war, none whatever, and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine – short of a war – my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it.”
Rating: Very Good.

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