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. Learning is the thing for you.”
–T. H. White, “The Sword in the Stone.”
After Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the book that most affected me as a child was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book is best-known through the and for the Camelot! musical and later movie of the same name in which Robert Goulet and Richard Harris played the title roles, and perhaps through the Disney animation of The Sword in the Stone, the first part of the book. However, in each of these cases, that’s like knowing a sunny day through a tanning clinic. What White accomplished was not just an entertainment – although it’s all of that – but, rather, the main retelling of the Arthurian legend for the twentieth century.
White was rather unfortunate in his personal life. He seems to have been throughly dominated by his mother in his early life, and an accusation – apparently of homosexuality and possibly true – made him unable to continue working as a public school teacher. He turned to his love of naturalism and medievalism for solace as well as a living, but remained largely solitary and introspective.
Every great re-telling of the Arthurian legend reshapes the story for its times, and White is no exception. In White’s version, Arthur is a well-meaning and earnest man who has the luck or misfortune to be afflicted by a visionary tutor. For Merlin, Arthur is a tool to attempt nothing less than a major change in human psychology, away from the “Might is Right” philosophy that seems to rule international politics to a more moral, humanistic way of life. The Round Table and the Grail Quest are both efforts to steer life in this direction. At the end of the book, Arthur is even experimenting with the rule of law, although he finds it suddenly used against him.
The tragedy is that human nature seems to pre-doom this endeavor from the start. But the problem is not just the natural selfishness of people, but the fact that they are not.
The romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere that dooms Arthur’s efforts is not simply a matter of selfishness or uncontrollable passion. After all, White says, if Lancelot had been a normal person, he simply would have eloped with Guinevere, and nothing else would have happened. Instead, the tragedy happens because Lancelot is genuinely torn between his love for Guinevere and his whole-hearted support of Arthur’s ideals. Similarly, Guinevere is a young woman married to an older husband whose ideals she can’t really share, and lacking any outlet for her energies. As for Arthur, he is warned from the start about the love affair, but turns a blind eye to it out of guilt and out of his own sense of fairness.
For White, the other element that dooms Camelot are the five sons of Queen Morgause of Orkney, including Mordred, whose father is Arthur. White devotes a rather chilling, if somewhat racist section to the sons in early childhood, showing them totally obsessed with gaining their aloof mother’s approval. Of the five, only Gareth has the imaginative sympathy to support Arthur’s ideals wholeheartedly. Gaheris is slow, Agravaine and Mordred downright vicious. Gawaine, the head of the clan, is at least good-natured, but even he has trouble thinking beyond the tribalism on which he grew up.
In short, what White manages to do is create a psychologically convincing portrait of the main people in the Arthurian cycle, making them credible to twentieth-century readers, and winning through to a pathos in several scenes as effective as anything else you can name in English literature.
But, although that alone would be enough to make The Once and Future King an extraordinary book, it contains far more. The first part, which depicts Arthur’s childhood, is broadly comical as Arthur – or Wart, as his foster family calls him – is transformed into a variety of animals to broaden his mind, a conceit that gives White a chance to put his naturalist’s rambles to good use. At the same time, Wart receives the usual education of a country squire, learning to joust and work with hawks. In fact, the whole book is crammed with medieval lore that gives the book a ring of authenticity.
Tragically, as adult affairs absorb his mind, Arthur quickly forgets his idyllic childhood, retaining only the ideas that Merlin has given him. After he establishes his rule, the whole concept of rooting out the idea that Might is Right slowly goes wrong in a series of descents that last over several decades. At the end of the book, in a scene whose imaginative power is only faintly captured in the movie, Arthur sits awake in his tent, waiting for the battle with Mordred that he knows will end in his death. Abruptly, he remembers his childhood, and wonders if his life effort was futile. The anarchistic geese, who see no borders in their flights, have the right attitude he concludes, but he despairs of humanity ever following their example. In the end, he finds a small consolation in sending a young page – evidently Thomas Malory, who will grow up write La Morte D’Arthur — out of the battle zone, so that somebody can remember the example of Camelot for future generations, then prepares to go out and die.
Having read the Arthurian legend for years, I was ripe for White’s version when I discovered it in Grade Six. I not only devoured the book, but lived and breathed it for months in my mind, even going so far as to ask a local artist down the lane to bring the description of the mews on Sir Ector’s estate to life (she refused, polite and more than a little puzzled).
Unlike Arthur, I’ve never forgot the story of his early years, or his effort to realize Merlin’s vision. Looking back, I conclude that the book seems to have played a large role in establishing my social and political leanings, and every few years I like to return to it. Each time, I find new pieces to appreciate, and I’m reminded yet again that the literary canon is not the only source of artistic excellence.