Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

At a time when most people my age are planning for retirement, I am spending increasingly longer amounts of time beginning a new career as a novelist. This new career is one that I have always wanted, but until recently I could never seriously consider it. I remember once I was so desperate to learn why I was having problems that I asked a professional writer how to begin (he told me, truthfully but rather unhelpfully, just to write). However, each career I’ve undertaken has brought me closer to the goal, as I’ve moved from academic to technical and marketing writing to journalist, and now I am finally taking the final step.

I don’t suppose that I qualify as more than a promising beginner, and there are times I doubt I rate so high. However, I am learning more and more about the craft of novel writing, at least as applies to me. For example:

  1.  Joining a writer’s group helps with morale. If nothing else, having mostly finished work being taken seriously by ten or so people is an incentive, even if the criticism is not always to the point or you suspect that some of the others in the group may not be the audience you were assuming. Writing implies an audience, and having one encourages me far more than working in isolation.
  2. When a scene stalls, adding another character to the mix can usually get it started again.  That is a less dramatic version of Raymond Chandler’s suggestion that at such moments, you should have two men break down the door and enter waving guns.
  3. As a plotter, I am a combination of a careful and impulsive planner. Knowing the general outline of what I want to happen in each chapter gives me confidence, and allows me to move back and forth in the novel, and to know where certain deals are needed or can be placed. The closer I get to actually writing a chapter, the more detail I need, but if I work out every single detail before writing, the impulse to write tends to die. Just as importantly, I miss the pleasure of discovering new twists and  background details that come to me as I work.
  4. Adding details or characters is more than just a matter of immediate color, the way it would be in poetry. Instead, both details and characters can change the course of the plot later on. For example, during one critique, someone mentioned that they would like to hear more about the mysterious builders of an old fortification. I hadn’t intended to follow up on that bit of color, but her comment made me realize that I should explain just who those builders were later on. Similarly, having mentioned a character in passing, I realized that I could use her later on, which lead to the idea of her living in a building that once housed a Roman-style bath but has since been divided into apartments. Having the protagonists visit this character, I realized, would also help tie up a loose end in the plot.

  5.  All the talk I’ve heard from published writers about characters taking over is true. Once I have found how the characters talk and act, writing them is extremely easy. For instance, if I were writing a scene for the Marx Brothers, I would hardly need to think to have it start with Groucho trying to get everyone to do something, then a series of exchanges with Chico who would not understand very well, giving Groucho a chance to make some smart remarks, then ending with an appeal to Harpo, who would end the scene by honking his horn or pulling some unlikely object out. Once I know the dynamics of character interaction, writing almost any scene becomes easy. It’s very gratifying.

    However, the gratification doesn’t mean that I should allow characters to take over. At times, I have to prune back the exchange, no matter how I enjoy it. At other times, I need to edit carefully so that the plot doesn’t get totally derailed. Possibly, the character’s revolt will suggest interesting changes of direction in the plot, but, at other times, giving the characters full control will be self-indulgent and require some restraint.

  6.  It is appalling easy to write in clichés. There are countless actions, motivations and phrases that hundreds of writers use all the time, especially in genres. For instance, in science fiction and fantasy, characters are always “shaking their head to clear it.” Yet I have never seen anyone do that, except in parody. These clichés are fine as placeholders in rough drafts, when I want to avoid getting bogged down, but if I want to have any originality, I have to go back and consider what I actually mean where they occur.
  7. Writer’s block in fiction is a signal from the unconscious that I am doing something wrong. If I consider an alternative, I can usually continue writing. I work best when I consider writing as a series of problems to solve. Announcing that I am blocked focuses on the problem, not the solution.
  8.  The best time to work out difficulties or figure how to describe something is when I wake in the middle of the night. The usually barriers between the conscious and the unconscious are thin then, and I can trust my unconscious to provide a solution — sometimes, admittedly, after several tries.
  9. Choreography matters to me as a writer as much as it does to readers. Until I know where characters are standing and where they move to, I am unable to write a scene.
  10. Revision is like painting a canvas, adding one layer after the other until a satisfying level of complexity is achieved. Occasionally, I may discover a corner of the canvas where a detail can be added.
  11. My final draft can lose 10-15% of the length of a section and will only improve as a result.

Almost certainly, these discoveries apply only to me. Other would-be novelists probably discover different truths that hold true for them as strongly as the ones mentioned here do for me. However, each of these discoveries teaches me more about myself, and, being in late middle age, I’m tickled by the fact that I can still surprise myself.


Read Full Post »

You find them among the side streets off side streets, the places that are never traceable by GPS, where you can never get pizza deliveries. You can only find them on foot, but better that you never try.

But if you do, you may find them where the hulks of cars are stacked like dirty dishes, in garages of white plaster, where the concrete in the bays is so slick with old oil that you could skate across them in your running shoes. Their hair is thin and snarled, and their overalls stiff with grime. They are the automancers, and you really do not want to meet them.

But if you do, be sure you bring the first part of the price with you. No need to tell you what it is, if you have come so far. Nor I would not encourage you with specifics, any more than I would suggest you come without it.

But if you come, pay the first part of the price before they ask. You will not want to hear more of their voices than needful.

When you have paid and are calm again, they will cram their sleeves above their elbows and demand that you pick a car from among the wrecks. Choose well, but do not take long in making your choice, in case they choose for you instead.

But no matter who chooses, they will read for you. What they will read is the rust, the warps, and the punched-in hollows. Pondering the cylinders, your heart’s health is seen, and your lungs in the manifold of the exhaust. Scrawled in the corrosion of a battery may be the span of life that is left to you, and in the web of cracks across a windshield the blindness that will leave you to stare at nothing in the final months of your life. No matter how you felt when you hunted them out, by the time you leave, you will not want to hear.

But your ears will not help but hear, nor will your eyes forget, although in the middle of many nights after, you will wish they could. And a time may come when you look for the automancers again, this time carrying matches and oil.

But if that time comes, better hope that your feet no longer remember the way. They say that automancers’ shapes are fickle in the full moon, that they sport then, headlighted on the highway. They say, too, that a man who spoke against them lingered seven years on the road in their service, his belly pitted by potholes and his will kept by the holder of his keys. They say many things about the automancers, and many of them are true, including the contradictory ones.

When the craving to find them a second time is upon you, better that you remain at home. Better that you surround yourself with friends, if any remain when they learn of your visit (and they will always know, no matter how much secrecy you pride yourself in having). Rather than finding the automancers a second time unwanted, better you stay where you are and let them find you, when the time comes to pay the second half of the price.

Read Full Post »

For years, I’ve maintained that the secret of writing well is understanding structure. Most people can learn to write a pithy statement or paragraph if they are willing to put in the effort, but developing a sense of how ideas fit together is much more difficult. Nor is learning helped by the fact that we have little analysis of structure and consequently can only talk about it with considerable difficulty.

Take scene transition in fiction, I’ve always added. We can sometimes use analogies from movie making, but, being different media, both fiction and film have transitions that the other lacks.

Finally, after years of waiting for someone else to analyze scene transitions, I thought it was time to approach the task myself, studying several dozen of my favorite novelists and short story writers for examples:

1. Continued Narrative:
In the most common transition, the story simply continues. The main artistic choice is how much time elapses between scenes: A few minutes, so that what is saved is only a few sentences of narration about something mundane, such as walking from a house to the car? Or a much longer period of hours, days, or years?

2. Flashback: The second scene happens earlier than the first. Sometimes, the first scene introduces the second. Usually, the flashback scene is shorter than the first, because readers are apt to see a flashback as a digression from the main character.

3. Infodump: Giving background information can slow a story down. One way to minimize the slow-down is to take advantage of the boost in interest created by a new start and begin the second scene with a few paragraphs of infodump before returning to the action.

4. Collage: A variation of the infodump first developed in John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. Short pieces of information, such as newspaper headlines or quotes from imaginary books are placed between scenes. The information informs either the previous scene or the next one, possibly both. Seemingly random, the pieces of the collage need to be carefully chosen and arranged to be effective.

5. Establishing shot: A variety of infodump in which the setting is described before anything else, even the characters. Victorian novelists made heavy use of establishing shots, but modern audiences have less patience with them, especially if they are longer than a few paragraphs.

6. Starting in the Middle (in media res): The second scene starts in the middle of the action, and what is happening is only gradually revealed This transition is handy for restoring readers’ interest – with any luck, they’ll wand to continue reading to know what’s going on.

7. Change of viewpoint: The transition also marks a change in viewpoint character.

8. Parallelism: One scene ends with a thought or image that is mirror, sometimes distorted, in the next scene. For example, one scene might end with knife chopping down at a character, and the next with another character using a knife to chop carrots.

9. Dramatic irony: What one character thinks or states in the first scene is found in the second to be incomplete, inaccurate, or wrong. This transition might be considered a variation on parallelism.

10. Comparison / Contrast: The opposite of parallelism. The second scene is markedly different or similar in setting, time of day, tone, or action. For instance, the first scene may be set at night with a lone character, while the second features multiple characters in the sunlight.

11. Cause and effect: The second scene happens because of the first. For example, because Hamlet doesn’t kill his uncle in Act 3, Scene 3, he is harsher to his mother in Act 3, Scene 4, which follows immediately afterward.

In addition, there are at least two transitions which connect a variety of shots:

12. Tracking shots: A series of scenes in which a character moves through a variety of settings or completes a task. For instance, the start of Fiddler on the Roof shows the milkman on his daily rounds, while he sings about his culture and the inhabitants of the village are introduced.

13. Panorama: A series of scenes in which each on gives a different perspective on the same event. Usually, the event is something complex, like a battle or a disaster. However, it can also be used with more subtlety. For instance, Paul Edwin Zimmer’s The Lost Prince begins with characters within a few miles of each other looking out on various parts of the same city. As the scenes progress, the sun sinks lower in the sky and finally sets.

Almost certainly, there are more possible transitions, although the majority fall into one of the categories given here. In fact, the first three listed probably account for the structure of the majority of short stories and fiction. At other times, two or even three transitions can be used at the same time.
Transitions are worth thinking about because they are one of the important aspects in story-telling.

Often, writers use the same types of transitions over and over. American fantasist Avram Davidson, whose later stories were usually intricately crafted, started nearly two-thirds of his scenes with an infodump, while science fiction writer John Brunner would use the collage to suggest the fast pace of the information age. Similarly, Shakespeare, whose plays continue to influence English-language fiction, was fond of contrasts, particularly in the first acts in which characters are being introduced. As these examples show, transitions can form a major part of any writer’s style.

That alone makes them worth a closer look. If we can identify the different types of transitions, we can talk about them with greater ease, and learn more about how to put a story together. If nothing else, on a practical level, when we are unsure how a story should continue, we can scan the possibilities and maybe see the way through – or, at least, some possibilities with which to experiment.

Read Full Post »

I spent most of Grade Six drawing maps. The result is a knowledge of geography that serves me well to this day, except for a few newer states in Central Europe and Asia. Another result is that I fully agree with Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland that most fantasy maps lack any sense of geography, history, or economics.

Recently, I’ve been spending my free time refining the map that will be the background for my efforts at fiction. As I work, I’ve developed some basic rules for ensuring that, whatever else I might do wrongly, at least the geography in my fantasy world will be plausible:

  • Remember continental drift. Your land masses should look as though they would roughly fit into each other. If you have trouble coming up with realistic land masses, try sketching the outlines of clouds or stains; you’ll be surprised how realistic the result will be.
  • Rivers and streams don’t start and end just anywhere. They arise in the mountains or hills, and usually empty into a larger body of water, such as a lake or an ocean. A few may go underground instead. Almost all grow wider as they move away from their source.
  • Mountain ranges are generally the result of the collision of tectonic plates. This means that they will rarely meet at convenient right angles to each other, the way that the mountains of Mordor do in Tolkien.
  • Ecosystems follow set patterns. You don’t have a rain forest next to tundra or desert. Instead, you have prairie and scrubland inbetween. A half an hour’s research on climate zones should be enough for you to get the idea.
  • Cities, towns, and farms don’t appear just anywhere. They are separated by however much land is needed for them to be self-sustaining, the only exceptions being large towns that are supported by a circle of small towns and farms that support them. In a primarily rural culture, they will be close to a water source. As population and trade develop, habitations may be positioned to service traffic on a road, or to take advantage of a certain trade. When you place a habitation, know why it’s there, even if the reason never gets into the story.
  • Consider how people get around. If water is the main transport, you need either a lot of coast line or else large rivers that can be navigated for much of their length. If roads are used more than water, then you’ll have several grades of road, probably ranging from highways like the Roman roads to half over-grown foot paths. All these decisions will affect how far anyone can travel in a day.
  • Forests and wilderness areas are much larger in pre-industrial cultures than they are today.
  • Most lands have a history that involves a succession of different cultures passing through them. Your names should reflect that, suggesting borrowings or corruptions from several different languages mingling together. A particular region might have a concentration of names from one language, and you should know why.
  • Be prepared for your landscape to evolve as you write. However, if changes are necessary, try to make them follow the rest of the guidelines given here.

Put this way, many of these points may sound obvious. But open the frontspiece of your typical fantasy paperback, and the chances are that the map will suffer from one or more of the faults I mention. Some have nearly all of them.

But take the time to create a believable map, and you’ll know more about your story’s background. You might even find story details or plot elements that wouldn’t have occurred to you if you map didn’t have at least a toehold in reality.

Read Full Post »

Mostly, I ignore the various memes that circulate on the Internet. However, every now and then one comes along that intrigues me. The latest of these is to name fifteen fictional characters who have influenced you.

My first impulse is to list only suitably literary and high culture characters. But the truth is, I’m an omnivorous reader, and a truthful list reflects that:

  • Odysseus (in both The Iliad and The Odyssey): Odysseus is hardly a consistent character between these two epics, but some points remain the same. In both, he is not the strongest of heroes nor the most powerful of kings, but he succeeds where Achilles and Agamemnon fail because there is more to him than macho or noble birth. I’ve always tried to combine the life of the mind with the life of the body, and Odysseus was the first character I discovered who did the same. Later, I learned to appreciate that he is also the only one of the major figures in the Trojan War who has a happy ending, even if it was delayed ten years.
  • Robin Hood (in Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Adventures of Robin Hood): Green’s Robin Hood is not only a hero who lives by his own code, but always up for an adventure and always a good sport, even when he loses. More than any of the other characters listed here, he sets the standard of behavior that I would like to live up to, and probably rarely manage to.
  • George Smiley (in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and sequels): At first glance, this unassuming bureaucrat of espionage might seem unable to influence anyone. But from reading about him, I learned two important facts that were alien to my younger character: First, that it doesn’t matter if people under-estimated you and may work to your advantage, and, second, that you can often learn more by keeping quiet than by trying to dominate a conversation.
  • Emma Woodhouse (in Jane Austen’s Emma): Besides being Austen’s funniest novels, Emma is a wonderful portrayal of a precocious child growing up. Having been a precocious child myself, I empathize with Emma’s self-conceit at the same time that I wince at her gaucherie.
  • The Emperor Claudius (in Robert Grave’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God): As a child, I had a speech impediment and a mild stutter that made some people imagine that I was mentally impaired. For someone with this start in life, Robert Graves’ Claudius is the ultimate revenge fantasy. From a similar start, Claudius not only becomes emperor, but, until near the end of the second book, when he gives up, a very able one as well.
  • Conrad Nomikos (in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal): Conrad is a secret immortal, living in a post-holocaust earth that is severely depopulated and dominated by extra-terrestrials. He is another of those heroes who is not immediately obvious as a hero, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He is also one of the best portrayals of an immortal that I have read.
  • Lancelot (in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King): Heroes like Lancelot are usually bland. However, White injects life into Lancelot by making him someone who is not naturally good, but who must struggle to maintain his ideal. White also has the insight that, if Lancelot had not believed so earnestly in his code of conduct and was not genuinely fond of Arthur, the tragedy that tore Camelot apart would never have happened. As White points out, an amoral man would simply have run away with Guinevere, not stayed and tried to resist their mutual love for the sake of his personal code.
  • Rissa Kerguelen (in F. M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen): Rissa makes my list not so much for her portrayal – although her story is a lost classic of space opera – but because she is one of the best and most sustained portrayals of a woman by a man that I have ever read. Her story is the example I point to both when I see sexist portrayals of women and when I hear feminists claim that a man can’t write convincing female characters.
  • Aragorn (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings): I’ve often thought that Tolkien has a hero for everyone. Aragorn has it all: competence, modesty, a life devoted to helping others, and the title to a throne no one has occupied for centuries. So far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t admire Aragorn is imaginatively lacking, and probably has other nasty habits.
  • Dr. Who (all incarnations): For me, Dr. Who is the embodiment of creative chaos; he is the disruptive force that opposes and overthrows bureaucracy and other forms of sterility and replaces them with something better. He is the polar opposite of the military types in Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.
  • The Wart (in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone): The Wart is the young King Arthur. He is ignorant of his parents, and his foster brother sometimes bullies him, but otherwise he has an ideal boyhood. He runs wild most of the time, and, when forced to study under Merlyn, most of his education consists of being transformed into different animals. It’s a brilliant portrayal, and when I was growing up, I envied The Wart a great deal.
  • Beauty (in Robin McKinley’s Beauty): Beauty is the original from which Disney borrowed heavily for its retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Reading it as a teenager reassured me that intellectual girls existed, and that I might meet one someday (I did).
  • John Constantine (in the Hellblazer graphic novels): John Constantine is a magician with a small bit of talent and a lot of attitude, opposed to Heaven and Hell and anyone else who seeks power, and loyal to his friends – and haunted by the fact that they tend to get killed at an alarming rate when they hang around him. Although his angst can be a little tiresome, the best of his adventures are strong evidence that graphic novels can be as serious as any other form of art.
  • Phillip Marlowe (in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and other novels): Marlowe’s appeal is that he is a man of ideals before he is anything else. Although he rarely talks about his code, he is willing to be beaten up and to live a life of poverty rather than give up those ideals. The utter cynicism of most people around him only makes him appear more plausible.
  • Fafhrd (in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Series): Fafhrd is a northern barbarian whose uncivilized exterior conceals a man of considerable intelligence and aesthetic sensibility. He is given to romantic imaginings, but he almost always chooses pragmatically when given a choice – a tendency I ruefully suspect I share.

I could add other characters to this list – for instance,Timothy Hunter from The Books of Magic graphic novels, Jack Aubrey from Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Hamlet, or Sherlock Holmes – but none of these make the top fifteen.

Among those who do make the list, it isn’t hard to see common threads. Fantasy and mythology are the most prevalent genre. In addition, most of the characters are idealistic, intelligent, and/or individualistic. The men can hold their own in a fight, but are more than macho jocks, and, when they do fight, their beliefs are usually involved – which gives, I suppose, a clear picture of my concept of masculinity that I hadn’t really realized before.

Just as importantly, I am surprised by the number of books that I admire that don’t make the list. Where is Great Expectations? No Name? Wuthering Heights? Jude the Obscure? Any of several dozen other books that I regularly re-read or films that I re-watch? I suppose the answer is I appreciate some fiction for other reasons than the characters, or that some characters are so much a part of their settings that they lack the larger than life qualities of the ones that I list here.

Read Full Post »

The poet and novelist Robert Graves once said, that, if asked on his death bed, he would say that the secret to writing poetry is to control your “s” sounds. I’m not in his league, but if I were to give any death-bed secrets about writing prose, mine would be to learn all you can about structure.

Turns of phrases are easy. From my years of teaching first year composition at university, I’m convinced that most people of average intelligence can learn to write a literate sentence. With a little extra effort, many can produce wit. If they’re stuck, reading their favorite writer – or, better yet, typing out a page or two from their favorite work – will influence them into efforts beyond their usual range.

Structure, though, is another matter. The typical high school model of an essay with an introduction and conclusion and three points in between isn’t nearly enough. Then, just to make matters worse, we don’t have a vocabulary that describes different ways to open or conclude a story or to deal with opposing views in an essay. As a result, most writers begin to work almost blind to structure, and without the words to think about it consciously.

For some writers, these conditions aren’t a problem. They learn about structure on an unconscious level through trial and error – that is, many drafts – and are happy. However, for most writers, these conditions mean uncertainty and wasted effort, especially when they are just learning their trade.

If you are one of the majority, you have only two ways to move beyond such uncertainty and waste: Constant practice, and at least a temporary obsession with structure.

The practice part is easy enough if you’re disciplined. Write every day and after a few hundred thousand words or seventy or eighty pieces of prose, and you are likely to arrive at a point where the necessary structure becomes clear to you as soon as you have your main idea or plot.

Meanwhile, though, you are apt to become frustrated. What’s worse, if you miss a few days of writing, you may lose your sense of structure to a degree and need to build it up again.

A more solid approach is to study structure consciously, so you get in the habit of thinking about it. That means, whenever you read a novel or an essay, spending some time thinking about the structure. You may even want to create a diagram, summarizing not only the main plot developments or points, but how they relate to the rest of the work.

Works that you especially like or dislike are especially useful, because you have the motivation of trying to understand why you have the reaction that you do. However, you can also work with stories that leave you relatively unmoved one way or the other, trying to create a new or alternative structure for them.

For any work that you spend time on, you can also experiment with how reordering them affects the result. If the work is really successful, you’ll find that you can’t change the structure without changing the plot or the argument. If you can rearrange the parts, then the work is likely flawed (or, possibly, you’ve misunderstood it).

This sort of study is difficult. You have to do it without support and very few resources outside of your own powers of observation. Moreover, for a time, you may be uneasily aware of reading everything you encounter on two levels: First, as a reader, and second as a writer-in-training who wants to dissect the structure. But keep on with the study, and you’ll soon start to build a repertoire of structural strategies you can apply to your own work. You’ll start to have the sense of the different ways you can put a work together, and even, at times, of when there’s a gap in the structure of what you have written.

Difficult? Of course. But if you really want to write well, you have little choice. Either you discover structure on your own, or you learn the craft from other writers – there are really no other choices.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »