The Book of Merlyn

T.H. White wrote The Book of Merlyn as the fifth and final book in his Arthurian epic The Once and Future King, but he failed to convince his publisher to include it.

I see why.

It’s not that I didn’t find anything to like about it. It’s just that the tone is so cerebral and abstract. It’s been awhile since I read the other four books, but as I recall their forays into philosophy were shorter-lived than this. (Aside: do other people find themselves going to their reviews, rather than to the books themselves, to refresh their memories? It feels like cheating, but it’s what I did.)

The Book of Merlyn reminded me of Rasselas . Rasselas is mostly a series of dialogues in which the prince of Abyssinia seeks wisdom. There’s a little action, but the main point is the dialogue. The same is true here.

Not much “happens.” Aged King Arthur is whisked away by Merlyn (who has escaped the imprisonment that kept him out of the picture during a number of Arthur’s more momentous years), and carried to a convocation of learned animals discussing such matters as war, styles of government, and the nature of humanity. Readers of The Once and Future King have met them before, during Arthur’s initial education.

The evolutionary treatises White puts in Merlyn’s mouth are relentless and heavy-handed, and I wearied of hearing that man is nothing more than an inferior animal. So does Arthur, who, as perhaps Merlyn expected, does not give up on the possibility of human love and nobility. When this work was rejected for publication, White incorporated parts of it into The Sword in the Stone, and so some passages are repeats: the scenes in which Merlyn turns Arthur into an ant (in a warlike colony of automatons), then a goose (in a flock of birds whose philosophy of life is every bit as idealized as Gulliver’s Houyhnhnms), and sends him to live and learn among these different species. There is a whole different tone and purpose in The Book of Merlyn, though. Here, Arthur is an old, tired king, betrayed by everyone close to him, and weighing his observations against his own hard-won experience.

Eventually, he goes back and divides his kingdom with Mordred. But in the midst of parley between their two opposing armies, a snake appears, startles one warrior into drawing his sword against it, and thus plunges both sides into the war that kills Arthur.

Written in 1941, White pours his own struggle to come to terms with World War II into this book. As a conclusion to the grand saga unrolled in the previous books, I found it a letdown. But despite the lack of action, there are a (very) few moments of exuberance, and loads of celebration of the natural world. In some spots I felt sure that White should have a place among the best of the nature writers. (His detailed and appreciative meditations on the world around him reminded me very much of John Muir.) I’ll conclude with one short example, from White’s rhapsodic description of migrating geese:

How far is it across the North Sea? In a steamer it takes us two or three days, so many hours of slobbering through the viscous water. But for the geese, for the sailors of the air, for the angled wedges of heaven tearing clouds to tatters, for those singers of the empyrean with the gale behind them — seventy miles an hour behind another seventy — for those mysterious geographers — three miles up, they say — with cumulus for their floor instead of water: what was it for them? One thing it was, and that was joy.

The Candle In the Wind

The fourth and concluding tale in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King went by all too quickly. I remember being frustrated by the meandering quality of the narrative in the first book of the series, The Sword in the Stone. Apparently I got used to it. The Candle in the Wind blew past in  three days. (I’m not a fast reader, so that’s pretty speedy for me.)

This story was not intended to be the last, so it doesn’t end the way White envisioned when he mapped out the series in his mind. Because of this, I can forgive the book for not rolling to the weighty and majestic halt that I would have liked. As many others before me have already discovered, it has a kind of cursory conclusiveness that works in its way. Arthur, now a very old and patient king, lives out the final chapter of his lifelong experiment in managing Might. Having lived through the eras of chivalry (Might in the service of class), Might used to advance Right, and Might turned to the purpose of a holy quest, Arthur submits Might to the concept of Justice. The “candle” of the title refers to Arthur’s imaginative picture of his long-held belief in the goodness of humanity as a candle often sheltered by his protective hand against the winds of experience. You have to read the story to find out whether the candle is blown out in the failure of his last experiment, or not.

Mordred, his son by his half-sister Morgause, turns against him decisively and uses the affair between Lancelot and Guenever to fracture Camelot by demanding that Arthur unleash Justice. There was an absurdity to Arthur’s entrapment by the letter rather than the spirit of the law. I find myself wondering whether White shares Arthur’s sanguine view of human nature, for although Arthur flatly rejects the idea of original sin, the action and narrative perspective of the story seem to confirm it. It’s almost as though the narrator and his protagonist are in debate over the perfectibility of man. Either I’m an obtuse reader, or White is a masterful storyteller, for although the narrator seems heavy-handed much of the time, these kinds of questions remain. I like that. I don’t feel strong-armed by the author, but moved by the story.

It’s been an experience, traveling with these characters from youth to old age. This conclusion revisited and developed earlier themes. Overall the series works like the tides, lapping up on the beach in the first book, then receding, and repeating the process a little further up the beach with each successive story. We reconsider Merlyn’s style of education, and his philosophy of man, both of which are depicted as both a blessing and curse for Arthur. We see Guenever reach the full flowering of the seventh sense described in the previous book. Ponderings on the nature of humanity lead inevitably to more on the subject of war, about which Guenever says, “War is like a fire. One man may start it, but it will spread all over. It is not about any one thing in particular.” Arthur too reflects that wars are “national movements, deeper, more subtle in origin” than he once thought. We revisit the disturbing Queen Morgause’s parenting and its disastrous outcome in the Orkneys. In more ways than I can develop here, the series explores a good many subjects to a satisfying depth, all wrapped up in a well-told story.  The Once and Future King is a reading experience that’s hard to classify but impossible not to love. It’s one of those books that pulls the lid back just enough to tantalize, so I have a feeling it won’t be my last foray into Arthurian legend.

The Ill-Made Knight

I’ve finished The Ill-Made Knight, the third tale of The Once and Future King. In this story we learn about Lancelot and Guenever, watch Arthur’s England continue to evolve, and observe the ways he continues tweaking his Round Table philosophy.

It’s difficult to describe T.H. White’s narrative voice: startling, forceful, wry, deeply wise, matter-of-fact. It’s somewhere between Monty Python and… J.R.R. Tolkien? There’s a comic distance from the characters that’s achieved through bluntness, but such a sympathy for them, and such a detailed knowledge of the chivalric era he’s writing about.

There were a couple of storylines that I followed most attentively. One that carried over from the last book was Arthur’s developing theory about how to deal with Might vs. Right. In the last story he formed his philosophy of the Round Table as a way of harnessing the worship of strength and valor (Might), and using it to advance Right (rather than continuing to advance a civilization of knights knocking each other and everyone else around without any justification but sport). In this story he recognizes that the Round Table “must have been a step. Now we must think of making the next one… I ought to have rooted Might out altogether, instead of trying to adapt it.” He comes to the conclusion that the knights should fight for holy purposes: “If our Might was given a channel so that it worked for God, instead of for the rights of man, surely that would stop the rot, and be worth doing?” (Of course I was screaming “Nooo! No crusades!” But they didn’t listen…) All the knights head off in search of the holy grail. But by the end of the story Arthur is poised for another adaptation.

The other storyline is the story of Lancelot and Guenever, both of whose characters are developed magnificently and sympathetically as mixed people. I never did like Guenever much, but White makes a great effort to write about her with compassion. He writes of her aging, of her conflicted love, of her predicament as an aging medieval woman, in ways that are convincing.

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. He’s the ill-made knight of the title, who we first meet staring into a helmet trying to see his reflection. “He was trying to find out what he was, and afraid of what he would find,” the narrator tells us:

The boy thought that there was something wrong with him. All through his life — even when he was a great man with the world at his feet — he was to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand. There is no need for us to try to understand it. We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.

For the most part, White makes good on his promise not to chart out his characters neatly and reduce them to explanation. These three main characters are all complex mixtures of nobility and fallenness, and it was impossible not to find something I could relate to in each of them. It doesn’t return me to my life with a sense of orderliness, but with a fuller appreciation of the complicated and mysterious experience of being human. There’s one more story, The Candle in the Wind, that will complete the quartet, and I’ll be sorry to see it end.

The Queen of Air and Darkness — Review

Warning: plot spoilers ahead…

T.H. White’s The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939) is the second of four stories that make up The Once and Future King. Following on the heels of The Sword in the Stone, this book made for a darker and more subdued reading experience. Originally named The Witch in the Wood, it relates the first chapter of Arthur’s kingship, showing the flowering of his character, his leadership in the Battle of Bedegraine, and the fathering of Mordred through his half-sister, Queen Morgause (referred to in the title).

There were a couple of themes that rose to the top as I read. One was Arthur’s philosophy of war, developed under Merlyn’s tutelage. Chivalric values are critiqued and rejected, and this represents Merlyn’s greatest legacy. Innocently, Arthur remarks early on, “I must say it is nice to be a king. It was a splendid battle.” Merlyn disagrees. ”What is all this chivalry anyway?” he asks a few pages later, pointing out that it’s only the serfs who get killed in the service of nobility’s whims. At different points Merlyn expounds on war. “Personal reasons are no excuse for war,” he argues. “Wars are a wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked they should not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop them.”

Merlyn and Arthur have several interesting discussions on the subject that invited me to look at modern war through their developing lens. Merlyn’s not a pacifist (quite), but his stern reasoning is strong tonic and worthwhile reading. Arthur thinks so too, eventually setting out to “harness Might so that it works for Right.” He conceives a plan to insitute a new order of chivalry, including the concept of the round table, in which knights must vow to use Might only in service of Right. His leadership in the Battle of Bedegraine reflects this new philosophy.

The secondary theme, which I found harder to stomach, was the cruelty of Queen Morgause, wife to Lot of Orkney who opposes Arthur’s kingship in the battle, and her four sons in Lothian. We meet her four pages in, where she boils a cat alive. She’s beautiful, dabbles in witchcraft as a hobby, and is incapable of showing love for (or even casual interest in) her children. They’re perfect monsters, patterning their allegiances after their mother’s without question, and inflicting pain for amusement. The only remorse they show anywhere in the novel comes after their most ambitious feat, hunting a unicorn for their mother, which leaves her completely indifferent.

On the whole, though it’s as full of medieval lore, hilarity, wisdom, and depth as The Sword in the Stone, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way, laying as it does the groundwork for Arthur’s tragedy. The next story is The Ill-Made Knight, which will unfold the story of Lancelot (a small boy in this story) and Guinever, followed by A Candle in the Wind. Despite how unpleasant humanity looks under the unsparing light of a master storyteller, I’m hooked, and have to keep reading – whatever twists and turns White has in store.

The Queen of Air and Darkness

The Queen of Air and Darkness is concerned with whether Might makes Right. Though I’m not normally that tuned in to politics, lately it seems that everything I read triggers reflection on something in current events. Take this passage, for instance, in which Merlyn and Sir Kay consider war. It’s very difficult not to think (while breaking into a cold sweat) about the war in Iraq. Sir Kay, King Arthur’s half-brother, begins:

“By the way. You remember that argument we were having about aggression? Well, I have thought of a good reason for starting a war.”

Merlyn froze.

“I would like to hear it.”

“A good reason for starting a war is simply to have a good reason! For instance, there might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings — you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way of saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests, by the sword.”

The magician clenched his fists, twisted his gown into screws, and began to shake all over.

“Very interesting,” he said in a trembling voice. “Very interesting. There was just such a man when I was young — an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.”

Merlyn isn’t concerned in this passage with whether the proposed way of life is a good one or not, but with whether force is a legitimate way of presenting people with “something which would be good for them.” I know the war in Iraq is more complex than this; I know there are more layers to it than imposing a western democracy on a middle eastern nation. But this layer is certainly there.

I have to say that much of the rhetoric about universal health care, universal preschool, salary caps for multimillionares, mandatory this and that, have the same false ring. “Give us your money and we’ll do what’s best for you” has the same false ring, whether it’s televangelists or politicians saying the words. The ideas aren’t imposed by military force. But they can be imposed by economic, or legal, or political force. It seems to me that any time everyone is forced to fall into lock step with one idea by some institutional power, you basically have a state of war, whether it’s military or not.

So… What would a society look like that “makes ideas available without imposing them on people”?

The Sword in the Stone

T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938) is spoken of in my Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia as “a witty and erudite fantasy of Arthur’s boyhood, which combines affectionate satire on 20th-century English manners and mores with broad humor and deep knowledge of both nature and the Middle Ages.” Thank you, Benet’s, for capturing my own hyperbolic reaction to the book so compactly, because otherwise I might ramble on and on about what it is before getting to why I liked it. It’s not a children’s book, but it’s the most optimistic and lovingly written tale I’ve read in ages, and sometime before year’s end I’ll read (or reread, because I have a sinking feeling I’ve read them before but have virtually NO MEMORY of them!) the other tales that make up The Once and Future King. Here’s what I liked, in ascending order:

1.) The satire isn’t bitter. Take this short dialogue, in which two infinitely civil British noblemen prepare for a joust, as an example:

“Nice day,” said Sir Grummore.

“Yes, it is nice, what?”

“Been questin’ today?”

“Oh, yes, thank you. Always am questing, you know. After the Questing Beast.”

“Interestin’ job, that, very.”

“Yes, it is interesting. Would you like to see some fewmets?” (Fewmets are droppings of the beast pursued.)

“By Jove, yes. Like to see some fewmets.”

“I have some better ones at home, but these are quite good, really.”

“Bless my soul. So these are her fewmets.”

“Yes, these are her fewmets.”

“Interestin’ fewmets.”

“Yes, they are interesting, aren’t they? Only you get tired of them,” added King Pellinore.

“Well, well. It’s a fine day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is rather fine.”

“Suppose we’d better have a joust, eh, what?”

Jousting is an absurd tradition, the narrator seems to say, but you can’t help but love these good-natured old “fellahs” who have time for polite conversation as they prepare to try and ram one another through. It reminds me of a kinder, gentler Monty Python. At first passages like this bothered me a bit, because they’re very leisured and slowed me down. I’ve become (to my irritation) someone who’s always in a hurry to get through this book and on to the next one, and this book doesn’t consent to being “gotten through”; it meanders. Once I was reconciled to that, I found myself smiling and chuckling often. The book is filled with eccentric characters, and passages like these, that acknowledge the silliness of much of human life without getting riled up about it. The fun is broken up periodically by moments of startling pathos, and these episodes show that the book is more than a lighthearted romp; its optimism is convincing because it includes the whole spectrum of experience.

2.) The philosophy of education makes me wish I were a wizard like Merlyn, the tutor in this story. Want to learn about aquatic life? Become a fish, like Merlyn causes the Wart to do. (The Wart is a mere boy in this story, but destined to become the legendary King Arthur.) Birds? Become a hawk for a night. Or an ant. Or a goose. Or, in the culminating chapter on the Wart’s education, a badger. No notebooks. No textbooks. No, I take that back; there are a few schoolroom subjects, but they’re not at all the meat and potatoes of Merlyn’s instruction. There’s a running comparison between the “first rate eddication” of Sir Kay (the Wart’s nobleman peer), and that of the Wart, that continually pits book-learning against the far more effective and high-stakes school of experience. The Wart’s education is part of what distinguishes him, for Merlyn doesn’t give Sir Kay the same advantages.

As a homeschooler supposedly following the classical model, I find Merlyn’s style of teaching-by-zapping mighty appealing. So does the Wart: “I think I ought to have some eddication,” he tells Merlyn on one particularly dreary day. “I can’t think of anything else to do.” Merlyn is offended: “You think education is something which ought to be done when all else fails?” he demands. “Well, some sorts of education,” the Wart replies miserably. I love this perception of education as entertainment! But by the end of the story, the badger hones down the purpose of learning to two goals: “So Merlyn sent you to me to finish your education,” he remarks to the Wart. “Well, I can teach you two things — to dig, and love your home. These are the true end of philosophy.” I like the badger’s perspective, living as I do in an age when education is often seen as the mere acquisition of information. The badger suggests we need to desire knowledge enough to dig for it, and then let love dictate how we put it to use.

3.) Third and last, I like the novel’s concept of heroism. The Wart is thoroughly convincing as a young boy. He’s distinguished from Sir Kay and others in the story not as a superhero gifted with unusual strength or wisdom, but as someone who’s curious, humble, honest, polite and brave, haunted by a persistent wish to be a knight even though he’s destined for most of the story to be a mere steward. At his defining moment, when he’s faced with the sword in the stone, what comes to his aid is not bravery or strength but love: all the animals he’s met appear at the edges of the scene and shout encouragement. “Come along, Homo sapiens, for all we humble friends of yours are waiting here to cheer,” calls a bird. The Wart’s qualifications to be king include a deep understanding and respect not just for human life and affairs, but for all the living world. His defining act that proves his mettle as a king is public and undisputable. And his power and position come to him unsought, by surprise. In the midst of this year of presidential candidates vying for power, Arthur’s fitness to lead represents quite a contrast. An Arthurian president would be just the thing: undisputed readiness to govern, excellently balanced education that doesn’t lean in a sickly way toward either theory or practice, and an ability to rally all voices in the natural world. I know it’s childish, but if only the choice in “real life” could be as clear-cut as it is in this fantasy tale.

Story within a story

Embedded in the rollicking fun of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is this gem:

“Sometimes,” he said, “life does seem to be unfair. Do you know the story of Elijah and the Rabbi Jachanan?”

“No,” said the Wart.

He sat down resignedly upon the most comfortable part of the floor, perceiving that he was in for something like the parable of the looking-glass.

“This rabbi,” said Merlin, “went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and at nightfall they came to the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. The poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, to welcome the strangers for the night and to offer them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in straitened circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were entertained with plenty of the cow’s milk, sustained by home-made bread and butter, and they were put to sleep in the bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning the poor man’s cow was dead.”

“Go on.”

“They walked all the next day, and came that evening to the house of a very wealthy merchant, whose hospitality they craved. The merchant was cold and proud and rich, and all that he would do for the prophet and his companion was to lodge them in a cowshed and feed them on bread and butter. In the morning, however, Elijah thanked him very much for what he had done, and sent for a mason to repair one of his walls, which happened to be falling down, in return for his kindness.

“The Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silence any longer, begged the holy man to explain the meaning of his dealings with human beings.

“‘In regard to the poor man who received us so hospitably,’ replied the prophet, ‘it was decreed that his wife was to die that night, but in reward for his goodness God took the cow instead of the wife. I repaired the wall of the rich miser because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure. Say not therefore to the Lord: What doest Thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’”

“It is a nice sort of story,” said the Wart, because it seemed to be over.