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.