Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Adventure classics -- An Arthurian obsession

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White


Perhaps I should have titled this post only for The Sword and the Stone, the first of four novels later published together in T. H. White’s masterwork, The Once and Future King. Written prior to World War II, The Sword in the Stone was a mash up of Sir Thomas Malory and Bertie Wooster, almost as lighthearted as the subsequent Disney movie.

“Ought to be havin’ a first-rate eddication, at their age,” complains Sir Ector to his friend Sir Grummore, about the difficulties of finding a tutor for his son Kay and foster son young Wart.

Luckily for Wart’s destiny as the future King Arthur of Britain, a tutor turns up without help from the quest the knights decide is the only proper way to attract a properly-qualified employee. A decision made after a few rounds of port, which as White explains in one of his many authorial asides, is “Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.”

(If you’re as astounded as I was by White’s references to all things medieval, from the wine Metheglyn to the detailed description of Sir Ector’s home, the Castle in the Forest Sauvage, get thee to the T. H. Glossary at

White’s fascination with all things Arthurian and medieval began at least by the time he wrote a college essay on Malory’s classic fourteenth century version of the Arthurian legends, Le Mort d’Arthur. After White was able to leave his teaching job in 1936, he spent a year hunting and fishing and learning falconry -- practices which would enrich his books about Arthur.

Published in 1938, The Sword in the Stone dealt with young Arthur’s childhood to the time he became known as a king by drawing a magical sword all other contenders had been powerless to budge. It became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939. That was also the year White moved to neutral Ireland, where he would remain, essentially as a conscientious objector, throughout World War II. While in Ireland, he wrote two sequels, The Witch in the Wood, dealing with Arthur’s malevolent half-sister Morgause, in 1939; and The Ill-Made Knight, dealing with the love affair between Lancelot and Arthur’s wife Guenever, in 1940.

However, not until 1958 did he write the ending of the Arthurian story, Candle in the Wind, and incorporate it with the three earlier books into The Once and Future King. In doing so, he revised the earlier books, darkening The Sword in the Stone, and changing the title of the second book to The Queen of Air and Darkness.

The result was less a retelling of the Arthurian legends than White’s lifelong meditation on history and culture. But the characters -- a Merlyn who lives his life backward in time, a carefree young Arthur innocent of his destiny, a Lancelot of astonishing physical ugliness -- have marked every subsequent version of the Arthurian story.

(For more information about White, including a complete list of his works, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics turns to a December of spirited adventures, beginning with O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi.”)

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