The Once and Future King

“It seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.”

T.H. White

Arthurian legend is so interesting. The tradition is probably unique in English literature: a collection of linked stories, the basics of which almost always survive in retellings, a single story arc which retains its peculiar flavour even as it’s rewritten, made to bear different meanings, altered and exaggerated and re-emphasised. Unlike classical mythology, which has embedded itself so ubiquitously in European culture that it’s more or less impossible to watch it being transmitted, the Arthurian cycle can be traced chronologically through a line of major writers: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Layamon, Anonymous (of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, obvs), Malory, Tennyson. The line of descent is absurdly easy to follow, which in turn makes it absurdly easy to watch what each writer does with his forbears’ work; what they choose to emphasise or leave out or change, and why.

T.H. White is, of course, the latest of these major Arthurian writers (unless the BBC’s Merlin TV series turns out to be remembered for generations, which seems unlikely), and he’s no exception to the above. In fact, The Once and Future King, a composite of four revised earlier works, is actually very explicit in its riposte to Malory’s Arthurian romance, riffing off the Middle English writer’s old-fashioned notions of chivalry and his distance from the characters he praises so fulsomely. Certainly the earlier books of The Once and Future King – “The Sword in the Stone” and to some extent “The Queen of Air and Darkness” – read almost as parody of Malory: “The Sword in the Stone” is a story of Arthur’s early life and education under the watchful eye of his famous tutor Merlyn, as he meets Robin Hood, fights fairy queens, and gets turned into a wondrous range of different animals (including a kind of communist ant). In some places this is very funny: the story of King Pellinore and his Questing Beast is simultaneously hilarious and utterly adorable.

But the book takes a darker turn as it heads into more recognisable Arthurian territory: the Grail Quest, the Lancelot/Guenever affair, the Mordred plot. And it’s here that White’s reasons for re-writing this nation-plot (because there are always reasons, usually nationalistic ones) come to the fore. White is writing, as so many did, about the World Wars. In his Arthurian story he locates the shift from chivalry – in which war is a game, like cricket or football – to total war, which is deadly serious. And his question is: which was worse? His King Arthur saves the peasantry, the little folk, from pointless death in ritual battles fought for sport by great lords; but he also ushers in the age of factions, of plotting behind the throne, of dishonour and unhappiness; an age of New Orders and red badges and anti-Semitism. (Subtlety, it has to be said, is not chief among White’s virtues.) Is mankind doomed to senseless war? Or can we keep in mind, like a candle in the wind (White’s phrase, not mine), the possibility of something else: peace and justice and the rule of law?

Though watching White’s intertextual games is great fun (The Once and Future King is best read after an encounter with Malory), and his endowment of Malory’s archetypes with actual psychological reality is interesting, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it that much. It wasn’t terrible. It didn’t annoy me. I was never tempted to throw it at the wall. But equally it never swept me up into its story. It was interesting rather than involving, a thing to be analysed rather than enjoyed. Though I can see myself dipping into it occasionally, I don’t think I’ll read it right through again: it’s a little too long, and a little too joyless, for that.

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