Saturday, May 16, 2020

Review of T.H. White's The Once & Future King

T.H. White's The Once & Future King was one of a number of books I have owned for years and always meant to read but hadn't. In fact, toward the beginning of the novel an old movie ticket fell out that obviously I had used as a bookmark when I started it one time. The ticket was for the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley in April 1992, my senior year in college (the movie was Shadows & Fog, of which I have no memory). 

Then 28 years later, a UNC Charlotte student mentioned the book in a graduation message, and I learned it was one of my dean's favorite novels, so I finally read it. There were two things in particular I did not know about this book. First, it is remarkably modern and funny for something mostly written in 1938-1940 and then published as a whole in 1958. It is loaded with sex, violence, and sarcasm. Second, I did not know its core message was about mid-20th century international politics.

The arc of the book is from light to dark, starting with Arthur's story of pulling the sword out of the stone and trying to forge a sense of right and wrong to replace the mindless pursuit of battle, then moving to a lot of deceit and death. There are references to communism (Merlyn turned him into an ant early on to see what it was like, and they're communists with no individuality) and fascism, with Mordred compared directly to Hitler, complete with anti-Semitic public speeches. Among the many tragedies of the narrative is that Mordred forces Arthur into enforcing alliances with violence, thus spreading the misery that Arthur had originally tried to quell. Doing so also meant Arthur allowed his belief in using force to compel justice to supersede his personal wishes.

As the novel goes on, Arthur becomes more serious and more despondent. He can't think of any way to avoid war and to live in harmony. He goes round and round in his mind, knowing that all of his best efforts had the opposite effect he wanted. He used might to end might, and everything just got worse. White clearly despaired at humankind's inability to learn anything over time.

Throughout, though, there is wry humor. Early on, Arthur (then called Wart) speaks to a badger, who wanted to read him his dissertation: "He got few chances of reading his treatises to anybody, so he could not bear to let the opportunity slip by" (181). It gets Monty Pythonesque. Lancelot goes into a pavilion, falls asleep, and then "It was moonlight when he woke, and a naked man was sitting on his left foot, trimming his finger-nails" (337). They fight briefly and the man screams "You have cut open my liver" but then decides the wound is nothing, "a bit of a chip." Or, near the very end in a moment of high drama: "Gawaine was trying to think, an effort not made easy to him by practice" (609). These little asides are sprinkled everywhere. They lighten up a tale you know will end in nothing good, I suppose not unlike international politics at any given time.


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