An Antidote to War: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

I’ve attempted to read The Sword in the Stone, the first volume of T.H. White’s retelling of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, twice in the past, but gave up in exasperation. However, following my recent read of Malory, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of White (which is both sympathetic and brutally revealing) I decided to have another go at it and see if I could get through to the latter books that complete the saga. I’m very glad I did, because a few years of medieval studies and a recent interest in early 20th century British fiction have made all the difference. The Once and Future King is many things; a tribute to Malory’s genius, a deliberate contribution to the Matter of Britain, a pantomime comedy, a personal manifesto, a pamphlet on ethics, a rather Freudian take on maternal relationships, an attack on the myth of progress, a paean to the middle ages, a piece of occasionally exquisite nature writing and an attempt to solve what White saw as the central problem of the human species – war.

Academics commenting on the Arthurian tradition invariably point out that each new interpretation of the material highlights the political concerns of the time and place in which it was written. In White’s case, this is entirely conscious. As he explains in his letters and diaries, the purpose of writing The Once and Future King was to discover an antidote to  war. This is rather a bold ambition, many authors set out to ask questions about conflict, but White is not satisfied to leave the issue open. The book is essentially didactic, it is a modern Mirror for Princes. The great beauty of this attempt is, in my view, that you can see White himself grappling with the problem, both as Arthur and as Merlyn, and the changes to his beliefs and opinions as the work progresses. It asks questions, provides answers, and then questions those answers.

The Sword in the Stone, the best known and loved of the volumes, is also the most innocent. Featuring Arthur as a boy under the pseudonym ‘Wart’, guided by a Merlyn in the guise of eccentric professor, it is full of magic, parody and genuine fun. It depicts ‘Merry Old England’ as a golden age, with long hot summers, snowy Christmasses, haymaking and real forests full of fairies and Saxon outlaws. Even feudalism is set up as an ideal, only ruined by those ‘nasty barons’ who abuse the system. White is overtly conscious of his own nostalgia and revels in it, which is part of what makes this work so enjoyable. The Sword is full of detailed descriptions and explanations of the lost medieval arts that fascinated White, from hawking and tilting to boar hunting. While the focus is on the pleasures of the gentry, it still makes for a fascinating and well researched bit of medievalism that makes me think of White as something of an experimental archaeologist. The politics in this book are light, explored through Wart’s experiences in the animal kingdom.

The Witch in the Wood, also titled The Queen of Air and Darkness, is a transition from the sunshine of The Sword to the shadows of the later books. It contains three narrative streams; Arthur’s war with the five kings and Merlyn’s counsel for his future reign, the boyhood of the Orkney faction (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth) and King Pellinore’s hunt for the questing beast. The first two threads are full of pathos, Arthur makes difficult choices and gets a taste for war while Merlyn fails to avert Mordred’s conception by giving the one piece of necessary advice. White begins to show his mother issues in the treatment of Morgause, who replaces Guenever as the femme fatale of the piece. The scene with the unicorn is perhaps the darkest and most shocking passage of the entire series, a turning point at which cynicism and nihilism begin to seep into White’s glowing middle ages. Meanwhile the pantomime of King Pellinore’s story seems out of place, a fool who has wandered onto the set of a tragedy. Another element that creeps into book two and lurks in the following volumes is White’s own racism towards the Gaelic speaking peoples. The Irish and the Scottish are described as melancholy, backwards brutes nursing a cold hatred towards the English, with brooding violence a feature of their racial temperament. This attitude rears its ugly head several times in the books and rather ruins White’s more lofty sentiments.

The Ill-Made Knight features the story of Lancelot, and to a lesser extent, Guenever. It is an an uncompromising self portrait of the author, who seems to have identified with Lancelot enough to give the knight all his faults and insecurities. The character that emerges is perhaps the only real person in White’s series; deeply conflicted, emotional, self-critical, searching for a higher purpose, an ideal of honour, and yet falling short of it due to his physical appetites and wracked by shame for his own desires. All of this comes from White himself, who writes of young Lancelot:

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 able to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand.

White was, according to his biographer and his friend David Garnett, a sadist, who struggled to establish intimacy with anyone. His only real connection was to his dog, Brownie. White’s life seems to have been one of continual self-imposed loneliness, a fate he bestows on Lancelot, who, despite his affairs with Guenever and Elaine, and his love for Arthur, is a lost soul, the noble tragic hero who is never fully redeemed. The Ill-Made Knight is beautiful and terrible in its sorrow. Easily the best of the books on literary merits, but perhaps the hardest to read.

In The Candle in the Wind, White returns to the declared purpose of his work, the question of war. Here we meet Arthur again, as an old man, tired and feeling that his great attempt at civilisation has failed. I haven’t mentioned White’s direct references to Malory thus far, but in the latter books they become more pronounced. Often when he doesn’t want to describe a scene he will simply tell the reader to look it up in Malory. He creates a young page named ‘Tom’ whom Arthur tasks with carrying his ideas into the future. White even inserts a reference to himself as future chronicler in a list including Milton and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Merlyn describes the author:

After a bit there was poor old White, who thought that we represented the ideals of chivalry. He said that our importance lay in our decency, in our resistance against the bloody mind of man. What an anachronist he was, dear fellow!

The Candle is by far the most political of the books, excepting The Book of Merlyn, and the volume which contains the most references to the second world war, from which White was a conscientious objector, although never very sure of his own conviction. Mordred becomes a foppish fascist leader whose blackshirts are known as the ‘Thrashers’ and whose villainy stems from his own mother issues. Morgause, although dead, is still held to account for the crimes of her sons while Arthur is forgiven even his massacre of the innocents.

When these four separate books were first published as The Once and Future King they did not include The Book of Merlyn. Rather, White took the two animal incidents, the ants and the geese and inserted them into The Sword and the Stone. My copy, however, includes the fifth book, and although this results in some repetition, I feel that the inclusion is necessary as a capstone to White’s series. This final book sees Merlyn return once more, to collect Arthur on the eve of Camlann, and ‘fill in the gaps in his education.’ It is essentially White’s political manifesto in which he attempts to answer the question of war; what causes it and what system of human organisation would prevent it. Merlyn, at his least charming, spends most of the short book on a soap box, declaiming against mankind in favour of other species, and then using biology to rationalise his (White’s) political beliefs. Here, finally, even Arthur recognises what I have referred to in a previous post as the sinister Merlyn of Malory:

You move me like a chess piece. Have you the right to take my soul and twist it into shapes, to rob a mind of its mind? […] Who made you into gods to meddle with destiny, or set you over hearts to bid them come and go? I will do this filthy work no longer; I will trouble with your filthy plans no further, I will go away into some quiet place with the goose-people, where I can die in peace.

What then, is the culmination of Merlyn’s research? What does he see as the antidote to war? As it turns out, he is against nationalism of all kinds, and offers in its place individualism, capitalism and anarchy. Much like White’s uncertain conscientious objection (he even wrote to the war office offering his service, but was relieved when they declined) Merlyn is forced to recognise the flaws in his own manifesto. He can find no example of true capitalism in the animal kingdom and does suggest that a cap on income might be necessary to prevent oligarchy, without acknowledging that this requires some sort of government to enforce it. White’s racism is expanded to include, alongside the Gaels, the Polish, Germans and Japanese. The Matter of Britain, which has for so long been used to promote nationalism, proves an ineffectual weapon with which to demolish it.

There is something sad and desperate about White’s Merlyn, shut away in his cave (which is, however, a very comfortable academic common room from which he can leave whenever it pleases him) with a committee of animals to help him solve the problems of the human race like a mental puzzle. Merlyn, like his creator, is unable to live amongst humanity and can only analyse it from the outside with growing frustration. It was a genius move of White to explain Merlyn’s prophesies by way of his living backward through time, yet he lacks true historical (or future) awareness and attempts instead to base his antidote to war on hard science. Those of us who have seen how 20th century experiments in individualism and capitalism have worked out can perhaps sympathise more easily with Arthur, who redeems this book with deeply moving passages about love, duty and the desire to do what is right, however ignorant it may be.

The Once and Future King, for all its flaws, is a masterpiece of Arthurian literature. White, at his best, crafts complex motives for Malory’s characters, going to great lengths to understand the moments in Le Morte d’Arthur where Lancelot weeps, or Sir Bors’ decision to save the lady over his brother. He gently mocks conventions of medieval literature, but shows a deep appreciation for the medieval world with wonderful descriptions that allow the reader to experience it sensually. Even his political views and statements are not all irrelevant, his insistence on the humility of the human race as just one of many species and of the ignorance in our worship of progress still resonate today. A great many of his own weaknesses are self-acknowledged, White struggled to write female characters, but Gwenever is not entirely unsympathetic. Even the antidote he offers to war is only produced as a guess, a hope, a possible direction or line of thought to follow. After all, Merlyn reminds us that…

…the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.

Image: Detail from Dennis Nolan’s illustration to The Sword in the Stone


The Sinister Merlin

Reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur through for the first time has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. I’ve made several discoveries, not so much in the content, but in my own understanding of the themes and characters of Arthurian literature. Malory, by condensing and connecting the vast assortment of romances he had access to, gives context to isolated incidents narrated in other sources. His approach is not all inclusive, but he succeeds in giving a satisfying individuality to his knights, largely by providing their histories and following them through to the end. As mentioned in my last post, I am particularly interested in his use (or sometimes avoidance) of the supernatural and this brings me to Merlin. I found Malory’s Merlin a sinister figure. This has made me aware of the fact that I have never really liked Merlin and that my dislike of him has prevented me from appreciating his reincarnations, including T. H. White’s Merlyn, Tolkien’s Gandalf and Rowling’s Dumbledore. While these latter figures are much more wholesome, they retain something of Merlin’s manipulative character, a negative trait that is startlingly apparent in Malory.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin is only present in person in the first four books, where he arranges the circumstances of Arthur’s birth and ascension, interferes briefly in the tale of Balin and Balan and is eventually imprisoned by Nenive at the start of book 4:

Then soon after the lady and Merlin departed. And by ways he showed her many wonders, and so came into Cornwall. And always he lay about to have her maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him and would have been delivered of him, for she was afraid of him for cause he was a devil’s son, and she could not be shift of him by no mean. And so on a time Merlin did show her in a rock where as was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin. (IV.1)

This passage is one of the most revealing, I feel, of Malory’s own attitude to Merlin. Nenive, rather than a seducer of Merlin who steals his magical knowledge and tricks him into the cave, is portrayed as a victim of Merlin’s lust. She is afraid of him, and this is significant, because no woman in Malory is afraid of a man who is anything but a villain. Several of Merlin’s achievements in the first four books are unexpectedly dark, Merlin:

  • Engineers the rape of Igraine by Uther by disguising him as her husband
  • Takes Arthur from his mother, who does not see him again until he is a man
  • Prophecies the birth of Mordred leading to Arthur’s own ‘massacre of the innocents’

For these acts he is accused by other Kings of witchcraft and several references are made to his paternity; according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin’s father was an incubus. The fact that Arthur respects and ‘worships’ Merlin is contrasted with the suspicion other men have of him. His infernal parentage, while lending weight to his magical abilities, seems to taint his behavior towards women, and the treatment of noblewomen is a primary indicator of nobility throughout Malory. The very fact that Merlin is punished for his lust by imprisonment suggests a moral judgement on his character.

It could be argued that Merlin also does some good in Malory. His fostering out of Arthur could be read as protecting him until he was old enough to rule, and he does advise Arthur at one point to cease killing his enemies when he has already won the battle. However, his almost omniscient knowledge of events to come is highly problematic. He uses his foreknowledge to achieve his own goals, such as establishing Arthur as king, but does not prevent the tragedies he foresees. Even his awareness of his own downfall at Nenive’s hands is submitted to, rather than averted, a weakness that deprives Arthur of his counsel and assistance in the troubles to come.

Malory’s ordering of events in the cycle gets rid of Merlin fairly quickly, possibly because his prophecies make him something of a nuisance and because he does not fit into the new morality of courtly love that concerns much of the book. However, his role as magical intercessor is soon filled by Nenive herself, who becomes a sort of fairy-godmother character who arrives at the end of a tale to reward or punish, or reveal hidden information. She does not prophecy or involve herself in state affairs, like Merlin, but in the personal relationships between men and women, who are upheld to the codes of courtly love. Like Tryamour, she becomes the otherworldly patron of a worthy knight, Sir Pelleas, and when she arrives to insist on the innocence of Guinevere, Malory tells us; ‘for ever she did great goodness unto King Arthur and to all his knights by her sorcery and enchantments.’ (XVIII.8) A statement that is nowhere mirrored in descriptions of Merlin.

Although modern interpretations of Merlin have more frequently cast him as benevolent, affable character, they cannot escape the problem of his foreknowledge. The fact that Merlin knows Arthur and Camelot’s fate is central to his involvement in the story. When he uses this knowledge to interfere, it often brings up questions of consequentialism; are the means Merlin uses to bring about the Arthurian ‘golden age’ worth the ends? When Merlin fails to use his knowledge, such as informing Arthur of his incest only after it has occurred, is he equally guilty? Any interpretation of the Matter of Britain that includes Merlin has to deal with these questions and, in my opinion, he casts a very long shadow.

Skye M. W.

All quotes from Helen Cooper’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript for Oxford World’s Classics (1998)

Image: Detail of Merlin, Alan Lee