Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.
Thus spake the tombstone of the legendary King Arthur, according to Sir Thomas Malory’s epic Le Morte d’Arthur. T.H. White, however, is not so interested in the legend in his epic novel/series The Once and Future King, composed during the Second World War. He follows, instead, Arthur the man.
And who is Arthur the man, to White? A tragic figure. Even the blissful childhood of the joyous young Wart is entwined with a sense of great, impending disturbance – Merlyn’s backwards life, references to White’s contemporary horrors, the unsettling episode of the fey queen Morgan. Arthur’s fate is sealed when, newly-crowned and on the cusp of adulthood, he is seduced into an incestuous union with his half-sister Morgause and – as we later discover – attempts to kill the child born from it (Mordred). Yet for this one – though grievous – error, did Arthur’s story deserve to be tragic? He is otherwise virtuous – the willingly oblivious cuckold, unwilling to deny either his wife or best friend; the just conqueror, attempting to unify Gramarye under an ideal of peace; the lawful king, reining in the anarchy of a martial age. Yet he must be undone by Mordred.
Yet for this one – though grievous – error, did Arthur’s story deserve to be tragic? He is otherwise virtuous, almost Augustan – the willingly oblivious cuckold, unwilling to deny either his wife or best friend (unlike Diana, Arthur does not feel that three in a marriage is too crowded); the just conqueror, attempting to unify Gramarye under an ideal of peace; the lawful king, reining in the anarchy of a martial age. Yet he must be undone by Mordred.
Where Malory was charged (in his cameo in the end of the novel) with recording Arthur’s deeds, White concerns himself with psychology. Faithful details and records are unnecessary, nor is historical accuracy. White’s anachronistic style elucidates and alienates the medieval mind, but critiques his own context tenaciously.
In particular, White divulges the mind of Arthur and Lancelot, in this incarnation an ugly, self-flagellating sadist.Where Arthur is ponderous and idealistic, Lancelot’s mind is tortured by religion, ambition, his clandestine love affair with Guenever (in many ways a bizarre love triangle involving Arthur as a non-participating third-party), and obligation to his rapist Elaine.
Guenever, one of the few women in the book, is not the legendary beauty of epic, but blissfully human. She loves and she hates, she hurts and is hurt, she is petty and jealous, she is gracious and forgiving, she ages and hides it badly behind bad makeup. White often generalises her attributes as “typical to women”, but uncommonly takes the stereotype into a realm of human understanding. She is not alienated as White opens her mind for our consideration.
White’s language is characteristically modernist with its unemotional simplicity, but is by no means an unemotional book. It is in fact suffused with emotion, it is an emotionally-taxing read. It brought me to tears countless times. Take this passage:
‘Well, Wart,’ said Merlyn, ‘here we are – or were – again. How nice you look in your crown. I was not allowed to tell you before, or since, but your father was, or will be, King Uther Pendragon, and it was I myself, disguised as a beggar, who first carried you to Sir Ector’s castle, in your golden swaddling bands. I know all about your birth and parentage, and who gave you your real name. I know the sorrows before you, and the joys, and how there will never again be anyone who dares to call you by the friendly name of Wart. In future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title: so now I shall crave the privilege of being the very first of your subjects to address you wth it – as my dear liege lord, King Arthur.’
‘Will you stay with me for a long time?’ asked the Wart, not understanding much of this.
‘Yes, Wart,’ said Merlyn. ‘Or rather, as I should say (or is it have said?), Yes, King Arthur.’
How does he do it? Merlyn bumbles through tenses. The irrelevant glimmer of detail. The glimpse into the future, and return to the glory of the present. The simple mind of Wart, and Merlyn’s devotion. Somehow, together, they are evocative.
In another passage, White manages to use language alone to gather and thunder an army through a battlefield:
At a military tattoo perhaps, or at some old piece of show-ground pageantry, you may have seen a cavalry charge. If so, you know that ‘seen’ is not the word. It is heard – the thunder, earthshake, drum-fire, of the bright and battering sandals! Yes, and even then it is only a cavalry charge you are thinking of, not a chivalry one. Imagine it now, with the horses twice as heavy as the soft-mouthed hunters of our own midnight pageants, with the men themselves twice heavier on account of arms and shield. Add the cymbal-music of the clashing armour to the jingle of the harness. Turn the uniforms into mirrors, blazing with the sun, the lances into spears of steel. Now the spears dip, and now they are coming. The earth quakes under feet. Behind, among the flying clods, there are hoof-prints stricken in the ground. It is not the men that are to be feared, not their swords nor even their spears, but the hoofs of the horses. It is the impetus of that shattering phalanx of iron – spread across the battlefront, inescapable, pulverising, louder than drums, beating the earth.
Is The Once and Future King a fantasy classic? Perhaps it is fantastic only in its wondrous, liminal setting. Arthur’s tale here is rendered otherwise in a human ugliness and psychological realism that belies White’s perceptive perspective into the human heart in the most classic of foundation stories.