Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On "The Once and Future King" by T. H. White ***

The third book in a row for me involving Arthurian legend, this one is the most recent and the most unified, and in that modern sense it's the best. Malory obviously left behind a lot of source material, because it gets mined time and again by people like White. Here, Malory's story is boiled down essentially to that of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Merlin, in that order of importance. It works much better than Malory's kitchen sink--no long accounts of jousts and tournament (White explicitly mentions that he is avoiding those because they'd be of little interest to contemporary readers). And the entire section on Tristam is gone, relegated to mere mentions here and there (unfortunately, in White's version, Tristam is not so noble as he is in Malory). Also, unfortunate, is the way that the courtly love of the various knights becomes full-on sexual intrigue. There was something grand about Tristam's story when he was a knight who was wronged by King Mark, rather than the other way around.

What's interesting also is how White uses Arthur to comment on contemporary times--his contemporary times, namely, with the rise of Hitler. The Great War is discussed in terms of Arthur's war to end all wars--and yet which fails to do just that. There is discussion of how borders seem to make the world the sad place it is (we know they aren't real, but we fight over them anyway). Part of how White does this is to have Merlin live backwards, and thus, he knows even what is happening in our day, given his long life (how Merlin knows these things when confined to a cave--not the underside of a stone, as in Malory--I'm uncertain, but I suppose he must get out at some point). And part of how he does this is by having Arthur train with Merlin by becoming various animals. This first section of the book, largely not featured in Malory, features Arthur and Merlin front and center. I found it also perhaps the most boring section, which is a shame really, because it was the one section whose plot wasn't mostly borrowed. So it goes. White's book is good mostly because of how it is able to update Malory and give him the unity of form modern readers expect.

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