THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR TO T. H. WHITE'S "ONCE AND FUTURE KING"
Seeing as there have been so many versions of the Arthurian legend written, when a writer writes their own version, it inevitably consists of a large amount of rewriting. The interest for the writer is not in the retelling, but in putting an original twist on what has been written before, so that the juxtaposition between the familiar and the new is insightful. All these rewriters approach the Arthurian legend with an agenda. When Malory took on The Vulgate Cycle and its predecessors, he crafted a story about an idealised chivalric English past. In recent years, Marion Zimmer Bradley gave the legend a feminist and New Age spin in Mists Of Avalon and even the Monty Python team exploited the anachronism of continuing to idealise King Arthur in King Arthur And The Holy Grail. As for T.H. White, his five books were written immediately before and during the Second World War, and this context obviously informed his writings. But The Once And Future King is not just an escapist ideal. It's also an allegory. It's not just about what we can learn from the past, but what the past should have taught us, but didn't. However, these were not White's intentions when he started writing The Sword In The Stone.
There's a reason the first book in White's saga is often individually packaged and aimed specifically at children, whilst the subsequent books are not, even if adult editions have been released for the more critical reader. The Sword In The Stone was published in 1938, a year before the outbreak of war, and the year when the British appeased Hitler so that war didn't look as inevitable. White took a thousand words of Malory in which Arthur casually finds and draws the sword from the stone and turns them into a coming-of-age fantasy about a boy nicknamed Wart and his mysterious tutor, Merlyn. There is talk of war, when Merlyn takes Wart to meet some animals and they point out that mankind is the only animal that wages war, but otherwise, it's more about Wart's personal growth. Shortly after it was published, however, White was fitted for a gas mask. With war coming, White toyed with being a conscientious objector, or finding a "sensible job" for the war effort, but eventually decamped to Doolistown in Ireland in February 1939 to complete the second book, The Witch In The Wood, and stayed there over six years.
The dates when White started work on each book are important. He started writing the third book, The Ill-Made Knight in October 1939, shortly after the beginning of the war, even though there was no heavy fighting and it was still being called the Phoney War at that point. In his diary on October 23rd, he wrote, "Death must be a noble and terrifying mystery". But he meant when it was natural, and war wasn't natural. This became a theme, as in the fourth book, The Candle In The Wind, which he was writing in November 1940, following the retreat from Dunkirk and the initial bombings on Coventry that signalled the start of the Blitz, events White would have been aware of even in Ireland. "What can we learn about the abolition of war from animals?" White wrote in his diary on November 14th.
When it comes to assessing how much of an impact the Second World War had on T.H. White's writings, however, it is the fifth book, The Book Of Merlyn that is most important. Written in early 1941, its writing coincides with the height of the Blitz and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, when Germany looked to be winning the war. The Book Of Merlyn is much maligned. "Even the hedgehog talks too much," critic Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote in her foreword to the 1977 standalone edition of The Book Of Merlyn. The book is a rhetorical polemic set entirely in the few hours before Arthur must meet Mordred on the battlefield, in which Merlyn reappears and takes Arthur back to meet the animals he met previously in the first book. Rather than just being peculiarly insightful this time, they join Merlyn in lecturing Arthur (now referred to as Wart once again) about the follies of mankind, in the hope he might learn from them how not to war.
"The politics of all animals deal with the control of Might" Arthur is told by a badger on the Committee on Might in Man, a Royal Commission set up to try and understand mankind. The badger goes on to describe ants as fascists and bees as socialists, whilst pointing out that capitalism doesn't exist in the animal kingdom, and is therefore unnatural. However, his most pertinent point is the unnaturalness of war: "War, in Nature herself outside of man, is so much a rarity that it scarcely exists." This becomes the central message of Arthur's visit. Merlyn quickly renames homo sapiens to "homo ferox", because we are "that rarity in nature, an animal which will kill for pleasure!" When wondering how to define war, the magician settles on "an aggressive use of might between collections of the same species". It must be collections, otherwise it's just assault and battery, and it must be the same species, because cats preying on mice wouldn't be war. And when considering the plus side of going to war, Merlyn's final sardonic reason is that for most other animals, it offers "some faint hope of exterminating the human race."
The impression we get of T.H. White is of somebody deeply out of love with the human race. To briefly ignore his context, however, this all seems slightly irrelevant. The battle between Arthur and Mordred is revenge. Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, committing wrongdoing against the family of the Duke of Cornwall, and now Arthur has to pay for his transgression. But in order to make this less unjust, Arthur himself is guilty of a similar transgression, in that Mordred is his own son, born of incest. This does not seem relevant to the clash between 1940s England and Hitler's Germany, unless White is trying to imply that England has some responsibility for the rise of Hitler. Perhaps he means that as one of those rare species that still haven't abolished war, mankind as a whole is to blame for the inevitability of yet another massive conflagration. Perhaps White himself is torn.
This would certainly seem the case in the chapters where Merlyn turns Arthur into an ant and puts him into an ant colony. He becomes a slave with a number and orders to follow, and when he refuses, Merlyn has to rescue him. "The walking dead," Arthur later describes the other ants. The ant colony evokes a totalitarian state. It's White's simplistic allegory of how things work under the Nazis, and the fear of being the individual who gets swallowed up by them, as England was under threat of being as of writing. So whilst White was against war, he was also against Nazism. No wonder he spent England's darkest days in 1941 writing a book about the superiority of animals. From White's perspective, there was no good solution. In the early 1940s, mankind had a choice between being dead, or "the walking dead".
Direct references to the Second World War had been creeping in increasingly throughout the first four books. In The Ill-Made Knight, for example, a lady Sir Lancelot meets in a forest describes the castle of Sir Turquine anachronistically as "a sort of concentration camp". It would have been meaningless to someone alive in the time the book is set, but not to someone reading in the 1940s. Two books later, Merlyn even says "a Fuhrer like Mordred". But White wasn't just casting contemporary issues in his book to make it accessible or relevant. Indeed, the most telling alteration White makes to Malory's Morte d'Arthur is the ending. In Malory's text, Arthur and Mordred meet on the battlefield and mortally wound each other. In The Book Of Merlyn, having spent the rest of the book learning from the animals how not to war, Arthur calls a truce and agrees to carve up the kingdom with Mordred.
In a way, the story has come full circle. Just as Malory had to account for how his idealised past turned into the ruckus of his time, White's sense of fate returns. He set it up in The Sword In The Stone by establishing that Merlyn ages backwards, so that he's already lived the future and is getting younger. From the point of view of the story, that makes The Book Of Merlyn superfluous, because Merlyn already knows how things revert to disunity and feudal wars after Arthur, even in their parochial, partisan form of the twentieth century. There doesn't seem to be much point in Merlyn spending the book lecturing Arthur about doing it otherwise. Indeed, the book concludes saying that Arthur was beaten because "man was a slayer by instinct", a defeatist statement which implies there will never be an alternative to a world where the use of might is mankind's first and last solution for it all.
However, there is another interesting angle that arises from White's duality over painting both war and Mordred as bad. In essence, The Book Of Merlyn is poorly written, because White almost comes across as an apologist for appeasement. Indeed, this ending can only muster some passing triumph, as White himself notes when he writes, "For a moment joy and peace were in the balance. But, at that knife-edge of a moment, the old Adam reared itself in a different form." By that he means disunity and individual might. But this whole ending is about suing for peace, buying it from Mordred (or Hitler) rather than ending the story the way Malory did: with mutual annihilation. Despite painting the ants as "the walking dead", White appears to be saying it's better to live under Nazism than die fighting against it. Indeed, this would seem to be corroborated by something he wrote about Arthur earlier in The Ill-Made Knight: "He often thought that it might have been better for all his dead soldiers to be alive - even if they had lived under tyranny and madness - rather than be quite dead". To look at this in a positive light, however, White could also be seen as writing a testament to life, above everything, and saying that war, no matter what the alternative, will always be the worst choice to make.
White's rewrite of Malory's Arthurian text is not, however, as unsubtle as throwing in direct references to the Second World War. In fact, The Once And Future King can be seen as saving King Arthur from Hitler. After all, Nazism was about resurrecting a past world that was perfect. The roots of the Nazi philosophy was about a time when the Aryan people were perfect and pure and stronger than everyone else. It was about an idealised sense of a national past, and in this respect, it was a dangerous form of nostalgia - because the utopian vision was about recreating the past rather than striving to create a better future. Yet this isn't that different from what Malory was also attempting to do, painting a rosier picture of the past and then accounting for how it all went wrong. He fetishised arms and armour and idealised the world of the mighty, where only knights are important.
In contrast, White's version of events is less rosy. If only be inserting the references to the Second World War, White has painted a picture of the Arthurian world as just as tumultuous as his contemporary one, with many of the same problems and, in The Book Of Merlyn in particular, no easy solutions. In comparison, Malory wrote propaganda for the rule of the strong. In a way, perhaps that's what England needed to read - following the failure of appeasement, Hitler would only be defeated by might. But as a conscientious objector, yet being opposed to Nazism, White would see just as much danger in England returning to a Malorian state of ruling through strength as he would in the Nazis winning the war and doing the same. Whilst the enemy was undoubtedly Germany, and thus symbolically Mordred, White was also saying that his English readers have just as much potential to ruin the world after the war unless they changed their ways.
And that's why, in another respect, The Book Of Merlyn brings the story full circle, in that it's more self-consciously a children's book than any of the other four that preceded it. Indeed, Arthur has become Wart, the boy learning from Merlyn once more ("I am not too proud to be a child, Merlyn, but too old", Arthur tells him), and Merlyn himself points out that he was a boy (ageing backwards, of course) during the Second World War. So we have two childhood perspectives in two adults, one teaching what the other hasn't learnt, but should. This is also White's intention, and in its frequent recourse to plain didacticism, smacks of desperation, as if White has things he urgently needs the next generation to learn, to which the story must come second place. "Everybody knows that children are more intelligent than their parents," Arthur points out, to which Merlyn replies, "You and I know it, but the people who are going to read this book do not." He then goes on to quickly dismiss three core ideas held by White's 1940s readers: that humanity is superior to all other species, that the twentieth century is superior to all other centuries, and that the human adults of the twentieth century are superior to their children. Surrounded by propaganda that said defeat of Germany was the most important thing, White thought the youth of the 1940s needed to know the world didn't have to be like this.
But when he started writing The Sword In The Stone, White had no grand plan for educating the youth of 1938. Indeed, were it not for the war, he might have written a whole series of similarly frivolous heroic fantasies. A noticeable change came when, in a December 1940 letter to his Cambridge tutor, L.J. Potts, White announced, "The central theme of Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war." As if realising his mistake, in The Book Of Merlyn, White dismisses himself as "an anachronist": "White, who thought we represented the ideas of chivalry ... that our importance lay in our decency, in our resistance against the bloody mind of man," Merlyn tells Arthur. White is self-consciously revising perceived mistakes in his approach, righting his own wrongs as well as Malory's. For Malory's antidote to war, as described by Merlyn, is for all the officials on the losing side to be executed after a war, having noted that the people who run wars rarely fight them.
This is what happens in Malory, yet this is where White changed the ending so that neither Arthur nor Mordred dies. If Arthur went sailing off to Avalon, from where he might return, Christ-like, one day, he would not be sitting with the animals in the Combination Room of the College of Life, as White envisages him. The five books are entitled The Once And Future King together, so from a writer's perspective at least, White agreed that Arthur would return one day. However, White thought he would return when the world was ready for him, not just when he was needed. "When it is ready to listen," he wrote. In partway secularising the legend of King Arthur, White can no longer have him return to save the world like Christ. After all, if Arthur was just waiting until England needed him most, then surely, by 1941, there were few in England who could believe that time hadn't come.
Brewer, E. T. H. White's Once And Future King,
Warner, S. T. T. H. White: A Biography, 1967, Jonathan Cape
White, T. H. The Once And Future King, 1996, Voyager
After my first essay for a unit on Arthurian Tradition was criticised for being too contextual and lacking in direct quotations from Malory's text altogether, I went the opposite route with this one and wrote a very textual essay. The fifth of T. H. White's King Arthur books is ideal for this because it's essentially didactic polemic, so even taken at face value there's plenty to assess. Indeed, there's a certain danger in that; it's so transparent there was a risk of merely reporting what it said. In the end, it got 60%, thereby dragging my average further beneath what was necessary to gain a First.