Jean from Howling Frog Books has decided to do a Le Morte d’Arthur Read-Along in honour of her 2014 Arthurian Challenge. Bless her heart, because I have been trying to get through this book all year, and for some reason it has become a slog that is not moving along very quickly. A read-along is just what I need.
“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.”
The Once and Future King encompasses five books written by author T.H. White about the legend of King Arthur. In The Sword and the Stone, we meet Wart, a young boy who is the ward of Sir Ector and who lives with his guardian and his guardian’s son, Kay, near the Forest Sauvage. By an unexpected set of circumstances, he encounters the wizard, Merlyn, who becomes his and Kay’s tutor, although we can see from the beginning that Merlyn favours Wart and there is obvious foreshadowing that we should expect something extraordinary from him later in the tale. This book concludes with Wart unknowingly pulling the sword from the stone, a clear indication that he is England’s next king. The book The Witch in the Wood (re-written as The Queen of Air and Darkness and apparently with little resemblance to the original) follows, chronicling the establishment of Arthur’s court under the political idea of right instead of might, and, of course, the love affair between Lancelot and Guinever receives the most attention. The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, gives primary focus to Lancelot, his quests to purge his thoughts of Guinever, his relationship to Elaine who bears him a son, the development of a odd love-triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail, and Lancelot’s fight to defend Guinever’s honour. A Candle in the Wind waxes philosophically about the metamorphosis of England into its present condition and the ideologies of war. The height of tension appears in this book as Lancelot and Guinever’s relationship is revealed by a dastardly plot of Arthur’s Orkney clan, a war begins and the throne is seized by a usurper. The death of Arthur and his son, Mordred are foreshadowed. The Book of Merlyn, published posthumously, is added at the end and sets an aged Arthur amongst Merlyn and his animal friends from Book I, as they discuss the evils of war, why men want it, and how can it be avoided.
|Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn
Creative Commons License
I’m really stumped as to where to start with reviewing this book. My idea of the Knights of the Round Table was woven with nobility, courage, daring, self-sacrifice, self-denial and chivalric actions. While the Arthur of this tale professes to have started the Round Table with the idea that might does not equal right, White makes Arthur a rather weak character. In his youth, he is quite simple; Merlyn plants the social and political ideas into his head and as a reader, I never got the feeling that Arthur intrinsically believed in them himself. He knowingly allows Lancelot and Guinever to have an illicit relationship and is often paralyzed in moments when it is necessary for a king to show his strength and decisiveness. He is a simple, loving old soul who calls everyone “my dear” but it is a hard task to imagine him as the legendary King Arthur. Lancelot for a good part of the book is a brooding morass of insecurity and dark thoughts.
“The boy [Lancelot] thought that there was something wrong with him. All throughout his life — even when he was a great man with the world at his feet — he was to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand …. We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.”
However after Lancelot’s quest for the Grail and his encounter with God, he at least develops into a man with a sense of what is important in life and an internal code of conduct that he believes is worth following. Guinever is a moderately believable character, professing her loyalty and love to both men, but White puts her through a period of womanly jealously that is almost embarrassing to read and certainly not worthy of her. With Arthur’s half-relatives from Orkney, the devious and twisted brothers who become not only knights of the Round Table but are the poison that festers inside Arthur’s kingdom, White does a satisfying job with crafting their personalities. At times they can be quite appalling …… perfect villains to fit the story. Also, King Pellinore and his Questing Beast should receive an appreciative nod, adding delightful humour to the first book.
|Lancelot and Guinevere (1890s)
Herbert James Draper
source Wikimedia Commons
T.H. White was a rather tortured soul. He was beset with fears of nearly everything, except, apparently, God. After holding the position of head of the English Department at Stowe School, he retreated to a game-keeper’s cottage at Stowe Ridings on the Stowe Estate and, with hawks, owls and a setter bitch as his only companions, he began to write. As war loomed over England in 1938, White’s fear almost choked him. He declared himself a conscientious objector and in February 1939 found himself lodging in a farmhouse in Doolistown, Ireland, out of harm’s way. He remained there for the next six and a half years. In a December 1940 letter to L.J. Potts, a former tutor at Cambridge, he wrote: “….. [The Candle in the Wind] will end on the night before the last battle, with Arthur absolutely wretched. I am going to add a new 5th volume in which Arthur rejoins Merlyn underground ….. and the animals come back again, mainly ants and wild geese. Don’t squirm. The inspiration is godsent. You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote for war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal …….”
The above information perhaps explains White confusing re-crafting of the legend, and the plethora of social and political philosophical concepts that twist the characters into a means of furthering the development of these ideas. Instead of White employing creativity to show the reader various themes in the novel, he simply tells us, which leaves a very weak effect. As one of my reading buddies stated, instead of cleverly weaving his opinions into the story, White attempts to weave the story into his opinions. The result is sloppy and, in effect, he actually strips these noble characters of the dignity they had been given by previous writers.
The Sword in the Stone, by itself is an appealing read, a nice story about the young Arthur and his upbringing. By the second book, the story takes a turn for the worst. I only have two words: very disappointing.
Jean over at Howling Frog Books has put together this great challenge for 2014: The Arthurian Literature Reading Challenge.
The rules are as follows:
1. The challenge runs from January 1, 2014 – December 31, 2014
2. Sign-ups are open until November 30, 2014.
3. To sign up, grab the button, write a post, and comment ON THE PAGE.
Include the link to your sign-up post for it to count. Keep track of your
reading and write a wrap-up post when you’re done, which you will submit
at the end of the year. She will follow your blog, and you follow hers, and
you can discuss as you read.
4. Books chosen for this challenge can overlap with other challenges.
5. Book can be translated into the language of your choice, though if you are
game for trying out some Middle English or Old French, go for it!
6. Arthurian “cousins” count. If you wish to read up on Tristan and Iseult or
Parzival, or go haring off after the Fisher King, feel free.
7. It is OK to read something pretty tangential that still deals with the
Arthurian tradition, such as Charles Williams’ War In Heaven. If you can
make a reasonable case for it, go ahead. Still, she’d like to keep the main
focus on the medieval works.
8. She has categorized works by date into Old (pre-1800), Modern (1800-
1950), and Recent (1950+). If you wish to read Recent works, that’s fine,
but you must read more Old and Modern works than Recent. No reading
all of Mary Stewart (great as she is) and nothing else! Don’t worry, quite
a few works are short and/or not difficult to read.
9. Levels will consist of:
Page: read 2 works, one of which may be Recent
Squire: read 3 – 4 works, one of which may be Recent and one must be
Knight: read 5 – 6 works, two of which may be Recent and one must be
Paladin: read more than 6 works, two of which may be Recent and two
must be Old, unless you include a non-fiction work (see Bonus)
Bonus achievement: read a non-fiction work analyzing Arthurian
I am going to aim for Squire with 3 -4 works and hope to reach the level of Knight with 5 – 6 works. My list:
1. Once and Future King – T.H. White
2. The Way of King Arthur – Christopher Hibbert
Some of my choices I will take from the following books: