White: The Once and Future King

April 29, 2019

The Queen of Air and Darkness
T.H. White
[1939] 100 p.

The Ill-Made Knight
T.H. White
[1940] 200 p.

Candle in the Wind
T.H. White
[1940] 120 p.

When I wrote, with such great enthusiasm, about T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, a friend cautioned me not to expect the same delights from the subsequent volumes of The Once and Future King. He was right. As I was warned, these books lack the sense of happy whimsy of the first, and are, to an uncomfortable extent, quite dark and unhappy in themselves. We know something has changed when, in The Queen of Air and Darkness, the Orkney clan — Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine — dismember a unicorn, a grisly scene that is played for very dark laughs.

These Orkney knights are central to the second volume, for each is destined to become a knight in the fellowship of knights just beginning to take shape in Arthur’s mind. Arthur has grown to a youthful manhood, and has gone to war against the many intransigent lords in his kingdom, yet all the while he muses on a new ideal: a knight who fights not for conquest or gain, but for justice and goodness.

The dark shadows are brightened somewhat by a comic thread carried over from the first volume involving King Pellinore and the Questing Beast: Pellinore has fallen into unrequited love and lost his taste for questing, but is miserable, and his friends, in an effort to revive his spirits, don a Questing Beast costume which, however, is mistaken by the Questing Beast herself for the real thing, with tragicomic consequences.

The third volume, The Ill-Made Knight, follows the life of Lancelot, the Chevalier mal fet himself, and his complicated relationships with Guinever and Arthur. We know the basic story, but what I appreciated about White’s re-telling — and this was, for me, the best of these three volumes — was the very personal way in which he re-imagined the familiar tales. His is neither an “updating” — although he does allow his knights the luxury of speaking casual modern English when not fighting one another — nor an attempt to create a realistic historical setting, but something quite different: an attempt at realistic psychology within a story that retains its fantastic elements, and one that is fully aware of taking place within a tradition of Arthurian storytelling. (More than once White’s narrator remarks that Malory said X, whereas actually it was Y, or that as Malory already described A there is no need to repeat it.) This personal approach to the Arthurian legends was also there in The Sword in the Stone, but, given that most of that book related stories that Malory left offstage, it was less obvious; in these more famous tales, concerning the famous love triangle, the merits of White’s approach stood out more clearly.

Woven into the increasingly tense relationships of Arthur, Guinever, and Lancelot are increasing tensions within the fellowship of the Round Table. At this point the Round Table has triumphed; Arthur’s shining ideal of knighthood reigns; its enemies have been mostly vanquished. Yet, human nature being what it is, quarrels erupt and dissension threatens. In response, Arthur conceives the Quest of the Holy Grail, an attempt to re-focus the energy of the knights onto a spiritual ideal, an attempt that is triumphantly successful — for a time.

It is in the final volume, Candle in the Wind, that the darkness that has been pushed back by Arthur’s dream returns with a vengeance. Mordred, Arthur’s illicitly-conceived son, accuses Lancelot and Guinever outright of infidelity to the king, which leads to a spiralling series of conflicts, broken trusts, dead knights, and the end of Arthur’s hopes, attended by much mournful meditation on the collapse of the ideals of chivalry and of power restrained by law, ideals which had been premised on the idea that man is basically good. The unavoidable conclusion, in the face of disaster, is that that premise was false. Pelagianism, even when Arthurian, fails.

The tetralogy closes with a winsome coda in which Arthur, amid the rubble of his dreams, asks a young page, Tom Malory, to remember his story and to tell it to others. It’s a cheering finale to a series of books haunted by darkness and violence. If we were to forget for a moment the existence of The Sword in the Stone, these three books would stand as an impressive, personal engagement with the Arthurian legends, although emphatically not for children. Remembering that earlier book, however, they are thrown into contrast and appear too dour and too dark to really love. Alas!

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