Posts Tagged ‘Arthurian’

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!

White: The Sword in the Stone

October 28, 2018

The Sword in the Stone
T.H. White
(Lions, 1991) [1938]
298 p.

It is wonderful that there are so many good books in the world. Read as much as you like; there is always a chance that a book is out there, lying quietly in your path as you approach. You may be thinking of other things, a bit distracted. A book can jump up and surprise you.

Such has been my experience with this, the first part of T.H. White’s Arthurian saga. I’d heard of the book, naturally, but the fact that it is a masterpiece was always discreetly withheld, presumably so as not to spoil the surprise. I’m grateful.

The story is about King Arthur as a boy, when he was but a page in training, and was called The Wart. Nobody expected much of him, except his tutor, Merlin the wizard, who, because he was living his life backwards in time and remembered only the future, knew where The Wart was heading, and laboured to prepare him. The book follows the Wart through a variety of adventures, some mundane (the recovery of a wayward falcon), some thrilling (a night attack, in the company of Robin Hood, on a group of cannibals), and some fantastic (his transformation into a serpent at the behest of Merlin).

This material, good as it is, is elevated by White’s exquisite prose. Few books, much less children’s books, have delighted my ear to the same extent. White can vary the texture — now barbarous, now lyrical, now trim and precise — as befits the occasion, and the language is unfailingly inventive. Here, by way of illustration, is a graceful passage about the onset of autumn:

The summer was over at last, and nobody could deny any longer that the autumn was definitely there. It was that rather sad time of year when for the first time for many months the fine old sun still blazes away in a cloudless sky, but does not warm you, and the hoar-frosts and the mists and the winds begin to stir their faint limbs at morning and evening, with the gossamer, as the sap of winter vigour remembers itself in the cold corpses which brave summer slew. The leaves were still on the trees, and still green, but it was the leaden green of old leaves which have seen much since the gay colours and happiness of spring — that seems so lately and, like all happy things, so quickly to have passed. The sheep fairs had been held. The plums had tumbled off the trees in the first big winds, and here and there, in the lovely sunlight too soon enfeebled, a branch of beech or oak was turning yellow: the one to die quickly and mercifully, the other perhaps to hold grimly to the frozen tree and to hiss with its papery skeleton all through the east winds of winter, until the spring was there again.

That is poetry. Quite apart from the imagery, listen to the sounds: “the cold corpses which brave summer slew”, “still on the trees, and still green”, “tumbled off the trees”. It is one passage picked mostly at random, and not quite representative — the style is so fluid that no one passage could be — but it captures at least some of the beauties here preserved for our delight.

The tale, as White handles it, straddles the boundary between dream and reality. The language can be grounded and precise — as when a snake is described as “dry as a piece of living rope”, which is perfect — yet, at the same time, manifest fantastic elements, like talking animals, temporal anomalies, and transmogrifications. There is a capering tone, a sense that anything might happen. One almost expects Toad, dressed as an old washerwoman, to wander onto the page.

As I read, there were two other books that kept coming to mind. The first, which is admittedly a distant, much more fearsome cousin, was Moby-Dick; something about the tension of White’s writing, like a compressed coil, in combination with a rough whimsy reminded me again and again of Melville. And the second, already alluded to, was The Wind in the Willows, an account of its eloquence and fancy. The Sword in the Stone is not an equal of those great books, but it is resonating with them, in my mind at least.

White wrote three subsequent volumes, and then collected them, with revisions, into The Once and Future King. I must read them, or it, and am accepting advice on which course to take.

Sir Gawain, again

September 4, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber & Faber, 2007) [c.1400]
ix + 114 p.

This is a poem that I love, and, in addition to a Middle English version, I’ve a few different translations in my collection, most notably that of Tolkien. Arguably one doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a translation, the original being adequately accessible to any reader willing to put in a little elbow grease, but I heard good things about this translation by Simon Armitage, and sometimes one just doesn’t have any elbow grease ready at hand.

Armitage has retained the basic poetic element of the original: an alliterative line with three (and sometimes four) stresses. When three, the three alliterate, but when four he sometimes opts to include two alliterative pairs. Consider, for example, this short passage taken from one of the hunting episodes:

On the bugles they blew three bellowing notes
to a din of baying and barking, and the dogs
which chased or wandered were chastened by whip. (ll.1141-3)

The first line has three stresses in the pattern aaa, but the second has two pairs in the pattern abba, and the third again has two pairs but in the pattern abab. Occasionally, as I said, he hits all four stresses with the same sound (“trussing and trying all the trammel and tack” (l.1129)), but these are exceptional.

Alliterative poetry is wonderful to read aloud, and I read this aloud to myself as much as I could — or as much as my saintly wife would tolerate in the wee hours while she was trying to sleep. Sometimes the ear picks up the stresses not evident to the eye, as in a line like: “A man quite capable, it occurred to Gawain” (l.848).

A novelty of Armitage’s version is that he has broken the poem up into short segments, almost all of which are short enough to fit on a single page, and has, at the end of each page, interrupted the regular scheme of stresses with a set of four short lines, each having two alliterative stresses, and sometimes rhyming. For example, here is the passage in which Gawain, whose cowardice and unfaithfulness have been unmasked by the Green Knight, gives voice to his regret:

Then he grabbed the girdle and ungathered its knot
and flung it in fury at the man in front.
‘My downfall and undoing, let the devil take it.
Dread of the death-blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed, said Gawain.

‘Such terrible mistakes,
and I shall bear the blame.
But tell me what it takes
to clear my clouded name. (ll.2376-88)

I found that I grew very fond of these little envoi as I read; they provided a punchy variation in the rhythm that kept me interested.

Although I did, for the most part, enjoy reading this translation very much, I found it sometimes lapsed into colloquialisms that I found jarring. Granted, this is not grand, solemn poetry like Beowulf, but still I cringed a little at passages like this one, spoken by the Green Knight as he lays down his shocking challenge to Arthur’s court:

“I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon? (ll.290-2)

The point is arguable; the Green Knight is a lively, uncouth character who might, I grant, speak in this way, if only to ruffle Arthurian feathers.

Armitage has also translated the same poet’s magnificent poem Pearl, and I’m curious about it. It is one of the most technically virtuosic poems in the English tradition, and I’m wondering how Armitage grapples with those challenges. Perhaps I’ll read it — in a year and a day.