White, T. H.
The Once and Future King
The ‘A’ rating is really just for Book One – ‘The Sword in the Stone’. The four (or five – the final ‘Book of Merlyn’, although written in 1941, wasn’t published until 1977 and doesn’t appear in many editions, including the one I read) books vary significantly in tone, length and quality. Book One has some weaknesses (especially the Questing Beast farce), but it manages to soar well above the others. The real triumph is the evocation of a surprisingly satisfying Merlin (despite walking a fine line with comic eccentricity potentially undermining any gravitas), AND a satisfying young Arthur, AND a satisfying relationship between them. Given the expectations around these names – that’s no mean feat. It explains, for me, why my favourite transmitter of this tale, Mary Stewart, referenced this influence (which was how I came across White’s name).
The tone is odd and undisciplined, indulgently moving between broad comedy, high fantasy, condescending moralising, tragedy, historical education, and unsubtle political allegory. The narrator frequently steps into the narrative, to, for example, explain how he’ll be deliberately using anachronisms (such as comparing knights to professional cricketers). The intended audience appears to be contemporary British schoolboys who have been exposed to some Tennyson, with the narrator as something like a House Master. Given the assumption that his readers/students already have an idea of the Arthur story, he dips in and out to explore certain characters and events rather than try to be comprehensive. He resembles his Merlin character in the disorganised way he approaches his syllabus – skipping big chunks of the story but then dwelling on some minor point, occasionally mixing up time lines, editorialising, dropping references that his audience may or may not understand.
The parallel with Merlin also works as the narrator, likewise, is coming at this story backwards – looking through the lens of the future, knowing the end before the beginning. I was surprised to find that I liked the way White worked with the concept of Merlin aging backwards – something that I initially expected to be some Potter style throwaway novelty. It explained some of his prophetic prowess, but mixed in with his absent-mindedness and emotional nature, meant he was not merely a calculating manipulator (or too blithely powerful). How *do* you remember how it’s all fitting together with these converging timelines? No wonder he’s always got this nagging feeling that there’s some important piece of information he should convey that he can’t quite put his finger on, or remember if it’s too early, or too late. It also allows for some real poignancy, no more so than Merlin’s sadness at meeting Arthur which, of course, for him means he’s saying goodbye.
Their relationship is charming. The innocent, likeable, humble, noble, strong young Arthur is good company, somehow never becoming saccharine or bland. Well not while he’s young anyway: it’s partly a deliberate choice, but the older, self-doubting, impotent Arthur is not half as engaging, and White’s frequent explanations of his, Guinevere’s and Lancelot’s unwise, churlish, selfish or childish behaviour becomes defensive and unconvincing. But back in Book One Arthur’s innocence works to protect him from harm, and to make him more interesting than those snared by common and predictable motives and vices.
So my tip is to relish ‘The Sword in the Stone’, and then close the book and move on.