"you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics" - T.H. White and “The Once and Future King”

29 May 1906, the author T.H. White was born in Bombay.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn." (Terence Hanbury White, “The Book of Merlyn”)

The author at hawking: A page from T.H. White's journal written while training northern goshawks using
 Medieval falconry techniques during the 1930s, material used in his "Goshawk", published 1947 *

Of course Sir Thomas Mallory’s identity is disputed. But if he was who he was, then the author of the Bible of the Arthurian Cycle, “Le Morte d’Arthur”, printed by Thomas Caxton in 1485, had been a most unchivalrous knight himself, a turncoat during the Wars of the Roses, a thief, blackmailer, bandit and rapist. However, his tale about the rise and fall of the legendary King Arthur, his Knights of the Round Table and the Grail Quest established not only our modern picture of medieval chivalry but the image of the legend of King Arthur as well. Thus, we usually imagine knights in shining armour á la John Boorman’s “Excalibur” from 1981 when we think of King Arthur and not of the post-Roman Welsh warlord who might or might not have lived at the end of the 5th century CE. Arthurian imagery based on Mallory was finally codified during the 19th century by Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” and while the Second World War loomed ahead, a bored English school teacher who was a bit of a medievalist as well as an author re-read his old copy of “Le Morte d’Arthur” and set forth to interpret the legends for a post-modern audience. T.H. White began to write “The Sword in the Stone”, the first volume of “The Once and Future King” in 1938, when the lights went out in Europe.

The book cover illustration of Alan Lee for “The Sword in the Stone”
showing Arthur “the Wart” in Merlyn’s study **

By and large adhering to Mallory’s original plot, White’s tetralogy, completely published in 1958 for the first time, begins with a rather light-hearted account of the making of young King Arthur, called “the Wart”, at the court of Sir Ector under the tutelage of a time-travelling Merlyn and descends into tragedy during the next two volumes, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” and “The Ill-Made Knight” until “The Candle in the Wind” describes not only the end of King Arthur and his dreams but the complete dismissal of the idea of chivalry and its substitution with a justice maintained by the strongest, keeping a semblance of order, conditions Merlyn initially taught Arthur to end. Told with a tongue-in-cheek humour and full of references to historical and contemporary events and characters, White had created an outstanding work of fantastic and imaginative literature that influenced recipients from Walt Disney who released “The Sword in the Stone” in 1963 to musicals and various other films and Fantasy authors from Michael Moorcock to J.K. Rowling, whose Dumbledore is far more shaped after White’s Merlyn than Tolkien’s Gandalf.

Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto musing over the first edition of “The Once and Future King” in his prison cell at the beginning of “X2: X-Men United” (2003)

White himself led a quite complicated, checkered and controversial life. Born in India and sent to a hell of a boarding school in England, quite like Kipling, he found a bit of a home during his years of study in Cambridge, indulged himself in medieval culture and heritage, became an amateur falconer and tried to recreate medieval hawking techniques, was a teacher and struggled with his ill health, became a full time author and fled to neutral Ireland when the war broke out, allegedly to become a conscientious objector, might have been an unfulfilled homosexual but never had a relationship with either men or women, an agnostic and a heavy drinker and died of a heart failure at the age of 57 in Athens while returning from a lecture tour in the United States, leaving a wealth of unpublished texts and a literary heritage as charming and subtly influential as few 20th century’s authors did.

** The image was found on: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2012/10/ellen-meloy-t-h-white.html)

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