How to be a Medieval Knight (part II): ‘The Once and Future King’ by T H White (1938-1958)

My thanks to Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings for hosting the 1938 club this year.  When the notice went out in February, I immediately started hunting through my monstrous to-be-read list to see what might fit the bill.

Swordstone

The answer was, of course ‘The Sword in the Stone,’ which was an excuse to finally get started on T. H. White’s twentieth century re-telling of the Arthurian legend – perfect, as I was, at that time, making my way through Mallory’s medieval version of the tale (you can read my review of his epic story here).  As a book-hog however, I naturally couldn’t stop with just one volume … ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was the start of a wonderful journey into White’s complete vision of an Arthurian past.

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Like reading Tolkien, White’s work gains in depth as it progresses.  ‘The Sword in the Stone’ is to the later books in ‘The Once and Future King’ what ‘The Hobbit’ is to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’  The 1938 book is  a charming children’s story populated by talking animals, a Dumbledore-style Merlin and jolly English types.  Through a rather confusing historical slight of hand, Robin Hood is a significant minor character and life is really rather good fun for everyone.  If anything, it reminded me of Nancy Mitford’s novels (we’re told ‘Magicians were considered rather middle-class by the true jousting set in those days‘).  As long as you’re willing to take it with its rather dubious political philosophy, it’s a highly enjoyable tale.  Interestingly in the context of the 1938 club. the nostalgia for former days is writ-large and T H White delights in his romantic view of the past:

Everybody was happy.  The Saxons were slaves to their Norman masters if you chose to look at it in one way – but, if you chose to look at it another, they were the same farm labourers who get along on too few shillings a week today.  Only neither the villein nor the farm labourer starved, when the master was a man like Sir Ector.  It has never been an economic proposition for an owner of cattle to starve his cows, so why should an owner of slaves starve them? …  The villeins were labourers.  They lived in the same one-roomed hut with their families, few chickens, litter of pigs, or with a cow possibly called Crumbocke – most dreadful and insanitary! But they liked it.  They were healthy, free of an air with no factory smoke in it, and, which was most of all to them, their heart’s interest was bound up with their skill in labour.  They knew Sir Ector was proud of them.  They were more valuable to him than his cattle even, and, as he valued his cattle more than anything else except his children, this was saying a good deal … in other parts of Gramarye, of course, there did exist wicked and despotic maters – feudal gangsters whom it was to be King Arthur’s destiny to chasten – but the evil was in the bad people who abused it, not in the feudal system.’

I can’t say I’m convinced, and it doesn’t help that Sir Ector reminded me of no one so much as Uncle Matthew from ‘Love in a Cold Climate,’ hardly my idea of a sensitive and empathetic lord and master.  Interrupting this presentation of happy peasants and condescending rulers are the descriptions of the training Arthur receives to prepare him for his ‘destiny‘; these are provided by Merlin and if you want to picture them, think of the adventures of young Wart in Disney’s 1963 adaptation of the book.  The whole thing is imaginative fun, but the politics did leave a slightly nasty taste in the mouth.

SwordintheStonePoster

This is where the review goes beyond the scope of the 1938 club, because the later stories in White’s doorstop of a book show an author who is far more aware of the vulnerability of the ‘happy peasants.’  Replacing the animal fun of ‘The Sword in the Stone,’ volume two, begins with the hideous and graphic description of the torture and killing of a cat, as required by a magical spell.  By this time, White was living in Ireland as a conscientious objector; his anger against real, rather than idealised, war-fare is the driving force behind the later novels.  He also does his very best to find psychologically plausible reasons for the relationships glossed over in Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur (like the king’s response to the whole Lancelot and Guinevere thing).

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I’m really pleased I finally read ‘The Sword in the Stone’, but I’m even happier than I didn’t stop at the initial 1938 volume.  Without the later, darker, books White’s story is fun but facile.  Taken in literary and historical context however, they are a fascinating insight into English self-perception at the outbreak of World War II; a book which tries to see hope for humanity through a frankly unhelpful myth of violence and warfare.  It’s an ambitious book and, I think, a noble failure.  My thanks to the 1938 club for getting me to put it to the top of my reading list … and now I can’t wait to get my hands on Marie Phillips ‘The Table of Less Valued Knights’ for a twenty-first century take on the Arthurian legend…

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13 Responses to How to be a Medieval Knight (part II): ‘The Once and Future King’ by T H White (1938-1958)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    It’s many, many years since I read this (well, the early 1980s, to be exact) and I also read Malory at the time. I agree that the books improve as you go along – the first really does seem aimed at younger readers. Thanks for reviewing this for the Club (and after!)

    • I did feel the wrong age to be reading it, on the other hand, it’s been great to discover a new children’s classic. Thank you for creating the club, who knows how long this would have sat on the tbr pile without it!

  2. roughghosts says:

    That poster from the Sword and the Stone brings back memories! I’m not sure if I ever saw it because it came out when I was 3 and Disney movies were only shown on a rotating schedule. But I had a large hardcover book based on the movie and I read it until it fell apart. I loved sword and sorcery tales, they were a mainstay in my literary diet until my mid-teens when my mother and at least one of my brothers and I all made our way through The Lord of the Rings, passing the books between us. I tried to read TH White as an adult but by then I had moved on. Thanks for the memories.

    • It’s great to hear how important this book was for you! I agree, it doesn’t have the adult edge of Tolkien, but White has been a great discovery for me. I’m really looking forward to introducing the next generation of my family to ‘The Sword in the Stone’ in the years to come.

  3. BookerTalk says:

    Gosh this reawakens some memories. Like rough ghosts I gobbled this up as a child even though in later life I came to turn up my nose at wizards and anything that wasn’t totally real.

    • Ah, so your anti-fantasy book bias has only emerged over time. I do think ‘The Sword in the Stone’ is very much a children’s story – frankly that’s no bad thing and it’s good to hear that even readers who dislike the genre still have fond memories of the book.

      • BookerTalk says:

        i never thought about that but yes the anti fantasy thing didnt bother me in my young teens. It really kicked in when I got to 17 and discovered i hated Lord of the Rings

  4. Interesting, I had not thought of comparing this to Nancy Mitford’s books but you are right about that similarity! I read the whole OAFK in high school, when my reading was not broad enough for me to notice. I tried to reread it again recently but got bogged down in the Lancelot book. I do need to push through; like you I think it’s not entirely successful but there are some wonderful things in there.

    • I’m very aware that I’m reading this at the wrong age, but being able to spot connections to other contemporary works was a real bonus. I suspect I’d discover many more Uncle Matthews if I really went back to read through those period classics.

  5. Trisha says:

    The 1938 Club project has been my excuse to track down this charming book that I read aloud to my son when he was a little boy. When I told him I was re-reading it, he suggested doing it again together – even though he is now 43 years old and it’s meant using our cell phones to read aloud since we can’t be together face to face.

  6. Pingback: The 1938 Club: welcome! – Stuck in a Book

  7. Pingback: Enjoying the 1947 club: ‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov | Shoshi's Book Blog

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