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.
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.
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.
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).
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…