Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 28 November 2015

Some thoughts on T. H. White, author of 'The Sword in the Stone' and 'The Once and Future King'

I recently came across the following article/essay in among some of my old papers. It's dated 1981 (when I was 24), but I can't remember much about the circumstances in which I wrote it. I think I had some hope that it would be published in one way or another, a hope that turned out to be vain. I've not reread any of the books discussed in it since then (except The Sword in the Stone and The Goshawk), so I can't temper any of its judgements with the wisdom of age (even had I acquired any wisdom in the 34 years since I wrote it). I've resisted the temptation to rewrite it (apart from making a small number of insignificant cuts), despite a few cringeworthy passages.


During the early 1940s, when he was living in Ireland, White made some notes for what seems to have been a projected autobiography. In the course of describing his childhood, most of which was spent in India where he was born in 1906, he wrote:

My father made me a wooden castle big enough to get into, and he fixed real pistol barrels beneath its battlements to fire a salute on my birthday, and made me sit in front the first night - that deep Indian night - and I, believing I was to be shot, cried.

This may be more a dramatic symbol or an adult's intensified remembrance of a child's feelings ('that deep Indian night') then the literal truth, but it is as powerful an image of the overpowering, uncomprehending misery of childhood as I have come across. Terence Hanbury White was the only child of a disastrous marriage, and it showed. Throughout his life he found difficulty in establishing and maintaining relationships with people - 'these dreadful humans' as he called them in an admittedly not entirely serious letter of 1949 - and was subject to bouts of melancholy.

It is too easy to concoct pseudo-psychoanalytical explanations of an author's work from biographical fragments such as these, and anyway White's writings are good enough to be considered on their own merits without voyeuristic scouring for traumas and complexes. But any examination of his work, however brief and disjointed, must take these facts into account. They cause us to notice, for example, a recurrent theme in White's novels, that of the corruption of childhood. In The Sword in the Stone the young Wart enjoys a state of Edenic innocence and wonder, but the rest of The Once and Future King sequence delineates his decline, as King Arthur, into bitter experience and disillusionment. Merlin too, who is old and wise, sees his hopes for humanity come to nothing. Perhaps this is how White saw himself - half Arthur, half Merlyn: half victim, half frustrated sage, trying to do the right thing but always ending in the same predicament as the frightened boy in front of the sham castle.

Farewell Victoria, first published in 1933, uses the same theme set in a social and political framework. Its central character, Mundy, grows up as a stable-boy in a large country house in mid-Victorian England. As a child he is, like Wart, happy because he has plenty of interesting things to do, but as the novel progresses into the twentieth century the old semi-feudal way of life in which Mundy found security and a sense of purpose, like the Round Table, decays. White laments the passing of a society in which everyone knew their place and were not so troubled by doubts or taunted by unrealistic ambitions, and where it was still possible for people to be close to the natural world, and as such the book is a powerful conservative tract.

But Farewell Victoria is also a more personal ironic farewell to the happy childhood that White never had. It is almost as though he felt compelled to create and then destroy Wart's and Mundy's happy childhoods as an act of combined wish-fulfilment and revenge - I shall touch on this love-hate aspect of his character and writing again later. The nostalgia for a period of which he had no first-hand knowledge can be seen in his wishful creation of a time when he could have had a comfortable place among men - White, like Mundy, felt stranded and abandoned in post-First World War England. Farewell Victoria is both a dignified elegy and a raving Merlyn's curse on humanity.

Like the first few chapters of Farewell Victoria, Mistress Masham's Repose (1947) is set in a large country house (called Malplaquet). Ostensibly a children's book, it is a savage attack on inhumanity and despotism. It is a kind of sequel to the first book of Gulliver's Travels (the Lilliput story); one of the titles originally considered for it was As Yahoos Like It, a bad pun but a good description of the book's purpose. Maria, the book's heroine, is an orphan, and her guardians are both semi-human fiends - Miss Brown and Mr Hater, the local vicar. Her childhood is one of only surreptitious pleasures - derived mostly from solitude and nature - because her guardians go to extraordinarily ingenious lengths to spite her and make her miserable, a wielding of power that they evidently enjoy. One of her few friends is 'the Professor', a Merlyn-like figure, a repository of mild gentlemanliness and scholarship. One day she finds, hiding in Malplaquet's grounds, a colony of escaped Lilliputians and befriends them. All goes well at first, but soon, despite the Professor's warnings, she begins to lord it over the little people, and unthinkingly behaves to them as her guardians behave to her. 

From White's other writings - especially The Book of Merlyn - it is clear that he intended a political allegory on the theme 'power corrupts'. When placed in a position of power people often, either accidentally like Maria or White's father with the toy castle, or deliberately like Maria's guardians, abuse their power, and Mistress Masham's Repose is in effect a plea for tolerance rather than belligerence. White felt cut off from humanity because of its Yahooish behaviour, and this book is  brave attempt to come to terms with and counteract this sense of apartness. With its rumbustious and rather juvenile humour, which, like that of The Sword in the Stone, is not to everybody's taste but very much to mine, it deserves to be better known.

Mistress Masham's Repose, because it is a book for children, has a happy ending in which the well-ordered life of the country house (which White treats as a vague symbol of the decency of the past) is restored, with all its reassuring hierarchies of beadles and gardeners and underfootmen. But Maria and her friends can only be happy in secrecy, because they have to prevent knowledge of the Lilliputians leaking to the outside world otherwise their idyll will be destroyed. It is probably absurd to suggest that White ended the book like this because he felt that his own happiness could be achieved only clandestinely, but it does provide a slick way of introducing another aspect of White which needs to be mentioned. It is dangerously tempting to dirty-raincoat one's way through a writer's life looking for titillation, but it helps to understand White if one knows that he was a homosexual flagellant. Obviously this was likely to create a desire for secrecy (but to do justice to White it must be said that he made no attempt to hide his sexuality from his friends), and perhaps this was one of the reasons why he felt himself to be out of tune with the rest of the world. 

He reserved his deepest affection for his animals (perhaps the lowest point in his life was when his beloved dog Brownie died in 1944), and even in his books close personal relationships are rare - Mundy is deserted by his wife, Arthur is betrayed by Guenever, and so on. The knowledge that he would never be able to find full or open fulfilment of his desires seems to have lead to a curious odi et amo paradox in his character. In nearly all his relationships - with people and animals - he combined tenderness with savagery, as though he did not dare to commit himself fully, and was thus obliged to destroy the love object in frustration. This is how the relationship with Gos in the marvellous The Goshawk appears to me. There is also the extremely horrible passage in The Queen of Air and Darkness where Queen Morgause's children capture a beautiful unicorn, and despite their wonder at it - and even because of their wonder it - decide to kill it. They do so, and amateurishly cut it up into pieces, covering themselves in gore and making a disgusting mess, and are horrified at what they have done. In a letter in 1942 White wrote 'I only kill the things I love very much' - much of his work is an attempt to prevent himself chopping up unicorns.

The Once and Future King (which deserves a full analysis - this is not it) is, like Mistress Masham's Repose, an attempt to dissuade humanity from chopping itself up in a Yahooish frenzy of blind fury. This is especially true of the last volume of the sequence, The Book of Merlyn. (It is necessary here to leave sexual for textual problems. The Book of Merlyn was written in 1941, but not published until after White's death (in 1964) in the 70s. When it became clear to White that it would not be published in his lifetime he took the ant and the geese episodes and transplanted them into The Sword in the Stone, where they are out of place, and discarded an episode to make room for them.)

The Book of Merlyn is a pacifist tract, and especially in the ant episode is as virulent an indictment of corrupt power as anything by Orwell. In fact, there are some remarkable parallels between this and Animal Farm, which was written just a couple of years later. They are both allegories using animals, and both are stern warnings about what happens when power or might gets out of control. White even has Orwell's skill at guying propaganda - 'Everything not forbidden is compulsory' is every bit as good a parody totalitarian slogan as 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.' The Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four is also prefigured - in the ant colony 'done' and 'not-done' mean the same as 'good' and 'ungood'. It must be said, however, that despite plenty of excellent details The Book of Merlyn is not on the whole a success. It is too heavy-handedly didactic, makes one of the themes that run through the sequence too explicit at the expense of the others, and its fantastic passages are out of keeping with the overall realism of the preceding volumes, (except The Sword in the Stone, of course, which is about childhood and thus easily incorporates fantasy). Nevertheless, The Once and Future King should certainly be more widely recognised as being one of the best books of this century: I wish I had come across people other than clap-ridden hippies Tolkien about it.

I am indebted to Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography T. H. White for the dates, quotations from letters, etc, in this essay.


My first thought on rereading this many years after writing it was relief that it's not utter rubbish. But its faults are unmistakable. I particularly wince at the way it tries to hint that I have a vast store of erudite knowledge at my fingertips on subjects I knew and know next to nothing about (such as psychoanalysis). It makes quite simple points at laborious length; I suppose I thought I was being original and profound. As I've said, I've not reread most of White's books for decades, so I'm not sure if I'd still think them so worthy of discussion, but my closing statement (implying that I was almost unique in appreciating The Once and Future King) is and was obvious bunkum; I can only plead that pre-interweb it was very much harder to know about other readers' tastes.

I must have thought my Tolkein pun very clever and amusing as I end with it. It might have been almost forgivable had it been buried away somewhere in the middle of a paragraph, but to conclude with it shows a failure to come up with a proper conclusion, and a juvenile lack of judgement. And this after I've had the nerve to criticise White for just considering a bad pun as a title for one of his books!

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