The version I read was first published in 1977, more than a decade after White's death. It comprises five novels, four of them published during his lifetime in forms he then revised. In fact, the last book ends with White addressing the myriad ways Arthur's story has been told through the ages, the warping of the legend to suit different ends.
It all begins with The Sword in the Stone, originally published in 1938. As in the Disney film from 1963, an awkward boy called Wart is schooled by the eccentric wizard Merlyn, whose lessons involve being transformed into various kinds of animal. This Merlyn is brilliantly conjured, at once wise and ridiculous. The delightful conceit is that he's living his life backwards through time, hence his knowledge of events to come - all a bit mixed up because he's so many centuries old.
Merlyn schools Wart - and sometimes his adopted brother Kay - and much of that education is based on a deep love of the natural world. Clues here and later in the book suggested Merlyn might once have been a school teacher in his youth, ie in the 20th century, and that suggests White modelled him on himself. The back of this edition has JK Rowling calling it "Harry's spiritual ancestor", and it's easy to see the influence of White's Merlyn on not just Albus Dumbledore but the whole wizarding world around him. There's the same silliness and sorrow, the incongruity of everyday objects and a long-suffering owl.
Surely the influence is wider than that. Gandalf - first seen in The Hobbit published in 1937 - seems to have been a simultaneous creation rather than one being inspired by the other. But the notable difference, I thought reading this, was how funny Merlyn is from the off. Gandalf is more grave and portentous. In the book of The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), he insists on making Hobbit children wait until Bilbo's birthday before he unleashes his fireworks. In the 2001 film version, the more amenable version played by Ian McKellen sets off a few early, and is clumsy and smokes too much weed. I wonder if the screen version owes something to White's Merlyn. Perhaps there's something of Merlyn in Catweazel, another "scientist" of the Middle-Ages. And surely he's there in what I consider the definitive Merlin, played by the great Nicol Williamson in Excalibur (1981). When he falls over in the river or whispers advice to a horse, there's the ghost of White.
Wart enjoys amiable enough adventures under Merlyn's tutelage. The mythic, English past is full of dangers - at one point, Wart is out in the woods and someone shoots at him with arrows for reasons that are never explained. I was also confused about when the novel is set, but towards the end of this first instalment, the king dies and we're given his dates: "Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216" (p. 216). That over-writes the Houses of Normandy, Blois and Anjou - though White makes various references to some of those canonical kings, too. He clearly delights in none of it mattering, as he demonstrates when addressing the reader a few pages later:
"Perhaps, if you happen not to have lived in the Old England of the twelfth century, or whenever it was..." (p. 222).
In other versions of Arthur's story, the death of the apparently heirless Uther leaves England without a king and, thus, facing crisis. White has already included other kings in his story, such as Wart's friend King Pellinore, but he also seems rather wary of this king business altogether.
"They [the people] were sick of the anarchy which had been their portion under Uther Pendragon: sick of overlords and feudal giants, of knights who did what they pleased, of racial discrimination, and of the rule of might as Right." (p. 230).The idea seems to be that through his studies of - and living within - nature, Wart can be something different, even the animals recognising his majesty as King Arthur.
The Witch in the Wood, first published in 1939, follows the early struggles of the new King.
"Arthur was a young man, just on the theshold of life. He had fair hair and a stupid face, or at any rate there was a lack of cunning in it. It was an open face, with kind eyes and a reliable or faithful expression, as though he were a good learner who enjoyed being alive and did not believe in original sin. He had never been unjustly treated, for one thing, so he was kindly to other people." (p. 244).That made me think of Peter Davison's Doctor Who, described by writer Terrance Dicks in his novelisations as having a "pleasant, open face." But it's odd to read this description of the guileless Arthur so soon after The Sword in the Stone because he was unjustly treated - and repeatedly - by his foster brother, Kay. Kay teases Arthur about his parentage, leaves him to deal with a wayward hawk that Kay himself unleashed, and lies about taking the sword from the stone himself.
More perintently, that disbelieve in original sin reads here like a noble quality in the boyish king. But biographer Sylvia Warner Townsend explains in her afterword that White was inspired to write the story by a rereading of Mallory (on which he'd already earned a First Class with Distinction in English). As she says, "The note in which he summarized his findings may be his first step towards The Once and Future King:
'The whole Arthurian story is a regular greek doom, comparable to that of Oriestes.'" (p. 847)But the warring factions are more than Arthur being punished for the sins of his father. White speaks often of "racial discrimination", meaning differences between the English and the Celts (in Ireland and Scotland) - though he uses several different terms to describe the two groups. The chief antagonists are Arthur's wider family based in Orkney - his half sister, with whom he unwittingly has a son.
Merlyn has little time for such squabbling. When asked about the reasons for the present conflict, he lists a number of intermingling causes, and then makes his conclusion:
"The present revolt ... is a process of disintegration. They want to smash up what we may call the United Kingdom into a lot of piffling little kingdoms of their own. That is why their reason is not what you might call a good one."He then goes on:
"I never could stomach these nationalists ... The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of spearate trees." (p. 256)From this, he delivers a vehement anti-war lecture - and remember that Merlyn lives backwards, so was "young" in the future, ie at the time White was writing.
"When I was a young man ... there was a general idea that it was wrong to fight in wars of any sort. Quite a lot of people in those days declared that they would never fight for annything whatever." (p. 257)He concludes that war can only be justified to curb other war-makers, a conscientious objector (as White was) accepting the moral argument for battling the Nazis - even if not part of that battle himself.
This discussion, for all it seems to allow White a soapbox, is about making Arthur think harder about the sort of king he will be, and the kind of regime he'll endeavour to instil. White is playful about the fact Merlyn is about to leave the story, destined to be imprisoned in Cornwall by the woman he loves. Yet Merlyn's last lesson is serious.
"You have become king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the person that gets hurt. Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles, in which the aggressions will either be from spiteful reasons or from sporting ones, and in which the poor man will be the only one who dies." (p. 261)Arthur comes to his own conclusion: that might is not right, and he must use his power - his privilege as king - to protect the oppressed. The code of chivalry, the equality represented by the famous Round Table, are all then a stand against Fascism. White makes that clear in the last pages of this book, referring directly to "an Austrian" who embodies all the things Arthur stands against. Merlyn, the wizard of old, pagan magic, even invokes Christianity to underline his point.
"Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple of Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosophers was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people." (p. 297)It won't be easy. We already know Arthur and his knights will struggle to live up to the principles of Camelot. White is writing tragedy in the traditions of the ancient Greeks, but I was also struck by how much Arthur has set an impossible task. Gawaine, for example, is one of the better knights, the one to forge links between Arthur and the rabble-rousing lot in Orkney. But Gawaine is also impulsive, and violent.
"It was curious that when he was in one of these black passions he seemed to pass out of human life. In later days he even killed women, when he had been worked into such a state - though he regretted it bitterly afterwards." (p. 307)Its an England of toxic masculinity, fragmenting on nationalist lines. For all the beauty of Arthur's noble ideas, the sense is of darkening skies.
First published in 1940, The Ill-Made Knight then switches perspective to follow the life of Sir Lancelot, from a child in awe of the new king to his most illustrious champion. Of course, the main part of this is the forbidden love between Lancelot and Arthur's queen, Guenever, which White really makes us feel. Just as it's easy to see Merlyn as a version of White, it's all too tempting to read into the moral quandary of this love affair something of White's own personal life. In her biography of White, Townsend Warner quotes from his diary, where White admits falling in love with a boy he refers to as "Zed": "All I can do is behave like a gentleman."
Whatever the case, there's perhaps more of a sense of the kind of teacher White was, or how his pupils responded to him, in the edication of Lancelot by his gruff uncle:
"Sometimes Uncle Dap was tantalized into beating him, but he bore that also. In those days they did." (p. 363).There's no sense given of what Lancelot might have done to warrant these beatings - the feeling given is rather that Dip hit him anyway. And the implication is surely not that Lancelot grew up in a crueler period of history, that White and his contemporaries knew better than to beat children. Surely the implication is that the children of White's time no longer put up with it in silence.
There's more on the conflict between children and their elders later in the book when, shockingly, Arthur's half-sister is murdered by her own sons. They catch their old mum with a much younger man. White namechecks Freud elsewhere in the book, and doesn't shy away from the implications here.
"The murder of Queen Morgause had not been done on purpose. Agravaine had done it on the spur of the moment - in his outraged passion, he said - but they knew by instinct that it was from jealousy."(p. 484)The Candle in the Wind was the last instalment published in White's lifetime - in 1958 - and feels like a definite end to the story and the legend. We're still with the ongoing intrigue between Lancelot and Guenever, but now there's much more about Mordred - Arthur's son with his half-sister. Mordred is a fascist, he and his followers dressed all in black with a distinctive red logo. It's painful stuff, watching him needle and poison and spoil things, and force Arthur - who is sworn to abide by his own laws - to banish Lancelot and send Guenever to be burned at the stake. It's never spelled out, but it seems as if Mordred also murders his own brothers, who have gone to stand against Lancelot but without armour on, to frame the most-noble knight.
This is where the tragedy really sets in, and again it's as much about the world in which White was writing as it is the distant past - a cloud descending on England and threatening to blot it out. It's gripping, as Lancelot walks headlong into a trap, and full of moral quandaries and situations from which we can't possibly see how our heroes might escape. But I also liked the peppering of details from the period, White delighting in its riches and strangeness.
"In Silvester the Second, a famous magician ascended the papal throne, although he was notorious for having invented the pendulum clock." (p. 601)He goes on to list other great "scientists" of the age: Albert the Great, Friar Bacon, Raymond Lully, Baptista Porta who "seems to have invented the cinema", according to White (p. 603), and the monk Aethelmaer who dabbled in aircraft.
The book ends with Arthur going out to meet his destiny in a final battle with Mordred, just an ordinary old man going to war rather than all the magic and legend. The candle in the wind of the title is the idea Arthur has sparked - of valour, of equality, of justice. A small boy is sent away from the battle to spread the story, to share that flickering light. With that done, Arthur goes wearily to his fate. It's a powerful conclusion to an epic tale, and I can see why White's editors weren't quick to publish the fifth volume, though it had already been written.
The Book of Merlyn was first published as part of the collected The Once and Future King in 1977. It picks up from the end of the previous instalment with Arthur postponed from going to his doom by the return of Merlyn. There's no explanation for how Merlyn escaped his incarceration, or why he now feels that Arthur requires further schooling. Together, they meet many of the animals who helped educate young Wart and argue about what conclusions to draw.
It is odd. An editor's note tells us that White took passages from this - namely, Arthur's time with the totalitarian ants and with the utopian geese - and inserted them into later versions of The Sword in the Stone, including the version in this book. The repetition is jarring, but very little of The Book of Merlyn offers anything new. Merlyn is angry at the world, at humanity, but his arguments wander. At the heart of his argument are the geese, who Wart once spent a lifetime with and who seem to offer the same perfect way of being as the horses in Gulliver.
The key factor, for Wart and Merlyn and White, is that the geese are migratory and thus have no concept of national boundaries. That is why they never go to war, geese on geese, in the way so specific to humans.
"It is nationalism, the claims of small communities to parts of the indifferent earth as communal property, which is the curse of man." (p. 811)At the end, Arthur still goes to his fate and White concludes by noting the different ways his story has been told over the centuries. He then signs off in the same manner as Malory. We leave with a pang for Arthur and his light, and for this eccentric author.