|Fair Use. This is the cover of my edition|
T.H White is the author of The OnceAnd Future King, which may be the definitive modern Arthurian novel. Interestingly, while it’s his best-known work - and he wrote a lot of books! - the one which allowed him to give up teaching and write full time was not that one, but a memoir called England Have My Bones, which was a bestseller, published before The Once And Future King.
Anything that gave him the chance to write that wonderful book!
I bought my copy at my local newsagent for $1.60. I was reading stuff for university at the time and there was one book I could only get through by promising myself another chapter of T.H White’s masterpiece.
Terence Hanbury White was born in India in 1906. At the age of 11 he was sent to England, where he lived with his grandparents and was enrolled in Cheltenham College, a school where he was very unhappy, though he did like one teacher, C.F Scott, who encouraged him in his writing.
He had to do a year’s private tutoring to raise the money to enrol in Cambridge University in 1925. Again, he found a tutor who liked and helped him, raising money for him to go to Italy to recuperate when he contracted TB. In Italy, he wrote his first novel, but his first publication was a book of poetry.
Between 1930 and 1936, he was writing about seven books while working at his teaching day job. So, those of us who have found it hard to write with a day job, especially teaching, could definitely take a lesson from him.
Then he put together a book of bits and pieces of a year in his life, England Have My Bones. It was a huge success and he could finally give up his day job and get on with the writing!
While staying in a gamekeeper’s cottage near his workplace, Stowe School, which is still around, he curled up with Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, just for the enjoyment, and absolutely loved it. He said afterwards that it was a perfect tragedy with a beginning, a middle and an end that was implicit in the beginning. He found the characters believable. It was, he felt, still relevant to his own era.
In the end, of course, he was interpreting them in his own way, and I have to say, I do like his interpretations of Malory’s Arthurian characters. I even found myself caring about White’s Lancelot, and that’s saying something.
The novel was not written all at once, but in separate volumes. They were The Sword In The Stone, The Witch In The Wood(later The Queen Of Air And Darkness) and The Ill-Made Knight, and, unlike Tolkien, he managed to get the first three books written and published between 1938 and 1940. The fourth volume, The Candle In The Wind, was never published by itself; it came out as part of The Once And Future King in 1958. There was a fifth volume, The Book Of Merlyn, which was intended to be part of the full novel but was not published till 1977, well after his death. I’m old enough to remember that. It came out as a separate book.
White was a pacifist. If you read his Arthuriad you will notice that. Merlyn turning Arthur into animals and birds teaches him about the stupidity of war. As a bird, he can’t see borders. Those are, after all, artificial.
It has been said that White’s Merlyn(as he spells the name) is a lot like Albus Dumbledore. Well, he is, sort of, though he doesn’t have a tragic family history and Dumbledore is certainly not living backwards. I’d say that there is a resemblance also to Tolkien’s Gandalf. Maybe the likeable and loopy old wizard is a trope which appears all over the place. Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University wizards tend to be lazy, overweight characters who spend their days waiting for the next meal and hiding from the students. However, I can see Pratchett’s likeable Mustrum Ridcully hanging out with White’s Merlyn.
White died on a Mediterranean cruise in 1964 and was buried in Athens, but he did live long enough to see both Disney’s animated The Sword In The Stone and the musical Camelot. That is good to know!
Here is the trailer for that Classic Disney film! Enjoy!