Wednesday, June 07, 2006

T.H. White's Arthurian cycle

The latest installment in Jane Smiley's series is T.H. White's Arthurian cycle.
T.H. White's The Once and Future King is steeped in learning and literature, and yet it is not quite respectable in the way that the works of, say, Kingsley Amis or Virginia Woolf are. Maybe it has been contaminated in the minds of critics by popularity and Walt Disney animation. Nevertheless, it is a serious work, delightful and witty in many ways and yet very sombre overall.
Click here for a basic synopsis of what develops with King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Lancelot and the rest in these books.


White's novel is intense and rich. The first volume, which tells the story of Arthur's education (he is transformed into several animals and birds), is a treasury of English natural history and increasingly obscure forms of sport, such as falconry and boar hunting. The same is true in the third volume, which tells how Lancelot became the greatest knight. White writes: "Uncle Dap was the only one in the family who took Lancelot seriously, and Lancelot was the only one who was serious about Uncle Dap. It was easy not to be serious about the old fellow, for he was that peculiar creation which ignorant people laugh at a--genuine maestro. His branch of learning was chivalry." And then White shows convincingly what a maestro of chivalry would know and how he would think. White uses the inherent flexibility of prose to deliver a lot of information, not only background information that makes it easy for the modern reader to picture 12th- and 13th- century England, but also good analogues to modern society--jousting as a form of cricket, for example--that work not only to clarify what might be confusing, but also to show the continuity of English life from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

The Once and Future King is about male society, but White is not a misogynist. His portrait of Guenever is sympathetic and rich. Of particular note is the moment when Lancelot and Guenever first fall in love. They are out hawking, and Guenever makes a mistake in her task of helping Lancelot with his hawk. He rebukes her, and then, when her feelings are hurt, he suddenly recognises that "she had been giving kindness, and he had returned it with unkindness. But the main thing was that she was a real person". The recognition of common humanity is the source of their inconvenient and passionate love.

Interested in King Arthur but hate reading? The History Channel will broadcast "Quest for King Arthur" on June 24th: click here for more details.

For a brief biography of T.H. White, click here.

To read earlier entries in the Smiley series, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue