Whoso pulleth out this book …

Starting off a new year with a trip back to the Dark and
Middle Ages, the Beamers spent a Friday evening, for far longer
than “one brief  shining moment”, in a spot known as Camelot,
the principal setting of T. H. White’s updating of Thomas Malory’s
tales of Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, “The Once and
Future King”.  Like Kay and Arthur, we split into two groups
for the same reason – those who pulleth out the text to the end and
those who left it in the anvil and stone. The great obstacle for
some of us is the tone of the opening volume, “The Sword in the
Stone”, which, following the young Arthur (or “the Wart”), is the
most whimsical and child-oriented of the four books.  There
are clear indications that White, as the narrator, is indulging in
some pretty obvious moralizing and quite a number of info-dumps,
some of which are amplified in the US editions (for this book, I
read the original, stand-alone UK version and a stand-alone US
edition, along with the omnibus US edition) where White felt the
need to add cultural or historical notes for certain topics (like
noting that a reference to Eton College would be anachronistic, or
noting that Robin Wood and his merry men were Saxons rebelling
against the Norman Uther Pendragon).  Worse, even with the
asides and clarifications, White’s handling of the melange of
legends leaves the chronologies, whether for individual characters
or the plot as a whole, at best vague or at worst
contradictory.  Fran observed that Uther is associated with
the Norman Conquest (1066), while his son Arthur is passing on his
torch to Thomas Malory (given a cameo in the final volume), who
dates to the 15th century.  Of course, figures from legend,
like Methuselah, defy the simple calendars on which the rest of us
depend, as Eileen pointed out.  Still, the maze that the
Arthurian materials (from Welsh, British, English, Cornish, French
sources) can lose even an experienced reader in among the variety
of versions (as we discovered when discussing whether White’s
Merlyn, who uniquely lives “backwards”, was sired by a demon on a
nun, as Geoffrey of Monmouth alleged). Perhaps even worse than
being lost in the Arthurian woods was the overall tone of the
books.  Robin felt that it was from White that Terry Pratchett
derived his “Discworld” style of jocular social commentary, an
observation that was seconded by a number of Beamers who did not
read further than the first book.  Jon, for example, related
that he could read about 10 pages or so before he found his
interest wandering; Donna found that she could intellectually
appreciate where White was being amusing, but she did not laugh,
again akin to her experience (and Jon’s) with Pratchett.  A
little whimsy can go a long ways for a number of us. Still, for
those who stuck with the book, the tone does become more mature
along with Arthur, with the themes of Justice and Mercy being
tested by love and betrayal, as the characters of Lancelot and
Guenever move into the spotlight.  Even before they appear,
the nastier side of the Arthurian legends peeks out in the form of
Queen Morgause, whose ritual magic involving boiling a live cat was
chosen as the most unpleasant scene in the entire omnibus. 
The tone has changed from the Wart’s more innocent “boy’s own”
adventures.  Alan noted that White, in opposition to Malory,
spends some time developing Guenever as a character whose motives
are understandable and who is worthy of the reader’s attention (and
not another Eve leading another Adam astray).  Lancelot, too,
is a very complicated character, a figure deemed as a paragon of
chivalry who is also cheating with the wife of his best friend, one
whose position as king makes the adultery into a form of treason
(notably in Celtic cultures where sovereignty is passed through the
female person).  We argued over whether Lancelot was to
pardoned for his crimes or brought to justice, setting aside the
special pleading that his author seems to make for him. Even harder
for us was to determine whether Arthur succeeds in making a real
advance in establishing the Rule of Law or if he himself is to
blame for not enforcing justice when called to do so.  Is he a
Greek hero condemned by a fatal flaw not of his own making (White’s
own “original sin”), committing incest with Morgause though unaware
of her maternity?  Or does he precipitate the downfall of the
Round Table and the rise of Mordred by ordering a massacre of
innocent babies (ala the biblical Herod, as Liz commented)? 
White was clearly ambivalent about this part of the legend,
springing it on the reader only very late in the last volume, a
reveal that Linda found to be too much, too late.  Having read
a fair amount of Arthurian stories (and re-reading this one), I was
a bit more sympathetic to Arthur (and maybe White), granting that
anyone who establishes new principles of Justice and Mercy and
builds a kingdom upon them should be forgiven for perhaps not
figuring out all the consequences and conflicts inherent in
combining them.  White’s principal source is titled (by its
publisher) “The Death of Arthur”, so we can expect less a happy
ending than a consolation for the tragedy of Arthur, which White
presents with the image of “The Candle in the Wind”, passed on from
Arthur to his page, Tom (aka Malory), and from him, through White,
to us.  Or, to borrow from Richard Burton, “Ask every person
if he’s heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has
not, that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory, called Camelot.”
Next month, we trade England’s green and pleasant land for the
harsher climes of planet Arrakis, Frank Herbert’s “Dune”
world.  We continue in March with travels to another fabled
place when we seek out “The Amulet of Samarkand” with Jonathan
Stroud’s genie, Bartimaeus. – Eugene, who knows that they dine well
in Camelot, where they eat ham and jam and Spam a lot …

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