Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Once and Future King- T.H.White

This is a true masterpiece of medievalism. There were several times when I laughed out loud from the humour of the scenes that were very obviously an inspiration for parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. White takes Malory's Morte Darthur and retells the famous stories with grand understanding and humour. The first book of the novel consists of Merlyn's lessons to Arthur in his childhood. While at times the book seemed to drag a little; it was always a pleasure to read about "Wart's" experiences with the animals. I especially liked the contrast between the ants and the geese and the direct comparison between the warlike natures of ants and humans despite young Arthur's inability to see war as anything besides noble and exciting. The first book is crucial in understanding King Arthur's later ideals of chivalry and his quest to make a better world. While at times in Malory's text you want to smack Arthur for being such a doddering old fool while Lancelot and Guinevere get it on, White makes you sympathize with him. A poor man who has no choice but to ignore his wife and friend's infidelity or inflict upon them the full rigours of his own laws. White did not make Lancelot the charming beautiful hero of chivalric legend but he is instead an overly pious ugly man. While White makes him less appealing physically, he removes a great deal of Lancelot's brutality that is found in the original text. Guenever is the same over-emotional wretch of a woman from Malory and most Arthurian texts.
I did enjoy the inclusion of other medieval stories such as that of Robin Hood (or rather Wood) and Tristram and Isolde.
This is a must-read for any fans of Arthurian literature. I should have read it long before now.
Quotes:
"the best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then- to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."
"At a military tattoo perhaps, or at some old piece of showground pageantry, you may have seen a cavalry charge. If so, you know that "seen" is not the word. it is heard- the thunder, earth-shake, drum-fire, of the bright and battering sandals! Yes, and even then it is only a cavalry charge you are thinking of, not a chivalry one. Imagine it now, with the horses twice as heavy as the soft-mounted hunters of our own midnight pageants, with the men themselves twice heavier on account of arms and shield. Add the cymbal-music of the clashing armour to the jingle of the harness. Turn the uniforms into mirrors, blazing with the sun, the lances into spears of steel. Now the spears dip, and now they are coming. the earth quakes under feet. Behind, among the flying clods, there are hoof-prints stricken into the ground. It is not the men that are to be feared, not even the spears, but the hoofs of horses. It is the impetus of that shattering phalanx of iron- spread across the battlefront , inescapable, pulverising, louder than drums, beating the earth."
"There would be a day- there must be a day- when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none- a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason."

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