It was back in, probably 1972 or '73 that I first read this book. I was in high school, and I
think it was my Junior year, which if my memory serves me correctly, was the year I had Mrs. Horning for my English teacher. I absolutely loved her! I
thought she looked like Mary Tyler Moore, and she always paid special attention to me, which was a big deal because I was usually so far ahead of most of the
class and got bored. So she would find books for me to read that she thought I would like. This was one of them. She was spot on, because I decided after I
read it that it was my absolutely favorite book. Now, mind you, I was only seventeen and really had not read that many books, compared to the hundreds and
hundreds I have read now. I read it twice, back then, and ditto for The
Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, and I think I read Exodus at least three times and saw the movie at least four. I did not have a very
large repertoire at the time.
Anyhow, after that, I never picked it up again, so after nearly fifty years, I wondered, would it still be my favorite? I was excited to get started! I have to admit, I really did not remember much about it, other than the fact that it is about King Arthur and the movie and musical, Camelot was based on it. But there was one major point I did remember, and that was that it was very funny. When we would have silent reading time during class, I would suddenly burst out laughing and the other students would look at me like I was strange. Over the years, I thought, it must have been because I was a teenager, and was overly amused. Since then I have read numerous other interpretations of King Arthur, including Howard Pyle's four volume set. It was written for children and is entertaining, but rather serious, at least not laugh-out-loud funny. The other ones I have read were downright tragic. So it must have been my age.
Nope. This one really is hysterically funny, kinda like a cross between Harry Potter and Monty Python, and yes, I still burst out laughing. It was written for children, at least the first volume is, or maybe not. However there is lots of adult material to be found too, both satirical and serious. The use and mockery of British English in all its different dialects is hilarious. Plus many of the characters are so dumb. Merlyn the magician/wizard gets confused and screws up spells, and then there's King Pellinore, who is straight out of a British comedy!
But it gets more and more serious as it moves along, and T.H. White has used it as an opportunity to make quite a few social statements. His interpretation of Merlyn has him moving backwards in time, so that he was born in the future and is growing younger through the ages. Which means he knows what will happen in the future, which is his past. Therefore, the dialog is often a strange sort of time-travel, a mix-up of centuries, which adds to the fantasy, and add to that, it is filled with anachronisms—medieval people using twentieth-century slang. In addition, the King Arthur legends are certainly epic fantasies, but here, White has truly made them magical, way beyond what even Pyle wrote, and that adds to their unique charm. This mostly refers to the first book, which is about Arthur's life as a child. You may read all my King Arthur materials on that Index Page.
This book is actually a collection of four volumes, written separately, the first three in 1938, 1939, and 1940. The fourth was added in 1958, the year the composite edition was published as this present volume. There is a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, written in 1941, but not published until 1977, long after White's death. I own that one also. Wikipedia has a lengthy article on this work, linked above, and also on the individual books.
The one aspect I truly had forgotten was the length of this set. At 639 pages, and quite small type, reading it is a major undertaking. So, though I will try to keep these reviews within reason, they will still be longer than normal. It is extraordinarily complicated because, as mentioned above, White used it for social commentary, especially concerning war, so there is a more modern underlying story floating beneath the obvious one. White based his version on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which is probably the most well-known historically-based version, first published in 1485. But he also added his own twists and turns, such as young Arthur's magical adventures as various animals, which Merlyn used to educate him for his role as King, since Merlyn knew the future and was there to prepare him. I have not read Malory's work, although I have it as an eBook, so I cannot determine for certain what all came from White's imagination. The British Comedy aspect obviously did.
The story is told in White's voice as a narrator, in his present time, so he inserts a great deal about current living in England, for instance comparing medieval sports to cricket. Wikipedia says, "Though White admits his book's source material is loosely derived from Le Morte d'Arthur, he reinterprets the epic events, filling them with renewed meaning for a world recovering from World War II." Wikipedia also points out that he had a great deal of knowledge about things medieval, such as jousting falconry and heraldry. Very impressive, in fact, and I will bring more attention to that aspect of his writing with the individual books. He also uses traditional heraldic terminology, which is like a foreign language. Here is a Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry.
The Wikipedia article, linked above in the title also mentions other ways in which White has reinterpreted the story, which actually makes it seem "modern." I will cover most of that in the reviews of the individual books, but, along with Merlyn living backwards in time, we also have a physically ugly Lancelot, who is usually portrayed as a gorgeous hunk.
There is nothing simple about the King Arthur legend, but White's complexity of its retelling differs from others, such as Pyle's. Malory's work is made up of the quests and adventures of numerous knights, which Pyle's also does, and there the complexity lies with the great number of characters involved and how their lives are woven together. But Pyle wrote for children, and by his own admission, he did not want to make an unfaithful wife out of Guinevere, which of course she was no matter how you beat around the bush. And the relationship between the knights and the history of England and Europe at the time was not emphasized to the extent it is in this present volume, perhaps because the sexual issue is the basis for the final collapse of the Round Table and all of Arthur's ideals. It is the end of the third book when he begins to really lose his naivety, and by that time, there is little humor left to the story. Lancelot was not a humorous character and once he reaches the spotlight, the story becomes dead serious.
Where White absolutely excels is in spinning a tale of secret sins, which, like chickens come home to roost, bring about the destruction of everyone involved in them. Not that the other characters didn't commit wrongs, too, but the three main characters, Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot, are the ones most judgmental of themselves and their imperfections. Very little is written about the other knights and their adventures, other than the Orkney clan, who were the other major players in Arthur's destruction. Having read Pyle's version not too long ago, this left me with a feeling of a great gap.
Instead, White's story follows a thread of sexual passion and perversity concerning Uther Pendragon, his son Arthur, Arthur's son Mordred, Mordred's mother Queen Morgause, and her other four boys, Arthur's wife Guenever, Lancelot, and his son Galahad, and lastly, Merlyn, all tied in to the barbaric society that was Medieval England. Though of course there are other characters who play their role, these are the ones that are the stars of White's interpretation. My review of each individual book will go into more detail, but let me, as simply as possible present a quick view of the relationships between this group of characters.
King Uther Pendragon, an invading Norman, (and remember, it was all about the Normans vs.
the Saxons during this period, until they decided to quit fighting and all become English), conquered the Orkney clan and raped Queen Igraine, who bore Arthur,
his only heir. It was Pendragon's trusted advisor, Merlyn, who whisked the baby off in secret to Sir Ector, one of the few good and kindly land owners, who
brought Arthur up in love and happiness. Arthur's identity is known only to Pendragon and Merlyn. Later Merlyn arrives to tutor Arthur, and again, brings
him up with a great sense of moral integrity so that he may right the wrongs of his father and bring about the dawning of a new civilization. But because
Arthur had been raised in such protected isolation, surrounded by all that was good and supportive, he is unable to see the evil in people. Simple, he is
called. But you know what they say of the sins of the father.
After King Uther's death and Arthur's identity is revealed, he has his first experience with evil in the form of his half-sister. Igraine, his mother, bore three daughters to her husband, the Earl of Cornwall: Morgan le Fay, Elaine, and Morgause. Morgan le Fay is best known as an evil witch, but Morgause dabbles. She is now Queen, married to King Lot, and she is not only a witch but a slut. She bore four boys, Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth, all of whom regularly recite the story when they are alone together, of the rape of their grandmother, vowing revenge. They are barely noticed by their mother, and when she does notice them, she abuses them, yet they hold her in reverence. This is the Orkney clan, and though Arthur does all he can to civilize them by bringing them to the Round Table and giving them the task of chivalry, they are still an angry and vengeful bunch.
On the day that Arthur defeats King Lot and the Gaels, thus beginning an era of peace, the beautiful Queen Morgause decides to do some damage. Being bored with her other men and her husband gone, she seduces Arthur by casting a spell which is actually successful when he is drained from the excitement and out of sorts. And so, like father, like son, he commits an equally appalling sin without knowing it, and sleeps with his half sister. Nine months later, Mordred is born. It takes a while from him to grow up and do damage himself, but he eventually does. Meanwhile, life goes on, the Round Table is established, Merlyn succumbs to his own romantic fate and gets locked in a cave, Arthur marries Guenever, and Lancelot arrives.
Lancelot is even worse, where conscience is concerned. He wants to be perfect. He wants to be holy and perform a miracle. He does. He wants to be the best knight in the land. He is. But he suffers from self-loathing. He loves Arthur with his heart and soul, but unfortunately, despite all his best efforts to escape, he loves Arthur's wife, too. He believes it is his virginity that has given him his power, but, under a spell, he is tricked into sleeping with a princess named Elaine, thinking it is Guenever. He leaves and returns to Camelot, a broken man, with a "what-the-hell-it-doesn't-matter-any-more attitude, and in the King's absence, the passionate affair with the queen begins. Until Elaine shows up with Lancelot's son, Galahad. And so we see this cycle of wrongs, though innocent, which must be paid for in blood and sorrow, and they are. As Wikipedia points out, Malory's legend is call Le Morte d'Arthur—The Death of Arthur.
So, is this still my most favorite book of all time? Well, it's really hard to name a
favorite at this point because I have read such a vast amount of wonderful literature. There are books I would not call favorites, and yet there are
aspects of them that have made a lasting impression. But yes, this is an extraordinary work, not only because it is a retelling of a famous legend, but
it is a work of art, creativity, social commentary, history, psychological analysis, and is immensely educational. Yes, it is a very exceptional
book, and it is still at the very top of my favorites list. In fact, just maybe, yes, it is still my very favorite.
Terrence Hanbury White was born in Bombay, British India, in 1906. He died of heart failure in 1964, at age 57 aboard a ship at Athens, Greece. He was returning from a lecture tour in the U.S..
Below are the links for the four individual books found in this all-in-one volume, plus the fifth separate volume. Incidentally, Gutenberg Canada has this entire eBook for free. They do not have many books, but here is the Index Page. Just scroll down to the bottom—they are arranged alphabetically by author, and download whatever format you want, or you can read it online.
Image below: N.C. Wyeth; So the child was delivered unto Merlin, and so he bare it forth.
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