|Can you tell that this is an older book?|
Part of my research demands that I remain up to date on adaptations of medieval texts, specifically of the Arthurian canon; subsequently, part of this means probing the shelf of classics and understanding their place in Arthuriana. As such, I felt it prudent to begin a ‘Let’s Read’ of T.H White’s adored novel The Once and Future King.
For those of you who do not know, a let’s read series is where someone reads through a text and offers commentary on its content on a chapter by chapter basis. How these commentaries function depends on the reviewer but can range from academic to low-brow. My own let’s read series will be molded after Ronan Wills own let’s read series, in that, they will be tongue-in-cheek and oriented towards a deconstructive ideal. Of course, I will differ from Ronan with my emphasis on medieval allusions and focus on the art of adaptation (not to mention my refusal to use Ableist slurs—“Stupid”—which frequently appear in Ronan’s own commentaries). How much my future let’s read series will diverge from this established model will be a question best left to the future. But I can say right now that my prose will be informal, very casual, and salty. So, no, this is not an academic undertaking; the review will be formal, academic, but not this let’s read series.
Why have I selected this book to read among the vast assortment of modern Arthurian texts? To be honest, I don’t have any real reason other than that it is a popular and classic Arthurian adaptation, and that I will need to read it eventually if I am serious about my study of neo-medievalism. Since I bought it for cheap not too long ago, I figure I minus well give it a go and experiment with this let’s read format.
Some background information: the edition I am using is an older version published by Ace. The date says it was published June 1987; as such, the table of contents lists four books—“The Sword in the Stone”, “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, “The Ill-Made Knight”, and “The Candle in the Wind”. I remark on this since it is my understanding that future editions of White’s novel actually feature one or two more such books not contained in my present edition. If this is the case, then it should be noted in advance that those books are not contained in this edition. At any rate, the other bit of background information I wanted to remark upon was that this is my first time reading through this text, so my comments are my first reactions.
So, without further ado, let’s begin!
The story begins in true adolescent fashion—a young boy complains about his studies; because this is a fantasy setting, instead of math, science, and English, we get arcane subjects such as Court Hand, Summulae Logicales, Organon, Repetition, and Astrology. I can’t begin to describe how little I care about these subjects.
“The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name.” (9)
Err, what? “Wart” does not in any conceivable manner rhyme with “Art”. The sounds are completely different. White, the Anglo-Saxons are laughing at you. But, moving on, even if it did rhyme with the protagonist’s real name—which is ‘Arthur,’ by the way, in case you haven’t picked that up by now—why would he be given that nickname? Just because? Because the protagonists are children and they have nothing better to do than to make absurd naming schemes for their friends? White doesn’t understand young children.
“The governess had red hair and some mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige by showing it to all of the women of the castle, behind closed doors. It was believed to be where she sat down”
“They found out afterwards that she had been in a lunatic hospital for three years.” (9)
Okay… this is super awkward. This whole thing with the governess just comes out of nowhere and feels oddly misplaced in what had been a tract on Wart’s education schedule.
Turns out that she had sat on armor which hurt her, offered to show it to Sir Ector, who is Kay’s father and Wart’s best bro, then “had hysterics” and that this behavior was possibly the result of being in a mental hospital. Super. Fucking. Weird.
Also—what‽ You mean to tell me that this late medieval realm has mental hospitals? How does this wound relate to her mental condition and why does it have uncomfortable sexual connotations? Like, shit man, I can hear Freud sneaking up on us.
Don’t worry, this is all in the first paragraph. The second paragraph jumps back to Wart’s education. Here we learn that part of Wart’s afternoon schedule consists partly of something called “the theory of chivalry” which feels like something an Alt-Right pseudo-intellectual came up with in order to justify his misogyny. We also learn that if Wart is not perceptive in his hunting formalities he is physically beaten with the blunt side of a sword.
Let’s see: mundane study, mental health issues, and child abuse all in the first page. This is going to be one of those books, I see.
After this opening, the narrative switches between Wart and Kay doing pointless stuff and Sir Ector—who I want to keep on calling Sir Rector/Rectum—talking with a Sir Grummore about finding the boys a tutor; do I smell Merlin? I bet I do.
Unfortunately, Merlin doesn’t show up yet and we are left with far too much superfluous descriptions of pointless crap.
“It was July, and real July weather, such as they had in Old England.” (12)
First off, “Old England” isn’t a proper historical epoch; secondly, this temporal shifting makes me queasy. The narrator appears to be atemporal, maybe even White himself, in that he relates this fictional medieval setting to the modern day (which for White was in the early twentieth-century). It feels off and I am unsure of why it even exists.
Thirdly, what does White mean when he says “real July weather”? That it was super-fucking-hot? If so, then why not just say ‘the weather was super-fucking-hot’? This is not rocket science, White.
Fourthly, and going back to the Old England thing, if this is set sometime in the mid-fifteenth-century, then why not just call ‘Old England’ ‘Engelond’ as it was in Chaucer’s middle English? Frankly, that sort of literary awareness would have made more sense with this a-temporal narrator and it would have established the period within a historically accurate naming convention instead of this cop-out that White uses.
After this, we move onto a mystifying description of hay work and how the land is covered in apparent hay needing socially-necessary amounts of labor-power channeled into it—why? Because, shit, is why. You don’t deserve reasons why all this hay needs tending; but you do deserve the following descriptor of the hay workers: “They did not wear many clothes” […] “the boys lay crouched under the wagons, wrapped in hay to keep their wet bodies warm against the now cold wind” (13). Ha!
I laugh because it is so easy to see the cracks in the ‘I am a tough manly man’ ideology which runs through these early works of fantasy (and in this scene where men feel the need to recover from the ‘shame’ of fearing the thunder—urgh!). What we get is not an explanation as to why all this labor is being expended, though we could easily guess why, instead receive a description suggesting that masses of male laborers, young and older, labor scantily clad while huddling together for warmth in the hay. Seriously, this is one small stroke away from that infamous bunk scene in Ender’s Game if not a full blown gay porn.
Pushing forward, we see Wart and Kay go hawking. Doesn’t seem much like The Wart wants to go hawking, but since Kay is a bit older than Wart and also a proper son, this vetoes Wart’s objections.
“Also, it was different not having a father and a mother, and Kay had taught him that being different was wrong… Besides, he admired Kay and was a born follower. He was a hero-worshipper.” (14)
Interesting. On one level this scene could be read as progressive in that it sets up the ‘it’s okay to be different’ lines of reasoning. Spoiler alert, it isn’t progressive because it is just more of the same self-serving heteronormative garbage; this ‘it should be okay to be different’ logic does not extend, in all likelihood, to marginalized groups, so let’s not give this any benefit of the doubt. We can say the same with Wart’s predisposition to be a follower and a hero-worshipper: he is only one because White is setting up the “Fair Unknown” trope—Wart/Arthur is a situation anathema to his birth but will rise above his station and assert his destiny. Barf.
(Still, hero-worshipper is an interesting way to describe the mighty manly-man figure that is future king Arthur, if not a bit too deeply enmeshed in deliberately self-serving ambiguity.)
The final bit of the chapter doesn’t say much, except for continued references to this sport called ‘hawking,’ which is supposed to be something like a medieval incarnation of Falconry, or something; why ‘falconry’ wasn’t just used instead, I have no idea. Perhaps ‘hawking’ is the right word—I am not keen on my history here—but it feels useless as a possible neologism, much like how the boys’ education is referred to as “eddication.”
But, their hawking expedition doesn’t go as planned, they don’t catch anything, and the hawk remains—stubbornly—in a tree after failing to snatch up some prey. The hawk looks at its master and the chapter ends with “The two hearts stood still.” Again: err… what‽ Talk about needlessly melodramatic, but why? Stood still, why? Is this hawk going to have paramount importance? Why is this purple prose so suddenly awash? I’ll tell you why, because White couldn’t figure out how to end a chapter and thought it better to just end it with some pseudo-deep bullshit.