(Apologies for the abrupt name change; I wanted to more accurately reflect the piece I was reading and realized that as the edition I am using is an omnibus edition which re-sets the chapters after every book, I needed to switch over to the actual title instead of using the cover title.)
Ants in this chapter!
Wart is recovering from his outing in the forest with Mr. Erection-connotation when he starts to beg Merlyn to transform him into an ant because he is so bored; again, life before video games was very dangerous.
“and Merlyn was reduced to shouting his [Wart’s] eddication through the keyhole, at times when the nurse was known to be busy with her washing” (121).
Aside from reminding me of Kingdom Hearts with all this talk of keyholes, this section is actually really funny. Just imagine Merlyn stooped low at a door, peering through a keyhole and shouting out various facts about a subject as Wart is being washed by his nurse. It is ripe for an animated cartoon.
But then Wart starts to beg to be transformed into an ant, getting the idea from his miniature glass ant habitat, something which, I am sure, is an anachronism. Merlyn protests.
“The ants are not our Norman ones, dear boy. They come from the Afric shore. They are belligerent.”
Only because this chapter is so filled with conflicting, and largely unfilled political potentials, do I give White the pass here on whether it is a racist-y thing to say that ants from Africa are more belligerent than, supposedly, nice and tame Norman ones. There are different species of ant, after all, and I am privy that some are more aggressive than others, so I suppose there is nothing to freak out about here, not yet, anyway.
So he gets transformed and lands in the upper dirt valley of his ant habitat.
“The place where he was seemed like a great field of boulders, with a flattened fortress at the end of it—between the glass plates. The fortress was entered by tunnels in the rock, and, over the entrance to each tunnel, there was a notice which said: EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDON IS COMPULSORY” (122).
Spooky! Do I hear echoes of a story concerning totalitarian single-party dictatorship? I believe I do.
So Wart acts like a dupe and wanders around. He hesitantly enters a tunnel but quickly backtracks to the surface after the weird songs he receives through his antennae creep him out.
Back on the surface, he meets another ant. Turns out that all ants have not names, of course, but rather serial numbers, a combination of numbers and letters. If I was a nerd with this kind of thing I could, perhaps, riddle out some idea of coherency to the long strings of digits White gives, but as I am not, and as I am sure there is nothing to the strings anyway, I am just going to move on.
Wart encounters some dead ants. (I’m not sure why dead ants are up here as, what little I know about ant societies, is that the graveyard is located at the bottommost portion of the underground nest.)
“They were curled up, and did not seem to be either glad or sorry to be dead. They were there, like a couple of chairs” (123).
I actually like this. Sure, it is part of White’s odd diatribe against impersonal systems of rule, but it is a beautifully expressed metaphor.
Following this lovely, yet unsettling, sentence, White gives us an equally wonderful description of how the ant carrying the dead bodies cannot seem to decide how to arrange the bodies; the ant is likened to a man eating a sandwich and drinking a cup of tea with his hands, yet wants to light a cigarette, but does not know how to make the logical conclusion of needing to put down what he is presently eating and drinking in order to take hold of the cig and lighter. White describes the ant finally finding room for the body as arriving at the conclusion by accident, like a series of random actions which finally result in the desired end by pure chance.
Wart continues along his adventure until he finally ends up in the tunnels, because, he is an ant, you see, and ants belong in the tunnels. Wart becomes accustomed to the ant language. It is not the most poetic of languages.
“There were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for their opposites.
Wart discovered that there were only two qualifications in the language, Done and Not-Done—which applied to all questions of value” (124).
My ignorance and lack of internet connectivity at the time of writing this makes me wonder when George Orwell’s 1984 was written since this seems very close to the sort of linguistic collapse we see in that classic dystopian text.
So far we see that ants do not have individual value as lifeforms and that language is a need to know basis. I wonder what other macabre wonders this ant society holds.
After a misunderstanding, Wart takes the place of an ant who fell off the edge of the colony, or something, and who now cannot remember who he is, so the others call him insane; it seems here that if Godwin’s law doesn’t apply to the ants, then its mental health equivalent, at any rate, is in full swing.
But Wart enters the kitchen area where he eats large amounts of bland gook, only to later discover that he is actually storing it in his body to later distribute to the other ants. It is like if you eat everything at an all you can eat buffet and then threw up in the mouths of hungry shoppers. (Have fun imagining that?)
While he is stuffing his mandibles Wart overhears this
“’I dew think our beloved Leader is wonderful, don’t yew? They sigh she was stung three hundred times in the last war, and was awarded the Ant Cross for Valour’” (126).
Wart has a curious habit of wandering across militaristic animal societies; a commentary, of sorts, on the human animal? Something deeper or something lighter?
So, the ants lack individuality, have a curt language, and are formed under an aristocratic military-junta. Where is the Proletarian Ant Liberation Army when you need them?
“’How lucky we are to be born in the ‘A’ nest, don’t yew think, and wouldn’t it be hawful to be one of those orrid ‘B’s.’’”
Haha… White’s satirization of nationalism is great, made further amusing by its linguistic reinforcement (“hawful” “orrid” “yew”). Aren’t we all so blessed to be born in [A Nation] instead of that horrible [B Nation]? Thank the Queen! But, yeah, the ants are also fiercely nationalistic.
Oh, and in a throwaway line, we learn that the ant Queen also regularly executes her subjects, convicted of criminal offenses not elucidated. Perhaps these criminals are ‘insane’ like Wart is originally thought to be?
“It was not only that their language had not got the words in which humans are interested—so that it would have been impossible to ask them whether they believed in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—but also that it was dangerous to ask questions at all” (127-8).
The Americanism of this part sticks out all the more because it is contrasted against the image of a queen, which is very reminiscent of the American Revolutionary War of Independence. I think that White is constructing a pastiche of negative forms of government according to an early twentieth century progressive-liberal standard. But maybe I am wrong.
So after this off inclusion, we learn that the ants are religious. This is where the deeper oddities come into play. But not before fighting breaks out between two ant scouts belonging to the different nests in Wart’s ant habitat.
“and all the streams of orders were discontinued in favour of lectures about war, patriotism, or the economic situation. The fruity voice [of the Queen] said that their beloved country was being encircled by a horde of filfthy Other-nesters…” (128).
Encirclement references hawk back to Soviet propaganda about encirclement by the Western imperialist powers, but the “horde of filthy Other-nesters” seems a clear allusion that this nest is not so much a communistic state as much as it is the inverse. Plus, I am not even sure how much the idea of capitalist encirclement against the early USSR was a well-known idea outside of the Soviet Union itself. Since this book was written in 1939 it seems late enough, with the outbreak of World War Two, and all, but I am not sure on the history of the encirclement thesis; besides, linguistically speaking, I know enough that words like “horde” and “filthy” are usually spouted by Rightists against immigrants and rival imperialist powers, not by the early Soviet propagandists.
Following this, the reader is treated to two kinds of ant broadcasts, both of which, are of a circular reasoning; the first is the idea that since we, Nest A, is starving, the population should increase so as to starve more and goad the nest into a wartime state. The second broadcast, meanwhile, regurgitates a self-negating delusion on racial superiority and self-defense before, ultimately, being subsumed under alleged economic benefits (that both nests are of equal footing and acting under the same premises but that Nest A is somehow offering the better armistice terms). This second broadcast follows the idea that “starving nations never seem to be quite so starving that they cannot afford to have far more expensive armaments than anyone else, an unsettling assumption on White’s part since it connotes a whole host of idealist positions.
But now we get to the real content.
“After the second kind of address, the religious service began. These dated—the Wart discovered later—from a fabulous past so ancient that one could scarcely find a date for it—a past in which the emmets had not yet settled down to communism. They came from a time when ants were still like men, and very impressive the services were” (129).
What makes this paragraph so confusing is that I have no idea what White is getting at. Is he trying to say that the setting of The Once and Future King is actually set in a far future reversed to medieval neo-feudalism being rebuilt under a sort of communistic regime? Is he trying to say that the ant society, as it presently stands, is a communist society and these services are a holdover from this ancient past? Or is White trying to speak of something else entirely?
If it is the second, then White’s reaction is a hilarious inability to understand basic Marxian ideas and theories, combined with the worst of anti-communist pseudo-intellectual hysteria (the mishmash of various negative governmentalities into a form labeled ‘communism’). If it is the former, then that is just odd. I am leaning more heavily on the second interpretation as it is clear that these religious rituals are not taken seriously by the ants.
At any rate, the two ant armies are about to fight—while Wart is growing sick of the tireless monotony and lack of privacy which comes with ant life—before Merlyn suddenly scoops Wart back up in the nick of time and transforms him back into a boy. Thanks, Mer!