Monday, December 27, 2010

Reflecting on The Once and Future King

I've never been an Arthurian Legend buff, really.  Knights in shining armor and round tables didn't grab my imagination in the way that, say, spaceships or fictional baseball leagues did.  Not that I was opposed to the idea, but the child's fascination with the dragons and unicorns and fairies and such of fantasy worlds never grabbed me.  No wonder I read a lot more Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov than I did, well, whoever the famous fantasy authors are supposed to be.  While I did, like a good little nerd, read and love Tolkein, I got through half of the first Harry Potter book before giving up, whereas the Ender's Game saga captivated me for months.

So what I'm saying is, I've always been a science fiction reader, and never a fantasy reader.  I took a flier, however, on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, a book most famous among my generation for the film adaptation of its first section, The Sword in the Stone.  It's a kind of historical fiction / fantasy hybrid, based upon the historical myth of King Arthur, but infused with non-nonchalant cameos by witches, wizards, unicorns, and a particularly strange knight errant and his complex Questing Beast.  Indeed, a big part of what makes White's retelling of the Arthur story so engaging is the non-fantastical treatment he gives to the fantastic.  When, for example, the trio of young Orkney tribesmen (Gawaine, Agravaine, and Gareth) venture out to capture a unicorn, the reader is tempted to suspect that there are no unicorns, and that the errand is a foolish and impossible one.  And yet, the unicorn appears - thanks to the presence of a maiden with the party, who they use as bait - and is promptly savagely killed by Agravaine, the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of the brothers.

The unicorn scene is perhaps the most emotionally intense of the novel, not merely because of the brutal destruction of the beautiful unicorn, or even the recognition by the other two brothers of how horrible their actions really are.  No, it's so intense principally because of how well White walks a paradoxical line between the matter-of-fact appearance of the unicorn and the wonder even the bloodthirsty brothers have for the creature.  Agravaine kills the animal, it seems, because it is beautiful and pure, his own brutality and the complicity of his brothers a condemnation of the brutality and complicity of human nature when faced with not only the natural, but the wondrous.

Of course, these Orkney brothers will be among the principal of Arthur's knights.  The time White spends describing them and their home serves a dual purpose of providing background for some of the book's major conflicts and, perhaps more importantly, showing the reader what it is that Arthur has to work with when he strives to replace the rule of Might and Force with the rule of Justice and Law.  The men who will enforce his new order are the same men who would murder a unicorn for no good reason, simply out of their own malice.  What hope does his round table have.

The Once and Future King is, in the end, a tragic story.  It is no wonder that the first section and the first section alone was made into a movie, for it is Arthur's childhood that is the stuff of joy and magic.  Indeed, magic and wonder conspicuously decrease as the story progresses, as Arthur ages, as Merlyn is whisked away to a solitary imprisonment.  A story that begins with Arthur being turned into a fish, a bird, and an ant ends with men firing canons at each other, with the entire line of King Pellinore (the knight errant) and his Questing Beast slain, with a heartfelt conversation between Arthur and a young page who's charge it is to remember the idea of justice.

The contextual shell of the book is that effort, then, to install justice in place of might.  King Arthur is an idealist, a young squire elevated to his station as King thanks to happenstance, but thanks also to a wily magician cum tutor in Merlyn.  It is interesting that Arthur himself blames Merlyn, in the end, for many of his failing.  Merlyn is a man of ideas, it turns out, ideas that Arthur believes almost unquestioningly, simply because of his faith in the magician.  While those ideas may still be good, Arthur's attempts to make them reality - to turn his medieval English world into a more just and lawful one - are thwarted by the nature of the men who he is trying to reform.  We might put it this way: Arthur is always just and good, and never needed to be made into those things.  Little wonder, then, that he can't figure out how to change other people, when he has so little experience changing himself.

Of course, the story is more complicated than that, because there are chapters in which White describes the incredible successes of Arthur.  Oh, those chapters have their own mocking tone, intentional over-exaggerations about the transformations of the land.  One of those hyperbole's ends with the wonder flourish, "a plethora of napkins," while another describes how, where once the roads were too dangerous to travel, not pilgrims can tell each other dirty stories on the way to Canterbury.  Such jokes, however, belie the real improvement of Arthur's England.  While over-the-top to the point of being impossible to take seriously, the descriptions of the land before Arthur's reign are as terrible as the new order is wonderful, and it is impossible not to think that, while the advent of a Chaucerian world may be cause for derision, it is also a significant improvement over a world where Chaucer would be unceremoniously slaughtered.

The heart of the novel, however, is not Arthur's search for a just society.  Indeed, a book that begins with the education that is supposed to aid that effort - and ends with its failure - is in fact mostly concerned with Sir Lancelot and his relationship with Arthur, with Guenevere, and with God.  This quadrangle has a chapter devoted to it explicitly, wherein White talks frankly - in the tone of a history professor, more than a novelist - about Lancelot's complex emotional and romantic entanglements.  Of course, the most obvious outcomes of the Lancelot story are the ones that influence Arthur's efforts, but that's what makes the telling of them so strange.

What I mean is, in a novel about King Arthur, it is odd that a full half of the book barely mentions Arthur at all.  The first section, the aforementioned Sword in the Stone, is Arthur heavy, as is the closing Candle in the Wind, but the second section, The Queen of Air and Darkness, and the third, The Ill-Made Knight, focus on the Orkney clan and Lancelot respectively.  Arthur is in the background of these sections, but whereas he is a person - a child - in the first section, he more and more becomes a symbol, an archetype, an idea as the novel goes on.  Such, we must suppose, is the fate of Kings.

Lancelot, on the other hand, is unquestionably a man, and a compelling one at that.  The story of his illicit romance with Guenevere is the most human drama of the novel.  It is not, however, a Romeo and Juliet tale, nor is it told with particular exuberance or wonder.  No, White paints a very real picture of their love, neither glorifying nor denigrating it.  They simply are, as if they are meant to be.  And yet, so much time is spent on the circumstances of their love, on the single-minded education of Lancelot in his personal quest to become the greatest knight in the world, and on the simple religious devotion the knight has for both his lover and his God.  It is Lancelot himself - likely in recognition of his hypocrisy in loving and emulating Arthur, whilst cuckolding him at the same time - who chooses the epithet "le chevalier mal fet," or the "Ill-made knight."  That moniker, while at least in part a jest - after all, if Lancelot is ill-made, what are Gawaine or Agravaine, or any of the other, lesser knights? - it is also revealing not only of Lancelot himself, but of King Arthur and his effort to establish Good over Might by use of might.  What knight - even the best in the world - could be anything but ill-made?

The real value of The Once and Future King, however, is not its political, moral, or romantic lessons.  It is a thought-stimulating book to be sure, but much like Cervantes's Don Quixote, that there is depth to the novel doesn't mean that it's not a pleasure to read.  Above all, The Once and Future King is a good story, at once beautiful and joyful, and ugly and tragic.  It shows the best of human nature and the worst, and at various times it made even a seasoned, cynical reader like me laugh and (nearly) cry.  Hey, it even compelled me to write a blog post.  I had the book recommended to me, and I picked it up with the skepticism of a man who usually prefers lasers to lances in his light reading.  What I found is that impressive and seemingly paradoxical combination of light and meaningful reading, of a book where a page called Wart can be turned into a falcon or a goose, and thus learn more about the world than he every could just staying a boy.

In all, The Once and Future King is as wonderful a simultaneous celebration and condemnation of humanity as you'll ever find.  And while you read it, you won't care which it is, because it's just that fun.

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