Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/08/2016]

THE ILL-MADE KNIGHT by T. H. White (Collins): This is the third part of THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. The first part, THE SWORD IN THE STONE, was about the young Arthur and was a finalist two years ago. This part is about Lancelot and Guinevere (and Elaine and Arthur). Although the cover of my copy is a movie tie-in to CAMELOT, there is very little other than a bare-bones plot summary in common.

White has an unusual style for historical fantasy. Later on, I will comment on how Jack Williamson "slips" a couple times and has an anachronistic tone or word choice. But Williamson has this *in* the ancient world, while White's style is to be writing specifically for a modern (well, then-modern) audience. So in writing about Arthur, he says, "We civilized people, who would immediately fly to divorce courts and alimony and other forms of attrition in such circumstances, can afford to look with proper contempt upon the spineless cuckold." It is true that at times he also carries this into the dialogue ("That was Bruce all over"), but it is less jarring given the modern narration.

But in contrast to the addressing of a modern audience, White seems determined to see every obsolete chivalric term he can find: bannerette, pennocel, habergeon, morion, brigandine nails, gambeson, quintain, jupon, vambrace, and fforbeshynge. And that's all in one paragraph. Maybe he thought the reader would look all these terms up, but I doubt it. (Actually, these days, is a big help.)

In spite of the vocabulary, this has survived the best of all the finalists, and still seems fresh and modern.

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Continuing with recommendations from James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock's FANTASY--THE 100 BEST BOOKS, I read T. H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. I will readily admit that I didn't look up every unfamiliar word, or it would have taken me weeks to get through it. For starters, I would have had to use the Oxford English Dictionary--the standard desk dictionary simply doesn't have all the specialized terms needed to describe British royal hunts during the Middle Ages. (Here's a list of words on just page 142: chine, singulars [of boars], skulks [of foxes], richesses [of martens], bevies [of roes], cetes [of badgers], routs [of wolves], os, argos, croteys, fewmets, and fiants. A few pages later we get huske, menee, alaunts, gaze-hounds, lymers, braches, austringer, and lesses. Some of these are not in the OED either.) (Hint: surely someone could do an annotated ONCE AND FUTURE KING. Then again, I'm still waiting for the annotated "A Dozen Tough Jobs" by Howard Waldrop.)

Most people are familiar with the Arthur story as told by White, even if they've never read THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING (or even the first section, THE SWORD IN THE STONE). White, for example, was the author who came up with the idea of Merlyn living backwards. And White also goes directly from Arthur pulling the sword from the stone at the end of Book 1 to King Arthur waving Excalibur around at the beginning of Book 2, which has probably served to reinforce most people's belief that the two were actually the same.

What most people seem not to be familiar with is White's anti-war stance. This is no doubt due in large part to the British experience in World War I, and the gathering clouds of World War II. Arthur's experiences in the animal kingdom are such that he comes to respect the most the animals that are the least aggressive and warlike. And his joy in battles (where of course he has been victorious) is tempered by Merlyn's reminder than while the knights in their armor all survived with little more than bruises, the peasants who fought for them died in great numbers. These days, were White an American, he would probably end up labeled a traitor for expressing these opinions. Yet he was by no means a complete pacifist--Merlyn is very specific that defensive war is justified and even necessary, but war is never glorious. In fact, a check around the web shows White labeled an anti-Fascist rather than a pacifist, and in addition to his description of life among the ants emphasizing the fascism as much as the warlike aspects, he has Merlyn explicitly commenting on Hitler as well as on the Boer War, and then at the end a description of Mordred's goings-on that are clearly a parallel with the Nazis.

White also skips over a lot of the "canonical" Arthurian story, often saying (in effect), "Well, if you want to know about thus-and-so, read Malory, because he describes it better than I would." So in some sense he assumes a previous knowledge of the story. However, while I have some familiarity with the story, I am not an Arthurian scholar, and I still had no problem following what was going on.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING consists of four books, written over a twenty-year period. A fifth book, THE BOOK OF MERLYN, is supposedly even more anti-war, but I decided to stop (for now) with these.

To order The Once and Future King from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/06/2014]

THE SWORD IN THE STONE by T. H. White (first part of THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, ISBN 978-0-441-62740-0) (204 pages): One note here: The text of THE SWORD IN THE STONE by T. H. White has been modified from the original 1938 text. First it was edited for its American publication, and then further modified when published as part of THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. Supposedly, stand-alone editions of THE SWORD IN THE STONE retain the original American edition. Be that as it may, I am reading the 1958 text.

The best description I can come up with for this is Thomas Malory meets Mark Twain, except of course, Twain did it first with A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT. By this I mean that both authors take the King Arthur story, set in some unspecific time, and gave it a modern twist in language and attitudes. Twain did it by adding a modern man to the mix; what White did was to bring it up to date to 1938 by making it totally anachronistic. This is clearly intentional; White says so on page two when he has a character talk about sending Kay and Arthur to Eton, and then writes, "It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel."

So when characters talk about Indians with bows and arrows, and turkey feathers, and such, we are supposed to understand that they are talking about something else entirely. This makes things a lot easier for White, because he does not have to worry about being accurate.

I just wish White would be consistent. In Chapter 3, he refers to a bunch of turkey feathers in Merlyn's upstairs room (along with dozens of other anachronistic items), but in Chapter 15, he says there was no turkey for Christmas dinner, because "this bird had not yet been invented."

However, White also seems to have decided he has to use every arcane medieval-sounding word: gad, goshawk, snurt, craye, swivel, varvels, rufter, merlin, tiercel, mute, asting, yarak, austringer, rouse, sounder, gore-crow, warrantable, fewmet, libbard, brachet, mollock. And those are just from the first two chapters! Maybe this is to counteract the modernity of some of the imagery so that you remember you are in an earlier time.

The big difference between Twain and White is that while Twain's goal is to show the reader the darker side of the whole medieval "myth," White shows its foolishness by cranking it up to the ridiculous: "In the spring, the flowers came out obediently in the meads, and the dews sparkled, and the birds sang. In the summer, it was beautifully hot for no less than four months, and, if it did rain just enough for agricultural purposes, they managed to arrange it so that it rained while you were in bed. ... And, in the winter, which was confined by statute to two months, the snow lay evenly, three feet thick, but never turned to slush." (Or as paraphrased by Alan Jay Lerner, "The rain may never fall till after sundown / By eight the morning fog must disappear.") In fact, all of Chapter 15 is like this and it, along with the joust in Chapter, are the two tours-de-force of the novel.

(This reminds me of what I always say, that I do not mind if it snows, as long as it snows only on the lawns and not on the roads and driveways.)

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