White, T(erence) H(anbury)
T(erence) H(anbury) White 1906–1964
(Also wrote under the pseudonym James Aston) Indian-born English novelist, short story writer, poet, and nonfiction writer.
White's fame rests on his tetralogy The Once and Future King (1958). In this series of novels, based on Sir Thomas Malory's Le morte d'Arthur, White reworked the legend of King Arthur by weaving modern issues into a medieval fantasy world. Despite the fantastic nature of much of the work, Arthur and his knights are developed as believable human beings. Critics agree that his Arthurian epic reveals White's finest literary qualities: the universality of the issues with which his characters deal, the extensive knowledge he conveys in such diverse areas as animal behavior, outdoor sports, and history, and his excellent prose style. The works are further enlivened by irreverent humor, for he hoped not only to inform but to entertain. The Once and Future King is appreciated by readers of all ages.
White's early novels, diaries, and volumes of poetry inspired little critical or popular interest. With The Sword in the Stone (1938), the first book of his tetralogy, White won much acclaim and a wide readership. This book, along with The Witch in the Wood (1939; retitled The Queen of Air and Darkness) and The Ill-Made Knight (1940), were later revised and combined with the previously unpublished The Candle in the Wind to form The Once and Future King. White's tetralogy is infused with what he considered the moral perspective of his own time. As an avowed pacifist, White challenged the concept that "might makes right." The Sword in the Stone portrays Arthur as a young boy who comes under the tutelage of the wizard Merlyn in order to learn the ways of the world. Critics particularly admire Merlyn's teaching methods: he transforms Arthur into a number of different animals so that his pupil might learn the sundry possibilities of life. Critics also praised White's blending of history and fantasy through a deliberately anachronistic time frame.
White also wrote other works appreciated by readers of all ages. Mistress Masham's Repose (1946), which delighted critics, focuses on a girl who chances upon a colony of Lilliputians—a race of little people originally conceived by Jonathan Swift in his book Gulliver's Travels. The Goshawk (1951) is a diary that recounts White's attempts to train a goshawk for the sport of falconry. White's relating of the rapport that he gradually developed with the bird is considered especially affecting. The Master: An Adventure Story (1957) centers on two youngsters who stumble upon the abode of an evil genius. This work has been favorably compared with the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. In all of these works, White was praised for his sensitive depiction of people who attempt to live in harmony with nature, beasts, and their fellow human beings.
In 1977, another volume of White's Arthurian epic was published as The Book of Merlyn. Continuing where The Candle in the Wind concluded, The Book of Merlyn is set on the eve of the battle in which King Arthur meets his death. Critics were generally disappointed in this book, finding excessively didactic the long passages in which White vented his anger at the brutalities of twentieth-century war. However, White's epic is regarded by some critics as the finest reworking of the legends of Camelot to be published in the twentieth century. He is credited with making the legends more accessible and pertinent to modern readers. The Sword in the Stone was adapted into a popular animated film, and The Once and Future King was the basis for the successful theater production and film Camelot.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76 and Something about the Author, Vol. 12.)
T. H. White has made … the same assumption which [Leo] Tolstoy made in writing War and Peace: that there are no essential differences between historical characters and people living to-day. For that reason The Sword in the Stone is not just a boy's book about monsters, or a funny book about knights in armour, nor a purely whimsical book like Kenneth Graeme's Wind in the Willows. It has something in common with all these, but has the life and solidity that they lack. The best bits of it indeed are the direct descriptions of nature, of country life, of the behaviour and appearance of bird, beast, and fish. Like Tolstoy, still more like Rostov [of War and Peace], or Levin [of Anna Karenina], White has a passion for all country sports and crafts. He can describe haymaking because he has obviously worked in the hayfield, or an owl eating a mouse, because he has fed owls on mice. Thus he enters into the soul of a hawk, of a grass-snake, of a badger, of a fish, because he has kept them, tamed them, spent months of his life learning to know them. It is not idle whimsicality which leads him to translate their characters into terms which all his readers may understand, but poetic insight. He has thus without magic equipped himself to describe Arthur's training as though he himself had been Merlin's pupil. It will be remembered that Arthur was turned into a fish, a bird, etc. These chapters in The Sword in the Stone...
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Many of us who have found a lack of magic in our lives during the last few years will welcome T. H. White's phantasy, "The Sword in the Stone."…
Mr. White's book contains the very best brand of magic. He tells us of the childhood of Wart, the youngster who was to become King Arthur, mentor and patriarch of the Knights of the Round Table, and so depends on none other than Merlin for the wizardry and prestidigitation that hurl his little hero into many universes, seat him on the lap of Athene, project him forward in time and space to the shining vacuity of our own World Fair days, give him Robin Hood and the Maid Marian to play with, and turn him into all sorts of animals so that he may know many ways of thought and life….
Ordinarily a phantasy that encompasses past, present and future and the supernatural as well as the component substances of the world—earth, water and fire—becomes rather a bore because of its tendency of swallowing universes without digesting them properly. In the case of "The Sword in the Stone" the method is diametrically opposed to such pretentiousness, for Mr. White's leisurely and charming accounts of ordinary, normal life on the great medieval manor, of the hunt, of falconry, of the English countryside and the English weather in a day when weather behaved itself and snow lay evenly everywhere three feet deep, constitute the basic substance of his story. He has given it such excellent solidity that its excursions into the fantastic are made quite comfortably and with no violation of the modern reader's sense of reality.
What is more, not only the people but the birds and the beasts of his story have extraordinarily well developed characters, and we are never made to strain our imaginations to encompass their natures. The snake who teaches Wart, in his snake incarnation, the historical past that reaches back to primeval life, is an extraordinarily sensitive creature who merely desires to give Wart substance upon which to dream so that his long months of hibernation may not be bleak and thoughtless…....
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["The Sword in the Stone" is] a crazy cross between, or among, "Stalky & Co.," "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wind in the Willows," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," and the creations of Walt Disney. Hearing no voices to the contrary, I assume I make myself perfectly clear.
"The Sword in the Stone" is about medieval England, a young boy called the Wart, his slightly older playmate Kay, his eccentric tutor Merlin; and an odd collection of other characters…. The Wart (really the boy Arthur, you know) goes through a variety of experiences, chivalric or magical, the result of which is to make him fit to assume the kingship. (You remember from your Malory the beautiful legend of the sword that only the innocent and unwitting young Arthur could dislodge.)
The best parts of the book deal with such matters as falconry—about which Mr. White knows everything—and jousting and how fish feel. When Mr. White is being, as he thinks, funny in the Mark Twain tradition, he is pretty dreadful, and you may as well hop over the designedly humorous parts. In general, this isn't everybody's cup of tea, and a lot of perfectly intelligent people will think it rather silly. It is silly if it's taken seriously as a tract on education or as a picture of medieval manners, but then Mr. White doesn't insist that you take it in any special way at all. I think he wrote the book just for a lark, and a very nice lark it turned out to be, too.
Clifton Fadiman, "Three Novels to Open," in The New Yorker, Vol. XIV, No. 47, January 7, 1939, pp. 45-6.∗
Vida D. Scudder
[The Sword in the Stone] is riotously funny. Breathlessly, joyously, not at all in the leisurely tempo of old romance, it proceeds with unwearied gusto and endless variety of invention. And we grow increasingly sure that [Sir Thomas] Malory would like it as well as we do. For here his robust English temper has full right of way. Never did the continuity of English life, unchanged down the centuries, shine out more clearly than in this absurd jumble of old and new. Confusions do not matter; do we not move in the Timeless, since Merlin is master of ceremonies—and to Merlin past and future are all a muddle. A magnificent Merlin!
What a tutor for Arthur! Merlin can initiate his pupil into all...
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[The Sword in the Stone is] a wise book and learned in many ways, and at times boldly absurd or disrespectful; but the best of it is that it creates enough illusion and makes its lore. fascinating enough so that young people will actually learn more about medieval England from it than they will from twenty schoolbooks—and, incidentally, so will the rest of us, including the authors of the books, who never lived in the thirteenth century at all. For in matters of hunting, speech, fighting, castle economy, polite society and especially the care and use of animals, Mr. White is widely and accurately informed. Not only is he to be trusted, but his humorous liberties chase the dull solemnity of history out the...
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T.H. White, whose odd Arthurian grotesque, "The Sword in the Stone," you may remember, has done himself a sequel, which he calls "The Witch in the Wood." Sorry, but it isn't quite as good, the novelty of his special brand of humor, that of anachronism, being pretty well exhausted by the first book. There are some funny oddments in it—the paynim Palomides, who talks babu, and particularly our old friends Sir Grummore and King Pellinore. There are also some fine unicorn hunting and a good many comic medieval villagers. The story has to do with Queen Morgause (the Witch in the Wood), her four sons (who grew up to be Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth), and the manner in which she came to collaborate with her...
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The moonstruck madness and learned gayety which so appealed to readers of Mr. White's "The Sword in the Stone" comes bubbling along just as merrily in ["The Witch in the Wood"]. What with the presence of old Merlyn, who remembers the future as well as the past, and the author's own habit of making time perfectly elastic, the adventures of Queen Morgause set down here assume a peculiarly sprightly air. Alone in her northern fortress, she takes a complicated beauty-bath and plans details of the role in which she will next dramatize herself. Shall it be the brave devoted little mother? Her ministrations to her children always confuse and sometimes terrify them. Or shall she decide to vamp a visiting knight? Whatever she...
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T.H. White has an outstanding capacity for writing about medieval times as merry and lively days, with their own share of the problems of living and loving, war and peace, but with more than their fair share of fun. His "Sword in the Stone" of last year will be remembered widely and happily for its enchantingly rowdy picture of the boyhood of King Arthur, known as the Wart. ["The Witch in the Wood"] is a sort of sequel in the same rambunctious vein, at once learned and lusty and comic. The story carries on with Arthur's battles against the kings who refused to recognize his right to the title of King of England even after he had drawn Excalibur from the stone. But the greater part of the book deals with the doings in...
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That scholarly, witty and enthusiastic medievalist, Mr. T.H. White, has produced a third fine book devoted to the Arthurian legends. Sir Lancelot of the Lake, the "Chevalier Mal Fet," is the central figure; and the darkly mystic, thwarted character which Mr. White finds him to be dominates the book. Hence "The Ill-Made Knight" is a more thoughtful, adult and subdued piece of writing than "The Sword in the Stone" or "The Witch in the Wood." It has its fits of farce and comedy—its irreverent poking of fun at some of the solemnities of the days of chivalry—but not the out-and-out joyful boisterousness of the earlier volumes. It does a fine inside job of its study of Lancelot and of the cycle of the Round Table's...
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Florence Haxton Bullock
"The Ill-Made Knight" (who is none other, of course, than Sir Lancelot, "best knight in all the world"—and how he worked to earn that title!) is drawn in chunks from Malory, from [John] Milton's "History of England," from one Thomas Bulfinch perhaps (though Mr. White who claims falconry as his favorite sport and medievalism as his specialty is obviously a student of sources) and, whether he likes it or not, from [Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King"]. Mr. White most shows his awareness of the inextricability of the sentimental Victorian from the Arthurian cycle when he scoffs at this or that poetic legend and re-creates it in a broader tone.
"The Ill-Made Knight" (which was preceded by two other...
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Olive B. White
When a novelist enchanted by one of the world's great matters reaches his third volume, as Mr. White does in his successor to "The Sword in the Stone" and "The Witch in the Wood," he has committed himself to a quest that will not let him go. ["The Ill-Made Knight"] matches the others in virtuosity and wit, and it outdoes them in wisdom, swift, scalpel-sharp, of a kind infrequently consorting with cleverness….
As he should be in any treatment of the Round Table, Lancelot is the hero. Straightway the reader needs one warning: here is no nineteenth-century sentimentalizing, no languishing, soft condonement of sin in the guise of "fated passion" and "great love." The men and the morals follow more...
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The men & women of Lilliput stood a good six inches in their stocking feet. Mounted on speedy rats and armored in the wing cases of beetles, they hunted mice and moles, and caught fish with horsehair…. They spoke English fluently, but after the manner (somewhat corrupted) of their 18th Century creator, Jonathan Swift. They would say: "He fell Victim to intoxication, and dismounted from his Nag to seek the Safety of the Terra Firma."
These descendants of the original (Gulliver's Travels) Lilliputians are the discovery of British Author T.H. White…. He has put them to good use in a book that is freakish fantasy from start to finish. Supposedly a children's book, [Mistress...
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William J. Grace
If "The Witch in the Wood" is not a spurious book, I shall eat my hat or seek the Questing Beast therein mentioned. That thousands may read Mr. White's new book, as they did his previous "The Sword in the Stone" is possible. Many things are possible.
The book is definitely meant to be funny. It spares no efforts in that direction. it has a toodle-oo type of humor sometimes to be found in the Englishman who has been intellectually arrested on the threshold of the sixth form. Such a person is apt to be bashful in the presence of great literature and may think it best to treat such an uncomfortable matter lightly. so he cracks a tribal joke about the masterpiece, fingers his school-tie and fails...
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Francis X. Connolly
It is difficult not to do this extraordinary book a disservice by praising it with extravagant enthusiasm. In a world which is overgenerous with its superlatives, the use of such terms as great and good may well be questioned. They should not be questioned in this case. "Mistress Masham's Repose" is a masterpiece of narration, literary ingenuity, humor and satire and Mr. White, on the basis of this book, deserves to be mentioned in the company of Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis and George Orwell as one of the few fortunate possessors of a splendid prose style.
The story itself concerns Maria, a ten-year-old orphan who lives at Malplaquet, an enormous ruin four times as large as Buckingham Palace, attended...
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["The Elephant and the Kangaroo"] is a satirical fantasy set in Ireland….
The apparatus required for this latest demonstration of White magic includes one "practical" Englishman, who looks like the author and bears his name, thinks like an encyclopedia, does oil paintings adorned with glass eyes stuck to the canvas with putty, and lives on an Irish farm; his landlord, Mikey O'Callaghan, an Irish Jeeter Lester; his landlord's wife, whose resistance to reason is a shield on which whole legions of logic are daily shattered; his dog Brownie, who feeds on glue and enjoys a game in which his master plays the role of flea. Then there are neighborhood associates, made up of a varied assortment of leftover...
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Were there a group libel law in force, it could be invoked by the Irish to put Mr. T. H. White in jail for several thousand years. In "The Elephant and the Kangaroo," Mr. White's new novel, there is enough fun poked at Eire and her inhabitants to fill an indictment longer than the St. Patrick's day parade on a mild March 17. Nothing is spared, not even Irish whiskey, not even Irish piety. Coming from an Englishman it is the sign and seal of social success….
[This is] a story which, for all the author's usual wit and skill at narrative, is pointless and rather dull. A dreamy second-rate English writer floating out of Ireland on a Dutch barn is perhaps a symbol of England herself, forced from the...
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The Times Literary Supplement
Mr. White's theme [in The Goshawk] is as old as Babylon but his allusiveness is of the twentieth century. He has the gift of words, which calls for as much effort to control as he who has it not expends in striving after expression. The book is about the training of a hawk, a very ancient art: there is still a freemasonry of falconers—austringers—scattered about the world. Yet, on putting the book down one feels that the goshawk, though central to it, has been secondary to one's enjoyment—that the tension that has held throughout the 200 pages is, one may almost say, the moral aura of this difficultly achieved rapport between civilized man and slaying bird. That Mr. White should devote himself...
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Joseph Wood Krutch
["The Goshawk"], widely hailed in England with such phrases as "a masterpiece," "unforgettably interesting," and "an ornithological 'Moby Dick,'" is certainly nature writing with a difference. Ostensibly it describes how the author undertook to train a hawk for the intricate sport of falconry. Actually it is the story of a sick soul which took this unusual method of relieving its frustrations.
Mr. White never tells us what reasons other than the prevalent ones he may have had for hating the modern world, but he is almost hysterically angry from almost the first sentence and he was obviously far beyond the point where the healing presences of any Wordsworthian primroses could do him any good....
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Henry Morton Robinson
At first glance "The Goshawk" … appears to be a day-to-day account of a curiously personal conflict between a full-grown man and a fledgling hawk. It should be stated at once, however, that this is no mere handbook; although we are introduced to the terminology and furniture of falconry, the information is rather sketchy and incidental. Nor, according to my poor lights, is T. H. White the ideal hawk-master. He quivers excessively; try though he may, he is unable to conceal an inner tumult that must have been disturbingly apparent to so sensitive a creature as "Gos."
At times we wonder why Mr. White went through the physical and emotional ordeal of training his bird. Is he courageously attempting to...
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What goes on inside Rockall? A fascinating hypothesis is supplied this week by T. H. White, in [The Master], which he himself describes as 'a simple adventure story with a suppressed moral.' I don't think most readers will want to bother very much about the moral, which is supposedly the fashionable modern one of megalomania, brainwashing and the thirst for absolute power, etc. Nor, oddly enough, does one take the adventure part of the book very breathlessly either…. The real gratification, as in T. H. White's former novels, comes from the author's personality and his mode of conveying it, a mode that seems particularly English in its assumption and corresponding avoidance of certain things—bravery,...
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The Master is an ingenious extravaganza on the borders of science fiction, satire and straight adventure. It has affinities with the Hibbert Journal and the Boy's Own Paper. It reminds me of The Tempest, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Lost Horizon with perhaps a breadth of High Wind in Jamaica. Nicky and Judy, children of a duke, land from a yacht on the island of Rockall with their dog and are first pushed into the sea, then shot at, then rescued by the Master's agents. The Master is a physicist of genius aged 157 with singular telepathic powers, and a brain so extraordinary that he has to paralyse his higher critical centres with whisky before he can get down to mundane...
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"The Master," subtitled "An Adventure Story," concerns two well-born English children held captive in a hollow rock in mid-Atlantic, where amid the sough of water and air and the whir of a helicopter a murderous antique of a scientist and his grotesque staff have devised a means to rule the world. It is one of the most beguiling and yet one of the most straightforward of Mr. White's tales; and while in some respects it is a new departure for him, it resumes firmly a career that had seemed to sink into confused dabbling.
Mr. White was born in 1906 in India of English parents, was at Cheltenham and Cambridge, was a schoolmaster at Stowe; then threw over teaching and the more solidly worked novels of...
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The Times Literary Supplement
Mr. White has now brought to a conclusion the great work which began in 1938 with the publication of The Sword in the Stone. In 1940 The Witch in the Wood and in 1941 The Ill-Made Knight, carried on the tangled story; at last The Candle in the Wind completes a crowded architectural design. The Candle in the Wind is published as the fourth book in an omnibus volume, The Once and Future King, which contains revised versions of the three previous works. The whole 300,000 words make a unity, whose tone appears now as something much deeper and more serious than a casual reading of the earlier volumes would lead the reader to suppose.
The subject of the long book...
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In a sense Time is the hero and chief victim of T. H. White's version of the Arthurian legends—Time with his scythe bent out of shape, his beard knotted and his hoary locks adorned by a dunce-cap. If in this guise he resembles old Merlin spinning round as he disappears, or scratching his head while trying to discover whether something has already happened or is about to happen—why, that is precisely how Mr. White means it to be….
In twisting the forelock of Time T. H. White is only following in the footsteps of Sir Thomas Malory, who clothed Arthur's sixth-century Welshmen in Norman armor. Taking the same liberties consciously, Mr. White introduces with malice after-thought the contemporary...
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Erwin D. Canham
Since 1939 a great many readers, this reviewer and his family included, have been earnest, indeed passionate, devotees of T. H. White's "The Sword in the Stone." That unique and utterly captivating book deals with the youth of King Arthur and the remarkable pedagogy of the magician Merlin….
Now [with The Once and Future King] Mr. White, after over two decades of work, has extended his tale into the entire Arthurian epic….
Thus England's noblest tale, the composite memories of its golden age, have been put together by an expert medievalist who is also a brilliant storyteller, a wit, a master of romance and invention. T. H. White does nothing better than his superb...
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J. R. Cameron
The recent death of the British novelist Terence Hanbury White probably passed unnoticed among the majority of readers, yet White is the major interpreter of the Arthurian legend in the twentieth century, and his book The Once and Future King possibly will endure as one of the great works of romantic fiction in English literature. It is unjust that the novel has been given so little critical acclaim, and it seems appropriate at this time to evaluate its uniqueness and significance in the evolution of the Arthurian story.
White's treatment of the Matter of Britain is a further demonstration that practically every age has found in the legend something of its own problems and conflicts. In his...
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John K. Crane
As a man, but not as a writer, T. H. White may be best compared to Ernest Hemingway. They were more than contemporaries and look-alikes; they were also remarkably close in psychological orientation. Both were big, handsome men, each extremely vital in his approach to life. Yet each was haunted by the very talent he possessed—frightened of not only sudden death but the failure of his powers through the onslaught of age. Both were fatalists, not at all sure that the masses of humanity weren't tacitly trying to destroy each other and that God wasn't in on it all behind the scenes. Both were afraid of war, though both (White not as much as Hemingway) felt they had to participate to demonstrate their ability to deal with...
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[The Book of Merlyn] was intended by the author to conclude his narrative series on King Arthur, the four books eventually brought together in The Once and Future King. It was never published. Written after the outbreak of World War II, its pacifist intention, together with the more mundane concerns of paper shortage, destroyed its chances of being printed. Texas Press discovered the manuscript in the archives of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in 1975, and so, over 35 years later, White is able, posthumously, to end his Arthurian tale as he wished, with the King, discouraged by the end of his Round Table ideal, returning to the tutelage of his childhood mentor, Merlyn, and the...
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A basic charm of The Once and Future King is the way the author threw himself into the story he borrowed from Malory. If you are looking for simple adventure, for knights and ladies in the slightly stiff poses of medieval tapestry or Gothic sculpture, you do not read White; you go to Le Morte d'Arthur, a more direct though still tertiary source. White's reworking is valuable for the myriad, living and deep reflections of the author's complex personality—in Merlyn the genial misanthrope, in Arthur the harrassed idealist who groans under the task of being an ordinary man with an extraordinary assignment, even in Guinevere and perhaps most of all in Lancelot, the good man who does grave wrong....
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Harold C. Schonberg
[Those] of us who love "The Once and Future King" are intemperate in their adoration of the book. We read it again and again, amazed at its sweep, moved by the compassion that White brought to the human condition, marveling at the grace with which he carried his scholarship, humbled at the sheer poetry of the conception….
Thus "The Book of Merlyn" was eagerly awaited. But as one reads these pages it is easy to see why White dropped most of it and ended "The Once and Future King" the way he did. His instinct was right. "The Book of Merlyn" is didactic, while "The Once and Future King" is not. Even worse; it is often immature in its reasoning, lacking the wisdom that permeates White's magnum opus....
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Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Book of Merlyn was written with the improvidence of an impulse. It holds much that is acute, disturbing, arresting, much that is brilliant, much that is moving, besides a quantity of information. But Merlyn, the main speaker, is made a mouthpiece for spleen, and the spleen is White's. His fear of the human race, which he seemed to have got the better of, had recurred, and was intensified into fury, fury against the human race, who make war and glorify it.
No jet of spleen falls on the figure of Arthur. Whenever he emerges from the torrent of instruction, he is a good character; slow to anger, willing to learn, and no fool. He is as recuperable as grass, and enjoys listening to so much good...
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[The Maharajah and Other Stories] is a uniquely charming miscellany of the supernatural, the grotesque and the beautiful. White is preeminent among that distinguished little band of English writers for whom rural pursuits, the English countryside and children are a never-diminishing lode of curiosity and fantasy. This is seen to chilling effect in "The Spanish Earl," a captivating piece of grotesquerie about a noble boy in the reign of Charles II, who lived as a well-kept dog…. Although an inevitable sameness is to be found in the collection, White's superb storytelling is an invitation to join him at the fireside for some old-fashioned but satisfying storytelling.
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White's principal subjects [in The Maharajah and Other Stories] are deformity and aberration—both physical and psychological—and the everpresent tension between the rational world with its prescribed forms and the world of elemental passions. The dilemma of a physician who is caught in this tension is skillfully portrayed in "The Maharajah." "A Sharp Attack of Something or Other" recalls the best tales of Saki in its wit and in its faintly sinister atmosphere. "Soft Voices at Passenham" is a delicately drawn but nonetheless affecting ghost story.
But at least half of the stories are not up to his standard, principally because of a failure of technique. Often White sets up an elaborate...
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