T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, published in 1958, has the distinction of being a work from which not one but two movies have been made. Walt Disney adapted the animated cartoon The Sword in the Stone from the first book of White’s tetralogy, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe freely selected material from it for their musical success, Camelot. But despite the popularity of The Once and Future King, it was not until 1975 that the extent of White’s plan for the work was rediscovered: The Once and Future King, as White wrote it, was composed not of four parts, but of five. The Book of Merlyn is the fifth part, the conclusion to that work.
A prologue by the British novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner outlines the ironic history of The Book of Merlyn and its thirty-three-year disappearance. Apparently White had no ending firmly in mind when he began his retelling of the Arthurian legend, yet historical forces were already in action that would lead him to a conclusion. He completed the first book of the story, The Sword in the Stone, in 1938. The book was immediately successful both in England and America, but White’s enjoyment was diminished because his mind, like those of most Englishmen, was fixed on Hitler’s threat to the peace of Europe. Although Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement bought a temporary respite from war fears, it was clear to many, including White, that a conflict of monstrous proportions was inevitable.
In January 1939, while working on The Witch in the Wood, the second book in the series, White accepted an invitation to spend some time in Ireland. His diary reveals the turmoil in which he found himself in 1939: at one moment he planned to become a conscientious objector, at another to enlist in the armed forces, at still another to seek some kind of defense work. In a revealing comment to a friend he wrote of his hatred for war and his judgment that he would find being a coward more endurable than being a hero.
The fighting had already begun when White started work on the third part of his theme, The Ill-Made Knight, which he finished quickly. By November of 1940, he was well into the fourth part, The Candle in the Wind, and out of his fear of war and his fervent pacifism an idea for the conclusion of the whole series was beginning to take shape. The end of The Candle in the Wind depicts Arthur on the night before the battle with Mordred, his nephew and son. The old king has seen the failure of all his plans to civilize his people and bring peace to the realm; his life has been spent in vain. But with this picture of Arthur in mind, White devised a new ending for his story, one that seemed appropriate not only for Arthur’s times but also for his own.
White came to see the whole Arthurian legend as a search for a means of preventing war, and decided to organize his five-part work around that theme. In the fifth and concluding book, he would have Merlyn return to Arthur on the eve of the last battle, and bring the despondent king to the committee of animals who had helped guide his education as a youth. Placing the main part of the final book in a badger’s den had two advantages for White: first, the book would end as it had begun, emphasizing man as a part of nature, not as something above and separate from it. Second, and more important, the badger’s den provided White with an apt setting for an examination of man as a political animal.
Any discussion of the nature of man, given what was occurring in Europe at that time, was bound to be profoundly pessimistic, and White’s discussion is no exception. We must make allowances for the sincerity of the author’s pacifism; it seems heartfelt and profound. But after that allowance is made, there remains the nagging thought that The Book of Merlyn is in part self-justification for White’s departure from England. This thought arises from the air of unreality that hangs over White’s endeavors in 1940-1941. No Englishman needed to have the horrors of war preached to him while the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies over his head. Anyone in the streets of London was much more keenly aware of and involved in man’s brutality to man than was White, sheltered in the safety of Ireland. What could the author realistically hope to accomplish with an antiwar novel when a German invasion was expected at any time? The answers to questions like this will have to await a complete biography of T. H. White.
If we do not now have that biography, at least we have all of The Once and Future King as White intended it to be, and no future discussions of the story will be complete without taking The Book of Merlyn into account.
If The Book of Merlyn would not bring peace to England, and White could not reasonably expect that, at least its arguments could bring peace to his mind. Having decided on the theme of the story as a whole, White realized that some early parts would need to be rewritten. The revisions, together with the manuscripts for The Candle in the Wind and The Book of Merlyn, went to the...
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