Arthurian legend has its roots in pre-Christian Welsh mythology. By the Middle Ages, Arthur and his knights of the Round Table were well known across Europe. Arthur was ranked prominently in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1137), and his court was celebrated in the French and German epic poetry of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The definitive British narrative did not appear until the fifteenth century, when Thomas Caxton printed Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
In Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenever, White discerned a timeless nobility. He imbued his heroes with his own doubts, his self-perceived sadism, and his concern for a just and peaceful social order. A conscientious objector, White avoided conscription but brooded over the spread of Nazism. Impending war made Arthur an attractive subject; the “future king” was, after all, prophesied to return in England’s time of need. C. S. Lewis, in ThatHideous Strength (1945), chose a variation in which Merlin returns to save England. The long shadow of World War II, which only began to fade near the end of the twentieth century, inspired many apocalyptic visions in literature, and such works frequently ring with Arthurian overtones. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) owes much to Arthurian legend, including a king of obscure though royal birth, a prophetic sword, and a wizard. These motifs, as well as the quasi-medieval settings of many fantasy novels, almost define a subgenre of fantasy literature.
The Sword in the Stone was for White a wishful reenactment of childhood, full of haymaking and hawking; long, brave nights in the forest; and magic. Far from the somber, druidical Merlins of other versions of the Arthurian legend such as Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (1970-1979), White’s wizard is a dithering bundle of anachronisms; he is comic and ridiculous but wise. The ghastly opening of The Witch in the Wood, in which Queen Morgause idly boils a cat while her young sons recount the rape of “Granny” by Uther, was a sharp departure from the lightheartedness of the earlier work. In Morgause and her sons, White contrasts the loveless and arbitrary rearing of the Orkneys with the relatively idyllic orphanhood of Arthur. Isolation and ethnic pride, neglect, and ignorance are at the root of Britain’s fragmented and violent social order.
Although the project began with White’s psychological analysis of Le Morte d’Arthur, it is only in The Ill-Made Knight that White began to borrow heavily from Malory. Far from the image of perfect masculine beauty that has usually defined Lancelot, White’s best knight is a human gargoyle, a misogynist with a weak mind and a streak of cruelty. As a misogynist himself, White was at first stumped by Lancelot’s foil, Guenever. The contrast between Arthur’s sorceress sister and his Christian wife has been played upon since the Middle Ages. Marion Zimmer Bradley in fact refocused the entire Arthurian legend on the epic’s women in The Mists of Avalon (1982). For White, too, it seemed necessary that Guenever should be a more substantial character than Malory’s shrewish, adulterous queen, but of an entirely different mold from Morgause, particularly because Lancelot loved her. The Guenever that emerged is unencumbered by Pre-Raphaelite charms or feminist platforms, an ordinary woman in an oversized role. Pity is the root of Lancelot’s love. White’s queen is tenacious and loyal despite her petulance and jealousy; she is also intelligent and thoroughly pragmatic.
White, who nearly converted to Roman Catholicism while writing his Arthur books, treats religion warily but respectfully. Unlike Tolkien or Lewis, for whom good and evil were clearly...
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defined, White sensed that the “moral” thing was not necessarily the “right” thing. Lancelot’s son Galahad achieves the sinless perfection his father strives for, and though he seems scarcely human and is thoroughly unlovable, he finds the Grail. In contrast, Lancelot blunders through his moral dilemmas. When Lancelot heals Sir Urre’s hexed wounds, he knows that the “miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle.” White sees the Grail Quest as a horrible failure, destroying or demoralizing Arthur’s knights. When Mordred appears at court, the Round Table is already set to crumble.
With the hasty conclusion of The Book of Merlyn, White returned to England to involve himself in its defense, though England ultimately found him more use-ful as a writer. His only other notable work of fantasy, Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), a satire about a community of Lilliputians and their struggle to remain unexploited in the modern world, was written while he was still composing his Arthur books. White continued to publish to popular and critical acclaim, but none of his other works met with the enduring popularity of The Once and Future King.