T. H. White

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although Terence Hanbury White was born in India, he spent most of his adult life in the British Isles. His parents’ bitter divorce colored his childhood and contributed to lifelong emotional problems. Educated at Cheltenham College and Queen’s College, Cambridge, he taught school at Stowe Ridings, Buckinghamshire. There he began his writing career in 1930, at first publishing novels under the pseudonym James Aston. A suppressed homosexual (for which he blamed his mother), White began psychotherapy in 1935 and tried unsuccessfully to have a “normal” love life. In 1937 he resigned his teaching job to devote himself full-time to writing. His first major success was The Sword in the Stone, published in 1938. From 1938 to 1945 White, a pacifist, lived in Ireland. He returned to England after World War II to live on the tiny island of Aldernay in the English Channel.{$S[A]Aston, James;White, T. H.}

White’s greatest success was his retelling of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), which gave him financial security in 1960 after it became the basis for Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot. The four novels—The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind—with some revisions were collected under the title The Once and Future King in 1958. The Book of Merlyn, the original conclusion of White’s Arthuriad, was written during World War II and sent to White’s London publisher in 1941. Because of its pacifist theme, however, the book was rejected and only published posthumously in 1977.

In these retellings of the legends of King Arthur, White shows a vast knowledge of the Middle Ages and a keen appreciation of medieval culture. More important, he is able to make the sometimes shadowy figures of the legends vital and real, often interpreting his characters with the aid of modern psychology. In the portrayal of Morgause in The Witch in the Wood White presents a thinly disguised and bitter picture of his own mother, but the character of King Arthur is sympathetically depicted. The king becomes an almost tragic figure as he struggles, in the face of mounting opposition, to build an ideal kingdom founded on law and justice instead of on naked force.

White, known to his friends as Tim, was a lonely, often tortured but brilliant and charming man. He would combat depression sometimes with heavy drinking but more often by enthusiasm for what he called his “crazes”: he learned to fly a plane, to fish for salmon, to train hawks, to speak Gaelic, and later in life to sign the deaf alphabet and to read braille. Interested in helping individuals who were blind or deaf, he invited them for summer holidays at his home in Aldernay. On Aldernay he also formed a hopeless and unrevealed love for a twelve-year-old boy he called “Zed,” which tormented his final years. While on a Mediterranean cruise following a lecture tour of the United States (described in the posthumous America at Last ), White was found dead in...

(The entire section is 2,115 words.)