(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

T. H. White’s first five novels, one of which was written in collaboration with R. McNair Scott and two of which were concealed under the pseudonym James Aston, were all naturalistic. White wrote his first novel—They Winter Abroad—under the pseudonym Aston. This work is of some interest for the insight it offers into his youthful state of mind. Also as Aston he published his second novel, First Lesson. His first novel as White was Darkness at Pemberley. All three novels were published in 1932. The only one of White’s novels from this period that is now remembered is his nostalgic panorama of the Victorian era, Farewell Victoria; it is also the only one not solidly rooted in his own experiences.

Earth Stopped and Gone to Ground

Earth Stopped is a satiric comedy paying respectful homage to the works of English novelist Robert Smith Surtees, whose addiction to hunting, shooting, and fishing was shared by White. White’s similarly addicted friend, Siegfried Sassoon, had introduced him to a reprint of Surtees’ 1845 novel Hillingdon Hall in 1931. Sassoon’s autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) reflects sarcastically on the fact that he had been sent to a sanatorium to save him from a court-martial when he refused to return to the front after being wounded in action in 1917; his influence on White’s attitudes was profound.

Earth Stopped introduces the inept revolutionary Mr. Marx into a Surtees-like party gathered for a weekend’s sport at an English country house. The party remains blithely good humored until the final chapters, when a world war abruptly precipitated by the forces of communism and fascism breaks out, at which point “the universe split open like a pea-pod, informed by lightning but far transcending thunder.”

The story continues in Gone to Ground, in which the survivors of the house party swap tall tales while they hide from the catastrophe, taking psychological refuge in fantasy while taking physical refuge underground. Although its prophetic pretensions were supposedly impersonal, this provided an ironic metaphorical account of the subsequent shape of White’s life and career. The book ends with the conclusion of the final tale—reprinted in The Maharajah, and Other Stories as “The Black Rabbit”—in which Keeper Pan, who was the inventor of panic as well as the god of nature, asserts his ultimate dominion over the objects of human sport.

The Once and Future King

Anticipation of a new world war, which many imaginative people expected to put an end to civilization, overwhelmed English fantastic fiction in the late 1930’s. Other English writers were writing apocalyptic fantasies far more terrifying than Earth Stopped, but White decided to go in the opposite direction, becoming a connoisseur of playful escapism. The account of the boyhood and education of Arthur set out in The Sword in the Stone is as firmly rooted in personal experience as White’s earliest novels are, but it is a calculated magical transformation of the oppressions that afflicted the author and his ultimate redemption from them.

The Sword in the Stone begins with an exotic schoolroom syllabus devised for the future Sir Kay by his governess, who cannot punish her noble student but can and does take out her frustrations on his whipping boy, the Wart, who is not recognized as the future embodiment of England and the chivalric ideal until he acquires a far more inspiring tutor in Merlyn. The debt that White owed to his tutor at Cambridge and longtime correspondent L. J. Potts is acknowledged in the fact that Merlyn, whose prophetic gifts...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)