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The Queen of Air and Darkness) and The Ill-Made Knight (1940), were later revised and combined with the previously unpublished The Candle in the Wind to form The Once and Future King.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.)