The Once and Future King, written by the English author TH White (1906-1964), is considered a classic of British fantasy-writing, and one of the best retellings of the Arthurian saga. Initially published as four separate volumes through the 1930s and ’40s, the book moves from Arthur’s carefree youth and early reign to the tragic affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, and finally to Arthur’s demise at the hands of his son Mordred. The final volume, published after White’s death, covers a reunion between Merlyn and Arthur in which the old wizard defends pacifism.
From the joy of the young Arthur’s adventures with Merlin to an older indecisive and depressed King Arthur it is a book that captures a surprisingly broad scope of human experience and emotion and is a fine example of the retelling of a classic myth. White was specifically attempting to rewrite Thomas Mallory’s sprawling fifteenth century Le Morte Darthur for a modern audience. He was well qualified to do so having written a dissertation on Mallory while at Cambridge. From a narrative perspective, the book has a modernist aspect in that, as Arthur grows, it changes from a book for children to one decidedly for adults. It is unlikely that an eight-year-old charmed by Arthur’s early adventures would understand his later depression.
White was part of the small but influential phenomenon of British writers and academics in 1930s and ’40s who adopted fantasy and the reinvention of myth in defiance of prevailing literary trends. The reasons for this varied from Christian evangelism, in the case of CS Lewis, to a desire to create a new national myth for England, in the case of JRR Tolkien, to the outpourings of the tortured mind of the talented Mervyn Peake in his macabre Gormenghast Trilogy. The use of fantasy for a larger purpose could also be extended to George Orwell’s most famous novels Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm.
The first part of the saga, The Sword and the Stone, became a successful Disney film in 1963, and the whole book was the inspiration for the Broadway musical Camelot. Unlike Lewis’s and Tolkien’s work, The Once and Future King has not been the subject of a movie franchise but elements of the book have influenced TV and movie-makers, the most notable case being John Boorman’s Excalibur. The book is still in print, but its sales are nowhere remotely near those of the Narnia or Middle Earth novels.
For all their popularity, these writers were largely scorned by the literary establishment, and in the twenty-first century readers can find much of their work problematic. Lewis’s adoption by Christians in America and the overarching religiosity of his works, means secular audiences are increasingly moving away from him. Tolkien’s enduring popularity has created perhaps a grudging respect, and the intricacies and detailed nature of his work are currently examined in many universities but he is now criticised for his one-dimensional heroes, “good vs evil” stories and for the lack of female characters (those who subscribe to this view may be surprised by the moral complexity and abundance of female characters present in his less well known The Silmarillion). Peake, for his idiosyncratic style and gothic black comedy, remains firmly outside any literary camp, though he has probably received the most critical acclaim.
In this essay I would like to at the Irish dimension to White’s work and its particular relevance in the context of Brexit and Anglo-Irish relations today. Ireland played a certain role in the lives of White’s more famous contemporaries. CS Lewis was from Belfast and was a unionist with a small u, and though he was often contemptuous of Catholic Ireland he identified as Irish his whole life. The Irish landscape was a partial inspiration for Narnia. Tolkien famously worked as an external examiner at NUIG and UCD, and as a Catholic resolutely identified with the South rather than the North. Tolkien was primarily a linguist but he showed little interest in the Irish language and Irish mythology certainly was not as an important an influence on him as northern European myths. White’s relationship with Ireland was far more political.
Much of what was to become The Once and Future King was in fact written in Ireland. White settled in Co Meath in 1939 in his early thirties as a conscientious objector and returned to England only in 1946. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considerable portions of the book are concerned with defending pacifism. White makes much out of the fact that homo sapiens is the only species which kills its members in an organised fashion. His rather defensive musing must of course be seen in the context of man who was avoiding conscription. The other great irony is that he was staunch English nationalist yet refused to defend his country when its existence was under threat. Ireland was a convenient country in which to settle for many conscientious objectors and in White’s case it was to play a major role in his fiction.
Unlike Middle Earth or Narnia, which are set in a decidedly different world, White’s saga takes place in a strange but identifiable medieval Britain. Early on, he identifies Arthur as an Anglo-Norman King fighting to build up a United Kingdom, downplaying the partial Romano-Celtic aspects or origins of the Arthurian myths. The second section, The Witch In The Wood, contains lengthy attacks on what White sees as the destructive force of nationalism. Set during Arthur’s early reign it contains much of the same charm and innocence of the first part, The Sword in The Stone, but becomes thematically more adult as it progresses. The Witch In The Wood is largely concerned with Arthur consolidating his early rule, and putting down the rebellions of powerful Gaelic lords in the north of his kingdom (Gaelic obviously has a different connotation in regard to modern Scotland and Ireland, but it is the term White decided to use). The powerful and malevolent controlling force behind these rebellions is in the Gaelic witch Morgana le Fay.
In a discussion between Arthur and Merlyn the young king fears that he is the aggressor in the situation, that the Gaelic lords have the right to resist and he has no good reason to demand their fealty. The wizard warns that Arthur should not be deceived by appearances, and that he is fighting for the greater good. Merlyn announces: “They want to smash up what we may call the United Kingdom into a lot of piffling little kingdoms of their own. That is why their reason is not what you might call a good one.” Merlyn announces that he hates nationalism, as man should unite not divide. Merlyn then claims to be Gaelic and that nationalist “politicians” denounce him as a traitor to score cheap points and to stir up hate against anyone with different views. White portrays the Gaelic rebels as a disruptive, violent and aristocratic caste that benefit from the civilising effects of Arthur’s rule. Merlyn talks of the Gaels being driven west and north, and while Arthur is technically fighting the nobility of what is now Scotland the tone and language he uses suggests that Irish nationalism was the real subject under scrutiny.
There are many reasons for this. White wrote the book in Ireland and an interest in Irish history, culture and mythology is present throughout. Elsewhere in The Witch in The Wood there are a number of references to The Táin and other specifically Irish myths. White was also writing in the context of Southern Ireland having recently secured its independence and then successfully maintaining neutrality while a recalcitrant IRA continued to target England. His estimation of that hard-won independence seems to have been that Éire or the Free State was a “piffling little” entity. Irish nationalism was clearly a more contentious and relevant topic when White was writing than Scottish nationalism, which at the time lacked any serious cohesion or power.
So far White’s characterisation of Irish nationalism as regressive and turning its back on progress and stability can be seen as a fairly traditional unionist argument. But it is perhaps with the character of Mordred, and the fall of Arthur, that White’s anti-Irish nationalist feelings reach a far more aggressive apogee.
At the closing of The Witch in the Wood, Morgana, who is Arthur’s half-sister, comes to Camelot, where she seduces Arthur, who does not know who she really is. Morgana willingly commits incest in order to blackmail the king and to have her child Mordred, whom she can influence, in line as heir to the throne. Mordred grows up as a nationalist and rejects his father’s society, and identifying rather with the Gaelic roots of his mother. A new and aggressively Gaelic or Celtic movement intent on overthrowing Arthur develops with Mordred as its leader. White is here at his most explicit saying that the modern equivalent of this force is not Scottish nationalism but the “Irish Republican Army”.
White describes this still existing aggressive nationalism as having existed for time out of mind, that it had had been perpetually killing “landlords” and striking at the established order. In very strong language he talks of “a race which had been expelled by the volcano of history into the far quarters of the globe, where with a venomous sense of grievance and inferiority, they even nowadays (the 1940s) proclaim their ancient megalomania”. It is important to note that the IRA organised a bombing campaign, largely funded by Irish-Americans, in Britain during the early years of the war. White is correct in identifying the IRA (and nearly all modern Irish nationalist movements) as receiving considerable support from the Irish diaspora, but to consider the shambolic and inept bombing campaign as an act of megalomania seems over the top and almost paranoid.
Mordred finally kills Arthur, which has considerable symbolic importance. Arthur, though a troubled and unhappy man, for White represents a type of cohesive golden age of purity. It is curious that this pure force or definition of what White regards as great about Britain is brought down by a man and movement White views as analogous to the IRA.
When I first read The Once and Future King as a teenager, I could make little sense of the Irish sections. However, I now feel that these can be placed within a strand of a particularly British form of nationalism. All shades of Irish nationalism have always cast Ireland as the victim and maintained that opposition to British governance in Ireland is both logical and ethical. But for some in Britain, Irish nationalism has always amounted to powerful conspiracy, often emanating from America as White suggests, to undermine the otherwise entirely cohesive and happy United Kingdom. The journalist Robert Peston recently announced during an interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg that Irish governments had been “undermining” Britain for over a hundred years. By this he presumably meant Irish nationalist movements as opposed to Irish governments themselves. In any case, Peston’s rhetoric would suggest that Britain and not Ireland is the victim. But the other inference, and again this would tie in with White’s views, is that Ireland is really a part of Britain, and, as one conservative MP recently remarked, should know its place.
A commonly heard refrain, particularly after the 2016 Brexit referendum, is that British people, or more particularly English people, know next to nothing about Ireland or its history but the inverse of this is that many in Britain still consider Ireland to be British. Some seemed oblivious to the Irish dimensions of Brexit, or felt Ireland leaving the EU was the logical or inevitable next step. In Britain there are many who understand Ireland has its own government but still see Irish people as essentially British and there are some who still regret the creation of the Free State and subsequent Republic. It manifests with different degrees of subtlety and intelligence. Rod Liddle, on the one extreme, has recently written, presumably with the intention to be provocative, that most Irish people would welcome a new all-Ireland political entity within the United Kingdom. Perhaps with a little more reflection, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, interestingly a fantasy fan, has described the 1916 rebels as “mutineers”, but has also written that Britain’s ham-fisted response to the 1916 Rising ultimately lost Ireland to Britain. Hannan suggests if the GPO had been starved out rather than shelled then Ireland could have evolved into a self-governing peaceful Commonwealth nation. Hannan’s terminology is curious. “Mutiny” suggests that the 1916 rebellion was an act of treason against the lawful authorities, implying that British rule in Ireland was legitimate and that the uprising was a rebellion carried out by men in arms against their own nation. Perhaps more importantly the idea that Ireland’s natural place should be in the Commonwealth is a concession that Ireland should be self-governing but that it is also fundamentally still somehow British. Any visitor to a white Commonwealth country such as Canada cannot escape noticing the prevalence of symbols of the British state in so many aspects of life.
Such sentiments are most likely to be receding, but certainly in the first half of the twentieth century they would have been more present. The vexed reaction to the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921/22 within Irish political circles, leading to a civil war, sometimes obscures how bitterly resented the creation of the Free State was by many in Britain. In this context White’s views were probably fairly representative of many in Britain.
Despite the crass use of history by Brexiteers, medieval and early modern history in Britain has a place in society that it simply does not have in Ireland. Knowledge of history in Ireland often does not look beyond the late eighteenth century and is focused on opposition to domination by Britain, but practical knowledge of the machinations of medieval and early modern Ireland, which ultimately led to that domination, is rare. Medieval or early modern figures are a considerable presence in the culture of Britain, whether in the form of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII or mythical figures like Robin Hood or King Arthur. This is true of other European societies: William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart are as well known in France as Guillaume le Conquérant and Richard Cœur de Lion (in France Robin Hood is Robin des Bois), while we have El Cid in Spain and Barbarossa in Germany. In Ireland the O’Neills, O’Donnells, MacMurroughs and Earls of Desmond, Kildare and Ormond are not really part of popular Irish culture.
For all The Once and Future King’s troubling aspects and the author’s almost messianic faith in the inevitable return of Arthur, it can be touching, sad, insightful and, at least in its early stages, very funny. But for its characterisation and take on personal relations it is also a book for the twenty-first century. White’s characters, with their inner torments, are a far cry from the heroes of Lewis and Tolkien.
White’s retelling of the Arthurian tragedy is also defined by characters with depression, alcoholism, sadomasochistic tendencies, repressed sexualities, oedipal complex, men and women obsessed with their appearance and taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. There is a particularly disturbing episode in which four children kill a unicorn. His characters also suffer from conditions that are strikingly modern, such as anxiety and panic, crises of identity and fears of body-shaming. In a world where misogyny and fear of women is increasing it seems very unpleasantly modern in this respect too.
Women are consistently negatively characterised throughout. Guinevere is portrayed as a silly, arrogant, shrill, petty and vindictive woman. On the other hand the witch Morgana le Fay is an adulterous, highly sexualised, clannish and equally vindictive woman whom White characterises as being at the root of all the misfortune in the story. Crucially, a woman locks Merlyn away in a cave too. White seems to be disgusted by women, and a sense that his orderly world of knights, castles, magic and humour in the initial sections is disrupted or almost invaded by these essentially destructive women, who only appear as the characters get older. Curiously, the first section of the book, The Sword in the Stone, where White’s vision of a perfect medieval world is most clearly articulated, has almost no female characters besides a belligerent and drunk nurse, though admittedly Maid Marion makes an appearance and seems fairly pleasant.
Fantasy literature is often criticised for lacking in seriousness and as escapist. The escapism critique is true to the extent that many readers of fantasy literature enjoy returning to their favorite volumes. Middle Earth, with its range of locations, characters and creatures remains an enjoyable world with exciting stories for its fans to return to. The same can apply to any other modern fantasists from Ursula le Guin to Robert Jordan, but then again most readers have favourite books to which they love to return regardless of genre.
I have been fascinated by The Once and Future King for years. I was enthralled by it on first reading it as a teenager, though I was rather troubled by the Irish sections. On returning to it many years later it seems to me to be a sad book written by an unhappy man with very strange ideas. It is disappointing that a book that used to be so enjoyed has a relevance for 2019 which manifests in such ultimately unpleasant and regressive forms. It is certainly not escapist.
Thomas Earls FitzGerald is a historian of modern Ireland. He is currently working on completing his first book