A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

The Once and Future King: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:

Sometimes, when I’m in one of my more literary-theory-centric moods, I’ll wonder whether human psychology as we know it isn’t simply a creation of the epic tradition. Think about it: ancient humans sit around a fire. One tells a story about Achilles refusing to fight in a battle until his friend is killed. Another tells a story of Achilles having a gift from the gods that only leaves him vulnerable in his heel. A third tells a story of Achilles learning of a prophecy regarding his death, and choosing a short life and eternal fame over a long life and eventual obscurity. The people around the fire hear these three stories, and create in their mind a single person who would fit all three stories, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Is it impossible that these listeners, in trying to fit a single character into three disparate stories, end up assigning him a degree of mental complexity of which they were previously unaware? And if we take it further, isn’t it possible that, in constructing this mental complexity in their heads, they became aware of their own capacity for it?

Whether it’s a cause or effect of human psychology, a surprising amount of literature seems driven by this aggregating impulse, especially stories about King Arthur. Ever since Thomas Malory wrote the Morte d’Arthur, English writers have been trying to condense centuries of French and English chivalric tales into a single coherent narrative. This is partly the result of the tales’ endurance in our culture—just last summer, King Arthur was at the center of two blockbuster movies, one of them involving Transformer robots—and partly because the variety of the source material allows you to shape the narrative almost any way you want. Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Launcelot, Gawain, and Morgan le Fay can be as honorable, as jealous, as cruel as you need them to be for the story you want to tell, and the remarkable thing about The Once and Future King, T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend, is how he combines the commonly-understood traits of these archetypes to make characters who, above all else, appear decent and sympathetic. The tragedy of Arthur, in his telling, is not about the pride of Arthur, or the jealousy of Guinevere, or the impulsiveness of Launcelot, or the anger of Gawain—it’s about how, in spite of these people all trying to do the right thing, their best intentions cannot overcome their previous errors and sins.

It’s also worth considering The Once and Future King in terms of what White leaves out. Magic is not gone from the world of Arthur, but it is pushed to the margins: Morgan le Fay only appears once, the chronologically-backward Merlin seems to be a product of science fiction as much as fantasy, and all talk of Excalibur’s special properties or the Lady in the Lake has been completely excised. This is a part of a strategy White maintains across all the books, to downplay Arthur’s image as the God-chosen king, the ultimate symbol of divine right, in favor of a version more amenable to 20th-century sensibilities: Arthur as the creator of Civil Law, the first ruler who sees his role as the protector of the weak.

Each of the four books seems to have its own tone and focus on a different part of the Arthurian tales, but White seems to find his subject around the idea of law, and its importance in regulating the relationships between humans. The legend he accordingly draws from Arthur’s story with this in mind is a fable in the best possible sense: truths about the historical nature of power, boiled down to a simplified story that maintains them. He tells us that once, the weak were abused by the strong, and then a person came along and noticed and decided to do something to change it. The story is the more poignant, and the more true, because he never quite succeeds.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in getting The Once And Future King, just follow the link below:

The Once and Future King

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This entry was posted on 22 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , .
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