August 16, 2005

ex liber rex quondam et rex futuris

This time around, I read The Once and Future King with a more critical eye. I still like The Sword in the Stone better than the rest of it, and prefer the standalone version of TSitS to the rest of it, but saying that the later books are not as good as the first still leaves them a lot of room to excel.

White switches gears after TSitS; that book is clearly aimed at children or possibly young adults, while the rest strikes me as more of an adult book. Those are difficult distinctions to make, especially for someone who can read Austen and Milne, Trollope and Travers with equal enjoyment. Maybe one over-simplified way to distinguish is that children-readers are still learning What is in the world, and What is the world, and should be educated by their books; young adults have learned the What and are wondering Why the world is and what it is For, and can be led by their books to ask the questions in ways that will permit them to find their own approixmations to answers; adults (some adults) know What is What but have forgotten that they ever wondered and may be led by their books to reexamine their questions and regain their wonder. By that standard, the later books are aimed at adults, while the first is for children verging on young adulthood.

(The later books' independent titles are The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and A Candle in the Wind, but I don't think anyone has read them separately since the omnibnus was published in 1958.)

I surmise that the change in tone is because White had a freer hand with TSitS, whereas in the later books he is retelling and expanding on stories told by Malory (who makes a cameo appearance in the last chapter). The extraordinary thing is that throughout all four books, both the TSitS and the other three adult books, he uses a style more common in children's books. (In fact, it's a little similar to the style Lemony Snicket uses, except that White explains not only words but characters.) While he is showing his reader the characters and their world, he pauses to tell in authorial voice exactly what he's showing: that Lancelot acts as he does because he has a purely Medieval religious view of chastity and purity, for example, or that Guinevere's contradictory actions are because she was "a real person", who can't be confined by simple labels: "Sometimes she acted one way, sometimes she acted another. She always acted like herself." And always there is Arthur in the background, lit by his dream and desperately trying to kindle a flame that will burn through England before his candle gutters.

He uses the technique not only to explain how his characters are as different from modern ones as a castle from an office building, or to peel back years to let a middle-aged reader (one who has developed the "seventh sense" of balance) recall the unsteadiness and fire of youth, but to insert comment about his own times (Merlyn's view of Hitler is especially good).

It ought to be very annoying. This is exactly the sort of telling, not showing, that authors are warned against. It ought to be grating enough to make the reader want to throw the book across the room. In lesser books, it is. Maybe it is in this book, for some people. For me, though, it's only charming. It deepens the characters and does wake my wonder. Maybe the cozy charm is because for me that wonder was so closely tied to the English books I lived in as a child, or maybe it's related to what Matociquala said about J.K. Rowling, and it doesn't matter what White does wrong, because of all he does right. (Oh, dear. I typed that first as "... all he does write." Ouch.)

I don't know, but now I want to go reread The Sword in the Stone, the better version where Margan Le Fay's castle is made of candy instead of lard, and The Book of Merlyn, which is really a book of old age, as well as of (appropriately, considering what book I picked up after TOaFK) freedom and necessity. And then I want to walk through a castle and work out, as White says any sensible person would, which were the granaries and which the armory, where the barbicans were and where the lord and his family lived.

Posted by dichroic at August 16, 2005 01:44 PM

I read TOaFK in high school, long before I had any patience with fantasy and legend. I don't remember disliking it, but obviously I wasn't fetched with it either. If I had been it would be on my cycle of re-reads. There's a copy around (somewhere! eep!) and I'm curious to see if after 25 years of mental growth and a moderate delve into Arthur and Authorian type fantasy whether the book will fetch me this time. Will read and report back. Thanks for the spark. ~LA

Posted by: LA at August 16, 2005 05:37 PM
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