http://www.todayinliterature.com

December 16, 2017

White's King Arthur

On this day in 1938, T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone was published. This was the first volume in the eventual quartet of books published as The Once and Future King, White's version of Sir Thomas Malory's version of the King Arthur legends. The book was very popular, and when Lerner and Lowe purchased the last three books of the series to make their version -- Camelot (1960) -- White became, for a time, a wealthy man. The success of Camelot motivated Walt Disney to finally make his cartoon version of The Sword in the Stone, the rights to which he had purchased back in 1939; this came out in 1964, the year before White died suddenly at the age of fifty-seven.

Though mindful of the quest archetypes, The Sword in the Stone takes its own wandering, anachronistic and quirky path through Arthurian legend, often suggesting Monty Python more than Malory (or Julie Andrews, who eventually became a close friend of White's). When we meet the good Sir Grummore Grummursum, he is relaxing over a glass or two of port after a hard day being noble:
    Sir Ector said, "Had a good quest today?"
    Sir Grummore said, "Oh, not so bad. Rattlin' good day, in fact. Found a chap called Sir Bruce Saunce Pite choppin' off a maiden's head in Weedon Bushes, ran him to Mixbury Plantation in the Bicester, where he doubled back, and lost him in Wicken Wood. Must have been a good twenty-five miles as he ran."
Over more port, Sir Ector and Sir Grummore get on to how the knights-to-be have it too easy these days, need more hawkin' and less Summulae Logicales. Sir Grummore wonders if a spell at Eton might not sharpen the lads up, though the school is a fair hike:
    "Isn't so much the distance," said Sir Ector, "but that giant What's-'is-name is in the way. Have to pass through his country, you understand."
    "What is his name?"
    "Can't recollect it at the moment, not for the life of me. Fellow that lives by the Burbly Water."
    "Galapas," said Sir Grummore.
    "That's the very chap."
    "The only other thing, said Sir Grummore, "is to have a tutor."
    "You mean a fellow who teaches you," said Sir Ector wisely.
    "That's it," said Sir Grummore. "A tutor, you know, a fellow who teaches you."
    "Have some more port," said Sir Ector. "You need it after all this questin'."
Advertising having been ruled out, a quest in search of a tutor is the only option, and Sir Ector ties a knot in his handkerchief to so remind himself.

White wrote two dozen books, on a wide range of subjects. All accounts of him portray a quirky, reclusive man, one who fluctuated between treating life as a lark and a disaster. His journals and letters reveal troubles over homosexuality and alcoholism, and a consuming passion for animals. When his Irish Setter died he stayed up for two nights with the corpse, visited the grave twice a day for the next week, and then went on a nine-day bender; the depth of despair recorded in his journal makes almost unbearable reading. On the lark side is this journal entry of August 5th, 1938, the day on which he found out that The Sword and the Stone was sure to be a hit in America:
    First of all the old 1927 Austin finally broke down halfway to Buckingham. It boiled over, all the wheels fell off, the hood fell in, and I left it in the middle of the road. I walked to the New Inn Farm and rang up London to hear that the American Book Club had chosen The Sword and the Stone after all . . . . I bought a Jaguar on the spot, had it in my possession by the evening, and will be off to Wales tomorrow.

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble