October 18, 2017
White's King ArthurOn 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 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."
"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'."
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:
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