The Once and Future King
by t. h. white
penguin galaxy, 736 pages, $30

Terence Hanbury White died aboard ship in the port of Piraeus in 1964 on his way back from the United States, where he had been hoping to shore up his income with a lecture tour. His secretary found him alone in his cabin, and the English novelist was buried far from his countrymen at the Protestant cemetery in Athens, in view of the Temple of Zeus. Years earlier, the author of The Once and Future King had written in his diary, “I expect to make rather a good death. The essence of death is loneliness, and I have made good practice of it.”

Loneliness and melancholy, and the fear that inspires them, were the great themes of White’s fiction, and of his life. As his biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner once put it, “Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.”

White was born in Bombay in 1906, where his father, Garrick, was a superintendent in the colonial police force. His mother, Constance White, was a great beauty who had made a show of rejecting every suitor who came her way; one day, in defiance of her mother’s teasing, she declared flatly that she would marry the next one regardless of who he was, and it was Garrick. After the birth of their first and only child, she refused sexual intercourse to Garrick, who beat her. Constance was cold and unloving except to her small dogs, whom her husband, by then a severe alcoholic, periodically shot. The Whites were once found by a relation standing beside their son’s cot engaged in a tug-of-war over a pistol; each wanted to murder the other and then commit suicide. This passage from an abandoned autobiography is typical of White’s reminiscences of childhood:

My father made me a wooden castle big enough to get into, and he fixed real pistol barrels beneath its battlements to fire a salute on my birthday, but made me sit in front the first night—that deep Indian night—to receive the salute, and I, believing I was to be shot, cried.

When he went abroad to public school at Cheltenham in the Cotswolds, he was regularly caned and molested by sadistic prefects “after evening prayers.” White tells us in another autobiographical fragment that “I used to pray madly every night (or it seemed like every night): ‘Please God, don’t let me be beaten tonight.’”

In 1925, he went to Queens’ College, Cambridge, to read English. There he was a great favorite of his tutor, L. J. Potts, a lifelong friend who raised money among the dons to send White to Italy when he was stricken with tuberculosis. After his return, he was awarded a first-class degree, published his first book of poems, and took up a series of teaching posts. With Potts’s help, he soon became head of the English department at the newly formed Stowe School in Buckinghamshire; his students there remembered him as a dapper, intelligent, and sympathetic teacher, albeit one capable of severity and even of cruelty. “This proves you don’t understand your own language,” he told one boy who struggled to construe Donne’s “Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day.”

During the weekends at Stowe, White shot, fished, hunted, and tore up country roads in his black Bentley like Mr. Toad. When an edited version of his diaries, England Have My Bones, became a bestseller in 1936, he leapt at his publisher’s offer of a £200 advance for a yearly book and resigned. He moved to a gamekeeper’s cottage and reverted to what he called “a feral state,” which involved, among other things, using medieval falconry manuals to train birds of prey in the art of capturing his food for him. Two years later, he wrote to Potts to announce that he had completed a new novel:

Do you remember I once wrote a thesis on the Morte D’Arthur? Naturally I did not read Malory when writing the thesis on him, but one time last autumn I got desperate among my books and picked him up in lack of anything else.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this chance reading changed the course of his life forever. The book in question, The Sword in the Stone, was the first volume in what was to become a tetralogy of very loose adaptations from Malory (its author referred to it as “a preface”). The rest of his career—the other work for which he is most remembered, his bizarre, occasionally moving falconry memoir The Goshawk, had already been written—was spent attending to this fourteenth-century romance, a “perfect tragedy” populated with real “glorious people—not pre-raphaelite prigs.”

These last two phrases are applicable to White’s own work, which has been saddled—unfairly, to my mind—with the label of genre fiction. The Once and Future King has just been reissued in a reasonably attractive deluxe hardback edition as part of Penguin’s Galaxy series of modern science fiction and fantasy novels. I am not sure this masterpiece of English fiction has much of anything to do with the sort of novels that began to appear after the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1955. The tetralogy’s reputation as a fantasy rests mainly, I think, on the first volume, the only one that continues to be published separately from the rest of the cycle. If The Sword in the Stone owes anything to fantasy, it is to the tradition as practiced by Kenneth Grahame, an author White revered, not Tolkien. Its plot, like that of The Wind in the Willows, is incidental, not epic; the tone is winsome and nostalgic. There is even a wise talking badger.

But there is no all-encompassing quasi-Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness in The Once and Future King, only the goodness and badness of sinful men and women who tell lies and fornicate and commit murder and fear being alone and unloved and thought ugly. The setting, so far from being imaginary, is White’s own England, lovingly described; there are no fauns or goblins, and only one unicorn. The few characters who might be described as heroic—Galahad, Bors, Percivale, and, by the end, Lancelot—do not save the world from the machinations of a sorcerer-villain or secure some magical artifact for the safekeeping of the benevolent powers; they become saints.

The Once and Future King is, like the Morte D’Arthur, a tragedy—the tragedy of the king’s naivete, of Guenever’s jealousy, of Lancelot’s spiritual pride, and of Mordred’s abandonment. It is also what some critics call an “encyclopedic novel,” at once a fictional distillation of a civilization—in this case, that of medieval Britain, or at least a vision of it—complete with the arcana of various subjects (in this case, medieval warfare, falconry, heraldry, hagiography, psalters, scholasticism, and so on) that you expect from Pynchon and DeLillo, and the highly individual vision of a writer who is using Malory’s vast romance as a springboard for his own imagination. White does not simply present Malory’s romance as an allegory for the ills of his age, though he recognizes its relevance, much less as a panacea for his own afflictions in any sense other than the humble one in which all polite literature is a welcome respite from terrestrial agonies.

The Once and Future King is one of only a handful of first-rate novels in which the metaphysical claims of the Catholic Church are taken at face value. White, with his anachronistic jokes (Malory himself is teased for having been “a passionate follower of tournaments—like one of those old gentlemen who nowadays frequent the cricket pavilion at Lord’s”), is at the same time more and less serious than any follower of that first fantasist, Lord Dunsany, could hope to be. Lancelot works miracles; Galahad, Bors, and Percivale see the Holy Grail and enter into the beatific vision; mortal sin besmirches souls, and its stain is removed by confession, absolution, and penance. Few of the novel’s readers will be surprised to learn that in 1939, White, boarding with an Irish family, mad with fear of impending war and in the grip of drunkenness, came very close to seeking reception into the Church.

How anyone ever got it into his head that the cycle is appropriate for children is beyond me, the Disney adaptation of The Sword in the Stone notwithstanding. When we first meet Queen Morgause, the half-sister who will seduce Arthur with a charm made from a “long ribbon” of human flesh, she is ritually sacrificing a cat to preserve her beauty. She will die hundreds of pages later at the hand of her son Agravaine, who has “curious feelings about her, which he [keeps] to himself,” slain in a fit of jealousy when she is discovered in bed with a knight young enough to be her grandson. It is not facile to suggest that only a man with White’s inclinations toward sadomasochism—for which he blamed the memories of the Cheltenham prefects—and love of animals could have written the encounters with the vicious Sir Bruce Saunce Pité, who flogs women before raping them and chopping off their heads, and the kindly Sir Pellinore, who fears for the health of the Questing Beast, the barking part-lion, part-leopard monster he has technically vowed to slay.

We also see in the feelings of White’s characters a reflection of his ambiguous attitude toward people in general. Arthur, who ultimately rejects God (“Advising heaven to earth was useless”), likes them and wants to make their lives simpler and easier in the here and now. For the novel’s real hero, Lancelot, at his worst anyway, they are little more than a near occasion of sin: “I have been away in strange and desert places, sometimes quite alone, sometimes in a boat with nobody but God and the whistling sea,” he tells Arthur after his failure with the Grail. “Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt I was going mad? Not from the sea, but from the people. All my gains are slipping away.”

Much of the book’s charm lies in White’s dry, not quite ironical style. “God-distributing bishops” administer the sacrament to Arthur’s knights; churchmen speak Latin “at such a speed that the rafters rang with genitive plurals.” The novel is full, too, of wonderful throwaway observations about human nature (“Lancelot shrugged his shoulders—one of the stupidest things to do when the other party wants to have a fight”). But there are also many scenes of extraordinary beauty. “A battle of flowers” is the best description of a Pontifical High Mass I have ever read. There has never been anything half as lovely written about waterfowl of the family Anatidae as Lancelot’s words about seeing “geese on the islands—long smoke lines of them singing like hounds in the cold streak of morning” as he sails to the Grail island.

It is a shame that The Once and Future King has again been reprinted minus White’s intended final volume, The Book of Merlyn, first published posthumously in 1977, which should at least be tacked on as an appendix. There we see Arthur, on the eve of his final battle with Mordred, experience a kind of Piers Plowman–like dream vision in which he is reunited with his old teacher and the talking animals of his youth. More important, Lancelot’s story is given a much fuller conclusion:

When his own death-hour came, it was accompanied by visions in the monastery. The old abbot dreamed of bells sounding most beautifully, and of angels, with happy laughter, hauling Lancelot to Heaven. They found him dead in his cell, in the act of accomplishing the third and last of his miracles. For he had died in what was called the Odour of Sanctity. When saints die, their bodies fill the room with lovely scent: perhaps of new hay, or a blossom in the spring, or of the clean sea-shore.

Whatever this is, I would not call it fantasy. The genre’s enthusiasts and exegetes, whose fists I can already hear thumping away at the door, will say that theirs is a house of many mansions, with ample room for Tolkien’s wan pastiche of Beowulf, Stephen King’s Woodstock apocalypse in The Stand, and everything in between, including White’s peculiar take on Britain. It is essentially a negative category, one with baked-in rationalist assumptions: If we all admit that it couldn’t have happened, it’s fantasy. Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to the present edition, helps to clear things up, no doubt unintentionally, by labeling the novel an example of “speculative fiction,” a genre whose special presuppositions I have never been able to understand. All fiction is a matter of speculation. “Suppose these people were real and this is what happened to them” is every novelist’s starting point. Lancelot’s death is not the impossible fantasy of another world but the achievable end of life in this one.

Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.