Terence Hanbury White was one of the founding fathers of fantasy in the twentieth century, producing nearly twenty-five novels, including the beloved modern Arthurian retelling, The Once and Future King. Still, much of T.H. White’s life remains a mystery and there has been little scholarship on his work. This gap stands in contrast to the Inklings, where, especially in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, there is a large and robust field of scholarly works. While White’s Arthuriad has not invited scholars and biographers in the way that Lewis’ Narniad and Tolkien’s Middle-earth has done — and despite the fact that he does not have seem to have met the Inklings in person — T.H. White’s life intersected with the Inklings in intriguing ways.
Born in 1906 – 8 years after C.S. Lewis – White died in 1964, outliving Lewis by less than six months. Like Lewis, he disliked his given name – White’s friends called him Tim, Lewis’ friends called him Jack. Like Lewis, his childhood included traumatic English boarding school experiences and family tragedy – White’s parents separated when he was young, and in a 1939 journal entry he compared his manipulative mother to an incubus. At least two Inklings knew his work: Tolkien and Lewis both had copies of The Sword in the Stone, and while Lewis disparaged it in a 1940 letter, seven years later he wrote to White saying he loved Mistress Masham’s Repose and invited White to the Inklings if he ever visited Oxford. White read at least one of Lewis’ books, reviewing Till We Have Faces for Time and Tide in 1956 (The Fellowship 450).
The Once and Future King, has often often been compared to the Inklings’ work as a seminal fantasy text. Jack Walter Lambert’s 1958 review of The Fellowship of the Ring for the Sunday Times compared it to The Sword in the Stone (The Fellowship 423). In his 1973 study Imaginary Worlds, Lin Carter called White one of “the modern masters of British fantasy” (94), predating Lewis’ fantasy works by a few years. Locus Magazine’s 1987 poll of great fantasy novels listed The Lord of the Rings as #1, The Hobbit as #2, The Once and Future King as #6, and The Chronicles of Narnia as #26. Today, White’s work has impacted writers like J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman and Helen McDonald.
However, there hasn’t been much recent scholarship on White. There is only one biography, written in 1967 by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Three book-length studies on White were published between 1970 and 1995: T.H. White by John K. Crane, T.H. White and the Matter of Britain by Martin Kellman and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King by Elisabeth Brewer. A new study appeared in 2007: T.H. White’s Troubled Heart by Kurth Sprague, a posthumously published dissertation from 1978. Lesser known books have appeared here and there – Edwin Mellen Press published an essay collection on White and a study of White and Malory in 2008 – and various theses can be found online, although many appear to be from the 1980s.
Results are only slightly better if you search open access journals on the Inklings and Arthurian topics. As of August 2021, Mythlore’s archive lists 3-4 articles on White, all written in the 1990s. Discounting excerpts from Sprague’s book, JSTOR lists fewer than 10 articles on White since 2000. MUSE Open Access lists one French essay from 2017, Mallorn lists 4 pieces (none of them focusing on White), and Inklings Forever has a 2004 essay on Narnia and pedagogy… which makes an offhand reference to White. The most complete online resource on White appears to be England Have My Bones, highlighted by The Guardian in 2006… but barely updated since the 1990s. Compare this to the mountains of books, documentaries, studies, and online communities devoted to the Inklings, and it’s a staggering gap. As Lev Grossman commented in 2010,
“I often wonder why White isn’t considered one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy, the way Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are. Perhaps one day, in the future, he will be.”
I’d like to consider some reasons why T.H. White’s work has been understudied. This article will build on ideas presented by Brenton Dickieson on Tolkien versus Lewis scholarship, considering how popular perception and good scholarship affect academic work.
Finding an Entry Point
Writing about an author’s work is easier with a definitive version of the work. Yes, alternate versions – such as The Hobbit’s first edition, where Gollum willingly bets his ring in the riddle game and Bilbo wins it – create cool side trails to study. However, scholars have the best chance to create a body of scholarship when they all work from a complete, definitive text.
- The Sword in the Stone (first published 1938)
- The Witch in the Wood (first published 1939)
- The Ill-Made Knight (first published 1940)
- The Candle in the Wind (first published 1958)
- The Book of Merlyn (first published 1977)
White wrote all five books before 1942, but didn’t release The Candle in the Wind until he combined the first four into The Once and Future King in 1958. This four-in-one book is the text most readers know, and has significant changes from the standalone versions. Instead of containing The Witch in the Wood, it contains a rewritten version titled The Queen of Air and Darkness. The Once and Future King didn’t include The Book of Merlyn, which publishers rejected years earlier for its anti-war message. However, White worked two scenes from The Book of Merlyn into the 1958 version of The Sword in the Stone. The University of Texas acquired The Book of Merlyn with the rest of White’s archives after his death, and published it in 1977. Since then, at least one edition has combined all five books. White also revised The Sword in the Stone for the first American edition, removing scenes that the publisher objected to – most notably, Arthur accompanying Robin Hood to hunt cannibals.
These changes make it hard to do a definitive study on The Once and Future. As Brewer writes, “its protean nature constantly eludes all efforts to define, categorise, or evaluate” (T.H. White’s Once and Future King vi). Imagine if Tolkien had published the three installments of The Lord of the Rings, re-edited The Fellowship of the Ring twice, radically changed all three installments for the complete book… and then after Tolkien died, his estate published an unused sequel. Studying The Once and Future King requires scholars committed to not just seeing how the story changed in draft form, but also in published form over almost 40 years.
Debatable Scholarship Models
In his Tolkien versus Lewis scholarship series, Brenton Dickieson described the impact that Christopher Tolkien’s work had on Tolkien studies:
“It was scholarship that bred scholarship, modelling good practices (many that he had to make up as he went along) while giving ample space for future readers and researchers to come along after him.”
A central problem with studying White is there hasn’t been a Christopher Tolkien (or for that matter, a Walter Hooper) figure to model good scholarship. In fact, the two most influential White scholars have been sharply criticized.
The first notable scholar is Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote T.H. White: A Biography. Warner was a prolific poet and novelist, but this was her first and only biography. Richard Orwam, director of the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center which holds White’s letters and other papers, said this about Warner’s research:
“Correspondence accompanying the letters indicates that the letters were made available to White’s biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner, although she made no use of the materials. Although Warner’s portrait of White has served well for forty years, few would disagree that there is a compelling need for more biographical research on this complex and often enigmatic personality” (T.H. White’s Troubled Heart, pg. xi-xii).
On its release, Warner’s biography garnered sharp responses for claiming that White was homosexual, an assessment that some of White’s friends agreed with. Julie Andrews (who met White through playing Guinevere in Camelot) wrote in her memoir Home, “I believe Tim may have been an unfulfilled homosexual, and he suffered a lot because of it.” White’s literary agent David Higham was less convinced, arguing that like his client Dorothy Sayers, White was “maligned by a posthumous biographer, though this time out of innocence” (Literary Gent 212) compared to Janet Hitchman’s Sayers biography. Higham describes White as crushed by a romantic relationship with a younger woman that ended after World War II, “indeed, I think he never got over it” (Higham 213). Higham goes on to say this about White’s later romances:
“Tim’s distress led him to odd vagaries, which included bouts of drinking… But he was still set towards woman, still, too, towards girls much too young for him to marry, unless a miracle should happen. No miracle did: all he achieved was an affair or two. He did have affairs: I knew of at least one of these while it was going on and indeed, when I knew that the biography was in train, I got in touch with that girl, too, and asked whether she would mind standing up to be counted. She agreed to do that. I gave the biographer her address, so that she could get in touch on her own with someone so important in Tim’s story. But she never, [Warner] told me, took that step. So she was able to present Tim in such a light that a reviewer could call him a raging homosexual. Perhaps a heterosexual affair would have made her blush” (Literary Gent by David Higham, 213).
Obviously, questions about an author’s sexuality are inherently hard to verify. Still, Warner not using White’s letters in her research and allegedly ignoring evidence contradicting her claims raises questions about her accuracy. Today, her book still has admirers, but a mixed reputation. A 2014 article in The Paris Review praised its writing style, while admitting its thoughts on White’s sexuality are speculative. Lev Grossman’s 2010 NPR piece on T.H. White states,
“there is only one half-decent biography of him, and it was written in 1967.”
The second notable scholar is Kurth Sprague, who wrote T.H. White’s Troubled Heart and edited two collections of White’s work: the poetry collection A Joy Proposed (1980) and the short story collection The Maharajah and Other Stories (1981). The Mahajarah has some admirers, but at least one major detractor. In the Hugo Award-winning Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute points out that Sprague collected many of the short stories from Gone to Ground, White’s 1935 novel that uses a frame narrative to weave short stories into a cohesive plot. Clute notes that Sprague reprinted these stories “without any source being cited – all hints of the Frame Story were carefully excised, and individual titles were supplied for each item.” Clute is harsher in the companion volume The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, stating that Sprague reprinted the stories “without acknowledging his actions, eliminated the author’s linking material (amounting to at least fifty pages of narrative) while substituting his own story titles for White’s arrangement by chapter, invisibly stripping these tales of their intended context and hoped-for impact.”
Thus, a key problem with White scholarship is that previous work hasn’t produced the best models to work from. There has been excellent work, but also questionable work that needs to be reconsidered.
Dickieson argues in his first Tolkien versus Lewis scholarship post that Tolkien scholarship has benefitted from several “creative breaks,” events that allowed scholars to develop the field in important ways. The first creative break was that
“Tolkien’s popularity after the publication of The Lord of the Rings was explosive. From ‘Frodo Lives’ movements to local societies, the commitment of Tolkien readers has been clear.”
Writing in 1975, just a few years after the American counterculture made The Lord of the Rings a bestseller, Colin N. Manlove suggests why this demographic embraced Tolkien: “the trilogy came just when disillusionment among the American young at the Vietnam War and the state of their own country was at a peak. Tolkien’s fantasy offered an image of the kind of rural conservationist ideal or escape for which they were looking” (Modern Fantasy 157). Jane Ciabattari’s 2014 BBC article “Hobbits and hippies: Tolkien and the counterculture” goes further:
“Middle Earth was a literary escape hatch for a generation haunted by the Vietnam War and the atomic bomb, a return to simple living. Many felt the experience of reading the text itself is akin to an acid trip… Also appealing to the burgeoning anti-war, feminist and civil rights movement activists was Tolkien’s political subtext of the ‘little people’, the Hobbits, and their wizard ally, leading a revolution. The military industrial complex targeted by protestors resembled Mordor in its mechanised, impersonal approach to an unpopular war. When he is drafted into bearing the Ring to Mount Doom, Frodo feels an ‘overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace… in Rivendell.’ Those who led the fight against Sauron’s army stood reluctantly, hoping this would be the ‘War to End All Wars.’”
While one can certainly see these connections, in many ways The Once and Future King is closer to counterculture ideals than The Lord of the Rings. White wrote most of the series during World War II, which he had conflicted feelings on. After The Sword in the Stone was published, White wrote a letter explaining he believed “the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war” (Letters to a Friend 117-118), and his tale would bring that theme to new audiences. The Queen of Air and Darkness is full of Merlin and Arthur debating whether Might is Right, how to create a feudal system that minimizes war. The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind describe the Round Table as a way to direct knights from bloodshed to noble causes. The Book of Merlyn shows Arthur discussing his failures with Merlin and some talking animals he met in the first book; together they debate why of all animal species, the human species has such violent capacities.
In short, The Once and Future King depicts war as waste, which should have made it perfect material for the counterculture; however, it wasn’t “discovered” the way that The Lord of the Rings was. This could be because The Book of Merlyn wasn’t published until 1977, when the Vietnam War was over and many counterculture elements were wrapping up. Another reason may be that while The Once and Future King shares the counterculture’s hatred of war, it’s not a story about “tuning out of the system.” White’s King Arthur doesn’t quit his kingdom to start a commune: he tries to clean the system from inside.
It’s common knowledge that a movie based on a book can lead many to discover the book for the first time. However, the adaptation’s quality is also an important factor. Dickieson argues that while Disney’s Narnia films had their moments, they were not great films and didn’t get attract new scholars to Narnia the way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy did. He calls Jackson’s trilogy the fourth creative break, which
“inspired a generation of new Tolkien scholars to put their minds and hearts to the task of thinking resonantly about Tolkien, the worlds he made, and the worlds he inspired. Young adults, especially, watched the films, bought the books, and read or reread with new eyes.”
Well-made adaptations can draw readers to the original story, creating new scholars along the way. Mediocre adaptations generally don’t have the same effect. This is an important point to consider with The Once and Future King, which has two notable adaptations: the 1963 Disney movie The Sword in the Stone and the .
Disney’s The Sword in the Stone got mixed reviews at the time, and even today feels like a minor effort. It’s enjoyable but not incredible, especially compared to Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty – another medieval fantasy film, released just four years earlier. Cynics may describe it as a runner-up to the “Disney Dark Ages,” that era of flawed filmmaking from Walt Disney’s 1966 death until The Little Mermaid started the Disney Renaissance in 1989. Camelot had White’s input and more success, but can’t be called a great adaptation of The Once and Future King, for two reasons.
First, turning White’s story into a musical meant it couldn’t be a close adaptation. Four books worth of plot had to be condensed into something fitting theatre time constraints. Original songs had to be added, and the plot structured for easy transitions into songs and dances. Adaptation always changes things, but Camelot is less adaptation and more transformation. It starts with White’s ideas and evolves into a different entity. Thus, it doesn’t introduce audiences to The Once and Future King: it introduces them to its own vision.
Second, Camelot was never an acclaimed show. The original production did well commercially, but an article in Playbill states the reviews were mixed and the show almost failed until The Ed Sullivan Show raised its profile. When award season came, it won Tonys for its actors and music, not the plot. According to a 1993 New York Times article, new appreciation for the music is the primary reason that critics are kinder today. The 1967 movie Camelot left much to be desired, and its best moments (such as Arthur verbally fencing with Mordred in his throne room) are dialogue from the play rather than White’s books. Today, when Camelot plays to audiences, critics often view it as fun but old-fashioned. Reviewing a 2015 production, Christopher Arnott wrote, “what was once a rousing modern medieval allegory now seems staid and old-world.” Camelot clearly connects with people, but more as a fan favorite than as an acclaimed classic like West Side Story. Equally importantly, its primary appeal is its music, not the material from White’s books. Therefore, at least in this discussion’s context, it doesn’t qualify as a great adaptation.
Because White’s work hasn’t been adapted well yet, his work hasn’t gained the creative break that Tolkien’s work has. However, that may change soon: Disney announced plans in 2015 for a live action remake of The Sword in the Stone, still being developed as of June 2021.
Having considered challenges to analyzing T.H. White, it’s worth looking at some advantages. Here are some areas waiting for new scholars to explore:
White’s life. As mentioned above, there hasn’t been a new biography of T.H. White in over sixty years. Given the difficulties mentioned with Warner’s biography, it’s high time for fresh eyes to consider White’s complicated and adventurous life.
White’s minor works. White was a prolific author, and The Once and Future King is the tip of his output. Orwam writes that the University of Texas’ White archives “include manuscript materials for 108 novels, short stories, articles, poems, and other works” and “along with the novelist’s manuscripts, the Ransom Center owns more than 400 volumes, quite a few of them heavily annotated, from White’s library” (Sprague xi, xii). Even scholars who can’t visit the White archives can use recently reprinted works (such as The Goshawk). Researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom researchers have a particular advantage, where White’s works have entered the public domain and many are available as ebooks.
White’s influence on contemporary fantasy. One of the more bizarre moments in White scholarship came in the 2000s, when journalists accused J.K. Rowling of plagiarizing Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic. Gaiman denied these allegations, noting the similarities seemed to go back to The Sword in the Stone and perhaps “we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” Despite this interesting opportunity, there hasn’t been much written on White and Rowling, other than connections made between Arthur and Harry, Merlin and Dumbledore. The same is true of studies on White and Gaiman, and many other contemporary writers influenced by White.
Arthurian mythology. Brewer describes White’s interest in telling the Arthuriad while “bringing out its mythic power” (19), and much has been written about the Inklings’ interest in mythology and Arthurian literature. The recent publication of The Inklings and the Matter of Britain (plus a 2018 Signum University class on the subject) makes it even easier to consider these writers in that context.
Fantasy and warfare. The Once and Future King presents a complicated view of war, contemplating the role of force in defeating evil. Lewis and Tolkien, both World War I veterans who knew the dangers of bloodlust, also explored this idea, albeit in different terms and reaching different conclusions than White. It’s also worth noting that all three men wrote fantasy/science fiction exploring this subject during World War II: White wrote The Once and Future King, Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy, and Tolkien was drafting The Lord of the Rings during that period.
Medievalism. Even though he wasn’t a professional medieval scholar like Lewis or Tolkien, White studied the period, both for his Arthurian work and as a passion project. His primary academic contribution is The Book of Beasts, his translation of a medieval bestiary.
Nature and “the old ways.” Brewer notes that The Sword in the Stone shows a passion for trees that White shared with Tolkien (39-40). The same book shows nostalgia for pre-Industrial England, and Sprague highlights White’s “love of the past and refusal to have much truck with the present” (66). This description could apply to Lewis, whose love for the medieval period extended beyond his studies.
Humor. Like Lewis, White wrote humorous works as well as fantasy, and one could argue that both men’s status as fantasists has overshadowed their considerable comedic skills.
Art. Like Tolkien, White illustrated some of his stories – the University of Texas archives contain
“twenty-four oil paintings, twelve charcoal and pen and ink sketches for [White’s play] Macbeth the Knife, and thirty-two other pencil, ink, charcoal, and pastel drawings” (Sprague xi).
Given that much has been said about Tolkien as a writer, less about him as an illustrator, it would be interesting to see how their art compares.
This guest blog by G. Connor Salter is in some ways a response to the earlier series of pieces called “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?” (see parts 1, 2, and 3, and Connor’s own follow up piece here). Connor holds a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University, and works as a journalist in Colorado. As a freelance writer, he has published over 300 book reviews, primarily for The Evangelical Church Library Association. He presented an essay on C.S. Lewis and Terence Fisher at Taylor University’s 2018 Making Literature Conference, and released his first audio short story series, Tapes from the Crawlspace, in 2020.