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.
When it comes to The Once and Future King, this isn’t easy. The series began as five books:
- 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.
The Power of Adaptation: Another Creative Break
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.
I just recently read The Once and Future King and was blown away by how good it is! I wondered why I didn’t read it sooner. Makes me want to read Le Morte d’Arthur again, but I love White’s adaptation of it, with the voicing, the anachronisms, the satire; and his characterization is so vivid. Definitely on the level of Lewis and Tolkien, though in a different way. I agree that it should be more widely studied, as it has already achieved name recognition status. Great article!
I’m sure Connor will be pleased by your response! My reason for not finishing it was the word “Sword” in “Sword in the Stone.” The silent “W” haunted me as a child and I had to take the book back to the library.
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That’s hilarious! Though I will say, it’s not too late to read it now. 🙂
So true! I did get to bits of it, but it’s time to face that silent W head on.
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I seem to remember the ‘w’ sometimes being pronounced in the songs of the symphonic fantasy metal band, Rhapsody of Fire – though they were not attempting a reconstructed mediaeval authentic pronunciation. (Finding a copy of their Symphony Of Enchanted Lands II album and seeing that Sir Chrisopher Lee was involved launched us on our further life of metal appreciation!)
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It’s too bad that someone didn’t explain the derivation of the word to you; it might have calmed your child mind to know its Germanic root as Schwert – it would have mine, anyhow 🙂
I read The Once and Future King when I was in ninth grade, I believe – one of those books I read when I was too young to understand what it was trying to say. There’s a part of me – lasting through way too much of the course of my life – that has been interested in reading certain “great” literary works or viewing certain “great” works of art in order to simply check off that I had done so. In my immaturity, I expected the meaning of that great art to somehow fall into my head; I wasn’t taught that I had to both do the work to understand the art, and also step back, get myself out of the way, and take it on its own terms, as Lewis wrote.
At the same time, it’s interesting how the Arthurian material comes to the fore at different times in the English-speaking world’s history. It was intriguing to me from when I first read about it as a child. When I was six and seven, I really enjoyed Lang’s Fairy Books; not sure if I learned it from those, or somewhere else, but it was at that general time in my life. When I re-read any of the Space Trilogy, it’s usually THS. I need to read the book on the Inklings and Arthurian legend. So many good books…
Hi Dana, apparently my note to you did not save. Yes, I think I was a strange enough child that the explanation would have helped. In my mind, I asked my parents and they send me to “w” in the encyclopedia, but I did not read the whole entry. And I asked my teacher, and she told me that Protestants ask too many questions, and upon telling her I was not Protestant, the conversation fell apart. But I think neither of those things happened and TH White fell to my side.
So many good books! And I love the books hidden in the books we read.
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I read White’s Once and Future King in college. Enjoyed it, but (for my personal tastes) Arthurianism passed oversaturation long ago. My only current interest in the subject relates to its historic foundations (e.g. Romano-British resistance to the Anglo-Saxons).
In response to Salter’s question about why White’s corpus has not inspired enthusiasm similar to those of the Inklings… might I be so bold as to suggest it’s due to his personal atheism/agnosticism?
The Christian faith of Tolkien and even more so Lewis, weaves its way through their fiction, as well as their nonfiction. I cannot imagine that I am the only reader attracted to those who share my worldview–especially when we reside in a modern world which reviles it.
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You make an interesting point about the worldview difference – believe it or not, the Huntington Post has an article on White that makes that distinction (https://www.google.com/amp/s/m.huffpost.com/us/entry/488284/amp). The strange thing is that while White doesn’t weave Christian ideas throughout his series, especially in the book of Merlin, he seems to be swerving between secular and Christian ideas – a secular view of humans as animals, but a sense of charity and hope that doesn’t make sense in a godless context. You could read The Once and Future King as a “via negativa” argument for Christianity.
I suppose if we’re talking about whether agnostic/atheist writers don’t inspire enthusiasm, we have to consider why H.P. Lovecraft is so popular. His stories have a clear, consistent atheism, and he may be the single 20th-century fantasy/horror writer whose popularity rivals Tolkien (factoring in how many movies, games, etc. emulate Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos).
Thank you for giving us food for thought.
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The line that jumped out at me most strongly from TOaFK was the ants’ motto “Anything not forbidden is compulsory.” It’s stuck in my head ever since because I also read it in a quantum-mechanics textbook. Does anyone know if it’s original with White?
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It shows up in The Book Of Merlyn, which White wrote in 1940-1941, later he moved the scene into TOaFK. A similar phrase (“Anything not compulsory was forbidden”) appears in a Robert Heinlein novella “Coventry,” which appeared in the July 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?57508). Someone will have to establish whether White and Heinlein were borrowing from an earlier source, or if White knew Heinlein’s work. The phrase is mostly famously used in a 1956 physics paper “The interpretation of the new particles as displaced charge multiplets” by Murray Gell-Mann. Helge Kragh claims it’s rooted in “the priniciple of plenitude,” which goes all the way back to Plato (https://arxiv.org/abs/1907.04623).
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That sounds authoritative. Heinlein loved writing aphorisms like that. Thanks!
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It – and its opposite (‘all that is not permitted is forbidden’) – have a proverbial existence in Dutch, though how they arrived at that, I do not know… the Dutch are great readers and translators of English fantasy and science fiction, and have a strong tradition in Physics…
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This is a powerful, probing and provocative discussion, G. Connor Salter, and I commend Brenton for hosting it. Your case — cases — for the critical neglect of T.H. White must be accepted. Well done! We should, indeed, hope for a new thorough scholarly biography of White. Also, for a scholarly variorum edition of “The Once and Future King” that compiles all variants, with margin-alternatives for minor variations. This should include all of White’s available illustrations for this magnum opus. (I have in mind, as examples, the way “The Hobbit” has been reissued with detailed annotations, and further revised, as well as the way the first drafts of “The Hobbit” have been published — in TWO volumes! — with much critical analysis and apparatus.)
With both a new White biography, and a definitive variorum edition in hand — when? — if? — fresh critical and scholarly work can build on these necessary foundations, along with further exploration of White’s other work, novels, stories, poetry, essays, and non-fiction (such as his attempt to rear and train a goshawk).
Before reading your essay, G. Connor Salter (I would like to address you by your given name, or in academic citation fashion, by your family name, but cannot tell if this is “Salter” or “Connor Salter”: the American convention of compounding family names can be tricky, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane), I would have argued two related points that I think contribute to T.H. White’s neglect.
First, based on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography, what stood out about White’s homosexuality was his ex-male-boarding-school enjoyment of sex with boys. As I recall, he was sacked from a school teaching job because of accusations about this. And Warner (or should that be Townsend Warner?) reports White travelling in Italy after World War II, staying with Italian families, and being asked by the boys in one of the families, not to bugger them again. Pedophilia is always appalling, but in the era of Warner’s biography, it did not set off the same strident alarm bells it does now. (William Mayne, a prolific, prize-winning and powerful English children’s author had his literary reputation dashed when, in his last years, he pleaded guilty to having had sex years earlier with an underage child, and then served a prison sentence. Mayne never wrote again. His books are in danger of being thoughtlessly discarded because readers fail to separate the flawed man from the man’s works. But perhaps that is another story, …)
Your case for a new thorough biography is powerful!
Second, in my experience, popularity of a work tends to send critics and academics away. There is no doubt that Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” was a poor effort, even at the level of visual realisation. The Disney animator’s version of Madam Mim is laughable, not terrifying. Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” may usefully be compared with Disney’s later, darker, animated feature film version of Lloyd Alexander’s “The Black Cauldron”, part of his remarkable “Chronicles of Prydain”, loosely based on “The Mabinogion” of Wales, a sequence of fantasy novels that might be collectively referred to as the “Taraniad”. (But, again, perhaps the neglect of Lloyd Alexander is another matter, despite the later popularity of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence of fantasy novels that also draws on Welsh mythology, plus elements of Arthur.)
Similarly, whatever the weaknesses of “Camelot”, on stage, or on screen, or on LP, its popularity at the time was remarkable. Critics shun popularity. If a work is popular, it must be something that appeals to common taste, and quite simply cannot be “Quality Literature” deserving to be taken seriously. (Judy Blume, as a critically scorned best-seller, may be considered as an American case in point, or Enid Blyton, or W.E. Johns, in Britain.)
Moreover, related to this, the existence of a major film version of a book tends to erase people’s interest in the book. Why spend, perhaps, twelve or more hours reading “The Once and Future King” when you can whizz through “The Sword in the Stone” animated film, and Hollywood’s “Camelot” in three hours, plus pop corn?
Finally, one point you did not touch on, but that is made clear in Warner’s biography, is that White felt drawn to retell Malory’s “Arthur” because White recognised that, after “The Sword in the Stone” turns “Wart” into “Arthur”, everything that follows, leading to the catastrophe of Launcelot and Guinevere and Mordred and Arthur, grows from incest between Arthur and Morgan le Fay. White saw the whole action, the driving narrative core, as a kind of Classic Greek tragedy of (divine) persecution and punishment for an early outrage, such as Oedipus marrying his mother.
Why don’t YOU write the biography we need? And compile the variorum edition as a companion piece?
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Thank you very much for your thoughts, John. I will try to answer the questions you brought up as briefly as possible, since I don’t want to hog the comment sections:
1. I do think concerns about White’s sex life have put people off from studying him. However, it’s hard to say how much of that comes from Warner’s descriptions – so we’re back to the problem that without going back to primary sources and doing a new assessment, it’s hard to say what he was sexually interested in, what’s verifiable and what was hearsay. As far as the sacking goes, Brewer and Sprague both use Warner’s book as a resource, and both mention White being sacked from a teaching job. They describe him as being fired because the headmaster didn’t think White took his job seriously, not due to anything sexual (Brewer 5, Sprague 15-16). They do mention White was assigned to transport two expelled boys back to London after they were found sleeping in the same bed, the boys said they were up late talking about buses and trains (Brewer 5-6, Sprague 16).
2. I agree that critics and scholars can be put off by what’s popular. However, Dickieson’s point is that great movie adaptations get new people interested in a story, some of them become scholars and go back to the books. The fact that movies seem easier isn’t that big of a problem, since scholarly work is niche anyway and scholarly types enjoy getting deep into a subject. Not everyone who sees Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood becomes a Macbeth fan, but it certainly gets some people interested in checking out Macbeth for the first time, and some of them become more than fans.
3. I actually thought about bringing up how White emphasizes Mordred’s incestuous origins, but I wasn’t sure if that was unique. You get the same plot points in Malory, and even writers who downplay the Oedipal elements talk about the other messy tragedy (Lancelot and Guinevere). So, it felt like saying a Romeo and Juliet movie has a really sad ending.
4. I might enjoy writing a T.H. White biography, but I don’t have the academic credentials yet for that kind of project. I’ve also spent the last 3ish years on obscure academic projects that have been very expensive, so I have to wrap those up before I can commit to anything larger.
5. I would really, really love to see someone put together a variorum edition of The Once and Future King.
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This has convinced me to finally dig up a copy of The Once and Future King.
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yep, me too!
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Thank you for this! In my youth, I enjoyed the Disney cartoon and the Camelot movie and the Laurel-Leaf paperback edition of The Sword in the Stone (1963 original? – or later reprint?) – but am not sure just when or in what order, though I feel confident that I was aware of the relations of both films (and the musical – of which I had a paperback of the text) to White as source. I think it was a long time before I realized that The Once and Future King did not include the whole text of The Sword in the Stone, and do not recall being aware that the U.S. text of The Sword in the Stone was revised from the U.K. one until reading this post! From whenever I learned of the earlier independent publications of Thw Witch in the Wood and The Ill-Made Knight, I have been meaning to read them – and somehow never yet doing so (!). White’s Bestiary – acquired as a teenager 49 years ago come next Sunday – is an enduring delight to which I refer frequently (as, to see what it has about centaurs, when reading Brenton’s recent post).
With Time and Tide and David Higham we have two more Inklings contacts – both Williams and Lewis contributed to the former (I’m not sure about Tolkien) and the latter was Williams’s literary agent as well. I see from Wikipedia that there are some Inklings adaptation connections as well – Michael Hordern played Merlyn in a BBC radio play of The Sword in the Stone after having played Gandalf in the BBC radio Lord of the Rings, and Brian Sibley dramatized The Once and Future King for BBC radio some 30+ years after dramatizing The Lord of the Rings for them.
Also thanks to Wikipedia, I see “The BBC broadcast a six-part radio dramatisation in 1939, with incidental music by Benjamin Britten. It was revived in 1952, following re-discovery of Britten’s score after it had been thought lost” and that it used in the BBC radio play with Michael Hordern – and there appear to be various selections on YouTube (including from wind-band arrangments!), among which:
Tom Shippey interestingly includes White in his paper “Tolkien as a Post-War Writer” as published in Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon, May 1992, Turku Finland, ed. K.J. Battarbee, Anglicana Turkuensia No 12 (University of Turku, 1993), calling The Once and Future King “less unquestioned as a landmark” of the period than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, together with his Animal Farm and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, “but still a work whose importance and popularity has grown steadily” (p. 218).
It is interesting that White effectively (whether consciously or not) follows Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and Jones’s In Parenthesis and precedes Williams’s Region of the Summer Stars in making his own original and striking adaptive use of matter from the mediaeval story of Taliesin and related poetry.
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Well done, David. There are many valuable connections here, linking White, and the King Arthur stories, to Inklings and others. I was delighted to see you mention David Jones’ remarkable “In Parenthesis”, an account of his involvement as a foot soldier in the Royal Welch (that’s how it is, or was, spelled, by tradition) regiment during a disastrous attack on Mametz Wood during the Somme campaign of 1916, mixed with the epic fragment “Y Gdoddin” by Taliesin, an account of a raid by Welsh soldiers on Catterick, a former Roman barracks town in north England. Also John Masefield’s “The Midnight Folk” (one of two books, at least, about very mysterious doings in England and beyond, and a major influence on Susan Cooper and her “Dark is Rising” sequence.) Masefield was a powerful fantasy writer, even when ostensibly writing for children!
Another reason that T.H. White may be neglected, and especially “The Once and Future King”, is that his magnum opus is a retelling of traditional material in the public domain that many others have also used, especially after White. We see the same happening with translations and retellings of Homer. Which retelling stands out? Which can when there is an endless sequel of them. Pope’s version of Homer? The Cohen brother’s “O Brother Where are You?”, James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, etc.
The Matter of Britain is large, and White is just one of the modern contributors:
Roger Lancelyn Green’s children’s version of King Arthur, I have suggested, is close to definitive. Then there are the historical variations, such as Rosemary Sutcliff’s versions (for adults, and for young readers) of Artos as a post-Roman “dux bellorem” (war leader), “Sword at Sunset”, and Bernard Cornwells’ much more recent retellings.
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Hoping to reply properly before too long, I’ll just say, I enjoy this reading of David Jones’s play with some of that mysterious poetry attributed to Taliesin, and thought others familiar or unfamilar with it might, as well!:
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The moment when Lancelot kills Gareth in his rescue of Guinevere in the Brian Sibley dramatisation is one that will never leave me. Thank you for the reminder.
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The Sword in The Stone was in my primary school library along with The 101 Dalmatians. I read and re-read both of them for pure joy. Lewis was also a discovery then. Tolkien came later.
I loved the optimistic spirit of The Sword in The Stone and most especially the relationship between Arthur (the Wart) and Merlin. I identified intensely with the young Arthur. The loss of hope in the later volumes meant that I never loved them in the same way.
The connection that Neil Gaiman makes between JK Rowling and TH White works for me. Rowling’s novels arrived in perfect time for my children and we read them together. I was as much drawn to the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore as I had been between Arthur and Merlin. Those boys and their longings still live in me.
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Excellent, thanks Stephen! I must admit to being fascinated about the sword in the stone concept, the magic-physics of it, the legend, and as a child, the wonder of “who may it be?” Apparently, I had messianic pretensions!
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I think that we all long to be chosen.
It’s why I am a teacher, so that I can help students find their particular place in the world.
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Searching around a bit on YouTube, I encountered a couple uploads of a March 1973 BBC radio dramatization of White’s 1932 mystery novel apparently set partly in Cambridge and partly in a location famous from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Darkness at Pemberley.
I also encountered a film directed by the late David Cobham based on White’s 1951 book, The Goshawk.
And I see that both books are among those transcribed online at fadedpage.
Things to look forward to in the near future…
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I read and enjoyed “The Once and Future King” as a child but it didn’t grab me the same way as Narnia and Middle Earth did. I think it was just too weird in many ways.
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Following up on Tom Shippey’s inclusion of White in his list of fantasy authors traumatized by war, I did manage to get a paper on T.H. White for my 2015 collection, Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. A short but quite interesting article — and there is much more to be said.
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Thanks for this, Janet, I have this collection in Kindle form. I read a couple of pieces back in June. A helpful tip.
I have no been able to read Janet Croft’s “Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I”. But the title raises two questions. How is “fantastic” defined? And, surely there are major examples of British “fantasy” that appeared before World War I. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, for example, spring to mind. George Macdonald wrote important fantasy works for adults, and others for children. “The Wind in the Willows” and “Peter Pan” are pre-WW I. So are Kipling’s “Puck” and “Jungle” books. Edith Nesbit had the Psammead and Phoenix. Mabel Dearmer had the Cockyolly Bird. Bram Stoker created the world of “Dracula”. Mark Twain sent that Connecticut Yankee back to Camelot. Rider Haggard’s “She” has many elements of fantasy / supernatural. (Again, this raises the question of definition.) I’m sure there are other important pre-WW I British works of fantasy I have not mentioned.
I’ve uploaded the introduction to Baptism of Fire to my Academia page so you can see why I focused on that period and those authors. While of course there was a long tradition of British fantasy and science fiction before WWI, the war marked a break that leads me to call this MODERN British fantasy. https://www.academia.edu/13801851/Baptism_of_Fire_The_Birth_of_the_Modern_British_Fantastic_in_World_War_I
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To let you know that Handheld Press (www.handheldpress.co.uk) will be republishing Warner’s biography of White in January 2023. The marketing for that will begin around summer 2022, so you’ll see information and a preorder page by August 2022.
This is good to know, Kate. Thank you! It is also always good to know that an out-of-print book will be re-issued, somehow.
But in the light of the discussion, here, about T.H. White’s complicated life, and the possibly compromised use of biographical data that resulted in Sylvia Townsend Warner;s biography of White, and uncertainty about the various iterations of his magnum opus, “The Once and Future King”, I think we would also hope for a NEW biography of White, and a variorum edition of his major work.
Serendipitously, I picked up a copy of H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald for my lunchtime reading, and suddenly there’s T.H. White all over the place. He wrote a book called The Goshawk, an account of his attempt to tame one of these hard-to-tame birds. Chapters three and four seem to have the most to say, but looking at the notes, it appears he will continue to be present throughout.
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Thanks for this addition to the discussion, Janet. White seems to invite more and more attention.
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Interesting- I recently read White’s book on the 18th Century -The Age of Scandal” which I found brilliant. Apparently he taught at Stowe- that engaging Public School where George Melly had been an eccentric pupil.
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Thanks for the note and reblog!
I once read an online ONCE AND FUTURE KING article that I wished I had saved. It set out to prove that the earliest versions of the stories that were eventually collected in THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING – or was it the earliest collection itself? – were far more in the spirit of chivalric tradition than White’s later text revisions. Can anybody point me to that essay, or just such a one?
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Hopefully someone here can point you in the right direction!
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Thank you, Connor. Thoroughly informative and insightful. Thanks to this and your recent comments at the Inkling Folk Fellowship, I’m eagerly waiting to read Mistress Masham’s Repose, The Midnight Folk, and The Box of Delights soon.