The Once and Future Masterpiece
By Don L. Tiggre
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
The Once and Future King is T. H. White's classic and "authoritative" version of the saga of King Arthur. It is a work composed of five books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, The Candle in the Wind, and The Book of Merlyn. The first book may be the most well known, its story having been popularized by a Disney animated film, among other things. The last may be the least well known, having been left out of a single edition combining the other four, due to a paper shortage during World War Two.
Perhaps it is because someone told me that TOAFK is a classic that I waited more than a decade before reading it. Even after having bought a copy containing the first four books -- they still sell it that way, even though I think the war is over -- I still let it sit on my shelf for several years before bothering to open it... Life!
What a mistake that was!!!
The book is simply wonderful! With all due respect for El Neil's long overdue trouncing of Swords & Sorcery fiction, I wish everyone would read this book and see what White is really trying to say... which has precious little to do with swords or sorcery. With this in mind, perhaps I should qualify my endorsement by saying that if you need a book that reads like a Schwartzenager movie, TOAFK will put you to sleep. If, on the other hand, you think you might enjoy something warm, humorous, tragic, and brutally honest with the grandeur and failures of human beings, then this book will put a spell on you.
However, pure wonder and enjoyment of a truly marvelous tale is not enough reason for me to bring this work to the attention of TLE readers. Nor even Merlyn's casual description of himself as an anarchist (as, he says, any sensible person ought to be) is enough to merit this highlighting.
My reason is that the true subject matter of the saga is not of a great king, nor of love triangles and betrayal, nor even of a great war, as I had expected. The Once and Future King is about the immorality and self-destructive nature of institutionalized force in society.
One of my favorite passages in all five books is an absolutely hilarious scene in which Merlyn whisks the young Arthur off to see knights tilting against each other. Instead of the glorious battle the boy is expecting, we witness the knights illustrating the lunacy of institutionalized aggression.
At a time when brutality reigned supreme and the highest law of the land was that Might Makes Right, Merlyn plays Arthur as a pawn in an experiment. The experiment? To try to alter or abolish the law of brutality. Hence, Arthur's code of chivalry and his Law & Order crew at the Round Table represent, not an increase in violence against the people by the state, but an attempt to set a body of law between the naked aggression of the state and the people. The motto of the knights of the Round Table was Might For Right.
In my view, T. H. White's concept of "Might" is very similar to what I'd call institutionalized aggression; systematic and accepted initiation of the use of force as the normal means of solving problems in society. This curse is still with us. We usually call it "government," but that is not its only manifestation.
Given all the individual acts of barbarism detailed in the story, one might suspect that White was simply railing against all aggression, but I do not see it this way. White is fully cognizant of the capacity for evil in all of us and his attack is more focused. In his version, even King Arthur has a black past, having committed mass infanticide and actually earning Mordred's enmity.
Look at the fifth book, The Book of Merlyn. Almost all of it is devoted to an absolutely merciless examination of the human animal. The conclusion? Man is selfish and often acts with incredible stupidity, but he manages to create greatness and beauty such as no other animal on earth. The moral? Rather than try to make man live by rules that only work for angels, and rather than breaking him or caging him, we should accept him. We should try to create social systems in which force is minimized, so man's greatness can apply itself productively.
This is the key that keeps White from being a utopian, in my view. He recognizes that individual acts of brutality will always be with us, so he concentrated on the brutality that can be eliminated: the institutions of aggression.
Arthur's Round table -- Merlyn's experiment -- was a brilliant innovation, doomed to failure. Not doomed because of some silly curse, nor because Guenever was sneaking around with Lancelot, nor even because Mordred hated his father. The round table was doomed to failure because it attempted to control Might (institutionalized aggression) instead of eliminating it.
Arthur simply lacked the ability to imagine that Might could be completely done away with...not until he was dying and his repeated failures to control it left him with no alternative.
Tragic as this may seem for an ending, I find it to be almost painfully hopeful. In leaving us, Arthur tells us that he will return. He will come again with a new Round Table, this one bent on completely eradicating Might from society. The cat is out of the bag; Might can be beaten!
Now there is a fantasy I can pour my heart into!!!
This book has appeared in several editions, the original works being copyrighted over fifty years ago. The one I have here is a Berkley book, printed in 1967. It contains the first four books only and is 639 pages long. I'm not sure what the new ones are like, but I've not seen all five books bound in a single volume anywhere.
"Don L. Tiggre is a grant-writer and a would-be author of fiction. He lives with his three sons, who teach him daily lessons in effective ways to resist tyranny. Having just barely survived 16 years of 'education', Mr. Tiggre is doing his best to study the human animal in it's natural habitats."
Pallas, the new sci-fi adventure novel by L. Neil Smith is out in paperback from Tor. Is there room for a socialist utopia on an individualist asteroid?
Now available at good bookstores everywhere!
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