25 June 2013

Swords and Stones

All signs point to T.H. White's The Once and Future King being a lovely fantasy read in the same ilk as The Hobbit and Narnia and earlier stuff by George MacDonald. In short, early British fantasy. I want to like this book, like, so bad, but it's just not happening. I am almost through The Sword in the Stone, the first book of the collection, and it's like riding along a really bumpy, half-paved roads through someplace beautiful. The bumpy bits make you want to stop the car and hoof it, but the smooth, paved parts make for a nice time. It's not until you are completely tired of the bumpy bits that the smooth riding is no longer worth it.

You see, this book is very English. I myself have a chronic illness called anglophilia; time to time it slips into remission, but more often than not the flames are stoked and I want to retire to some quaint English village and open a pub. The fan to the flames is, of course, typically Tolkien but things started way back when I was a kid. I loved hearing English accents in movies and cartoons, loved Monty Python, loved most any English or British thing I could get my paws on. But TOAFK is painfully English. It's English in the way that Ted Nugent is American. It is, at once, quaint and fun and patriotic and simply too much.

And the animals. Goodness, the animals. I've never wanted to know so much about birds or ants or even fish, especially not badgers. It is impressive and informative, and he is very creative in how he "translates" animal behavior into human terms. But I came into this expecting an Adventure, not a little boy learning life lessons from droning ants and anarchic geese. He's a nice kid, and I'm made to understand that he will "do" some important things in his adulthood, but really...Robin Hood and castles made of food?

The Rest of the Cycle
Having survived The Sword and the Stone, I did press on for some reason and with minimal breaks. The second book of the cycle, The Queen of Air and Darkness is really two stories that interchange naturally. On the one hand is Wart, now Arthur, now King Arthur hedging in his reign of Gramarye (apparently this is the term White uses for his mythical England) and learning a thing or two about the kingdom he wants to be king of. Instead of asshole knights and barons mucking around and having wars for sport, wars in which only the unarmoured common folk are put in harms way, he wants a country about Justice and Chivalry and executes his vision by sticking it to the man. This, I like. I can get behind a stodgy, impatient Merlin hastily trying to coach his King into making his new country decent and civil and kind. Arthur also becomes a very worthy character, the kind of hero modern myths were made for; the "Northern Spirit", as Tolkien called it, with Christian values spliced in.

by Daaakota
The other of the two stories centers on the "Orkney Faction". This consists of brothers Gawaine, Gaheris, Agravaine, and Gareth, sons of some witch or other up in the north named Morgause. I like their story as well, because White does a good job of putting a seriously troubled family into both modern and medieval terms. They are constantly trying to win their mother's affections, really unsuccessfully, and this is most beautifully and horribly illustrated in their quest for the unicorn's head.

The book ends with a general description of the King's great fall: he is unwittingly seduced by Morgause, who is, in fact, his half-sister. Again, at times like these the tone shifts perfectly and carries with it tones of doom that feel truly important and scary and dark without being overtly so. It's something that a lot of these British writers do quite well and something that I wish to put into my own writings.

The last two books focus on Lancelot and Guenever. Arthur takes a back seat, being the well-established King now, and we're placed in the center of that most famous and tumultuous affair. Again, I like the stories and the writing here because they've gotten away from the droll, unending similitude of the first book, where every chapter was the same song with a different dance. The descriptions of Lancelot's struggles and the actions he takes to right himself, of Arthur's genuineness in creating and wishing the best for the Round Table, and of the arrival of Mordred can be very gut wrenching. It all climaxes with The Candle in the Wind, the shortest book, where the Orkney clan (pushed to it by Mordred, who has grown to hate his estranged father) forces Arthur into a showdown; the affair between Lancelot and Guenever can no longer be ignored and must be brought to justice. Trying to be objectively just, Arthur tiredly agrees and the result is more war and woe. In the end, Arthur is tired out and questions his life's purpose. Was all the trouble of establish rule of law and chivalry worth it, or was it just a fancy? Some real questions are posed here, made all the more unbearable as part of the reflections of old man who had fought for his whole life and done the best he could, only to have it explode in his face.

Despite its verbose qualities, and overt tangents promoting the medieval world, the long book is worth at least one read. It reinforces in us fantasy lovers that times long gone were "better", in one sense or another, and that there is a great deal to be learned from the past.

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