by T.H. White
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King being my favorite book of all time (of all time), I’ve had its semi-sequel, The Book of Merlyn, on my list for a while. I say semi-sequel because White apparently wanted it included as the fifth and final book of his anthology, the published version of which has generally only included the first four books. You can check Wikipedia or whatever for more details, but for those of you who are unfamiliar with King, here is the breakdown:
- The Sword in the Stone–Arthur, known as the Wart, meets the wizard Merlyn, whose inept attempts to tutor the boy often turn out quit humorously.
- The Queen of Air and Darkness–The newly crowned King Arthur goes to war to secure his realm, while the Orkney boys come of age up north.
- The Ill-Made Knight–Arthur marries Guinevere, creates the Round Table by recruiting knights from all over the kingdom (including Orkney), and attempts to establish a just England. Lancelot comes to Camelot as the King’s best knight, although he kind of undermines everything by having an affair with Queen Guinevere.
- The Candle in the Wind–Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred uses the affair as a wedge between Arther, Guinevere, and Lancelot, and starts a civil war in England. The book ends on the eve of what is to be the final battle between Arthur and Mordred.
- The Book of Merlyn (published separately)–The wizard reappears and takes Arthur to a council of animals, and the group tries to decide where Arthur went wrong and whether humans are even capable of goodness.
White’s tone grows darker in each book, concurrently with the progress of World War II. The Sword in the Stone, written just before the war in Europe began, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The Candle in the Wind, by contrast, shows an Arthur who has essentially given up on peace and justice, having been forced to sentence his own wife to death and to wage successive wars against first his best friend and then his son. In the final chapter, as he prepares to do battle with Mordred, he wonders to himself whether Homo sapiens shouldn’t rather have been named Homo ferox. This is a powerfully ambiguous ending for Arthur, the idealistic youth who had become King to challenge the idea that might makes right. White leaves it up to the reader to piece together how it all went wrong.
Given what I consider to be King‘s satisfyingly open ending, only one thing matters to me as I reflect on The Book of Merlyn: Does Merlyn add anything to King, or is White’s intended ending inferior to the conclusion of what many- myself included- viewed as a complete work?
I’m a bit torn on the subject. After all, one of my favorite things about White is that he would not provide any panaceas for the problems that humanity presents. Meryln and Arthur and others would argue all day about war, but just when Merlyn considered his position beyond dispute, he would be confronted by a question which he couldn’t answer. I’ve come to see the wizard as a literary reflection of White himself, constantly grasping at straws in an attempt to form a coherent worldview. On the subject of World War II, White, through Merlyn, declares Hitler a monster, but he also expresses skepticism about engaging in even a ‘just’ war. It’s easy to imagine White hunched over a desk, pulling out his hair, despairing that he can’t make any sense of it, that he can’t say anything with any certainty.
So in Merlyn, I found it a bit frustrating that the wizard would go on and on about how terrible humanity was, and how collective property was the problem, as if White had decided that anarcho-capitalism was the only form of ‘government’ that he could accept. For one thing, this made Merlyn the most depressing of the five books, which even the characters acknowledge; Arthur, indeed, sarcastically threatens to go drown himself, bettering the world by ridding it of a single human.
But of course, The Once and Future King was also very upsetting at times; the bigger problem with Merlyn is that it undermines the ambiguity in whether King Arthur’s reign had accomplished anything at all. The council’s conclusion seems to be that no, Arthur was a complete flop.
On the other hand, Merlyn had always been kind of a windbag, always convinced that whatever new idea he had in his head would be the final word. He had seemed to be optimistic, if not entirely convinced, that making Arthur the King of England would bring peace and justice to the country. So in a way, White has come full circle, bringing the teacher and his pupil back to The Sword in the Stone, imagining yet again how they will establish a just society.
Viewing Merlyn as a bridge between from the fourth book back to the first makes sense to me in other ways, too. Merlyn includes two adventures, with Arthur transformed into an ant and then a swan, that were subsequently added into new editions of The Sword in the Stone. These experiences recall, and build on, Arthur’s childhood as the Wart, learning what he could about human nature by living as various animals. The humor of the first book also makes a return, and I again laughed out loud at Badger’s obsession with Marxism and Merlyn’s incessant windbaggery.
And if White did intend to take us back to the beginning, that makes me think that maybe he meant Merlyn to be a hopeful end note after all. Perhaps he wanted to acknowledge that yes, King Arthur may have failed, and whatever bullshit the wizard’s currently bullshitting about will probably fail as well, but that doesn’t mean it’s all pointless. On the other hand, this optimistic undercurrent is not readily apparent when reading the book, so I wonder if I’m not grasping at straws to come up with a happy-ish ending; still, I’m not completely convinced that Merlyn is a work of misanthropy, and that hope has lost out to cynicism in White’s worldview.
As to the question of whether I like the story better with or without Merlyn, I think I’d have to say without, but it’s a tougher call than I expected it to be. If you read and enjoyed The Once and Future King, you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to take a couple more hours to read the final book.