T.H. White, the Once and Future King, and the Scientific Method

Article excerpt

T.H. White's The Once and Future King contradicts its author's intentions as an anti-war novel. Instead, examination of the book via the scientific method reveals that White was searching for an antidote for war, not presenting one. Read this way, his findings arguably offer greater 'real-life' lessons. (JPL)

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory...I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.

General William Sherman, 1870

The American Civil War inspired a massive shiftin attitude toward warfare. The technology developed during the early 1860s allowed armies to kill more people and destroy more completely than ever before. When the Confederates reduced Fort Sumter to dust, the practice of using fortresses for defense became obsolete literally overnight. Most often, soldiers aimed this new destructive power at each other. Advances in another technology, photography, made all this available for public display all around the world. When people confronted photographs of maimed corpses and rubble, they began to rethink the necessity of war. Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, published fifteen years after Sherman's speech (referenced above), arguably gave rise to the genre of anti-war literature. This literary movement sought to dispel the glamor and heroism of war, to show its brutality, absurdity, inhumanity, and sheer destructive power and to urge readers to avoid such violent methods of conflict resolution at all costs.

The horrors of World War I and the looming threat of World War II inspired T.H. White to write the books of The Once and Future King with a similar warning; however, this piece of writing violates many expectations and lacks the clear themes readers recognize in other books of the anti-war genre, such as Catch-22, Slaughterhouse V, and The Red Badge of Courage. Reading White under the impression that he sends a mixed message, critics tend see it as the first appearance of children in Arthurian literature and classify it as children's literature. It is perhaps for this reason that The Once and Future King has not received much criticism as an anti-war novel.

Elisabeth Brewer performs one of the most comprehensive studies of White's work in her book: T.H. White's The Once and Future King. Her goal is twofold: first, to illuminate White's influences, and second, to describe the revision-history of the book. She does occasionally connect the work to war and violence, but these passages are brief, and Brewer quickly drops the subject.

Instead, she frequently juxtaposes White's book with Malory's Le Morte Darthur. She describes how White updated Malory for a twentieth-century audience, stating that he did not intend 'to make a romance of it, but rather to retell Malory's story in terms of psychological realism.'1 Brewer's psychological realism refers to a very lived-in world of Camelot; in stark contrast to the utopian idea of the 'knight in shining armor,' White's characters bear dented, bloodstained armor. Lancelot's religious dogma conflicts with his lust for Guenevere and his sadism toward other knights, which itself is his attempt to compensate for his physical deformities. Mordred aims to destroy Camelot- but only out of a legitimate grievance he bears toward his father and the love he has for his mother. He can muster an army to face Arthur because of support from Agravaine and a host of sympathizers. Characters mature as they age. They act like believable children-innocent and naïve, emulating their elders-but they also change allegiances as they enter different stages of life. Some gain wisdom; others nurture grudges. When Brewer uses the term 'psychological realism,' she refers to White's attempt to shatter the simplicity of legendary figures and allow them to act-within the limits of his skill as a writer-as though they were real people. …

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