Academic journal article Arthuriana

'It Is Mainly Just That They Are Irish': T.H. White's Commentary on Twentieth-Century Anglo-Irish Tensions in the Once and Future King

Academic journal article Arthuriana

'It Is Mainly Just That They Are Irish': T.H. White's Commentary on Twentieth-Century Anglo-Irish Tensions in the Once and Future King

Article excerpt

As he drafted what would become The Once and Future King, Terence Hanbury White wrote letters to Leonard James Potts and his wife, Mary. Potts acted as White's tutor during his undergraduate study in the 1920s at Queen's College, Cambridge University, where White wrote a now-lost thesis on Malory, and White and the Pottses eventually became family friends. Among other topics-both medieval and modern-the correspondents discussed how White was to work through the interpolation of his interest in Irish material and culture with his appropriation of the Arthurian legend. In his letters, White's interest and personal investment in Gaelic (as White terms it) material as it occurs throughout the tetralogy becomes evident.1 The Once and Future King is replete with material for source criticism as he lifts from, alludes to, and repurposes sources ranging from the continental medieval tradition to contemporary popular culture, the overall effect of which demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of medieval literature as well as of the social and political situations in White's Europe. Throughout the tetralogy, White alludes to the Celtic roots of the Arthurian legend as well as to other non-Arthurian, Irish material. In their final form, published in The Once and Future King, the books comprising this tetralogy do not inherently focus on Celtic concerns; instead, White concentrates more on the appropriate uses of Might and when force can be considered to be Right, developing Lancelot's psychology, and showing the doom of Camelot through Arthur's sin and Mordred's machinations. However, when read alongside his personal letters, the second book of the four-originally published as The Witch in the Wood (1939) and later as The Queen of Air and Darkness (1958)-manifests White's interest in, and critique of, Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Gaelic tensions, as well as attempting to render a fanciful medieval Irish culture (in the guise of the Orkney Islands). White uses the upbringing of the Orkney clan-the brothers Gawain, Gaheris, Agravain, and Gareth-as an opportunity for textual reappropriation of precursor texts in order to produce a criticism of early-twentieth-century English understandings of Celtic nations, and particularly-but not exclusively-of Ireland. By understanding White's uses of precursor texts, scholars might continue addressing White outside of the realm of young adult fiction and consider his Arthurian writings in a more serious, academic light, both as achievements of astute uses of medievalism and as shrewd, pacifist-driven understandings of immediately pre-World War II Europe and English colonialism in Celtic regions.

The first part of my argument briefly explores the cultural context of the relationship between England and Ireland in the 1930s and White's explanation that his experience of living in Ireland was affected by his heritage, the academic culture of Cambridge, and the tensions between England and Ireland. It is this set of circumstances that makes White's perspective on Ireland and the Irish-if we read this Arthurian reappropriation as a document reflecting a reaction to the Zeitgeist, as most retellings of Arthurian legend are-an interesting nuance in the fabric of Anglo-Irish tensions. Following this cultural examination to establish context, I will begin with a close reading of some of the more salient episodes in The Once and Future King. I will put forth an explanation of why White uses 'Gaelic' instead of 'Celtic' to describe his interests, and will discuss the social significance this descriptor held for White. My treatment ofWhite's Gaelic concerns in The Witch in the Wood./ The Queen of Air and Darkness will be twofold. First, I will consider the prologue of The Witch in the Wood that consists of an extended passage directly lifted from Malory-whom White does not acknowledge-and which concludes with two lines in Irish (also unacknowledged) from Brian Merriman's satirical aisling, Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (TheMidnight Court). …

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