Hic Jacet Arturus Rex Quondam Rex Que Futurus

Rebecca kept recommending The Once and Future King to me, and I finally ordered it on paperbackswap. I read it slowly, because I wanted to savor it. Most of you have read Arthurian romances. I’ve read a lot. I’ve read lots of Malory (but not the whole Morte D’Arthur) and the Pre-Raphaelites, who were obsessed, esp. William Morris. What makes T.H. White’s account better than all of the above is his approachability. Lancelot, instead of being handsome, is something of a gargoyle in this book. Guenever is gorgeous, of course, and Arthur isn’t a dimwit who’s had one put over on him. According to the introduction to The Book of Merlyn, White tried very hard not to be misogynistic towards G. It does perhaps show. If you want an idea of how this book reads, think Edith Hamilton and her gorgeous prose that summons your childhood and the magic you believed in, the way you tread Indian style on the leaves to be as quiet as a hobbit.

One of the things that delighted me about this was the fact that maybe a month ago I was on a Mark Twain kick. I read everything we had of his, including a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which was amusing at the time but fairly dismal. Merlin was a wretched impotent with illusions of grandeur and people were stupid. Of course there was no magic. So I sighed when Wart (young Arthur) encountered King Pellinore in the forest, searching for the Questing Beast and tangled in his brachet. I thought I knew that King Pellinore was a nut job and that there was no Questing Beast, or, if there was, that it was likely to be a boar that he believed was enchanted to look like a boar (see Twain). But there really was a Questing Beast! The first clue was the fewmets (droppings of a beast pursued). I was bewildered and the first glimmer of hope appeared. What I love about this book is that there’s magic in it. Magic and honor and beauty and the incipient dawn of chivalry.

It seriously kept me on the edge of my seat. When Morgause appeared at court, daughter of the King of Cornwall in all her black-haired beauty, I was horrified. I wanted to warn Arthur. But he begat Mordred and his sin came back to him. I loved reading the humanistic accounts of Sir Bors and other knights that I’ve read about in Morris. They’ve got faces now. The second time that Elaine tricked Lancelot into sleeping with her (how does that even work??) I had to put the book down, I was white-faced and trembling. But one thing that White does well is his portrayal of people. He shows both sides, or, indeed, more than two sides. Lancelot is a gentle knight because he’s sadistic and afraid of himself. When he first meets Guenever, he’s a bit of a bully. He hurts her and for the first time, he knows it. The last sentence in the chapter reads, “She was pretty Jenny, who could think and feel.” I love that White gives them nicknames. Jenny and Lance. But doesn’t that last line bring that poem of Rossetti’s to mind? Lazy laughing languid Jenny/Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea. The speaker is visiting a whore and muses all the while on her situation and comes to realize at the end that he’s not much better than her. Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace. There may not be an intended connection. It was just an interesting parallel to think about.

In Defence of Guenevere (there are about as many different spellings of peoples’ names as there are authors– I’m spelling according to the author I’m talking about) William Morris writes, Never within a yard of my bright sleeves/Had Launcelot come before–and now, so nigh!/After that day why is it Guenevere grieves?

My bright sleeves. Gorgeous image. It follows on the heels of a stanza that a professor of mine called awkward, but which to me is more symbolic than realistic:

When both our mouths went wandering in one way/And aching sorely, met among the leaves;/Our hands being left behind strained far away.

Isn’t it more like a picture than an explanation? The long bright sleeves that fall to the ground and two lovers kissing. I’m sure it’s symbolic. If I had to argue that, I’d reinforce with the fact that the whole poem is a pretty picture of Guenevere’s which she paints for the benefit of the knights who are her jury.

Arthur isn’t a fool. He’s been betrayed by a country, his queen, and his best friend. What he is is courageous. He reminds me of what Jen posted, a quote from Mary Anne Radmacher: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow. Arthur is beaten down by the Book of Merlyn, betrayed by his son Mordred. I want to believe that he still lives with the hedgehog, or the geese and his goose-love Lyo-Lyok, or even with the ravens, as Don Quixote believed.

I was telling Rebecca that the whole time I was reading The Once and Future King, I was dying to get out my book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. I wanted to compare what I’d learned with these anonymous personages in the poems. It was like visiting old friends. Like that book of Lewis’s, Till We Have Faces.  How can the gods meet us face to face until we have faces? I have met Arthur Pendragon, Once and Future King.

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