This past weekend I finished reading two of the books I set out to read this summer, The Once and Future King by T.H. White & One of our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde. I’m also on the second chapter of Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki but that is the stuff of another entry.
As I’ve been reading I’ve been keeping a diary long-hand. Basically this is an excuse to use my fountain pen and frankly paper & pen is still way more portable than lugging my laptop all over everywhere. I have edited my entries on The Once and Future King together and have copied them below. Be warned! There are spoilers. If you know absolutely nothing about Arthur, Merlyn, Guinevere, and Lancelot and want to keep it that way then just skip this blog post and look at some of my crafting efforts. The blue pillow is a particular favorite of mine.
Entry the First 5/23/2011
So I am almost halfway through The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I love it. I see why it is so hugely influential to British culture and British fantasy fiction—not to mention fantasy in general. White’s prose and way with words, the descriptions he uses for Wart’s transformation into a Wild Goose made me tear up—made me want to soar—nay I felt almost as if I was soaring and it was achingly beautiful. The Wart is so innocent and naive and Merlyn is so prone to absent mindedness and temper and rambling. I can see a lot of Albus Dumbledore coming from Merlyn. Indeed Rowling has said as much in interviews. Perhaps White’s own rumored unfulfilled homosexuality also encouraged Rowling to craft Dumbledore along such lines as well. It is unimportant. Whatever White’s personal life was is immaterial to his legacy as an author and scholar. He has left behind a true masterpiece of writing that I love.
The primary thrust of the Sword in the Stone, indeed the book more than likely, is Might vs. Right. The knights are made to be rather ridiculous figures rather than the romantic heroes one may expect or be heretofore familiar with from other media. Yet, the feudal system, as represented by the world of the castle of the Forest Sauvage is not presented in a bad light. Sir Ector seems to be the symbol of all that is good in the upper class—a knight, a man, a father, and a leader of true character. Sir Ector is involved in every aspect of his people’s life from the highest to the very low serfs and the mutilated Dog Boy, he works with them and gives them all a comfortable place. The Forest Sauvage is the kind of idealized world any active child would want to spend their childhood summers exploring, even if they did have to help with the hay.
The world of Forest Sauvage is a very masculine world too. The only women in the Wart’s life are his Nanny, the honorary colonel Peregrine Falcon, Maid Marion, Morgan Le Fay (very briefly) and the wild goose Lyo Lyok. Although none of the above are what you could call main characters they are nonetheless very powerful female figures which fill the Wart with equal measures of awe and alarm at times.
T.H. White’s anachronistic descriptions of life and use of dialogue are at first off-putting but ultimately inviting—drawing the reader into the world of the story and making you feel welcome as White gears up to explain and detail medieval features of the castle and the life therein. He deftly plays with time by tempering these educational details with reminders and statements about seeing the area in contemporary, 1939, times. This not only further draws the reader into the narrative but cements the reality and literal timelessness of this story by dictating the truth that yes, these places were real and are real today and will be real tomorrow and you really can go there and see for yourself just like the Wart who will never go away either. Despite using a myriad of words and medieval terminology with which I am wholly unfamiliar the novel is very readable. I am making fast progress and hope the others will as well.
Entry the Second 5/24/2011
The primary theme of the text, Might vs. Right, is as pressing a concern today as it ever was. Is there ever a just war? By Merlyn’s estimation the only time a war is just is if it is in self-defense. Yet, every conflict is justified as “it was necessary,” so where do you draw the line? What about standing up for the weak and the helpless and your friends? That is an ideal I was raised to believe in, to be someone who stands for justice on behalf of others who cannot stand. But who sets the standard of justice? Merlyn says that 9/10 times the aggressor is obvious. But what about the tenth time when it isn’t? During the animal transformations it is made very obvious that life among the Wild Geese, who are totally pacifist, is the most pleasant and ideal while life among the war-like Ants is a wretched soul crushing experience. As humans we all know that life without war or conflict is the most pleasant and ideal (some might say the most boring) and that peaceful diplomatic prosperity should be striven for. But unlike the geese from the story the great competitor for humans are other humans rather than other animals. Internal conflict of some sort is inevitable over finite resources. Idealists do not accept this practical reality while the rest of the world tries to muddle along.
Entry the Third 5/29/2011
I am reading the book faster than I am writing about it. Already, since writing the above, I finished reading the Queen of Air and Darkness and am well begun on the Ill-Made Knight. The structure of the piece is fascinating, it takes real craft to be able to transition between such differing perspectives and settings so deftly while still establishing a definite sense of place. I will pass over making summaries of the text and cut to some of my ruminations on the themes of what I’ve read.
Destiny. The term has yet to be used but one cannot escape the thought. During book one, The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn tells the story of a man with an appointment with Death in the city of Aleppo. I have heard this story before. The point is that by trying to avoid one’s future one often sets in motion the events that bring it to pass. Merlyn makes a great point of this. And yet, he does not really heed his own advice (really, who does? Personally I suck at it); time and again in book one, two, and three moments appear where Merlyn specifically warns Arthur about the future. Yet the efforts are either outright in vain or seem to subtly insure that those self same things come to pass. On top of all that, Merlyn forgets the one thing which Arthur most needed to know: the identity of his mother. He toddles along to share that fact too little too late. To me, this bespeaks the question of Destiny vs. Personal Choice as well as the nature of the human mind—perhaps really the human heart. Who could know of heart-ache to come without trying to avert it somehow? Obviously it was beyond Merlyn’s ken. Unless of course he is the seventh Doctor from Doctor Who, executing an intricate manipulative stratagem to insure that events play out a certain way. Spooky. Really, Merlyn is the perfect role for the Doctor.
So is the death of Arthur the work of Destiny? Or was it the result of his own choices and the choices of those around him? To me this is as important a question as that of Might vs. Right. Evidently J.K. Rowling agreed with me given the emphasis placed in her books on Choices vs. Destiny. She too must have long pondered the idea of Destiny vs. Choice and chose Choice. I find myself wondering if, given a second chance, knowing everything (not just Merlyn’s cryptic useless random facts) would Arthur do it all again? Make the Round Table? Marry Guinevere? Knight Lancelot and declare him a friend for life? Establish the rule of law and civil justice even if it can be manipulated by evil men for evil ends? Hells bells, would he even bother to pull out the sword from the stone in the first place? I daresay he probably would say yes to all of the above. He was who he was and did the best he could, even if he knew it all, he probably would take every bruise and heartache anyway to make his kingdom of Graymare into a safer place for the average serf and the average noble alike. It is made evident in the narrative repeatedly that Arthur’s policies did make England a more civilized place. Arthur is an English legend whose influence is fundamental to England and even the world today. I suppose that kind of positive legacy is worth some personal anguish and tragedy.
Arthur’s story is so incredibly sad in so many ways and yet Arthur himself as a character seems to be perpetually innocent and naive and good at heart, it is achingly beautiful and painful to watch. Really, he seems to be the prototype for Colonel Blimp. Part of his downfall is the fact that Arthur is singularly incapable of believing wickedness of anyone—even after Merlyn tells him outright. If Arthur’s downfall stems from a lot of instances of believing the best (some might say foolishly so) then I suppose one could do worse. I’d rather live believing the best too. One could make the argument that the entire story is an elaborate morality tale about why intercourse out of wedlock is bad. The whole tragedy hinges on the consequences of instances of extramarital sex. This would be an indicator of a very absolute moral paradigm consistent with the theology of medieval times. But I think that is too simplistic. There is more to this story than marital morality. The characters are too intricately drawn, warts and virtues and vices and beauties and everything in between are woven into these characters which contrive to feel real as a result. T.H. White certainly knew the human heart or at least was talented enough to create a feeling of verisimilitude. I found myself thinking of what Mister Rogers would always sing, “It’s the people you love the most that make you the angriest,” as I got irritated at Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur. T.H. White crafted them so well I cared for them and was irritated all the more as they made the decisions they made.
Even if T.H. White and his fictional characters don’t provide any definite answers to the dilemmas of Might vs. Right and Choice vs. Destiny, they give us something of much more lasting value: some important questions. Is it better to rule by force of arms or force of conviction? Does Justice make for a better life than merely who has the best army? Is Justice just if it is only achieved through force of arms? Is an idea or ideal right which must be fought over in order to implement? There is a moment in the text I’m going to quote:
Merlyn: “…On the contrary, [Jesus Christ] made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.”
Kay: “Arthur is fighting the present war to impose his ideas on King Lot.”
The chapter ends on this moment. No answers are offered, the story continues on as the reader is left with this puzzle as other puzzles are raised. How can violence be avoided and the rule of law maintained if violence is necessary to achieve the rule of law? Does Arthur die as a result of his choices or was it destiny? Did Arthur make a choice to face his destiny or did his destiny make Arthur choose certain things? When it comes to the rest of us, are we masters of our own fate or is Fate our master? Even if we had a wizard tutor telling us little hints, would it make our lives that different? I’ve often wished for God to send me a postcard with instructions or an outline for me to follow whilst knowing the futility of such a thing—like Arthur I daresay that I would never believe it.
Obviously, that is a lot of heavy stuff and only the tip of the possible list. A Candle in the Wind spends its last pages with Arthur making a mental loop ticking off similar questions about justice and violence, the questions which occupied his life. The pondering of these questions is the stuff of lifetimes and nations and perhaps the path to the living salvation of souls on Earth. There are no particular hard and fast answers to any of the above. All of them are up for debate. They’ve been debated since the early days of the world and they will be debated for centuries to come. T.H. White through Arthur didn’t have any answers either except to pass the questions on to the next generation represented by Arthur’s page, Sir Thomas Mallory. I am happy to continue the line of questioning. I suspect that my potential answers will change with time and re-reading of this text and others but that is alright. Call me an idealist or call me an optimist or just call me a scientist who believes in asking critical questions, but I can’t help but think that if people are still asking questions and critically pondering these issues the world will be a better place for everyone.
And Now for Something Completely Different 6/8/2011
I blitzed through Jasper Fforde’s latest novel, One of Our Thursdays is Missing this last weekend. It was splendid. The book was a very necessary bit of mental diversion without being simplistic. Like switching between a cardio and a strength workout. I love the world of Fforde’s alternate Swindon, the BookWorld, Jurisfiction, and the layers of Thursday Next. Fforde’s ability to craft an intricate and dense narrative boggles my mind. He lays out a myriad of threads in the beginning and manages to weave them together into a dazzlingly complicated narrative whole and make it look easy. This book follows the adventures of the fictional Thursday as she struggles to keep her book together, save the Bookworld, and more importantly save the real life Thursday from certain death. Fictional Thursday is noticeably different from real Thursday. In following her journey we get to see those differences and see how the books came to be what they are. Fforde’s knowledge of literature and its intricacies is thorough. Any book lover is guaranteed to find one or more beloved characters populating the world he creates.
Of course reading this world is dangerous. Once you pick up a Thursday Next book you can’t go back to the way you read before. After seeing how Jurisfiction works you can’t fall asleep reading on a sunny afternoon without wondering which character panicked and pressed the snooze button and what the kitten looked like who died. If you’re a writer you catch yourself staring off into space in front of your laptop visualizing the text sea lapping words and phrases against trawlers bobbing along the waves of text. You look at footnotes twice and ponder if there is a message you’re missing between agents. You read the ending of a favorite novel and wonder whether that was what was originally written or if adventures in the Bookworld molded the original text into something new you assumed had always been there. It is a mind-bending world but it makes ours more fun—just like the literature he writes about so lovingly. I can hardly wait to read more Thursday Next adventures, real or fictional.