The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to “The Once and Future King”
A hundred years ago, when half the globe was colored red, the heroes of English adventure stories escaped from savages, rescued captives, and discovered treasure all round the world. Under the direction of Ballantyne, Stevenson, and Kipling they traveled to Alaska and Africa and Asia; they met holy men in India and outwitted pirates in the South Seas. But as the sun wearily set on the British Empire, fictional heroism began to be located nearer home, where there was still enough light to see by.
Rudyard Kipling, more sensitive to historical currents than he is sometimes supposed, was one of the first authors to make the shift. Puck of Pook’s Hill, like his earlier tales, celebrates the greatness of Britain and the sterling character of Englishmen. But now this greatness is not displayed in colonial parts, but in the English past. Puck, that most British of fairies, takes the children Una and Dan back into time to observe the exemplary behavior of Englishmen (and an occasional Englishwoman) during the Roman period, after the Norman Conquest, in the Elizabethan Age, and so on. The preeminence of the nation, he suggests, is a matter of heredity rather than environmental opportunity, and our best course is to admire and emulate the traditional British virtues of ironic humor, modest courage, and the stiff upper lip.
Thirty years later, when the Empire had shrunk still further, two other gifted writers followed Kipling’s lead. J.R.R. Tolkien set his story in the world of the medieval sagas, with their noisy battles between men and monsters and their simple social and moral structure. His success was such that today the sun never sets on readers of The Lord of the Rings, and the legend FRODO LIVES appears on the walls of Canadian college buildings, Australian bridges, and New York subway stations.
T.H. White chose to place his tale in the later, sadder, and wiser period of Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian chronicles. His brilliant four-volume novel, The Once and Future King, is both an amusing tale of magic and adventure for children and a sophisticated tragedy for adults; a celebration of an ideal past England and a lament for the contemporary one.
Though White was at least as good a writer as Tolkien, his work is much more uneven, and its reception has been equally so. The first volume, The Sword in the Stone, was an instant success when it appeared in 1938; but though the later books had been completed (and two of them issued separately) by 1941, White’s London publisher declined to print them together, as he had previously agreed to do. The dispute centered around the final fifth volume, The Book of Merlyn, in which King Arthur, defeated on the battlefield and with his Round Table in ruins, considers the problem of man’s innate destructiveness and the possible abolition of warfare. Moreover, White had revised the earlier volumes in line with this theme. The new pacifist slant of …