T.H. White
T.H. White; drawing by David Levine

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 the book was not well received by White’s editor, who pleaded that wartime paper shortages now prevented his issuing it. Long and often disagreeable negotiations followed, and The Once and Future King did not appear until 1958—and even then it was minus its conclusion. Though the book was a tremendous success both in England and America, it has taken nearly another twenty years for its final volume to be published. If its author had lived, he would not have been surprised; he expected this sort of treatment from the world.

Terence Hanbury White, like Kipling, was a complex and haunted man, both sensitively poetic and athletically gungho, whose best work was written for, or at least originally intended for, children. If he were himself the hero of a tale of magic, he would have been one of those princes whose christening is attended not only by the usual twelve good fairies but by an equal number of malevolent ones. He was large, handsome, courageous, witty, imaginative, and industrious; he was well born and well educated, a fine athlete and sportsman, intellectually gifted (he had a First with Distinction from Cambridge) and a natural writer, with one of the best prose styles of his generation. He was also alcoholic, homosexual, and subject to severe depressions and obsessive fears of failure and public rejection.

White had a miserable childhood, with what his biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner has called “a menacing psychopathic mother” who alternately demanded his love and rejected it. As he wrote later:

Either there were the dreadful parental quarrels and spankings…or there were excessive scenes of affection during which she wooed me to love her—not her to love me…. Anyway, she managed to bitch up my loving women.

At fourteen he was sent away to a public school where the beatings continued.


White grew up not only unable to love women but, by his own choice, cut off from intimacy even with the men he might have loved. As David Garnett, in whom he confided, reports it:

[He] explained to me that he was a sadist and that his imagination was frequently occupied with sadistic fantasies. He explained also that this had been disastrous whenever he was passionately in love…. In love he was always in a dilemma: if he behaved with sincerity, and instinctively, he alienated his lover and horrified and disgusted himself.

Several years of psychoanalysis, though they helped to reconcile White to his condition, did nothing to change it. During most of his adult life, his only happy emotional attachments were to birds and animals: the falcons he flew for sport, the owls he kept as pets, above all a red setter bitch named Brownie who meant as much to White as My Dog Tulip did to J.R. Ackerley, and whose death left him half-crazed and utterly desolate. (“I died last night. All that me is dead, because it was half her.” “She was wife, mother, mistress & child…. I am so lonely and can’t stop crying and it is the shock.”) After Brownie was buried, White went to Dublin “and kept myself as drunk as possible for nine days.”

Even apart from his sexual problems, White was handicapped by his inability to be close to other people. (“I have no friends, only acquaintances. You have no idea how curious it is to live one’s whole life like a cat.”) He had a self-confessed “sense of inferiority…of danger…of disaster” and a Hemingway-like compulsion to test himself physically which led him to fly small planes, jump dangerous horses, drive much too fast, and descend into the sea in a diving suit—always in a state of mingled fear and exhilaration. It is surprising that White had only one serious accident; he drove his Bentley through a cottage wall and right into the bedroom where an elderly couple was sleeping.

The Sword in the Stone was written during one of the happiest periods of White’s life, in the autumn of 1937. He had made enough from a series of spy thrillers to quit teaching boarding school and move into a cottage in Buckinghamshire with his dog Brownie and three hawks. The book was conceived as a kind of prologue to Malory, describing the boyhood of the future King Arthur. “The Wart,” as he is known, lives as a poor relation in the castle of his guardian Sir Ector, bullied and condescended to by Sir Ector’s son Kay. Merlyn, who becomes the boys’ tutor, magically transforms the Wart into various birds and beasts, and sends him among them to learn the wisdom, courage, and virtue necessary for a future king. It is a fine story, full of energy and comic invention and detailed information about life in fifteenth-century England.

The Book of Merlyn was composed in the winter of 1940-41 while White was self-exiled in rural Ireland, cut off from his country and the war in which most of his friends were engaged. His pacifist views and his guilt about avoiding responsibility, and fear that he was in fact a coward, combined to make him completely miserable. It may seem odd to some that a self-confessed sadist should also be a pacifist. But it should be remembered that White was revolted by his own sadism; and war, for such a person, must seem doubly horrible because it allows the acting out or at least witnessing of forbidden fantasies. It is also terrifying because of the possibility that one may be the victim rather than the perpetrator of deliberate cruelty. Like many people who believe their deepest impulses to be evil, White extended this belief to others, with the result that, as Sylvia Townsend Warner writes, “he was basically afraid of the human race.”

In his journal White went over and over the implications of the possible courses open to him: “to be a conscientious objector,…to fight,…to seek some constructive wartime employment which might combine creative work with service to my country. All these sad and terrified dashes from one hunted corner to the next.”

This state of mind, and these obsessive arguments, leaked into the book he was writing, interrupting the story and almost destroying what might have been a brilliant conclusion to his most ambitious work. “I have suddenly discovered,” he wrote to his former tutor at Cambridge, “that (1) the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal.”

If White had followed this plan from the start, he might have written a better book; but instead he begins by setting up an underground seminar in which Merlyn, Arthur, and all the animals from The Sword in the Stone (Archimedes the owl, the badger, the hedgehog, and the rest) discuss patterns of aggression among men and other species. Like all seminars, it is composed in equal parts of pedantry, humor, interesting questions, stupid answers, amusing digressions, repetition, and boredom.


The book improves a great deal when the lesson turns from Tell to Show, and Arthur, for the last time, is transformed by his old tutor Merlyn. First, as a red ant, he enters a disagreeable totalitarian community which goes into war with a twenty-four-hour blast of radio propaganda (“Antland, Antland over All”) and specious political logic:

A. We are more numerous than they are, therefore we have a right to their syrup.

B. They are more numerous than we are, therefore they are wickedly trying to steal our syrup….

G. If we do not attack them today, they will attack us tomorrow.

H. In any case we are not attacking them at all: we are offering them incalculable benefits.

But White’s description of Antland is not only directed at fascist and communist regimes, but also at contemporary Britain, of which he wrote in his journal:

There don’t seem to be many people being killed yet—no hideous slaughters of gas and bacteria.

But the truth is going.

We are suffocating in propaganda instead of gas, slowly feeling our minds go dead.

And on the wireless—it seems as if it must be hundreds of millions of times a day—the foulest and cheapest and vulgarest and most debasing. They sing or play nothing but “We’ll hang out the washing on the Siegfried line” or “Run, Adolf, run, Adolf, run, run, run.”…Devils in hell must sing like this.

After a mercifully brief return to the underground seminar, Arthur is sent into a world as superior to the human one as that of the ants is inferior. He becomes a wild goose on the marshes of East Anglia. These chapters are as good as anything White ever wrote—but they were not originally written in these dark months. Rather, they are the remains of an unfinished novel, Grief for the Grey Geese, begun in 1938 before England was at war and White in exile. The geese are social, yet solitary; as noble and beautiful and strong, as affectionate and innocent, as Swift’s Houyhnhnms; and their journey across the North Sea is wonderfully described:

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modelled vapour, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piledup blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it,…the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them…. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away.

When Arthur is snatched back out of this world by Merlyn he is overcome with regret and bitterness, like Gulliver, and refuses to have anything more to do with mankind. However he is persuaded to take a final look at his country; and as he sits on a hill gazing over England, he is moved; his resolve weakens; he realizes that England is his responsibility and “that peace was more important than a kingdom.” He returns to his own world, and almost succeeds in making a treaty with his enemies and ending the war. But at the last moment, when the opposing armies are drawn up on the battlefield to sign the truce, everything goes wrong. A snake moves in the grass (perhaps symbolically), a soldier draws his sword to strike at it, the other side suspects treachery, and the fighting begins again.

But even this is not the end. Everyone knows, White says, that the Round Table is broken and its knights scattered; but about Arthur himself we are not quite sure. Many believe that he is not dead, but only sleeping, and will come again. And the persistence of this belief, and of the legend of King Arthur and his knights, is hopeful in itself; though, as Merlyn says, “Nobody can be saved from anything, unless they save themselves.”

White is less dogmatic than some contemporary sociobiologists. He does not claim that because other species are mindless totalitarians, or noble anarchists, a natural disposition toward totalitarianism or anarchy persists in the lower levels of the human brain. His estimate of our prospects is deeply pessimistic, but not fatalistic; that is, it offers neither the comfort of optimism nor the comfort of despair. Peace on earth is always possible and desirable, if very unlikely.

It is not surprising that The Book of Merlyn was received unenthusiastically by a London publisher in 1941. What seems odder, though it is certainly in White’s style, is the subsequent fate of his chronicles of King Arthur. Again, the good and bad fairies were at work: some arranging for The Once and Future King to become famous throughout the world as a Broadway musical and Hollywood film, others making sure that Camelot would be a glossy travesty, sentimental and pretty where the book was skeptical and passionate. It is quite appropriate that John F. Kennedy’s court, often at the time of his reign compared to Camelot, turned out in the end to have been a lot more like White’s chronicle, with its flawed heroes, its inspiring public rhetoric and scandalous private revelations—and, of course, its awful end.

The power of a stage or film version to destroy its original (“No, but I saw the movie, and it was lousy”) is tremendous, and no doubt Camelot is partly responsible for the relative obscurity into which White’s work has now fallen, especially in relation to that of his near-contemporary Tolkien. But there are other, more basic, factors involved.

Tolkien’s books have two messages. The first is that the small man (Hobbits are literally small, under five feet tall) can play an essential and heroic part in the defeat of evil. Bilbo and Frodo succeed not through superior skill or strength or wisdom but, like the heroes of the old folk tales, by the exercise of the small-town, middle-class virtues of simplicity, good nature, ingenuity, and patient determination. The Knights of the Round Table, by contrast, are highly trained jock aristocrats, much more difficult for the contemporary reader—the average American college freshman, for instance—to identify with.

Tolkien’s second message is that evil must be tolerated because good may somehow come of it, as when the repulsive Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger in order to obtain the magic Ring, and then falls with it into the volcano, thus destroying both himself and the evil power of the Ring. This is an impressive and satisfying scene, but the principle involved, if applied to some real-life situation (for instance, the presence of Gollum-like officials in high places) seems rather dangerous. White, on the other hand, had no confidence that good would come out of evil—or even out of good.

In spite of the wonderful richness of his fantasy, Tolkien’s moral imagination is essentially simple. Good and evil for him are distinct and separate: his heroes have only lovable (often comically lovable) defects, and his villains lack all agreeable traits. At the most, we feel a sort of distant pity for them. White, unfortunately for the success of his books, saw things in a more complex way. The noblest characters in his work are flawed: Arthur by credulity and fits of weak despair, Lancelot by self-hatred and the inability to resist sexual passion even at the price of dishonor. Moreover, many of White’s worst characters have redeeming, even likable qualities.

The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy in more ways than one. It portrays an unreal world in which serious wickedness is exterior not only psychologically but geographically. Crime in Hobbiton-over-the-water is limited to occasional public squabbling and petty thievery; to find your opponent, you must go on a long journey. In the final version of The Once and Future King, and The Book of Merlyn, as in real life, evil and danger are not located in a distant part of the map beyond the Misty Mountains; they are right there at home; and if you want to see your enemy’s face, just look in the mirror. No wonder readers today prefer Tolkien: nobody likes bad news, especially if it is true.

This Issue

November 24, 1977