Almost all the tales of Arthur trace their literary ancestry to Malory’s version, yet no modern versions can overlook T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Disney’s animated version borrowed from the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, while the 1981 movie, Excalibur, took elements of the entire story. Originally begun as separate volumes written immediately before and during WWII, four of these books were collected in 1958. The fifth volume, The Book of Merlyn, did not appear in print until almost 20 years later.
The Book of Merlyn opens on the eve of the final battle between an aged and spent Arthur against the imposing forces of his son, Mordred. Everything that Arthur created and attained lies in ruins: his wife is gone, the round table scattered, and his kingdom torn apart. Old age bears down on him, clouding his mind and judgment; he now merely sits and awaits his fate, when in walks his old friend and mentor, the wizard Merlyn. As he did so many years ago, when everyone called him Wart unaware that one day he would be king, Merlyn assumes the role of tutor. Together they leave the war encampment and enter a cave, or badger’s sett, where a conclave of talking animals are gathered to discuss Arthur’s options, and the nature of man and war.
The difficulty with this novel is that while it consists of both narrative passages and philosophical debates, these stutter and stumble. When the latter dominates the book it slows the flow to a turgid crawl, despite the very admirable ideas expressed, especially by Merlyn, who seems to act as the voice of T.H. White.
In contrast to the more popular collectivist thoughts of White’s day, Merlyn states: “The destiny of man is an individualistic destiny.” Merlyn later adds, “I am an anarchist, like any other sensible person,” and that “all forms of collectivism are mistaken, according to the human skull.” As Merlyn caustically remarks:
Nobody can be saved from anything, unless they save themselves. It is hopeless doing things for people—it is often very dangerous to do things at all—and the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas. Then, if you make available a larger stock, people are at liberty to help themselves from out of it. By this process the means of improvement is offered, to be accepted or rejected freely, and there is a faint hope of progress in the course of the millenia. Such is the business of the philosopher, to open new ideas. It is not his business to impose them on people.
The novel shines in the few moments of narrative, such as the two stories of Arthur amid the animals, and the final wrapup of the lives of Arthur and those who one time were his closest friends. To push forward their points more forcefully, Merlyn and the conclave of animals magically send Arthur to live among two species, the ants and the geese. These are meant to contrast strongly with mankind, and also with each other. The first group he encounters is the ants, a highly collectivistic society with an almost inbred sense of totalitarianism and fear of individuality. “Everything not forbidden is compulsory by new order,” states the signs above tunnel entrances. Asking questions is a sign of insanity, resulting in death. Arthur finds himself strongly opposed to this society, as would virtually any human. Still, White draws the ants in such a negative light to make them almost caricatures, and the impact is somewhat lessened.
At the other end of the social spectrum we find the geese, which live in a highly individualist society with private property, heroic songs, and an almost Epicurean sense of life. Arthur finds himself drawn to this utopia, and even falls in love with a buxom goose, but finds that fate has other things in store for him. Despite the allure of the anarchistic geese society, Arthur’s sojurn there is brief, and inevitably he must return to his own world and time to face his own fate.
As a novel, given the fact that novels can cover politics as well as science amid the fiction, The Book of Merlyn suffers in the face of novels with greater emotional impact, say George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Had Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged expanded Galt’s speech to half the novel’s length that novel would have become unreadable, and probably failed to reach the impact that readers walk away with at present. White’s novel unfortunately ends up being top-heavy with debates that slow the narrative and detract from the story, and ultimately, this makes it nearly unreadable as a novel, though it’s a brilliant document of radical ideas, and stands in stark contrast to the collectivism of the 1930s and 1940s.
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