T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is far more than a tale for children. It is also one of the more humble and respectful modern literary interpretations of medieval culture, as well as a source of poignant reflections on subjects as diverse as political and social mores, love, and religious faith…
One of the few Disney movies clearly targeting young boys is the 1963 The Sword in the Stone, based on the five-part series The Once and Future King by Terence Hanbury White. The film, as most American males who have grown up since then know, is a playful depiction of King Arthur’s earliest days as the squire “Wart,” who lives with his foster-father Sir Ector and a bullying foster-brother Sir Kay, blissfully unaware of his status as the son of the last king of Britain, Uther Pendragon. The film, as the first book of the series, is humorous, if also particularly fantastical, with its talking animals and overt, obviously intentional anachronisms. Those who have never strayed beyond the movie to crack the covers of T.H. White’s pentalogy would never know that his literature is far more than a tale for children, excelling as complex, entertaining fiction for adult audiences. Even more surprising, it is also one of the more humble and respectful modern literary interpretations of medieval culture, as well as a source of poignant reflections on subjects as diverse as political and social mores, love, and religious faith.
Consider White’s perspective on just war. During one conversation between the wizard Merlyn, a young, newly-crowned Arthur, and his foster-brother Sir Kay, White portrays a peculiarly astute understanding of mankind’s exercise of war throughout history. The dialogue proceeds:
Merlyn: ‘There is one fairly good reason for fighting—and that is, if the other man starts it. You see, wars are a wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time you might have a sort of duty to stop him.’
Sir Kay: ‘But both sides always say that the other side started them.’
Merlyn: ‘Of course they do, and it is a good thing that it should be so. At least, it shows that both sides are conscious, inside themselves, that the wicked thing about a war is its beginning.’
Students of history will not need to reflect long to recognize that White is quite accurate in his study of war: Even the most wicked, brutal empires in history have usually sought some sort of pretense for their premeditated acts of conquest. Rome argued that their military movements across the Mediterranean world brought peace, justice, and civilization to otherwise unruly, barbaric regions, and ensured the protection of their own homeland. The Mongols first attacked the Jin Dynasty as retaliation for previous attacks against their own people. Nazi Germany claimed (quite erroneously) that Poland had acted first in attacking German military units prior to the blitzkrieg invasion of September 1939. Exceptionally rare has it been that a civilization boldly asserts “we pursue this campaign solely for personal gain, and care not about the consequences for those we attack.” Such a general truth reflects something unique about the human species, a recognition of right buried deep within man’s heart.
Merlyn adds a final consideration to the discussion, one contemporary political leaders would do well to consider in their own evaluation of engaging their militaries in foreign entanglements:
There is no excuse for war, none whatever, and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine—short of war—my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it…. Wrongs have to be redressed by reason, not by force.
Political leaders should be especially wary, White argues, in seeking to apply military solutions to various international problems. Such is a far cry from that famous quotation attributed to Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
White also presents a markedly empathic perspective on medieval culture, including its justice, a subject frequently cited in contemporary times as excessively brutish and ignorant. The narrator observes:
Thieves—it is true—could be hanged for stealing goods to the value of one shilling—for the codification of Justice was still weak and muddled—but that was not so bad as it sounds, when you remember that for a shilling you could buy two geese, or four gallons of wine, or forty-eight loaves of bread—a troublesome load for a thief in any case.
It is easy to heckle medieval justice as superstitious and silly—many are familiar with the 1975 comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and the scene involving a woman accused of witchcraft found guilty solely on the grounds that she weighs the same as a duck. Yet what White perceives is that moderns are quick to judge and slow to consider necessary context or comparative value. The theft of forty-eight loaves of bread (if that is indeed the equivalent of the value of an English shilling in the Middle Ages) is not exactly commensurate with Jean Valjean’s stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving relations.
White’s reflections on romantic love are even more prophetic and penetrating for contemporary ears. In his description of the love affair between Sir Lancelot—Arthur’s most trusted and excellent knight—and the Queen, Lady Guenever, White perceives what few men in our over-sexed historical movement can see, blinded, as Jesus himself warned in his Sermon on the Mount, by their own lusts:
Why did not Lancelot make love to Guenever, or run away with his hero’s wife altogether, as any enlightened man would do today? One reason for his dilemma was that he was a Christian. The modern world is apt to forget that several people were Christians in the remote past… His Church, in which he had been brought up—and it is difficult to escape from your upbringing—directly forbade him to seduce his best friend’s wife…. He believed as firmly as Arthur did, as firmly as the benighted Christian, that there was such a thing as Right.
Not only does White recognize—contra so many popular movies, television programs, and books—that adultery is inherently immoral, he understands that engaging in illicit sexual behavior has real consequences for those involved. Again referring to Lancelot, he explains: “For he put a higher value on chastity that is fashionable in our century. He believed, like the man in Lord Tennyson, that people could only have the strength of ten on account of their hearts being pure.”
Modern scientific studies of pornography use, analyzed so well in the anti-pornography author and speaker Matt Fradd, bear out White’s point: blackening one’s heart with sexual immorality saps one’s cognitive and physical strength.
Moreover, White—a typical unenthusiastic twentieth-century English Anglican, though one who considered conversion to Catholicism—evinces unusual clarity in his understanding of modern sexual mores. Writing on Arthur’s refusal to expose the affair of his best friend and wife, White observes:
We civilized people, who would immediately fly to divorce courts and alimony and other forms of attrition in such circumstances, can afford to look with proper contempt upon the spineless cuckold. But Arthur was only a medieval savage. He did not understand our civilization, and knew no better than to try to be too decent for the degradation of jealousy.
The irony in White’s description of Arthur as “only a medieval savage” is only too palpable, a sincere, if bitter condemnation of his contemporaries loose morals and lack of relational commitment. Indeed, he argues that Medieval love in some respects was superior to that of the modern era:
For in those days, love was ruled by a different convention to ours. In those days it was chivalrous, adult, long, religious, almost platonic. It was not a matter about which you could make accusations lightly. It was not, as we take it to be nowadays, begun and ended in a long weekend.
In a time like ours filled with so many crass, popular odes to the one night stand—“Let’s do it tonight, we may not have tomorrow…”—our younger generations need to be pointed toward a love that is longsuffering, loyal, and noble.
Finally, White’s expositions on religion portray a similar empathy for the Medieval worldview, and reflect a man who had thought seriously and creatively about faith and God. As reviewer Matthew Walther has noted, White’s work is “one of only a handful of first-rate novels in which the metaphysical claims of the Catholic Church are taken at face value.” Speaking of the community in which the boy Arthur grew up, he writes:
The villagers went to church in the chapel of the castle. They wore their best clothes and trooped up the street with their most respectable gait on Sundays, looking with vague and dignified looks in all directions, as if reluctant to disclose their destination, and on weekdays they came to Mass and vespers in their ordinary clothes, walking much more cheerfully. Everybody went to church in those days, and liked it.
Unlike our time, and certainly that of White’s own religiously-cynical mid-century England, religious practice in Medieval Europe was so ingrained in communal life and shared experience that it was viewed by its adherents as a positive good, and even fundamental. As thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas have observed, virtuous acts such as religious observance are habits of being that are done with sufficient frequency that they can be done easily, happily, and equally.
White’s pathos for the Middle Ages is just as visible in his reflections on Medieval Catholicism. For example, he notes the remarkable degree of social mobility offered within the doors of the Church:
With the assistance of Arthur’s policies this church—still the greatest of all corporations free to learned men on earth—had become a highway open to the lowest slave. A Saxon peasant was Pope in Adrian IV, the son of a carpenter in Gregory VII. In those despised Middle Ages of theirs you could become the greatest man in the world, by simply having learning.
What other historical organization up to that time—apart from the Church—allowed for such social opportunities, based solely on one’s knowledge and piety? Moreover, the Medieval Church, likewise pilloried by ignorant moderns for its supposed brutality, exemplified a revolutionary degree of moral sophistication in its ability to rein in the violent tendencies of its adherents. White observes:
Did you know that in these dark ages which were visible from Guenever’s window, there was so much decency in the world that the Catholic Church could impose a peace to all their fighting—which it called The Truce of God—and which lasted from Wednesday to Monday, as well as during the whole of Advent and Lent?
At what other point in human history has an institution successfully persuaded countries across a territory as wide and diverse as Medieval Europe to abide by such a concept as the Truce of God? Indeed, the Church was even effective in prohibiting certain kinds of weapons—such as crossbows—from appearing on Christian battlefields, many centuries before the United Nations sought to limit the use of chemical or biological weapons by modern militaries.
Even more relevant to man’s struggles with faith and piety, White demonstrates an ability to make sense of the often incomprehensible workings of God. In a conservation between Knights of the Round Table, Arthur, and Guenever, one knight expresses his frustration that God refrained from saving several, honorable men from death, while allowing another to live. The knight angrily asks, “Why didn’t God save them?” Guenever, exhibiting the spiritual maturity of the most veteran of spiritual counselors, responds, “We don’t know what their past history was. The killing didn’t do any harm to their souls. Perhaps it even helped their souls, to die like that. Perhaps God gave them this good death because it was the best thing for them.”
Later in the same dialogue, King Arthur provides another sage comment regarding the ineffable wonders of the mercy of God, seeming to channel Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion in Brideshead Revisited. Arthur argues, “If God is supposed to be merciful… I don’t see why He shouldn’t allow people to stumble into heaven, just as well as climb there.” We live in a time increasingly removed from the fleeting social and religious unity experienced by T.H. White in his native England as he concluded the last book of The Once and Future King at the outset of World War II, let alone the kind of cohesion enjoyed by Europeans at the pinnacle of Medieval culture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In a time of distemper and disaster such as characterizes our current moment, we should pray that men might at the very least stumble their way into the kinds of truths and hopes White discovered when he immersed himself in the mythical world of King Arthur and his errant knights. As with White, we may find such a beautiful world is not necessarily fantasy, but a reality once—and, God willing, once more—grasped.
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 T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Book One: The Sword in the Stone (London: HarperCollins, 2015), 257-258).
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