The Once and Forgotten Fantasy: On T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

Transcript from my recent presentation at The Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis & Friends. Presentation given on March 31, 2017, at Taylor University.

1. Introduction

Today I’m going to discuss two well-known fantasy authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White.

a, First, we need some information on who T.H. White was. White was an English fantasy author of the same generation as Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis1 and Tolkien2 both read White’s book The Sword in the Stone, and Lewis wrote a letter to White in 1947, saying he enjoyed one of White’s other books and invited him to attend an Inklings meeting it he ever visited Oxford.3 White’s best-known work is five fantasy novels about King Arthur written between 1936 and 1942. The last book wasn’t published until after White’s death, the others are available as one volume titled The Once And Future King.

b. The Once And Future King series was very successful. Disney made the first book into a movie called The Sword and the Stone.4 Broadway adapted the books into an award-winning musical called Camelot.5 Lin Carter, who wrote one of the first books praising and analyzing The Lord of the Rings, said the following about White in his book Imaginary Worlds:

“The single finest fantasy novel written in our time, or for that matter, ever written is, must be, by any conceivable standard, T.H. White’s The Once And Future King.”6

c. Now obviously, most writers today would say that honor belongs to Tolkien. So, in light of how successful White’s work has been, why has The Lord of the Rings ultimately surpassed The Once And Future King? I’m going to discuss three particular reasons, focusing on how Tolkien and White connected with their first readers, how they talked about their beliefs in their work, and how some of those beliefs were different.

2. When Their Books Were Published

Let’s start by talking about Tolkien and White’s first readers.

a. Tolkien scholars often note that while The Lord of The Rings was published in the 1950’s, it didn’t become a phenomenon until the 1960’s when the British and American counterculture movements took off.

Without intending to, Tolkien created characters who easily resonated with those young people. Colin N. Manlove argues in Modern Fantasy that “the trilogy came just when disillusionment among the American young at the Vietnam War and the state of their own country was at a peak. Tolkien’s fantasy offered an image of the kind of rural conservationist ideal or escape for which they were looking.”7

b. Meanwhile, White’s Once And Future King series was successful, it never made that kind of phenomenal connection. For one thing, the series was published around WWII, and has strong anti-war themes – White’s King Arthur is a king who’s trying to stop needless fighting by convincing knights to only fight for honorable reasons. This is also a complex way to write about pacifism, which may have kept readers from rediscovering it in the 1960s.

c. So, one reason The Lord of the Rings was more successful is Tolkien’s work coincided with cultural trends to become a bestselling phenomenon, while White didn’t have that advantage.

3. Different Ways of Expressing Beliefs

A second reason, which helps explain Tolkien’s continued success, is that these two writers discussed their beliefs in different ways.

a. Tolkien’s beliefs definitely feature in The Lord of the Rings. He believed in caring for the environment, in good winning over evil, in God — but he never put these ideas front and center in The Lord of The Rings. As many people have noted, Tolkien preferred to subtly state his beliefs in his writing.

Colin Duriez commented that this actually was one reason Tolkien didn’t care for The Chronicles of Narnia:

“[Tolkien] regarded some of Lewis’ work, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia, as too allegorical, that is, too conceptually and explicitly loaded with Christian beliefs. Tolkien struggled to have Christian meanings more naturally and harmoniously embedded in his work, giving it an inner radiance.”

b. The thing about Tolkien’s inner radiance approach is it means you don’t have to fully agree with him to enjoy his work. Many The Lord of the Rings fans, including noted fantasy authors like Peter S. Beagle or Neil Gaiman, don’t share Tolkien’s Christian beliefs at all. They can still enjoy his stories without feeling threatened though because the stories don’t require them to relate to Tolkien’s views.

c. In contrast to Tolkien, White showed his beliefs very openly in his work. The Once and Future King is full of moments where White uses characters to voice his opinions on war, whether Might ever makes Right.

For example, at one point in the third book, Arthur and Lancelot are talking and Arthur says the following:

“When I started the Table, it was to stop anarchy. It was a channel for brute force, so that the people who had to use force could be made to do it in a useful way. But the whole thing was a mistake. No don’t interrupt me. It was a mistake because the Table itself was founded on force. Right must be established by right: it can’t be established by Force Majeur. But that is what I have been trying to do. Now my sins are coming home to roost. Lancelot, I am afraid I have sown the whirlwind, and I shall reap the storm.”9

These are clever insights, but didactic. There’s no question what White’s trying to say in these passages, that the book is more or less a manifesto on how to solve war. This means you must understand or relate to his viewpoint to really appreciate The Once and Future King.

d. Therefore, we can say that an important reason The Lord of The Rings has continued to be more influential is that it’s more subtle. You don’t necessarily have to understand Tolkien’s beliefs to enjoy Lord of the Rings, but you must understand White’s beliefs to enjoy The Once And Future King.

4. Views on Humanity In Their Work

Finally, as Tolkien and White described their views in their work, they showed opposite beliefs about humanity.

a. Tolkien’s honest about how fallen humans can be. Characters like Boromir and Denethor make it clear how corrupted humans can become. But there are other humans like Aragorn show humanity’s potential for good. Then of course there are the hobbits who arguably represent common humanity. They’re not great fighters or wise men; their notable traits are things like endurance and mercy. Bilbo and Frodo both get the chance to kill Gollum and choose to have pity instead, which change the entire story. This isn’t to say that Tolkien idealize the hobbits. The often-neglected last chapters to Return of the King where Frodo and his friends return to the Shire and find the hobbits have easily given into Saruman’s tricks and let their home be corrupted, captures the foolishness that humans are capable of. However, he affirms that at its best, common humanity can accomplish what grand heroism fails to achieve. His view of “the common human” is honest, yet positive.

b. White on the other hand, shows a negative view of humanity – although it doesn’t become obvious until the last book of The Once and Future King, left unpublished until 1977.

In The Book of Merlyn, Arthur reunites with Merlyn and the talking animals he met in The Sword And The Stone. Arthur’s an old man at this point, he’s about to fight a huge battle against his son Mordred, but his mentor and old friends have called him for one last lesson.

They discuss why of all the animals, humans can’t get along with each other. Merlyn goes into some long critiques of humans as a whole:

“In one of the miserable wars when I was a younger man,” said the magician, taking a deep breath, ‘it was found necessary to issue the people of England a set of printed cards which entitled them to food. These cards had to be filled in by hand, before the food could be bought. Each individual had to write a number in one part of the card, his name in another part, and the name of the food-supplier in a third. He had to perform these three intellectual feats – one number and two names – or else he would get no food and starve to death. His life depended on the operation. It was found in the upshot, so far as I recollect, that two thirds of the population were unable to perform the sequence without mistake. And these people, we are told by the Catholic Church, are to be trusted with immortal souls!’”10

Not very complimentary. Ultimately, Merlyn and the animals decide that while Arthur learned a lot from animals when he was young, he needs some more training. Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and then a goose, and by seeing how ant colonies and geese flocks live, Arthur realizes how to bring peace to his own people.

c. Even though White tells a beautiful story, ultimately he concludes humans are just another animal species, and if we emulate more peaceful animals we’d turn out all right. Humanity doesn’t have anything that makes us better than animals.

5. Conclusion

a. To wrap things up, Tolkien and White were both excellent writers who created books well worth reading. But because of cultural trends, the subtle way Tolkien showed his beliefs, and the fact Tolkien shows humans as inherently decent if broken, his work has survived better over time.

Sources Cited

  1. Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II: books Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004, pg. 456.
  2. Scull, Christina and Hammond, Wayne G. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
  3. Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2007, pp. 1569-1570. Retrieved from GoogleBooks, March 28, 2017.
  4. “The Sword in the Stone is Released.” Walt Disney Archives. Accessed March 19, 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20160215184937/https://d23.com/this-day/the-sword-in-the-stone-is-released/
  5. “Camelot.” Broadway Musical Home. Accessed on March 19, 2017. http://broadwaymusicalhome.com/shows/camelot.htm/
  6. Carter, Lin. Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
  7. Manlove, Colin. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Eugene: Resource Publications, 2020 (reprint ed.), pg. 157.
  8. Duriez, Colin. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. New Jersey: HiddenSpring, 2003, pp. 183-184.
  9. White, T.H. The Once and Future King. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958, pg. 450.
  10. White, T.H. The Book of Merlyn. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977, pg. 37.

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