T.H. White: The things I left out

Recently the ever-generous Brenton Dickieson published my essay about T.H. White on his blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia. In many ways, it was me considering ideas that Dickieson brought up in an insightful Tolkien vs. Lewis scholarship series, and expand some ideas I presented at Taylor University’s C.S. Lewis Center back in 2017.

Someone recently told me that the essay cited more sources than any T.H. White article they’d ever read, which was gratifying. However, there were various things that I had to leave out. One of the most important secrets to research projects is they are about precision, trimming out things which don’t connect to your thesis. Here are some things I almost put in the essay, tidbits which didn’t fit:

The Hemingway Connection

John K. Crane starts his study of T.H. White by noting how once on a vacation in Italy, a woman mistook White for Ernest Hemingway and asked him for his autograph. Crane argues that psychologically, White and Hemingway had much in common: they were energetic sportsmen haunted by mental illness, they had complex feelings about war, fatalistic outlooks, and they both died prematurely (Crane 17). To get an idea how much they looked alike, here are pictures of them:

Given that White and Hemingway both wrote about sports, it would be particularly interesting to compare their nonfiction tales about hunting, fishing and so forth. Whether or not Hemingway’s realistic novels have much in common with White’s elaborate fantasy novels is hard to say.

Even scholars who aren’t interesting in comparing their works will have to consider what they think about “the Hemingway ideal” before they study White. White and Hemingway both fit that image of the vigorously masculine artist with hidden darkness, and that image can be interpreted many ways. Orson Welles (using Hemingway as a partial model) plays on that image in The Other Side of the Wind, suggesting there are latent homosexual tendencies the artist is hiding beyond a masculine façade. You can also interpret that image as heterosexual men trying to outrun depression, or bonding with other men without expressing themselves, and so on. Whichever view you take of that image will greatly impact how you interpret White.

Writers with Terrible Childhoods

In his book The Christian World of The Hobbit, Devin Brown makes an interesting comment on how George MacDonald, JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis are all important fantasy writers who lost their mothers at an early age (Brown 18-19). T.H. White had a share of childhood loss and trauma, but of a different sort. His parents had a difficult marriage, separated when he was young and while his father wasn’t involved much in his life after that, his mother was emotionally manipulative. Elisabeth Brewer has suggested that White saw himself like Arthur in his book The Sword in the Stone, “parentless to all intents and purposes” (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King 22). The question of how much trauma informs artists, whether you become an artist to process your trauma or many artists just happen to have trauma, may well be one of those “chicken or the egg” dilemmas. Still, it would be interesting to see a study on Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald and White, considering how their writing depicts orphans, children with problematic parents and so forth.

New Biographers and The Personal Heresy

In the “Concluding Thoughts” section of my essay, I wrote that there hasn’t been a new T.H. White biography in almost 60 years. There are a number of reasons why new biographers need to tackle T.H. White, reassess Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ideas to find what’s correct and what’s been missed. One important reason is scholars like John K. Crane and Kurth Sprague have sometimes taken Warner’s lead in unhealthy ways. Their books have great moments, but they become very interested in finding hints of White’s personality (as described by Warner) in his work. For example, Sprague’s book argues that all of White’s female characters reflect his abusive mother, Constance White. Sprague backs many of his ideas up with primary sources (for example, quoting a letter where White admitted that Mordred’s Morgause was based on his mother). However, like most analyses that seek the author’s subconscious in the text, it’s a bit subjective. This kind of analysis can only go so far before it becomes, as Stephen King put it, “jumped up astrology.”

Lewis addresses this kind of criticism in several articles published as The Personal Heresy, using poetry as his example. He cited a variety of issues, one being that this approach leads to critics being more interested in “what they think the writer is really saying” than in assessing the text. Sprague goes as far into this territory as any scholar can without becoming totally subjective. Later scholars must look for new ways to interpret White’s work that work on more objective grounds.

Getting the Big Break

Two sections of my essay talked about “creative breaks,” an idea that Brenton Dickieson cleverly explored Part 1 of his Tolkien vs Lewis scholarship blog series. Dickieson’s point was that certain events raise an artwork’s profile, which gets new people interested in it, some of whom go on to study that work and produce scholarship about it. An obvious example is the 1960s counterculture discovering Lord of the Rings, leading a period where it seemed like every college student was reading Tolkien or listening to a Led Zeppelin album that referenced Tolkien’s idea, or comparing their desire to “fight the man” to hobbits fighting Sauron.

Another good example is Owen Barfield, a minor member of the Inklings who studied at Oxford with C.S. Lewis. Unable to support himself as a writer, Barfield joined his father’s law firm and worked there for 30 years while writing books in his spare time, including fantasy novels and philosophy texts associated with Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. Barfield didn’t receive much critical attention until he retired from law in 1959… and within 5 years everything changed. As Philip and Carol Zaleski record in The Fellowship, the next three decades would be a great time for Barfield, with visiting professorships at Brandeis and Drew University, lecture tours across America, and adoring letters from counterculture thinkers like Theodore Roszak, David Bohm and Norman O. Brown (Zaleski 490-495). Much of Barfield’s nonfiction about “the evolution of consciousness” had seemed obscure to English audiences, but in a counterculture period where American audiences were exploring all manner of alternate spirituality and philosophy, Barfield’s ideas “fit right in” (Zaleski 492).

It would be interesting to see someone devote a study to how many of the Inklings experienced these kind of creative breaks, how that has influenced their reputations today, and how that compares to other fantasy writers (such as Lovecraft’s circle of friends who wrote stories in his Cthulhu universe). The lack of creative breaks or connection to a larger literary circle is arguably a key reason why T.H. White is understudied.

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