Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
White, T H

(1906-1964) Indian-born UK writer, in the UK from 1911, whose overwhelming nostalgia for a lost land of England expresses itself most vividly in his two best-known works, Farewell Victoria (1933) and the superlative tragicomic fantasia The Once and Future King (1958) (>>> Once and Future King; Sleeper Under the Hill), which made him famous late in life. Despite the fame and fortune that attended THW's closing years, that life was a tragic one. His parents separated, violently, when he was five. He was brought up by relatives, educated at a public school notable for cruelty, and was homosexual but could not admit it. He flourished in his craft only as a young man – a period between the publication of his first book, Loved Helen and Other Poems (coll 1927 chap), when he was 21, and the end of WWII, by which point almost everything for which he is now remembered had either been written in draft form or published. The decades after the death of a beloved dog in November 1944, when THW was 38, were desolate.

Two early THW titles are of interest. Earth Stopped, or Mr Marx's Sporting Tour (1934) builds up to the onslaught of a world-destroying Holocaust; its sequel, Gone to Ground: A Novel (coll of linked stories 1935), comprises a series of tales – mostly Supernatural Fictions – told to each other by eight survivors of the holocaust hiding in a cave complete with a well-stocked bar (> Club Story). Without any source being cited – all hints of the Frame Story were carefully excised, and individual titles were supplied for each item – all the supernatural tales assembled in The Maharajah, and Other Stories (coll 1981) ed Kurth Sprague were abstracted from Gone to Ground. Tales which appear in both volumes include: "The Spaniel Earl", in which a young man convinced he is a dog is finally mated to a girl who thinks she is a bitch; "The Troll", which is Horror, but with a detached comic irony which distances any real horror (the proposed Troll-victim's delight at finding himself sane entirely outweighs the prospect of being the thing's next meal); "The Point of Thirty Miles", which details the death of a Shapeshifting wolf; and "The Black Rabbit", in which a boy poacher is caught by a keeper who turns out to be Pan, and whose perorations close the volume, wiping the slate clean. Tales which appear only in Gone to Ground each comprise a single chapter, none titled; typical of these is Chapter 12, in which a Greek-speaking Mermaid is discovered swimming up a local English stream, totally lost.

THW is now remembered for almost none of his early work (he had published 10 books by 1935) except Farewell, Victoria; but he remains of central importance for The Once and Future King (omni 1958), a fantasia on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1485), retelling the Arthur cycle as a profound meditation on the Matter of Britain. The Once and Future King is THW's masterwork, and is one of the central reactive fantasy texts of the century.

The late publication date of The Once and Future King is deceptive. A version of the sequence, which incorporated revised versions of three previously published novels, had been prepared as earlier as 1941, and was rejected by THW's publishers because the final section – ultimately published as The Book of Merlyn (1977 US) – argued for pacifism at a bad time to make such arguments. THW did not try to publish the sequence again until almost 15 years had passed. The 1958 version comprises the three earlier novels, substantially cut and recast; plus a fourth section, "The Candle in the Wind", a version of which had been ready in 1941 but which was now revised so as to replace The Book of Merlyn, and to terminate the sequence properly. The previously published novels, which in their revised form make up the bulk of the final version, are: The Sword in the Stone (1938; rev 1939 US), which was made into a philistine Animated Movie by Disney in 1963; The Witch in the Wood (1939 US), the weakest part of the sequence, and retitled "The Queen of Air and Darkness" in the recasting (which was extremely thorough); and The Ill-Made Knight (1940 US). The Once and Future King was adapted by Alan Jay Lerner as Camelot: A New Musical (performed 1960; 1961), with music by Frederick Loewe (1901-1988); the musical was filmed as Camelot (1967). Both stage and movie versions are watery.

There is a critical consensus that The Once and Future King is greater than the sum of its parts, though readers who restrict themselves to that volume as an aesthetic whole do forfeit something of the extraordinary freshness and easy amplitude of the original The Sword in the Stone; this has frequently been reprinted in its original form, though not necessarily with THW's illustrations. Alone, The Sword in the Stone stands as one of the finest Children's Fantasies of the 20th century. The opening chapters take place in the dawn of the world, even though the worm of history – the inexorable rhythm of a Story which must be told – can soon be felt imparting an Et in Arcadia Ego shadow to the goings-on of the comic cast, all of whom seem to have been brought together in order to give young Wart an education – there is even an anachronistic Robin Hood among them. We may soon guess that Wart is a Hidden Monarch, for the title itself (obviously) recalls a key moment in the story of Arthur, and certainly there can be no doubt of his identity once Merlyn (> Merlin), who lives backwards in Time, becomes his tutor; but as a solitary tale The Sword in the Stone is primarily concerned with childhood (> Children) and a Magic-imbued education, and only secondarily with the man to come. In that education Merlyn Metamorphoses Wart into the shape of various animals and (Merlyn hopes) is thereby given wisdom from the behaviour of animals, who act in obedience to their nature.

When read as the first of several integrated parts, the innocence of these pages is shadowed very much more obviously by the weight of what we know is about to follow. As a whole, The Once and Future King is a lament: for the loss of childhood; for the loss of the vision of governance by virtue of which Britain may enjoy the brief Golden Age of Arthur's reign; and for the Thinning of a land which can only decreasingly sustain either innocence or virtue. The litany is unremitting. The relationship between THW's own text and Malory is that of the yearning epilogue to the real Story, which can no longer be told straight. The manner of telling of the tale itself moves from the nostalgic timelessness of children's fantasy (The Sword in the Stone is, as noted, a classic of that literature, but The Ill-Made Knight, focusing on Malory on Lancelot's adultery with Guinevere, is not a children's book) towards the ultimate, secular, adult rhythms of "The Candle in the Wind". And – most remarkably of all – as the tale moves from Wart's childhood to King Arthur's old age, the Britain in which it is set itself moves forward through time from the Dark Ages to Malory's own 15th century: the last sentence of the book (beginning, "The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning . . .") propels the dying Arthur into the unpitying light of a much later, narrower day.

It was, perhaps, just as well that The Book of Merlyn never became attached to The Once and Future King. Just before the Last Battle, Merlyn reappears to Arthur, reintroduces him to the animals of The Sword in the Stone, metamorphoses him again to learn some new lessons, returns him to the cruel dawn and Mordred. The rhythm and tragic intensity of The Once and Future King, as published, are here flouted.

The overall plot of The Once and Future King is a simplification of Malory, and brings into sharper focus the essential tragic situation – Arthur's illegitimate birth, which leads to his begetting Mordred upon his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, the Queen of Air and Darkness (> Enchantress) – describing it as "the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost . . . and perhaps it may have been due to her, but it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough". The Grail stories, which make up a large part of Malory, are almost completely ignored, being recounted to Arthur by defeated knights on their return to the Round Table, thus neatly defining the central Christian contribution to the Matter in terms of Belatedness. In the end The Once and Future King is by far the most serious – and very clearly the most successful – attempt to translate the Matter of Britain into a tale that speaks to the concerns of this century. Its title (but little else) makes some claim that King Arthur's life is part of a Cycle, that his slumber presages a return and an ultimate Eucatastrophe. But far more harshly than J R R Tolkien, who began The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) at the same time THW began The Once and Future King, THW closes the door on any real solace. His Britain is a Land of Fable, not a Secondary World, and is tied to the wheel of secular time, which allows no returns.

Mistress Masham's Repose (1946 US) tells how a Wainscot body of Lilliputians, transported to England by Gulliver, have survived in the capacious grounds of the vast estate of Malplaquet for 200 years until a young girl almost destroys them by treating them as pets. The protagonist of The Elephant and the Kangaroo (1947 US) is a mocking self-portrait of the author; after being warned by the Archangel Michael of the imminence of a second Flood, he proclaims himself a new Noah in a hilariously pixilated Eire (where THW spent the WWII years). Both titles were written before 1945. The Master (1957) is an sf juvenile, notable mainly for its portrait of the Merlyn-like Master, 157 years old, who significantly resembles the public personality THW had constructed for himself. [JC]

other works: The Goshawk (1951), about training a hawk; The Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (1954), a Bestiary copiously and wittily footnoted by THW; The White/Garnett Letters (1968) ed David Garnett; Letters to a Friend: The Correspondence Between T.H. White and I. J. Potts (1982) ed François Gallix.

further reading: T.H. White: A Biography (1967) by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Terence Hanbury White


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.