Elizabeth Brewer – Some Comments on “T. H. White, Pacifism and Violence”


Some Comments on "T. H. White, Pacifism and Violence"

Elizabeth Brewer

Published in Connotations Vol. 7.1 (1997/98)


It is no doubt idle to speculate as to what might have happened if T. H. White had not gone to Ireland in 1939 and then been marooned there, eventually eating his heart out in intellectual isolation. Despite the enormous success of The Once and Future King, he might have achieved so much more, even though his life was to some extent blighted by his sexual and psychological problems. At first his extended stay at Belmullet seemed a good idea, allowing him to finish his writing as an important contribution to the civilisation that he so highly valued, while he decided what to do next. But the very fact that he was thus isolated seems to have made it impossible for him to sort out his ideas about war. Dr Hadfield's epigraph suggests White's contradictory feelings about war and violence, as well as the more comprehensive internal conflict with which he was perpetually tormented. For, paradoxically, although he was a passionate lover of animals, he could happily shoot not only animals but even the wild geese whose "way of life" he idealised in The Sword in the Stone. He could represent chivalry on the one hand as glamorous and exciting, and on the other as grotesquely silly. It is hardly surprising therefore that his attitudes to war were inconsistent, both in The Once and Future King and in actual life.

White's earliest upbringing would have instilled into him the idea that an army career was an honourable, even an admirable one. G. M. Hopkins asks "Why do we all, seeing of a soldier, bless him?" in a question that indicates former attitudes to the military. He then answers it: [page 129]

… the heart

Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less;

As a boy at Cheltenham College White was placed in that division of the school that prepared boys for a career in the army. At Stawe his enthusiastic engagement in pursuits such as shooting and hunting and his cultivation of a macho image ran counter in some respects to the pacifism which was being widely promoted in the years before World War II (not least in the school itself) and to which to some extent he was attracted. In chapter 2 of The Queen of Air and Darkness Merlyn actually equates foxhunting with war in the middle ages: "`The link between Norman warfare and Victorian foxhunting is perfect,'" he says. Though Merlyn is outraged when Arthur unwittingly remarks of one of his exploits: "`It was a jolly battle, and I won it myself, and it was fun'" (QAD ch. 2), there is no mistaking the zest with which White later describes the cavalry charge at the battle of Bedegrain.

The fact that White intended The Sword in the Stone to be a children's book in the manner of Masefield's Midnight Folk which he so much loved and admired differentiates it from the subsequent parts of The Once and Future King, and surely affects the way in which we should interpret it. Because of its very nature, its affinities with fairytale for example, there are questions to which, if we still insist on asking them, we cannot necessarily expect a satisfactory answer. It does not do to ask if Mr P.'s warning of the hopelessness of love is meant to forewarn the Wart of the disastrous effects of his own future love for his unfaithful Queen Guenever (213). The cynical comment, "Love is a trick …," is surely only to be taken as a general observation. The implications of his transformational experience for the Wart's adult life are never fully worked out, though the case may be altered somewhat when it comes to the ants and the geese, since these episodes were worked in later.

The Wart's transformation into a merlin and his night among the hawks again suggests the ambiguity of White's attitude to the military. Represented as army officers, the hawks are of course caricatures, but almost affectionate caricatures of some members of the upper classes with whom White would have had a considerable amount of sympathy. [page 130] They represented the social milieu within which he had grown up; and it may be remembered that while at Stowe he liked to be considered a "toff" himself. The Wart is "almost overwhelmed by their magnificence," while the mad Col. Cully is referred to sympathetically as the "poor colonel." The hawks do indeed embody social prejudice, but to regard them as creatures as sinister as the Nazi ants goes against White's intentions, since the vileness of the ants' regime is that, apart from anything else, it destroys all individuality and initiative.

I would certainly agree with Dr Hadfield that Merlyn is not consistently White's mouthpiece throughout The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, although White often does try out, through him, different positions by no means always consonant with each other. As tutor in the fairy−tale−like Sword in the Stone Merlyn is obviously meant to be right, but it may be noted that his rôle changes as his milieu changes. He is in effect a schoolmaster to begin with, a figure of authority; but in The Book of Merlyn he frequents the Combination Room in the badger's set, which implies that he is now a university tutor, supposedly promoting intellectual argument—though the implications of his higher status are not fully worked out. It may also be noted that important character though he is, he disappears from the story before the end of the second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, until White invents a rôle for him in the somewhat apocryphal Book of Merlyn.

Merlyn undoubtedly has a difficult task in trying to get Arthur to reject the idea that might is right, but there are moments when he feels that his educational program has been successful. One of these, as Dr Hadfield has noted, is the moment at the end of The Queen of Air and Darkness, chapter 6, when he strikes a dramatic attitude and says the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis. The significance of this utterance is more fully apparent if we consider the form of the words which White must have had in mind. They first appear in the New Testament, Luke 2:29−30, as: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation." In this formulation also, rather than in the metrical version quoted by Dr Hadfield, they begin the Nunc Dimittis in the Order for Evening Prayer, familiar to all readers brought up in the Church of England and in college chapels. White intends them to take the point that Merlyn feels that he can now [page 131] depart in peace—and the emphasis should surely fall on that particular word—since Arthur has at last learnt the lesson he has striven to teach him. Merlyn now sees some hope of salvation for his young pupil, but the tone of this closing sentence is surely sardonic rather than quasi−religious.

When Merlyn forgets to warn Arthur about Morgause, ironies do indeed abound with considerable dramatic effect for the reader who knows only too well what it is that Arthur needs to be told, and longs to be able to jog Merlyn's memory. Destiny is of course the key to the understanding of his forgetfulness: White was surely right in handling his source, Malory's Le Morte Darthur, as he does at this point, in the way in which he ingeniously makes Merlyn absent−minded at the critical moment, and in emphasising the inescapability of destiny. Instead of bowdlerising the story as he might have done by cutting the drowning of the babies, and by making Mordred aware that his natural⁄unnatural father had tried to destroy him as an infant, White adds powerful motivation as well as another dimension to the figure of Arthur.

His problems as he worked over The Once and Future King again and again, especially as he radically changed The Witch in the Wood and turned it into The Queen of Air and Darkness, seem to have been enormous. His passion for history (he wished that he had read that subject at Cambridge, rather than English) was in many respects romantic but, aware as he was of the gulf between the popular notion of the middle ages and the probable reality, he inevitably had problems with the topic of warfare, problems which could only become more acute as his own conflicting emotions were more deeply involved. He delights in suggesting the richness and colourfulness of the pavilions on the plain of Bedegrain, but if Arthur ever did fight such a battle it certainly did not take place in the Age of Chivalry. If, therefore, White is less than clear and consistent when Merlyn and Kay discuss reasons for starting a war it is hardly surprising. It would seem that consistency was in fact impossible, that he had to try out different positions, so that Merlyn can say, on one page, "`There is one fairly good reason for fighting—and that is, if the other man starts it'" and on the next "`There is no excuse for war, none whatever.'"

[page 132] The impact of the passage which Dr Hadfield describes as "extraordinarily scandalous" (273−74) depends very much on how it is read. Arthur may not be much like Jesus, but his readiness to fight at this stage in his career to unify and settle his kingdom (or in Kay's words, having "discovered a new way of life" which he intends to promote by making might serve right) can hardly by any stretch of imagination be compared to Hitler's methods which included the Holocaust. Furthermore, Arthur's campaign at this point is in line with White's source−material, while it also relates to the actual course of English history.

Though the apparent confusion in Merlyn's mind suggests that it is very difficult to distinguish between good and bad motives for war, it would seem that the dominant idea White wants to put across at this point is that of man's slow and halting progress towards the more civilised behaviour represented by Arthur's adult ideals and aspirations. He has "begun to set a value on heads, shoulders and arms" and has established the Round Table, with all the ideals it represents, summed up as: "`something about doing a hateful and dangerous action for the sake of decency.'" Though Kay had seen the battle of Bedegrain as being about Arthur's wish to impose his ideas on King Lot, by chapter 12 White has moved on to another aspect of his topic, the conventions of medieval warfare. His comment that "Arthur began with an atrocity and continued with other atrocities," the first of which was that he did not wait for the "fashionable hour" for beginning a battle, the second being his disregard of the kerns because he knew "that they would have to be allowed their fight," is heavily ironic. The description of the tactics used by Arthur, seemingly more in line with modern warfare than with medieval, are followed by a long account of the ensuing battle which can only be described as zestful: "Imagine it now … . Add the cymbal−music of the clashing armour to the jingle of the harness … . Turn the uniforms into mirrors, blazing with the sun," etc.

In returning again and again to the question of civilisation and the form in which it might be said to exist, or the form which ideally it should take, White must have been caught between the constraints of the traditional story to which he had committed himself and his desire to make it profoundly meaningful for his own time. Any attempt to [page 133] define the ethos of the British was bound to founder because of the gulf between Malory's limited vision and the immensely complex twentieth−century reality. White however did succeed in revealing between the lines of his narrative the form of the civilisation in which he so passionately believed: it is summed up in the word "decency," not a word often used at the present time, nor a concept greatly admired. It was, however, a quality highly valued by the social class and the generation to which he belonged. It shows itself particularly in White's own personal life—in a mixture of courage and generosity. To practise it in his own life he was prepared to endure the bitterness of almost intolerable loneliness and frustration, as Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography so poignantly illustrates. This "decency" is what Arthur stands for throughout The Once and Future King, and is shown, for example, in the generosity of his attitude to Guenever and Lancelot as lovers. Arthur

had been taught by Merlyn to believe that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly … . He had been forged as a weapon for the aid of man, on the assumption that men were good … by that deluded old teacher … . But the whole structure depended on the first premise: that man was decent. (The Candle in the Wind ch. 14)

It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that Merlyn's teaching was wrong; that the ideals that had been generally accepted before World War II are no longer current, and that the fleeting late−nineteenth−century dream of man's perfectibility was gone for ever. But though in The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn White may be far from consistent in the representation of his attitude to war, though (not surprisingly) he never satisfactorily solves the problem of how war may be prevented, the reader is by the end, despite the jumble of contradictions, left with a clear sense of the ethos and underlying values to which White subscribed. He sums it up in The Book of Merlyn:

After a bit there was poor old White, who thought that we represented the ideas of chivalry. He said that our importance lay in our decency, in our resistance against the bloody mind of man. What an anachronist he was, dear fellow! (35)

[page 134] In The Book of Merlyn (ch. 18) in his almost visionary experience shortly before the last battle, Arthur catches "a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death." The determination that fairness and decency shall prevail constitute the foundation of the "civilisation" for which White was, at least at some points, prepared to fight. And though perhaps it was not England "qua geographical boundaries" for which he might have fought there was another aspect of England the significance of which is suggested most vividly in Arthur's vision of his country. In the course of his long story Arthur has come to be seen not only as "the idea of Royalty" but as the very embodiment of England. Towards the end of The Book of Merlyn (ch. 18) he climbs the great tor with the hedgehog and then watches as England, the English countryside

came out slowly, as the late moon rose: his royal realm of Gramarye … He began to love the land under him with a fierce longing, not because it was good or bad, but because it was: because of the shadows of the corn stooks on a golden evening … . He found that he loved it—more than Guenever, more than Lancelot … . All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness … .

Though the Oxford Union debate before World War II had ended with the members voting that they would not fight for king and country White, despite his sporadic attacks of pacifism did in the end undoubtedly feel that not only civilisation as he understood it but also England must be defended. The long history and great traditions of the nation, suggested to some extent by the term "Gramarye," the beauty of the landscape, intimately known and loved from childhood, the self−sacrificing courage of those individuals prepared to die for "The Truth" constitute despite their disparity the ideal which underlies The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn. It is an ideal worth fighting for, in the words of Blake sung to Arthur by the hedgehog, with weapons both real and symbolic and with the ceaseless mental strife that resulted in White's great retelling.

Cambridge