Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Legend Made From Mere Words

T.H. White's novel, The Once and Future  King offers a version of the King Arthur legend in 20th Century language. Used as the basis for Lerner and Lowe's musical, Camelot (both a Broadway play and a motion picture), it leads the reader back to the pageantry and romance of medieval England, weaving together grand themes of democracy and loyalty with the  comedy of King  Pellinore and Merlin.

The story itself captives me, as Arthur builds his kingdom on the premise that might, instead of determining right, should be used only to defend what is right. His utopia crumbles under the weight of Queen  Guinevere's adulterous relationship with Sir Lancelot. White forces his readers to think beyond the tale, though the story cleverly disguises its intellectual demands behind its rich and satisfying entertainment.

For me, the book's greatest appeal emanates from White's command of the English language, which he uses to paint scenes so astonishingly vivid that I can practically feel their textures. My favorite passage (not just in this book, but in literature as a whole) comes from Wart's flight with the wild geese:

THE place in which he found himself was absolutely flat. In the human world we seldom see flatness, for the trees and houses and hedges give a serrated edge to the landscape. Even the grass sticks up with its myriad blades. But here, in the belly of the night, the illimitable, flat, wet mud was as featureless as a dark junket. If it had been wet sand, even, it would have had those little wave marks, like the palate of your mouth.

In this enormous flatness, there lived one element—the wind. For it was an element. It was a dimension, a power of darkness. In the human world, the wind comes from somewhere, and goes somewhere, and, as it goes, it passes through somewhere—through trees or streets or hedgerows. This wind came from nowhere. It was going through the flatness of nowhere, to no place. Horizontal, soundless except for a peculiar boom, tangible, infinite, the astounding dimensional weight of it streamed across the mud. You could have ruled it with a straight-edge. The titanic grey line of it was unwavering and solid. You could have hooked the crook of your umbrella over it, and it would have hung there.

Normally, I prefer reading dialogue to reading description (particularly the description of such desolate landscape), but White has seduced me into loving his depictions of Arthur's various surroundings. Every time I open this book, I find paragraphs that pull me into the castles, the forests and the villages of England in the Dark Ages, and all five of my senses believe that they actually participate in the experiences.

T.H. White gives me a model for my own writing. Of course I realize that words will never bow before me with the measure of obedience they give to him, but he inspires me to work toward taming them. And I cherish that inspiration.

1 comment:

  1. Hi DebbieLynne,

    I've heard it said (by Britts) that the English spoken by Americans is NOT English.

    I was able to visit England in 2010 and LOVED IT! I love the way "the King's English" is spoken. Looks like a good book! I can see and feel the descriptions you captured in that excerpt.

    I also find taming my words and organizing my thoughts very difficult (if not at times impossible!) ... I want to say everything at once and gather every stray thought and try to line them all up together. It seems like it is getting worse with age for me, or maybe I am just more aware of it now. Perhaps if I were more obedient to taking every word captive in obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) I would have greater success in this matter! :) Truly it is a gift that I hope to yet attain.


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