Title: Whose Arthur?
[(essay date 12 July 1958)
In the following essay, Lewis suggests that White's
The Once and Future King
is an enduring novel
that transcends its early status as a juvenile work.
In a rather arch verse introduction to one of his best-known shorter poems, Tennyson describes a house-party where a few young
men sit 'round the wassail bowl' discussing the decay of honour, current theology, and other such late-night gossip. Asked about
his Arthurian epic, the poet Everard says that he has burnt the thing.
Why should any man
Remodel models? these twelve books of mine
Were faint Homeric echoes, nothing worth.
But Francis his friend reveals that he has saved one section from the fire. And--soon persuaded--the poet, 'mouthing out his
hollow oes and aes', begins to read:
So all day long the noise of battle roll'd.
This fine poem, as Tennyson well knew, was not in the least a faint Homeric echo; it is, indeed, one of the noblest specimens of
Victorian Malory that survive. Its author did, of course, attempt the Arthur theme again, but only to cast about, at a more
commonplace level, among the side romances. Not many writers, after all, have managed to take the whole epic story as it
stands. In our own day, though, the feat has been done by Mr T. H. White, whose three Arthurian volumes, published at intervals
over the past 20 years, are now concluded with a fourth, revised and assembled into one [
The Once and Future King
. Mr White
is a literary eccentric, as much at home in the mire and marvels of medieval Britain as anybody not a professional historian can
ever have been. Originals of this author's kind seem peculiar to the native culture--Reade, Du Maurier, for instance--producing, as
if by accident, some near-masterpiece along what might appear at first a tributary wayside. Mr White, an obstinate original, has
also his moments of genius. Are we to count his Arthur, though, as the representative Arthur of our day?
For Malory's saga holds a curious place in English esteem. 'A holy book,' the present Poet Laureate has called it; it is a
reasonable description of the sentiment. Opinion has not always been so firm. Ascham, a fair enough minded critic, but insensible
to charm, thought the work demoralising, observing that 'the whole pleasure .
.. standeth in two special points--in open
manslaughter and bold bawdry. .
.. Those be counted the noblest knights that do kill most men without any quarrel, and commit
foulest adulteries by subtlest shifts'. Well, you can read into any of the world's great ancient narratives what you will. Milton, being
Milton, found in Malory a call to virtue, an incitement to spend one's life defending 'the honour and chastity of virgin and matron'--a
bleak but impeccable ideal.
Milton did not, as he first intended, make it the theme of his great epic, or the English school-child would not have received its