Just like my prior sermon on The Sword in the Stone, I’m going to begin this one on The Queen of Air and Darkness with a cruel, vital critique.
The title character doesn’t speak a single line!
… er… that turns out to be a very effective strut in T.H. White’s storytelling structure.
Look, I don’t have a good, general, hard-hitting criticism to open with. And maybe I don’t even have any stern pronouncements to sustain my disapproval through to a cold, rueful conclusion. Maybe someday I’ll grow up to be big and strong like the adult book critics, but not today. Today, I just like this book too damn much.
In 1939, The Witch in the Wood was published as the second book in T.H. White’s Arthurian series following The Sword in the Stone. It would later be substantially rewritten and renamed The Queen of Air and Darkness for the 1958 series compilation, The Once and Future King.
Why, you ask, does that heading up there say Act One, when this is clearly book two? It’s because this book is tremendously different from book one. Through the modern lens of the three-act structure, this book appears to be laying the foundation, and it’s laying the foundation for something much different than The Sword in the Stone was preparing us for. It is true, the first book did establish themes we get a glimpse of in this one. Merlyn employed some unforgettable, unconventional teaching devices to teach the Wart—or to let him teach himself—the things Kings must know. The Wart learned about war, he learned about human struggle, and he learned about politics. And now that he is King Arthur, he does have an opportunity to channel those lessons.
But King Lot isn’t the real villain. He’s just a patsy. He’s just a pawn, or at most a knight, on this board.
So this is Act One. And it’s the Act One for a far different Act Two than the one that might have otherwise followed The Sword in the Stone.
Saxons, Normans, and Gaels, Oh My
The black cat lay on its side in the firelight as if it were dead. This was because its legs were tied together, like the legs of a roe deer which is to be carried home from the hunt. It had given up struggling and now lay gazing into the fire with slit eyes and heaving sides, curiously resigned.
The cat ends up in a boiling cauldron by the end of the scene, and that’s the side story of this chapter. The first chapter. This was quite the surprise coming off the indelibly cheery Sword in the Stone. Anyway, the main strand is upstairs, where Queen Morgause’s four children (Gareth, Gawaine, Agravaine, and Gaheris) whisper to each other about the Normans’ past wrongs to their family. And, alright, maybe I do have a complaint: I can’t keep these characters straight. They’re all redhead Gaelic kids with confused moral compasses, they’re never apart from each other, and, of course, their names all sound the same. I’m sure a very careful reading—with notes, and flowcharts—will reveal more about their characters and their individual differences. But aside from a very interesting scene involving a unicorn and their mother’s transient love, we’re going to need to wait until their arcs interact with Arthur’s to know what they stand for in this story. That’s disappointing, given the amount of pages dedicated to them in this book, but I have high hopes that it’ll pay off shortly.
My high hopes are mostly founded on the circumstances of their upbringing, as Gaels and as family enemies to the Pendragons.
You see, Arthur’s central conflict in this book is with their father, King Lot. As the children recite to each other the story of their family’s bad blood with the Pendragons (Uther the Conqueror slew their grandfather and took their widowed grandmother as wife), King Lot marches to war. “Revenge!” exclaims Gawaine. But Merlyn takes a different view. The point he drives at with Arthur is that King Lot seeks no redress for any particular wrongs, nor is he raising his banner for any moral or legal cause. Lot and his league of Celtic lords are marching on England because they can. The throne appears weak to them, inherited by a boy king with an unusual legal basis for his claim. The risk to their persons is minimal, because the chivalric code of the High Middle Ages demands it, above all else1. All that’s left is to stir the passions of their subjects by condemning Norman oppression and the Pendragon legacy.
This conflict foments so many cool things.
First, Merlyn’s purpose in the story comes into sharp focus. Sure, we know that he’s Arthur’s mentor. But now we know why Arthur’s mentor had to be a crazy old coot from the future. Arthur needs someone capable of telling him about the evils of war, and there is nobody better for that than someone who has lived through World War II. Arthur needs someone who can study the long arc of history like we can, knows a flimsy casus belli when he sees one, and knows how “racial histories” can be at once meaningless and critically important. Arthur needs someone who knows that King Lot is not truly a superior man to the peasants he commands. A man born and raised in the High Middle Ages is unlikely to share our (the audience’s) perspective on such matters, but a man born and raised in the 20th century just might. This is cool enough for me to forgive (but not entirely forget) much of the silliness of the first book.
Arthur also comes to the foreground and begins earnest development as a man and as a King. I’m not necessarily upset that he was an innocent sponge for the incredible world around him in The Sword in the Stone, but this is far more interesting. I have three favorite Arthur scenes throughout the story. The first is atop the battlements:
Arthur, who had been playing with a loose stone which he had dislodged from one of the machicolations, got tired of thinking and leaned over with the stone in his hand.
“How small Curselaine looks.”
“He is tiny.”
“I wonder what would happen if I dropped this stone on his head?”
Merlyn measured the distance.
“At thirty-two feet per second,” he said, “I think it would kill him dead. Four hundred g is enough to shatter the skull.”
“I have never killed anybody like that,” said the boy, in an inquisitive tone.
Merlyn was watching.
“You are the King,” he said.
Then he added, “Nobody can say anything to you if you try.”
Arthur stayed motionless, leaning out with the stone in his hand. Then, without his body moving, his eyes slid sideways to meet his tutor’s.
The stone knocked Merlyn’s hat off as clean as a whistle, and the old gentleman chased him featly down the stairs, waving his wand of lignum vitae.
And he was happy.
This scene is so laden with both characterization and metaphor it’s impossible not to completely love. The obvious focus is Arthur’s refusal to exercise his absolute sovereignty as King in such a manner. But also: Arthur regards the workman from such height and distance, and yet he knows his name! Meanwhile, allow me to gush over the line: “Merlyn was watching.” It’s a beautiful sort of understatement, where White conveys the crushing gravity of the situation by refusing to employ any sort of adjective or adverb. Instead, he drains all detail from the scene except for Arthur and his stone, and takes three words to tell us that Merlyn finds those two objects the most important things in the world in this moment.
Arthur not only passes the test, he makes us wonder if we should ever have been worried in the first place.
Later in the story, Arthur comes of age in the full view of his war council. He delivers a speech to Kay, Merlyn, and the assembled nobility that beings hesitantly and haltingly, but gathers steam as his future comes into vision. Merlyn continues to employ his finest technique: refusing to help Arthur pass the most important tests of his youth, so that he may be truly ready to face those later in his life. The speech itself contains Arthur’s central thesis in this story, and presumably his thesis in the two stories to come: Might does not make right. His adversary, King Lot, may believe that his power entitles him to make war like it’s a grand afternoon fox hunt (a potent simile White returns to again and again), but Arthur sees how wrong that is for the conscripts sent to the war, the villages burned, and the people terrorized. King Arthur proposes a new order of chivalry, one built around truer notions of fairness and kindness to all people—not just the “noble” ones.
But to bring this new chivalry to life, Arthur needs to take some lessons from his father2.
At Bedegraine, Arthur begins the battle by falling upon Lot’s camps in the darkness of the night, explicitly ignoring the knightly convention of pitching the battle in the morning after breakfast. Not only that, but he orders his cavalry to run down nobleman and conscript alike—even ordering his knights to avoid the commoners, as the lords are the true perpetrators of the rebellion. And when Lot’s retinue is in dire straits, French cavalry spring from hiding in the forest to deal the last crushing blow of the first day. So as to show his opponents—and his allies—what it meant to be at war, Arthur had intended that “they were to press the war home to its real lords—until they themselves were ready to restrain from warfare, being confronted with its reality.” That line may be somewhat reserved, but put into the context of the actual battle—described vividly with the sounds of thundering hoofbeats of the warhorses, the quaking of the earth beneath them, and the immense shattering of arms—I think it’s pretty clear that what Arthur is doing is crushing a rebellion. Ruthlessly. Daddy would be proud.
The second day of battle ends with King Arthur accepting Lot’s surrender. King Arthur’s ferocity wins the day, but as for its real goal—showing the barons and dukes real war, so that they may refrain from making a hobby of it—its success has yet to be proven.
The book isn’t without its levity.
King Pellinore, Sir Grummore Grummursum, and Sir Palomides (a newly-introduced Saracen knight) are out questing, and they deliver to us some truly weird scenes. Including their very first scene, where they arrive by barge in the Orkney Isles (Scotland), humorously unaware that their political affiliations place them technically at war with the locals. The locals draw up in a circle, astounded by the wealth on display in the knights’ armor, and then “in the minds of both women and men, irrespective of age or circumstance, there began to grow, almost visibly, almost tangibly, the enormous, the incalculable miasma which is the leading feature of the Gaelic brain.”
So far, The Once and Future King has done some strange things with “racial” concepts. It must be said that ethnic groupings in the middle ages were important. Identifying with one’s “nation” didn’t become exceedingly important until the 18th century, so if you were going to identify with anything on that scale, it would be with the people whose language you spoke. In high medieval England, the Anglo-Saxons spoke the west Germanic language that, by this time, would probably be called English. The Scots (often “Gaels” in this tale) would have mostly spoken Scottish Gaelic, the Irish had their own brand of Gaelic, and the Normans spoke French. There are accounts of Anglo-Saxons displeased with the Norman ruling class, and there are accounts of hostility between the Scots as a people and England as a ruling entity. So a certain enmity between peoples seems like an appropriate thing to include in medieval fantasy, and indeed, it’s an important part of Arthur’s place in the world (even if nowadays serious anthropologists avoid the word “race” because it makes all sorts of crude and flat-out incorrect implications). White takes care to distance Arthur from this enmity in some ways: at Bedegraine, Arthur sends his peasant levies to engage and occupy Lot’s levies, and part of Arthur’s justification for it is that the peasants’ “racial struggle” had a “certain reality even if it was a wicked one.” So while Arthur is willing to let his subjects settle their differences, it seems he does not see those differences to be worth fighting over, if he even sees the differences at all. But then you get scenes like the knights’ landing in Orkney, where White makes frustratingly vague declarations about the Gaelic people, and he tends to cast Scots and Irishmen as all of his drunks and cheats and wicked children. I’m inclined to be charitable given that he gave Arthur’s character a feeling of brotherhood for men of all cultures and tongues, but I have my eye on you, White.
Anyway, the knights go on to (continue to) produce some enjoyable, if a little confused, satire of knightly romance. King Pellinore pines for an unattainable lady in a tower—though really, in the end, it was just that their letters to each other weren’t getting delivered—while Sir Grummursum and Sir Palomides fuss over his cessation of the hunt for Glatisant, the Questing Beast. By the end of the story, they stitch together and dress in a tandem beast costume to try to reignite Pellinore’s passion for the hunt, and for their troubles they only succeed in kindling a different sort of passion in Glatisant herself. It reads quite a bit like a Bugs Bunny cartoon acted by the Monty Python crew. And as satire, it functions a little bit like that, too: it’s worth some giggles, but maybe it’s taking the absurdism a little further than my unsophisticated American sense of humor can put in context.
The three knights serve another purpose in that they’re geographically close to Queen Morgause and her children, so there are a handful of opportunities to juxtapose the Norman (and Saracen) knights with the Gaelic nobility. Queen Morgause makes a pass at the knights, for reasons we are unsure of. The attempt is implied to be unsuccessful, and I wager it’s because of the knights’ delightful obliviousness. The Unicorn hunt, where the four children rope a frightened scullery maid into being the bait so that they may ultimately slay a graceful and peaceful creature, might be some sort of horrible inversion on the pointless but completely charming hunt for the Questing Beast. The children are filled with the fecklessness and occasionally wicked impulses of youth, where the knights seem to be youthfully earnest and innocent. I do so ever hope that this is meant to be characterization for the coming stories, because it could be very cool to see these characters all grown up—and even sitting at the same Round Table, judging by some of their names.
Air and Darkness
The book ends with the King and Queen Pellinore’s wedding. Given the characters involved, we’re not terribly surprised to find it delightful and a little bit silly. But the very last page of the book casts a tremendous shadow over the entire story: Arthur, alone in his throne room, is visited by Queen Morgause. She’s still chasing Normans, it seems, but this time, she brought a Spancel—a long tape of human skin, taken from the silhouette of a dead man—and used it as part of a foul spell to enchant and seduce Arthur.
In this book, as in many tellings of the Arthurian legends, Morgause is Arthur’s half-sister: born of Arthur’s mother (Igraine) and the Earl of Cornwall. The narrator has this to say3:
It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.
And it seems The Once and Future King, too, is destined to end in tragedy.
The Queen of Air and Darkness is a wonderful story, peppered with humor and horror. I’d say it’s got just the right amounts of both, though the humor was a bit silly for my taste. But, like The Sword in the Stone, its greatest achievements are the ones it promises to set up for future stories. Arthur’s next task is going to be, presumably, to establish his Round Table and to get the knights of the realm to actually sit at it. He’s going to have lots of different backgrounds and personalities to grapple with as well as a leaden political climate, and they’re going to test his nascent leadership capabilities.
Hopefully, some of those personalities include the redhead children. I’ll be a little angry if I spent chapters puzzling at the purpose of their ambiguously racist antics for nothing.
- And their social standing means that they’re worth far more captured alive and ransomed than they are if killed. ↩
- Remember how excited I was to learn about Uther Pendragon’s legacy? We get glimpses of it throughout the story, and it makes me hunger for more. The most memorable moment is Arthur’s first scene in the book, where he wears a velvet robe that Uther had commissioned to be trimmed with the beards of his vanquished foes. Whoa. ↩
- This is an explicit nod to an old chivalric romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory during the War of the Roses. It’s considered something of a canonical telling of the legends and was apparently White’s source for much of this story. ↩