But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 3

Vicissitudes

The rest of us here at Culture Conquistadors have been talking about Jupiter Ascending and the Wachowskis. It’s about time I get there, too, isn’t it?

Any time a novel, graphic or otherwise, is adapted to the Big Screen, the received wisdom is that the movie is going to be shallower and in some way a disappointment to the novel’s die-hard fans. I’m not going to pretend that this received wisdom is entirely false. On the most basic level: the novel took me about seven hours to read cover-to-cover, and the movie runs a bit north of two hours. This sort of time disparity is common for adaptations, and unless there is a lot of bloat on the page or a truly unrealistic density of ideas on the screen, it’s safe to bet that the movie is shallower or is at least missing some of the threads that the original author saw fit to include.

But that doesn’t need to mean that the movie is bad or even that it’s any worse.

Accusations on that level, I believe, are often (usually?) motivated by a particular mix of childish signaling games. “Criticizing this thing shows that it is beneath my tastes and therefore that I am to be respected” is a painfully common conversational trope. In college dorm rooms, over dinner, at the water cooler, at the barber shop, on internet message boards, everywhere… you see empty criticisms offered by people consciously or subconsciously hoping it’ll make them look better. The other element here is this: since books occupy a higher spot on the intelligentsia’s “culture totem pole” than movies, criticizing the movie in favor of the book also offers a convenient way to signal that one is sophisticated, a world apart from the hoi polloi at the cinema.

In case it isn’t yet clear: I find these kinds of empty criticisms detestable. If you want to engage with our twenty-first century culture/art/entertainment/pop-art by making claims about the relative merits of a novel and its movie adaptation, you’d best be able to explain how you came to that opinion or else face the towering menace that is my literary nerd rage.

So, with all that said? Yeah, the movie isn’t quite as good as the book. But! The Wachowskis went into it with their eyes wide open, and I want to argue that the decisions they made in the adaptation reveal a deep love for the original text, great care taken to preserve (some of) its messages, and great intelligence applied to the enterprise of including as much of the novel’s themes as possible.

Some quick notes on things I liked:

  • I was afraid that, despite the movie being rated R, it would soften the corners and round the edges of Norsefire’s nasty authoritarian England. By and large, it did not. It dotingly preserved the pulpy crassness of the novel, even inventing a few of its own brutalities to keep pace (“Percy gives his Beretta a blowjob, Keyes dies in a fire…”). There was only one bit that I can think of that clearly got cut because it was too extreme for movie audiences (the “virginity examination”), and I don’t think it’s hard to see why.
  • Superhero comic movie adaptations feature a lot of action porn. V for Vendetta, as a pulp comic serial, includes a bit of action porn already. I’m pleased to say that the movie absolutely did not go overboard with it. Suspense and audience interest were sustained by much the same methods as were employed in the comic without resorting to overblown and overextended action sequences.
  • On the other hand, the movie did spend a great deal more time on the fireworks that V produced. Where the comic included only a few frames of towering flames for each of V’s demolitions, the movie extended those into longer sequences, notably the destruction of Parliament set to the 1812 Overture. And that, in my opinion, was a wonderful idea, fitting perfectly with V’s character and the story’s texture. It seemed to me like Moore and Lloyd would have done the same thing if comics allowed them to do it.
  • V’s masked face is used often to build tension in the novel: sometimes we can’t tell what he thinks of what he’s seeing until later in the novel when we understand more about him. This mystery is played up by frames drawn tight around his mask, much the same way the frame might show only a character’s eyes. The movie makes great use of this device, too.

And some quick notes on things I didn’t like:

  • The movie dwells on Guy Fawkes much, much longer than the novel does. It does this, presumably, for the benefit of American audiences who aren’t used to the symbol of his mask. The problem is that Guy Fawkes himself isn’t terribly useful to the story. Sure, one of the ideas is that he should be celebrated as an anti-establishment figure, but Guy Fawkes was caught up in the confusing Protestant-Catholic conflicts of his time, pursuing an agenda that’s mostly alien to modern audiences. So the more we focus on him, the more time we spend tempted to try to read into issues that aren’t relevant to the story. Really, this comes down to the fact that the comic co-opted a symbol that had somewhat taken on a life of its own, beyond Guy Fawkes himself, in Britain, and it would be best if American audiences could somehow be helped to appreciate that without having to get a history lesson on Fawkes himself. Not that I have any good ideas.
  • The language of the movie is updated to contain vocabulary more recognizable to the audiences of 2006. Or, put more cynically, the Wachowskis wanted to take potshots at the Bush administration. For example, much of the state propaganda in the movie took on anti-Muslim aspects. Some of the fleeting visuals of the concentration camps showed Abu Ghraib-esque scenes. Evey’s parents were silenced environmental activists rather than closet socialists. It’s a fair thing to do, to update political satire for new times during the process of adapting an old work. The problem is that the movie tries to maintain the symbols and imagery of fascism as well as these modern insertions, and it woefully confuses and dilutes the strength of those themes. The movie could have been stronger by being more faithful to the fascist elements—maybe with some updated visuals, because something tells me riot-police-as-fascists could be done well—but never losing sight that it’s fascism that the story is about. The movie would stay relevant just fine as a story about people and about the nasty things people can do to each other under the thin guise of keeping order.
  • Pursuant to the modernization of the story, the movie’s plot is given a standard-issue revelation where Finch and Dominic discover at the end that all of V’s individual targets profited greatly off of some medical science conspiracy concocted at the Larkhill concentration camp. This supplants the movie’s explanation for V’s targets, who all became Important People in Positions of Power by participating directly in the military arm of Norsefire and carrying out its atrocities during the British holocaust. This falls pretty squarely under the heading above of “it conceptually works, but you’re diluting your story,” but I’m singling it out for special attention. I think the theme of people achieving power through a sort of vile, militaristic old-boys’ network is much stronger (and less trite, to someone living in the year 2015) than this new one that’s about money being powerful.

But, as I said before, the body of the novel is contained in its characters’ relationships. So the surest way to see how seven hours becomes two hours is to follow the characters and see how they change.

Let’s start with Evey. Evey is played by Natalie Portman, who gives, I think, a pretty great performance (and delivers a serviceable English accent in its pursuit, but what do I know; I’m hardly a movie critic or a Brit). But Evey is markedly different from the word go. Evey is no sixteen-year-old would-be prostitute with little worldly experience; instead, she is a capable young woman with a job in the media office, who is “out to visit her uncle” (later, we learn it was to pay a visit to Gordon, who, we also learn, is in need of a beard. But I’m getting ahead of myself!) when she is caught past curfew by the fingermen. She is, same as before, rescued by V, but the dynamic between them is radically altered: she is not content to merely learn from him. She stands up to him more strongly than book!Evey1, abandoning V of her own volition after V murders the bishop rather than returning with him to the Shadow Gallery and being dropped off in London later. Movie!Evey is has a much more solid cultural footing than her comic counterpart, being able to engage and recognize V’s classic quotations rather than having to ask where each one originated.

But why is Evey so different? This kind of thing doesn’t happen on a whim. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours went into turning that screenplay into a film; it’s unlikely that such a drastic and consistent change in characterization happened by accident. I can think of two main reasons: first of all, there is less time to make Evey’s transformation happen. In the novel, it takes Evey a full year and lots of “screen time” to transform from a scared teenager to an anarchist symbol and creative force for the world. The movie simply did not have time to do the same thing while making it a convincing transformation. It’s not as simple as sticking in a montage halfway through and calling it a metamorphosis; establishing elapsed time and experience like that requires tens of minutes of screen time to work. That’s a lot of minutes.

There’s a second important reason, I suspect, for Evey’s altered character: Rose and Helen. Rose Almond, unfortunately, is completely missing from the movie, as is Helen Heyer. Their absences do have the effect of changing how Adam Susan must die and how we experience the plight of the oppressed, but they also remove the only other sympathetic, living woman from the story as well as the only powerful woman. Yeah… Without Rose’s voice, the story is being told entirely by men, at least until Evey matures. Without Helen, no women in the story have any control over their own destiny, save possibly Evey. The question is, even if the movie were able to capably convey Evey’s journey as it was present in the novel, would her resolve at the end of the story make up for the first hour and a half of the movie where all of the women are either bit characters, dead, or dying? I suspect the Wachowskis chose to empower Evey early on specifically to ensure that women were not depicted merely as helpless creatures for most of the movie, and in that light, it sure looks like a good idea.

Moving on: I don’t have a ton to say about it, but I want to note that the fake concentration camp scene is lovingly preserved from the moment Evey is thrown into the cell to the moment she embraces the rain on the rooftops. It is terrible and powerful on film, and that is a great victory for the movie.

But if the earliest parts of Evey’s arc are clipped, so too is the end. In the movie, Evey never dons V’s mask. In fact, the entire end of the movie is quite a bit different. Whereas in the novel, V destroys the state’s surveillance apparatus, in the movie, V mails Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks to tens of thousands of Londoners, thereby allowing them to escape the Eye a different way. The primary motivation for that change seems to have been to allow for the visuals in the movie’s climax, where the people march on Parliament as a horde of black-cloaked Fawkeses and, as it explodes, remove their masks to reveal people of all walks of life, including a great diversity of characters who died at the hands of the regime. It’s a striking sequence, but it means that Evey herself doesn’t fully inherit V. Movie!Evey speaks to Finch at the end to convey the idea that V is more than a man, he is a symbol, and he stands for everyone who has felt the weight of oppression and the call of freedom. Book!Evey understands it differently: V stands for anarchy and his work isn’t over. The people still need a V to make something of the chaos. This statement is a bit lost in the movie, where it seems more like V’s ultimate victory is sealed as Parliament comes crashing down and the people of London commemorate his brave fight by honoring the symbol of his mask.

The entire arc of the movie is foreshortened in this respect. The novel actually dabbles in a bit of revolutionary philosophy, including a frame where a woman is shown holding a copy of The Confessions of a Revolutionary, and more on the next page where V discusses the unfolding events with Evey:

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This subtlety is missing in the movie, and that is its greatest weakness. The movie retains its anti-fascist message, but it loses completely its anarchic message. All that remains is the Guy Fawkes mask, a celebration of a man who dared to blow up the government. And while that’s a fine thing to retain, it’s a damn shame that the rest is lost.

Finch’s role is largely the same in the novel and the movie, so I’ll pass on over him for now, except to note that Stephen Rea portrays a powerfully sour man. It’s a different look than in the novel, where Finch is more reminiscent of the hardboiled pulp detective, but it’s certainly not a bad one.

Gordon, however, got quite the makeover. In the novel he was an underground booze dealer that Evey fell in with, and in love with, with nowhere in particular to go. In the movie, Gordon is a comedian who runs a slapstick act for the state-run broadcasting company, acquainted with Evey through their mutual place of employment. Book!Evey accidentally finds Gordon after V drops her off on the streets of London, whereas Movie!Evey actively seeks him out after abandoning V with the bishop (neatly fitting in with her adjusted character). After a brief stay with Gordon, Evey learns that: 1) he is an art collector and possesses a Quran that would be his death if it were discovered, 2) he is gay, which would be his death if it was discovered, and 3) he has just produced a bitingly sarcastic act portraying Sutler (the Movie!Leader) as being cartoonishly unable to apprehend V. This goes on to get him thrown in prison, and as it turns out, the discovery of his Quran does get him executed. It seems that Gordon’s character was transformed thusly to better highlight the regime’s oppression and to account for Alistair’s absence2. Since this is a movie, after all, characterizing the regime needs to be done expediently and with a minimum of awkward exposition, as compared to the comic, which has the time to weave in flashbacks and recollections that won’t seem contrived. I really dig that Gordon was made into a performer for these purposes; he fits right in with the rest of our cast of performers, it was a perfectly natural role for Stephen Fry, and the Charlie Chaplin-esque satire was spot-on. On the other hand, this means that the movie completely excises the criminal element of the novel, and dadgummit, that criminal element was an important part of the greater whole! Ah, but it was less important than much of the other stuff that was going on, and so it was, sensibly, cut.

Aside from the missing themes of anarchy, V is mostly unchanged (“besides the fact that it’s about a hundredth of the weight of a lion and hunts mice and lizards instead of wildebeest, yeah, a housecat is mostly the same thing”). Hugo Weaving is given the most technically difficult role in the movie: he must depict a flesh-and-blood man whose face cannot be seen for the duration of the story. He’s convincing, for sure, and his body language, stage presence, and dreamy baritone carry the role perfectly. However: the Wachowskis made some further tweaks to the character. In the novel, V is relentless, even mystical, and he hardly seems human. So far as I can remember, he shows no regret nor any signs of stopping. But in the movie, V has some moments of doubt. Evey leaves, and V angrily tosses his mask against a mirror. Evey emerges from her fake prison, and a slight yet emotive tilt of the head shows that V knows that he has done something vile. Why choose to humanize V in this way? This is the one decision in the entire adaptation that just doesn’t make sense to me. It could be as simple as this: he was the male lead and the Wachowskis thought he needed a nudge in the “more likeable” direction for the mass market. Or maybe, with fewer characters and a shorter timeframe to work with, they thought that an easy way to draw attention to the fact that V is “most unlovely and most unforgiveable” is for him to express a little bit of doubt himself. In either case, I don’t think it was necessary. The entire point of V’s character is that he’s hardly a man, he’s an idea. And they already went in full-bore on that concept with the scene where V kills Sutler and Creedy (a beautiful bit of pulp, by the way. “Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof!”) Why back off of it, even a little bit? We have Evey to sympathize with, especially now that she has some verve from the beginning. The audiences themselves can decide what to think of V.

In the end, what the Wachowskis accomplished capably what they set out to give us. Well, better than capably. The movie has flair. It’s arresting and inspiring, and it was executed with great technical skill and a clear reverence for the source material. I do wish they would’ve more fully explored V’s anarchist side, but maybe it wouldn’t have worked in a two hour movie, or even a two-and-a-half hour movie. I don’t really know; I’m just a nerd on the internet.

V for Vendetta, in summary: Pulp genius, translated by people with a gift for it into a new medium in a way that, unfortunately, shows some of its shortcomings.

England Prevails.


  1. My usage of Exclamation Mark Notation may or may not be primarily tongue-in-cheek. I’ll never tell! 
  2. ALISTAIR IS MISSING. UGH. Possible motives for the Wachowskis writing him out include: they didn’t have enough time to address his criminal themes (which is probably more true than I’m willing to admit); they wanted to avoid the only Scottish guy in the whole story being a murderous crook (the kind of thing that gets heavily scrutinized in big-budget movies; I don’t know whether to give the comic a pass on it or not); they didn’t have enough things for him to do in the story since he mostly interacts with other supporting characters that got cut. Ugh. Ugh! It was almost definitely the right decision, but he was such a great character. Ugh. 

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 2

V for Vendetta can be thought of as a superhero comic, but I have a feeling that Moore and Lloyd would chuckle a very British chuckle at the suggestion. It’s more a politically grounded character drama whose dramatis personae and their relationships are the core of the story.

V, of course, is the masked-and-cloaked avenger whose character arc is the main plot of the novel. We learn a few things early on about him: he is a performer with a flair for the dramatic; he has a deep love for the arts, quoting Macbeth and Faust and even the Rolling Stones as he pursues his foes; and he is hypersensitive to Evey’s thoughts and feelings. There’s something nurturing about him, even despite his abiding mystique. Frankly. the more I write, the more I’m convinced that V is simply the art of performance made flesh. Or, for as much as we see flesh, made fabric and porcelain.

V rescues Evey from the fingermen—the cops—on the night he blows up parliament1, taking her into sanctuary at his home, the Shadow Gallery. Throughout Book One (Europe After the Reign), V abducts and assassinates several members of the ruling fascist party, carrying out his titular vendetta. In my favorite moment he stands with Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey. He strikes up a conversation with her in the dead of night—himself playing both ends—and admits to her that he has been seeing another woman. That woman: anarchy.

Page 40

This scene is the decoder ring for V as a character. It’s easy to underappreciate, since it is a monologue with little importance to the plot. But it tells us everything about V, it does so in two and a half pages, and that is so cool.

First, the obvious: where once he flirted with justice, now he is wholeheartedly devoted to anarchy. Secondly: V flexes his vocabulary, turning what otherwise might be a silent, contemplative moment into a full blown soliloquy, a performance for no one in particular: V would not be V without the drama. Thirdly, the frames in the comic focus tightly on V’s mask and Lady Justice’s stone visage, as if to equate the two. The hint is that V is a symbol just as much as Lady Justice—a connection made more explicit throughout books two and three. Fourthly: V is talking to himself. Let’s not forget that. He is possessed of a certain weirdness, a madness—the madness of Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, a madness with charisma, a madness that captivates.

Now that we know a little more about V, we can begin to understand his relationship with Evey. He rescues her from the night and hides her in the Shadow Gallery, where she gratefully accepts his shelter and comfort. He also takes her under his wing as a student, teaching her about the art lost to the censorious Norsefire regime. She is innocence rescued from the brink—the fact that V rescued her before she was able to successfully prostitute herself is not a narrative accident—and taught to live again. Importantly, despite her closeness with V, she maintains her innocence throughout the novel, notably in three important scene.

In the first, she is made accomplice to a murder and expresses her horror at the events (she had offered to help V unaware that murder was his purpose, his only warning being a reference to Faust when she made the deal). Afterward, V lets her go back out into the streets of London, where she falls in with Gordon. Gordon is a good man at heart, but a criminal, and he meets his end at the hands of a worse criminal: Alistair.

Which leads to the second important scene: Evey takes Gordon’s gun and is about to make an attempt on Alistair’s life when she is snatched from the streets again (by V, although we don’t know this at the time). Her innocence, again, is rescued from oblivion. Her last test comes after her ensuing, ahem, reeducation, where V offers to finish what he had interrupted:

Pages 176-177

What a line, by the way. “It is as easy as it is irrevocable.”

She declines. Why is this all so important? It’s important because despite the fact that V is looking for a protégé, someone to emulate him, he is also looking for an opposite and a complement. V needs someone to create a new society in the wake of his purposeful destruction, and talks about this more and more as the end of his mission approaches and he prepares to pass on his mantle. (Another favorite line: “But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgiveable. Let’s drink their health… then meet them no more.”). He hopes Evey will be this person—and these scenes show that V’s hit the mark. There are some other visual-and-text-level struts that serve as a foundation for this complementary relaitonship, the biggest one being that scene of revelation on the rooftop, post-reeducation, where Evey, having been reborn into the rain, echoes the frequently repeated frame where V escapes from his prison into roaring flames. Fire. V. Water putting out the fire. Evey.

As all this is going on, with V becoming more and more sure of Evey, his efforts to educate her intensify. He begins simply, by drawing her story from her and assuring her that the fascist thugs of the world are unable to harm her. He offers her his library, an endless stream of quotes from the timeless classics, and even bedtime stories about the Land of Do-As-You-Please. He teaches her about drama and magic. And then, he does one of the most famously anti-heroic deeds in all of fiction: he imprisons Evey in a fake concentration camp. You see, V himself was forged in the crucible of atrocities that was a concentration camp, and he believes that the only way for Evey to truly learn what it means to be free is to experience what he experienced. He tortures her, starves her, locks her in a rat-infested cell, and fully convinces her that she has been captured by the fingermen and is going to be executed unless she divulges information about V2. He introduces to her, through a rathole in her cell wall, a letter from a lesbian actress, Valerie, imploring her to hold on to her principles—the same letter V himself received through a rathole in a cell wall all of those years ago.

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At the end of this ordeal, Evey is faced with a test not of her innocence, but of her resolve. She is given a damning confession to sign that will end the torture and may result in her finding work with the fingermen. If she refuses she will be taken out back and shot. Her response? “Thank you… but I’d rather die behind the chemical sheds.”

The most horrifying part is that this ploy works, and after Evey recovers, she thanks V for putting her through the harrowing ordeal. The ethical argument here—whether or not deceiving and subjecting a human being against their will to intense pain and psychological horror in order to better them as a person could be the right thing to do—is fairly well-traveled, and until we can all agree on the matters of ethical philosophy, it’s fundamentally unanswerable. But as Evey furiously struggles to understand what’s been done to her before her moment of revelation, she does have another criticism to offer on V’s approach: “You’re wrong! It’s just life, that’s all! It’s how life is. It’s what we’ve got to put up with. It’s all we’ve got. What gives you the right to decide it’s not good enough?”

Now, given the context of the rest of the book, I’d conclude that Moore and Lloyd deeply believe that even the most painful, ugly steps toward freedom are better than meekly accepting the comfortable evils of a fascist society. But this line is an acknowledgement that the epistemological foundation of that belief is fraught, at the least. Who are we to decide, really? V does anticipate that question, in a way—he’s bringing Evey face-to-face with the other side of the comfortable evils, so she herself can decide. But that doesn’t make what he does before she decides any less horrible3.

In the end, the man who goes by V dies, and Evey takes up the mantle. She dons the cloak and the mask, and she begins the great enterprise of sculpting the chaos of post-Norsefire England into the anarchy V hoped for. And in that way, V will never truly die.

To Think the Way He Thinks, and That Scares Me

There’s one other relationship in the novel I’d like to briefly explore: the relationship between V and Eric Finch. Where sixteen-year-old Evey possesses goodness and strength of spirit, Finch is much older and much more pragmatic. He’s a good man, but he’s been molded by the fascist society to accept the idea that order is preferable to chaos. However, we are introduced very early on to the idea that Finch doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the ruling order. His first real conversation with Adam Susan, the Leader, in the novel goes like this:

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Finch is the investigator (“The Nose”) who is tasked with bringing V to justice after he bombs Parliament. He is, narratively, in the best position (besides Evey) to learn about what V really stands for, indirectly admitting as much: “Because if I’m going to crack this case… and I am… I’m going to have to get right inside his head. To think the way he thinks. And that scares me.”

As befitting a person tasked to highly cerebral work, Finch is a learned man. In investigating the bishop’s murder, he demonstrates a remarkably full understanding of V’s dramatic devices. He notes that V employs a famous quote related to Charles Manson (“I am the devil, and I come to do the devil’s work”), he recognizes his reading of the twenty-third Psalm, he sees how V makes a mockery of the old doctrine of Transubstantiation, and he identifies Beethoven’s Fifth being played over the recording.

So if Evey is V’s counterpart, Finch is, in a way, Evey’s counterpart. Finch represents experience, ot the opposite of youthfulness. He represents understanding of the arts and of society, the opposite of receptiveness to utterly new encounters. And while Evey’s transformation is at the forefront of the novel’s conclusion, Finch is more the model of what it would take and what it would mean for a person who lives under fascism to turn on it and pursue freedom. So how does it happen for Finch? Slowly.

Finch’s development is set in motion late in book one when we learn that he had a romantic relationship with Delia, the medical scientist who experimented on V in the camps and who became the last victim of his vendetta. In taking the first murderous steps toward freedom, V hurt someone close to Finch and enraged him. And yet when Finch discovers and reads her journal of the ghastly things she was involved with in Britain’s holocaust, he is possessed by it. He acknowledges that it could well be a forgery, but he cannot shake the ring of truth.

Months later, being removed from the case thanks to his inability to get along with the new, thuggish head of the state’s law enforcement (Peter Creedy), Finch procures some LSD and sets out to see the remains of the Larkhill concentration camp, seeking answers. I’ll admit, my first impression of the LSD sequence was that it was a tropey self-insertion common to people who have taken hallucinogens and feel the need to evangelize their perspective-altering properties, but I now think that’s an overly cynical reading. The LSD didn’t give Finch any information he didn’t already know—this scene isn’t totally a plot convenience—but it did allow him to absorb and experience the camp, his mind already soaking with the awful knowledge contained in the journal. It also functions as a bit of a symbol for our model citizen-turned-away-from-fascism: in order to understand V and to understand the prison he lives in, he needs to partake in forbidden experiences.

Finally, now that he can think like V does, he is able to follow in V’s footsteps to Victory Station.

By the time he finds Victory Station, V has already set his dominoes in motion. The final nudge was to bomb and destroy the tower that contained the state’s surveillance machinery, giving the people of London just enough wiggle room to get outside and meet each other, to begin little acts of rebellion, to come into contact with the forces of order… and for that contact to plunge London into riotous chaos. So by the time Finch arrives at Victory Station, V’s mission is nearly complete, and that is why V allows Finch to shoot him before he limps back to the Shadow Gallery to speak one last time to Evey.

What follows is one of the most ambiguous events of the whole novel. Finch genuinely celebrates that he was able to bring down V and returns to the offices of the ruling party, proclaiming his victory. He didn’t stick around to watch V die, but judging by the amount of blood left by the retreating masked man, Finch figured he wouldn’t have long to live (and he would be right). But when his assistant, Dominic, presses for details, Finch declines. Where did this happen? “I don’t remember. Must be the drugs, eh?” A frame of the Victory Station sign suggests that Finch remembers perfectly well where it happened; why doesn’t he speak? Does he not know that V has more planned, more going on beneath the station? He saw the subway car, but did he not see the explosives beneath the flowers? Does he believe in V’s purpose? If so, why did he shoot V? Maybe he simply doesn’t appreciate that the location is important?

I think the most likely reading is that Finch sought to punish V for his spree of murders (and conversely, V knew that he deserved it) but, beyond that, did not believe that the Norsefire regime should know more about V’s plans. Now, why Finch doesn’t believe the regime should discover the station is perfectly inscrutable, and given that I’ve been reading Finch as “the model for a citizen who turns against fascism” it might suggest that there might not be a single, easily identified motivation at play. It might be a gut distrust of authority, it might be a decision arrived at after painstaking consideration, or it might be somewhere in between. Whatever the case: Finch, knowingly or unknowingly, allows Evey to finish V’s work pushing England over the brink and into a new era.

By Any Other Name

There are two other threads I want to touch on. The first is the story of Rose Almond, Derek Almond’s wife who becomes a widow halfway through Book One. Her story is a window into the lives of the disempowered: she endures a crumbling relationship with the abusive Derek until he is cut down by V, after which she is courted by the media mogul Roger Dascombe. She finds him revolting and his advances skeezy, but in the end, she is faced with the question: what other choice does she have? She, like much of London, is dependent on the oppressive, abusive regime to survive.

Unfortunately for her, Dascombe is V’s very next victim, and soon we find out that her only recourse is to become a burlesque showgirl at the Kitty Kat Keller club, demeaning work that she hates. Again, we catch a glimpse of the novel’s thematic fabric: she’s an honest woman whose work is a performance. It’s a lurid, sullying sort of performance, but it is a performance nonetheless, and as we’ve seen, the performers and the “liars” of the novel are the ones with the purest of intentions.

Rose’s story comes to a close after her desperation pushes her over the brink and, as part of the mounting turmoil in London, she pulls a gun on Adam Susan’s motorcade and kills him.

The other thread is that of Alistair “Ally” Harper, a Scottish gangster attempting to expand operations in England. Alistair is the worst sort of criminal: brutal and impeccably mercenary. He provides an important counterpoint to the novel’s anti-establishment protagonists we aspire to, as he is the kind of anti-establishment that you hope to never meet. Ally’s thugs are roped in by Peter Creedy to help law enforcement keep its head above the rising tide of chaos in the city, making him a sort of stand-in for the idea that an authoritarian government whose only goal is power is absolutely not above associating itself with the worst in society. But he’s willing to betray Creedy for a raise, and he is hired by Helen Heyer (wealthy socialite and wife of the state’s chief of surveillance) to aid her bid to usurp power from Susan. When Helen’s husband, Conrad, finds out, he and Ally kill each other, completing the parable.

One scene in particular stands out as representative of Ally’s ethic: following his betrayal of Peter Creedy, Creedy begs Ally to shoot him and put a quick end to it. Ally refuses: why waste the ammunition when his razor will do?

(Next time: the Ally-less film adaptation of V for Vendetta.)


  1. In case you’ve seen the movie and not the novel: yes, you heard that right; Parliament blows up first. 
  2. One of the most disgusting details of this sequence is that, as part of her “in-processing,” Evey is subjected to what is implied to be a virginity examination. This comic does not flinch or shirk. 
  3. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four also approaches this question. In the end of the book, Winston is reeducated, and he is happy, and it is horrible. Like Moore and Lloyd, Orwell despised fascism. But I believe they all admit that, if one’s foundation for morality is basic “happiness” (as might be suggested, for example, by certain constructions of the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism), these appalling authoritarian governments might satisfy that. I think that idea repulses them, and they would contend that there is—there has to be—a meaning to life that runs much deeper than just “happiness.” In my opinion, they’d be right, and that pushes me toward the conclusion that what V did was justifiable. It’s a truly uncomfortable conclusion to reach. But that is the beauty of literature, that we engage these ugly questions and admit difficult things about ourselves. 

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 1

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta?

This is part one of a three-part series on V for Vendetta and its Wachowski-produced film adaptation.

We’ve all heard it a million—nay, millions—of times before: The novel was better than the movie! They totally ruined it! It just didn’t seem necessary to dumb the story down so much!

But really. Do we really think that. Or do we think that because that’s what we’re expected to think? Are we just acting on our programming?

V for Vendetta is a comic, one of the all-time greats, that was published serially from 1982 to 1989 and was collected later in graphic novel form. Alan Moore wrote and David Lloyd drew, and in 2006 the Wachowskis wrote and produced a movie adaptation which Moore the comics godhead famously declined to participate in because he believed adaptations of his work up to that point had all been failures.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t likely already know. V for Vendetta stands at one of the most well-traveled and fertile crossroads of our modern Anglo-American zeitgeist: where superhero comics (Superheroes! So hot right now), comic book movie adaptations, sci-fi dystopias, and political commentaries intersect1. If you haven’t seen the Guy Fawkes mask… no, actually, you have seen it. You just might not recognize the name, because, at this point, Guy Fawkes, the named person, is the least important element of the whole enterprise.

But that confluence of fortunate elements is only why we’re talking about the porcelain mask, why it looms, ever-smiling, over popular culture. But what does it mean? For that, we need to do some reading.

A Bastard’s Carnival

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore
There’s sing-songs and surprises!
There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!
There’s mischiefs and malarkies
But no queers or yids or darkies
Within this bastard’s carnival—
This Vicious Cabaret!

I’ll go ahead and say something up-front about V for Vendetta, the graphic novel. It is pulpy. I’m not talking about paper composition; I’m talking about literary composition. I’m talking about genre. But it can be hard to say what that genre, pulp, really is. Critics tend to offer the history of the term as an ink cloud to obscure the fact that they would rather not explore the issue. I suspect it’s because many aren’t confident they really understand what it means to be pulp and what it has to offer. So allow me to attempt to clear it up, or die trying:

  1. Adj. Pejorative: trashy, superficial, exploitative, sensational. Among the (many) things that Serious Literary Types/Real Grown Ups insist are beneath them.
  2. Adj. Affectionate: sensational, lurid, crass, brutal, over-the-top, crude, unabashed.

Two definitions! Because, of course, the term was born of a certain disdain but has since been co-opted by those of us who remain unashamed of our oh-so-plebeian tastes. Anyway: you might think the second doesn’t sound terribly affectionate. I assure you it is.

Topic sentence: V for Vendetta is a dystopian political commentary structured as a pulp serial that unapologetically observes the conventions of the genre, embracing the aspects that foster that affection, which is one of its greatest strengths. This is something that Moore and Lloyd tell us in the very first chapter of the novel. The two main characters, Evey and V, are introduced on the first page, Evey layering on makeup and slipping on a revealing dress in her bedroom, V donning his mask and his wig in a hidden parlor surrounded by bookcases and rousing movie posters. Evey attempts to prostitute herself to a cop, who calls his boys over to join in on the rape before the murder. V quotes Macbeth, literally swoops in, and saves her with tear gas and explosives.

The pulp is strong in the sexual bluntness, the in-your-face parallelism, and the classic dashing heroics. That strength, the sheer volume of this pulp, doesn’t let up for the rest of the book. One of Alan Moore’s favorite conceits (seen a few times in V and several times again in Watchmen) is to juxtapose speech with action: for example, the bishop Anthony Lilliman gives a sermon about “that wrath which did rain fire from the heavens,” the text of which is overlaid on an illustration of V falling upon the guards out front of Westminster Abbey. The reason I call attention to this particular device is that it’s a helluva blunt instrument. It’s a device that is immediately and extremely obvious to the audience, and a ten-year-old with minimal familiarity with composition could probably explain how and why the author/playwright/director employed it.

But we need only embrace the bluntness of the pulp to discover that not only does it successfully convey the obvious message, it also forms part of the novel’s rich thematic texture. To see how, reword what I said before about this particular device: instead of “juxtaposition” and “overlay,” think of it as “saying something while something else is going on underneath.” Put this way, the layering can be seen as a metacommentary on the novel itself. What Moore and Lloyd are saying, to whoever is listening, is that “things might happen in the comic, but something else is going on underneath. Pay attention!” And the ability to do this is afforded to them by the conventions of the genre and the medium they have chosen. It’s something that can only be done when your audience knows to expect, rather than disdain, such baldness. Get what I’m saying? ¡Viva la Pulp!

And remember, too, the drama of the juxtaposition technique. It, and everything else about this book, is striking and dramatic, theatric and vaudeville. All the world’s a stage.

Next time, we’ll meet the performers.


  1. Producing some truly horrific YouTube comment sections. 

The Queen of Air and Darkness

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!

… and…

… 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.

Act One

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.

Questing

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.”

Huh.

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.


  1. And their social standing means that they’re worth far more captured alive and ransomed than they are if killed. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 

The Sword in the Stone

Spoilers for The Sword in the Stone ahead. Eventually.

Take a gander at the movie poster for Inglorious Basterds. Go on, it won’t take you long. Watch the full-length trailer if you’ve got the chance.

If you’ve seen the movie, something about this should strike you as odd. What about Shosanna? What about the German soldier boy, Zoller? Those weren’t exactly bit parts, you know. And, more subtly, what about the character of the movie? The trailer cuts to black as Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew, swings his bat at the sergeant’s head, but in the movie we see every gory detail. We see the Basterds laughing while Donowitz strikes the sergeant’s convulsing body, again and again, until it finally goes limp. I think it should be obvious that a movie that cuts away from that impact (to a shot of Brad Pitt and his jolly band of misfits wincing, perhaps) is very different from the one that lingers and forces us to watch. If not… you’ll have to take my word for it, because really, the point is that I went in to the theater expecting to see one thing, and I got something almost entirely different.

I may have gotten a little carried away in making that point. But, all that said, I’m here to tell you that the folks in marketing have been doing the same thing for decades. In books, even!

The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic

Yes, this is literally a case of judging a book by its cover and the dangers thereof. Regardless of the conventional wisdom on the matter, you don’t put “THE WORLD’S GREATEST FANTASY CLASSIC! CAMELOT AND ROMANCE AND WIZARDRY AND WAR” on the front of a book unless you’re hoping to foster a certain set of expectations. Specifically:

  • Chivalric Romance
  • Epic scope
  • Great pride in the fantasy genre, possibly to the point of self-seriousness
  • Wonders, mystery, majesty

With those expectations in mind, let’s have a passage:

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.
“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”
Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”
Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

So much for Wizardry in the World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic.

Alright, with that out of the way, let me introduce the book.

The Once and Future King is T.H. White’s novelization of the Arthurian legends, published in 1958. It is composed of four books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind, of which the first three had been previously published individually (though The Queen of Air and Darkness was originally The Witch in the Wood, a longer novel with, reportedly, substantial differences). To place this in the history of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings had just been published in 1955, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950. But White had been writing and publishing the individual pieces since 1938—we certainly can’t expect a whole lot of influence from that first round of postwar fantasy novels.

I’ve read The Sword in the Stone. It seems reasonable to stop there and write about it before continuing, seeing as it originally stood alone, and I’ve got a lot to write about. Admittedly, it was not then billed as The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic. So let’s set that complaint aside for a bit and get into it.

Living Backward

White wastes no time introducing and characterizing the story’s main characters. The very first paragraph gives us the Wart (whose name is derived from Art, which is further derived from his full name, which at this point is no mystery1), the batty governess that takes out her frustrations by rapping his knuckles, the firstborn and heir to the estate Kay, and his father and local authority figure Sir Ector. We lose the governess by the end of the paragraph, but at this point we’re only short one major character and a handful of minor ones, and we already feel for the poor Wart and can sense future tension between him and Kay, who is apparently above such unfortunate nicknames. All this I very much appreciate.

Things take a turn for the comedic before the first page is flipped over. The battiness of the governess is played for laughs, and once she’s dismissed, Sir Ector has a conversation with Sir Grummore Grummursum, local knight who happens to be questing in the neighborhood, over some wine and about the boys’ tutelage. Tough day questin’, asks Sir Ector? Yup, replies Sir Grummore. White is the one who’s playing with the word quest like this, not I. The two knights talk about questin’ a bit like that’s the word they use for their nine-to-five. And speaking of which, White introduces us to another one of his devices here. Sir Grummore suggests sending the kids to Eton. The narrator helpfully explains that Sir Grummore didn’t say exactly this, because Eton is understood to be the home of a boarding school that hadn’t been founded at that point—rather, the narrator is just trying to get you the feel for what was said. Same with the wine—they’re not drinking port, really, but it’s the same idea.

Huh.

The Wart eventually gets lost in the woods thanks to Kay’s careless falconry, where he meets the terrifically bumbling King Pellinore (whose title and very existence I can’t yet explain) and, later, Merlyn. Merlyn is an odd fellow who keeps a talking owl (Archimedes) and a whole host of more mundane animals for company, and he claims to live backward through time (and cleverly illustrates how this affects his daily endeavors by asking the Wart to draw a letter by looking at it through a mirror). Let’s be explicit about this: Merlyn is a walking anachronism. When his spells backfire, they do so in goofy ways, like accidentally conjuring the Morning Post or a bowler hat instead of his wizard’s cap. He rattles off anecdotes about Britain in the 1800s to a puzzled Wart.

Again: huh.

Throughout all of this, White’s prose is wonderful. He writes with that fantastical, contractionless storybook lilt that should sound familiar to anyone who remembers fairy tales with fondness. At the same time, he brings to bear a mighty vocabulary for the trappings of day-to-day life in medieval England: fieldwork, jousting, falconry, you name it. It wonderfully illuminates the differences between medieval life and ours. The exacting and subtle classifications of woodland mammals and birds, in particular, seem like they could only be at home in an era where the Forest Sauvage was your back yard and its wild denizens constant companions in your daily life.

I suppose White’s intention is to build and really immerse the reader into the lives of his subjects and then, by breaking up the narrative with some allusions to times closer to ours, contrast it sharply to our weary world. I really wish he hadn’t done this. I’d rather cannonball into the fantasy world and stay there, even if it is a bit of a silly place. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s 2014 (or 1938, whatever) to understand how different, mysterious, and fanciful it is.

And it is fanciful, indeed. The short list of the Wart’s exploits include being transformed into a fish, falcon, ant, goose, and badger (to learn lessons about might, nobility, war, unity, and humanity, respectively), finding Robin Hood, learning the art of woodsmanship from Maid Marian, infiltrating Morgan le Fey’s fey castle, and, of course, pulling a certain sword out of a certain stone.

These adventures are all, essentially, parables, told with an honest simplicity. Wart’s time as a falcon is spent amongst the other hooded falcons, and he must navigate their parliamentary procedures and rituals with his wits and his guts. The ants march to war, but amongst them the Wart only feels alienated and disturbed by their, frankly, alien and disturbing society, which in turn says things about our own. These are not especially profound revelations—the Heart of Darkness, this is not—but, again, they are simple and honest, and they show us the color of our main characters: the Wart, earnest and humble, who thinks himself trapped by circumstance and is mostly unaware of his own great potential and destiny; Merlyn, a wise old man who strives to communicate the Truth in its truest form, parable, and who has amusing quarrels with the local feudal authorities; and Kay, the haughty young nobleman with everything to his name, but who we’re pretty sure has a decent heart way beneath all of it2.

Of Alternate Histories

Oh, and different is another word for it.

Some background: the island of Great Britain was originally inhabited by a Celtic people known as the Britons. The Roman Empire founded a province called Brittania in 43 AD, which crumbled in few centuries but left its mark all the same. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, a mix of Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons, settled/migrated/conquered the island, displacing the Britons and founding, eventually, the Seven Kingdoms of England. Vikings periodically rolled in to make a mess of things. In 1066, William the Bastard (later, the Conqueror) of Normandy would claim the throne by defeating Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, who had hurriedly marched his army to Hastings from its victory over the Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge. This ushered in the era of Norman England, where French became the language of court and William the Conqueror set precedents for the English aristocracy that last to this day.

Historically, King Arthur is guessed to be a king in Sub-Roman England: that is, he was a Briton who ruled after the Roman Empire departed, but before (and during) the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

This did not suit T.H. White.

In chapter 22, King Pellinore delivers the news: King Uther Pendragon is dead. So far, nothing unusual about that; we know King Arthur needs to take the throne eventually. But then, Pellinore says this:

“It is solemn, isn’t it?” said King Pellinore, “what? Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216.”

I had spent the greater part of the book wondering what kind of role King Arthur was going to play in the world, and, of course, what the historical/fantastical balance of the story was. This line resolved those questions so violently it made my head spin. The unmistakable implication is that, in this world, Uther Pendragon won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and proceeded to rule for a century and a half3 (a fact buttressed by references to the Norman aristocracy and Anglo-Saxon “rebels”4 elsewhere in the story).

Maybe it doesn’t line up to the historians’ best guess at the situation, but it is really damn cool. T.H. White spends quite a bit of time establishing and foreshadowing future themes in the Wart’s education under Merlyn, like clashing cultures, propaganda, unity, and war. I can only imagine that the legacy of Uther Pendragon, a larger-than-life version of William the Conqueror5, is going to be loaded with these heady, weighty struggles for his young heir. That is most exciting.

Rightwise King Born of All England

I opened this essay with some acrid questions about what kind of great fantasy classic The Sword in the Stone was, and you may have noticed that I’ve pretty well backed off since then.

Normally, I might edit my introduction so that it would join better with the rest, and so all of my thoughts would flow gently toward some coherent, proper conclusion. But this isn’t high school, so I didn’t. This way better captures my opinion of the book, anyway. I started completely put off by White’s anachronistic style and irreverent play on high medieval romance. But the technique he employs and the flair with which he fulfills that vision are mightily impressive, and honestly, those self-absorbed knights could stand being knocked down a peg anyway. And beneath the satire and the trappings and the prose is a kind of pre-coming-of-age story with well-thought-out characters who are both mythical and so very human, and maybe it’s because they don’t need to fill those stuffy romantic archetypes. For that, I can’t hold a grudge.

All I can do now is be excited to see these characters launched into the meaty middle of the Arthurian legend.


  1. But it isn’t written out until the very last word of the book! That’s dedication. 
  2. Kay’s character seems, to me, very ambiguous and his development incomplete. Merlyn sends the Wart and Kay off to Robin Hood’s hideout, a quest which culminates in their successful infiltration of Morgan le Fey’s castle and their troublesome exfiltration, where Kay slays the griffin as it bears down on the Wart. A re-reading of the passage where the Wart asks why Merlyn never transforms Kay suggests that Merlyn is safeguarding Kay’s bravado: if Kay fails before his time, so too may his courage, and presumably that would cause some calamity. So Kay’s involvement on this quest may be part of Merlyn’s plan to bolster his reputation and ego—but to what end? And later, Kay claims that he pulled the sword from the stone, a bald lie that he recants immediately when pressed for honesty by his father. This puzzles me. Was it a lie of convenience that he backed down from when Sir Ector got him to consider the morality of what he was doing? This reading would demonstrate that Kay, underneath, really is a good guy and is destined to be a loyal knight, even with his hubris. But it seems unsatisfying. Maybe that’s just because it’s a situation I’m not used to seeing in literature, TV, or movies—more often, characters that lie will live and die by their falsehoods. 
  3. I wonder, too, if 1216 is significant. It is the same year King John died of illness on the march during the First Barons’ war, although it does not seem like King Uther was at war. Maybe it’s a hint that King Uther’s reign extended past what would have been the date of the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), and thus, that never happened in this history? 
  4. Robin Hood is apparently one of these. I am undecided as to whether I like this or not. It contravenes most Robin Hood legends and scholarship, which place him as a yeoman, earl, or thief rather than an Anglo-Saxon partisan, but White just did the same kind of thing with King Arthur, and I haven’t complained about that yet. Robin Hood remains an anti-authority figure and retains his band of merry men, but surely he loses the Sheriff of Nottingham in this transition. What is Robin Hood without his Sheriff? In this book, he’s a kindly guide to the Wart and Kay, and he’s friend enough to Sir Ector that they can look past the fact that they’re supposed to be political enemies, or something. Hopefully he steps up his outlaw game in the next few books. 
  5. William the Conqueror is one of the most important people in western history. Can you imagine a larger-than-life version of him? It’s like trying to imagine a bolder Julius Caesar or a more brilliant Isaac Newton. If Uther Pendragon is half of what I’m imagining him to be, he’ll still be a perfect emblem for the potential of the fantasy genre.