Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Book of Merlyn and its Howardian connection

A good man’s example always does instruct the ignorant and lessens their rage, little by little through the ages, until the spirit of the waters is content: and so, strong courage to Your Majesty, and a tranquil heart.

—T.H. White,
The Book of Merlyn

The King Arthur myth has been told, re-told, and re-imagined countless times. I’ve read many interpretations, though far from all, from authors as diverse as Bernard Cornwell (The Warlord Trilogy) to Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, et. al.). But of all these, The Once and Future King and its separately published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, is probably the most approachable version of the Arthur myth I’ve ever encountered. And it’s certainly my favorite.

For obvious reasons, I often feel a need to draw parallels between Robert E. Howard and other authors when writing blog posts over at The Cimmerian. But in this case, I didn’t have to look far, nor make any dubious, tenuous connections. At their core, White and Howard share the same pessimistic view of humanity. For Howard, barbarism was the natural state of mankind. White believed that mankind’s natural state was Homo Ferox, or “Ferocious man.” There is no leap required; these two men of different nationalities and stations in life drew the same bleak conclusions about mankind.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.


Eric D. Lehman said...

Merlyn wrung his hands. “Well anyway,” he said, “suppose they did not let you stand against all the evil in the world?” “I could ask,” said the Wart. “You could ask,” repeated Merlyn. He thrust the end of his beard into his mouth, stared tragically at the fire, and began to munch it fiercely.

Great stuff. White assumes we KNOW the Arthur story before reading TOAFK, and plays with that expectation beautifully, giving some of the most heartbreaking moments in any version of the tale.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Eric, that's a great point. There are a few places where White basically says, "Malory wrote this beautifully already, and you know the story from here." But rather than weakening the story, that foreknowledge and expectation really makes The Once and Future King/The Book of Merlyn all the more tragic and more powerful.