Version classiqueVersion mobile

Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

c) “Beastly anachronism.” Nature and politics in T. H. White’s King Arthur Cycle

b) The silence of the dogs: acceptance vs. anthropological pessimism in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King

Danko Kamčevski

Texte intégral

1White’s animal symbolism relies on religious, scientific and ideological analogies in its examination of the human condition. To begin with, an obvious source was the medieval bestiary, one of which White himself translated and edited (White, The Book of Beasts). Each animal has an “added symbolism” of vices, virtues, and character traits, already seen in Christ’s dictum to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). The bestiary is not a mere medieval “zoology book” but a handbook of Christian doctrine, as well.

2The problem begins when human behaviour is compared to that of animals. On the one hand, The Old Testament elevates humans over animals (Genesis 1:26-29); on the other, experience tells us that humans are far from being the pinnacle of creation. Thus, in The Old Arcadia, Sidney enumerates animals and their virtues, and when he reaches humans, he singles out the human capacity for destruction and torture: “At length for glutton taste he did them kill; / At last for sport their silly lives did spill” (Sidney 2008, p. 225).

3The episode in Sidney is highly reminiscent of the court case against humanity in White’s Book of Merlyn. Instead of protecting other animals (by being their shepherds and guardians), humans have become their torturers. Against the Christian backdrop, humans appear as failure. Another analogy White employs is that of biology. White makes several attempts to define humans, finally reaching the definition of “homo ferox,” a highly destructive animal, “the Inventor of Cruelty to Animals” (White, The Once, p. 758). However, just as humans have not lived up to God’s expectations, now they cannot fit into the evolutionary framework. Humans are animals who do not adapt to the environment and in fact try to adapt the environment to themselves. There seems to be no appropriate definition which could encapsulate human essence because humans themselves are unable to fit in their environment. Merlyn’s old age and living in reverse symbolize this fruitless research into human history. The more he goes into the past, the more he is confused, angered, and shocked.

4The third analogy White makes is sociological. Again, there is a precursor in The Old Testament—namely, in The Book of Daniel, where various animals, such as the lion, bear, and leopard, symbolize historical kingdoms and empires. White is more abstract, aiming at political systems and ideologies, which were supposed to settle humans, but have in fact produced the very opposite effect. The systems fall apart, and humans are forced to live in their ruins: the Great Depression following the ruin of liberalism; gulags following the Communist revolution; concentration camps and racialist theories proceeding from Nazism; and, finally, nuclear disaster looming ever since the Cold War. A fitting biblical image would be the Tower of Babel: an attempt to reach heaven on earth ending in confusion and destruction. These systems are too fragile and transitory. Wart can stay in each of them for a very short span of time. This means that states of equilibrium or relative peace such as the anarchic order of the geese are sadly impermanent. Humans are practically unable to form stable systems that are not oppressive. The magical dimension reflects their essential unreality. Ideologies and political systems are built on our fantasies. The collectivism of ants, the anarchism of geese, and the totalitarianism of fish are equally unreal.

5Having all this in mind, we now proceed to dogs, who hold a special place in White’s opus, as well as his private life. The first thing to notice is that there is no split between dogs and humans. Dogs and humans live in each other’s worlds. Bestiary notes that there are boys chosen to live with the dogs and cater to their needs, called “dog-boys,” also featured in The Once and Future King. In The Once and Future King all identifications with animals are imaginal and impermanent, whereas the community of dogs and humans is permanent and real. Dogs symbolize acceptance of humans such as they are. Language splits us into subjects making judgements of objects; therefore, White’s dogs almost do not speak. The only time the dog does speak, it is to defend humans from the accusations of other animals, speaking “in unison with his master” (White, The Once, p. 763). Refraining from judgement, dogs symbolize Christian compassion. We may never find solutions to war, violence, sin, or attain virtue and become godlike. But we still have the compassion and silent patience of the dogs at our disposal. The silence of the dogs means not to indulge in fantasies of universal, systemic solutions. It means to choose empathy and compassion instead.


6Sidney, The Old
White, The Book of Beasts
White, The Book of Merlyn
White, The Once


University of Kragujevac

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search