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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

3) Escapism through animal nature: leaving human politics in the Book of Merlyn

Justine Breton

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1In The Sword in the Stone (1938), T. H. White insists on the political and social education of the young hero, the future King Arthur, whose tutoring is mainly developed through animal examples. In this first volume, later re-written to incorporate the essential chapters about the ants and the wild geese, Nature becomes the key to a better organization for human beings. This interpretation, which defines Arthur’s leadership in most of The Once and Future King, is, however, deeply nuanced in the last book of the pentalogy, which White was unable to publish in the complete edition of 1958 and which remained unknown until its posthumous publication in 1977.

2In The Book of Merlyn, animals become a way for the king to temporarily set aside his political burden and to enjoy—and suffer from—the emotional aspects of a life that rises above species. More than ever, Arthur as a human being seeks in animals a comfort and a distraction from his tragic situation: at the eve of his fatal battle against his own son Mordred, reflecting on the numerous betrayals he suffered from, Arthur wants to “escape” from Merlyn, from his political agenda, and more importantly from being human. The particular context of the Middle Ages and of the Arthurian legend becomes an excuse for a wider reflection on human nature compared to other animal situations.

3After showing animals as political examples in Arthur’s youth, T. H. White established here a narrative and ethical shift, in order to present animals as the only escape from human politics. This alteration of the image of animals is first of all the consequence of the author’s temporary lack of faith in human politics, following the Second World War. Animals seem to embody everything humans are not: more than a potential source of inspiration for human beings and their social and political organization, they represent a moral and ethical superiority that mankind forgot. However, this change in the way human beings perceive animals also emphasizes the cyclical structure of The Once and Future King, with The Book of Merlyn concluding Arthur’s education and journey.

4While the king, following the representation of Charlemagne in The Song of Roland, has lost faith in politics and in the utility of fighting for the realm, he turns to animals to find comfort in this last volume. Three animals play a key role in the king’s reflection in The Book of Merlyn: the dog, the wild goose, and the hedgehog.

5The dog, Cavall, does not play a political role per se in Arthur’s life but is the symbol of pure friendship and loyalty. As such, Cavall represents what the king could never really find during his human experience and what humanity fails to be. The female wild goose, Lyó-lyok, presents the old king with a new opportunity for a simple and happy life, far from politics and the betrayals of mankind. In a representation that highlights T. H. White’s misogyny and his tendencies towards misanthropy, Lyó-lyok is seen as a model for female perfection, focusing on her unadulterated nature. The little anonymous hedgehog, with its working-class speech, is more directly linked to Arthur’s political function. In this adventure, the king is surrounded by many animals—a badger, a snake, an owl, a falcon, and a goat, all old friends that Arthur met in The Sword in the Stone—and by his teacher, the enchanter Merlyn, but all keep pointing out humanity’s flaws, leaving Arthur desperate. The little hedgehog is the only one following him blindly and hopefully. It embodies Britain’s simple and pure patriotism, looking up to the legendary king as a defender of his people.

6For T. H. White, escapism is not a dangerous diffraction of human attention, nor is it a romantic distraction. It is a necessary salvation. Through a brief digression in his heavy political duty, Arthur finds honesty, friendship, patriotism, and love among animals, as a replacement for the constant fear of death. Instead of shielding him from the issues of human beings, animals help him come to terms with his own humanity. As a consequence, escapism is welcome within the story because it works as a protection for the character, as well as for the reader; it does not blind the hero but rather helps him see more clearly the path he has to follow. At the end of The Book of Merlyn, Arthur is once again a legendary king, who goes back to fight for humanity. In this fantasy novel, deeply inspired by the historical context, T. H. White proposes escapism through animal nature as a solution to alleviate humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction.


7Song of Roland
White, The Book of Merlyn
White, The Once
White, The Sword

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