Table of Contents
2 The Book of Merlyn as a part of The Once and Future King
2.2 The Special Status within the Whole Pentalogy
3 Animals in T.H. White’s Writing
3.1 Human Cruelty and Stupidity- The Animals as Plaintiffs
3.2 Politics and Social Systems in the Kingdom of Animals and Man
4 The Consequences for Arthur’s Actions
“Even the Greek definition anthropos, He Who Looks Up, is inaccurate. Man seldom looks above his own height […]” (White 53). This acknowledgement by Merlyn gives a good impression of the whole tenor of the novel The Book of Merlyn. This work is part of the pentalogy The Once and Future King, which retells the Arthurian legend . In this book King Arthur, not a young boy anymore and facing a battle with his enemy Mordred, finds himself standing in front of a council consisting of various types of wise animals who deal with a difficult question: In what way does human kind distinguish itself from other species and how do they fit into the world?
It is common knowledge that neither modesty nor peaceableness is one of human kind’s speciality. No species eliminates land, other creatures and even members of their own race in such great extent like mankind did and is still doing. These and other issues are in the centre of attention in this novel. Furthermore the characters discuss a lot about political and social systems and in how far some of these are or are not just a characteristic of human societies. However, the reader of the pentalogy by T.H. White could wonder why these matters are so important for the Arthurian legend or the course of this version of the story in specific.
Especially the fact that many subjects of discussion refer to many historical events and figures who existed in the modern age and some of them even at White’s time is very confusing and does not fit into the pattern of the pentalogy. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that these issues have a special meaning within the whole work and support the plot in many ways. The modern aspects of this book turn the whole historical fantasy saga into a socio-political and philosophical reading. And this makes the story more multifaceted. So, beneath the fact that Arthur represents a thoroughly heroic figure, who stands in contrast to the evil ones and does heroic deeds, the reader is also confronted with a more complex picture of the human race and with the inconvenient truth about its apparent leading position in the world.
2 The Book of Merlyn as a part of The Once and Future King
The Book of Merlyn is the fifth part of the pentalogy The Once and Future King, which consists of four preceding parts with the titles The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. These four parts were published as a composition in 1958. The Book of Merlyn was published in 1977, when T.H. White was already deceased. Interestingly, the fifth and last published part does not quite continue the course of the story after the end of the formerly last part The Candle in the Wind. It rather is a flashback to the episode in the first book, The Sword in the Stone, when Merlyn educated Arthur with animals. In the fifth part, it is revealed that the episode with Arthur’s transformation already lies in the past (White, The Once and Future King 164), but comes up again for the reader because Merlyn travels back in time in order to teach Arthur about what he has experienced and learned in the future.
In the introduction of the novel T.H. White recapitulates the preceding course of events in the pentalogy until that point. The main points include Arthur’s childhood at Sir Ector’s castle, his enthronement, his ambition to create the civilised world, the creation of the Round Table as a result of his ambition to find the Holy Grail and several other events during his reign such as his less noble deed, which was his sexual involvement with his half sister and the resulting birth of an incestuous child named Mordred, who became his enemy in the end. His marriage to Guenever suffered from this adultery and she began an affair with Sir Lancelot, who was his most important knight and member of the Round Table. This fact, arguments among the Knights of the Round Table and Mordred’s hatred of his father finally weakened the king’s position and he now finds himself alone in his tent on the evening before the battle against his own son. This is the point, when the actual plot of The Book of Merlyn begins.
Arthur is sitting in his tent “fulfilling his royal duties” when suddenly Merlyn, his former tutor, appears. Arthur is delighted but also frustrated at the sight of the magician, because he does not see the benefits of Merlyn’s lessons anymore considering human’s treachery and brutality even among his own people. Merlyn encourages him not to give up on his strive for creating a civilised kingdom. However, the magician reveals the actual reason for his visit which is an invitation from some of Arthur’s old friends, as he calls them.
It turns out that Arthur’s old friends Merlyn was referring to are the animals of the Committee. He got to know them in his youth, when Merlyn took them to them in order to learn something about the kingdom of animals and their politics. Arthur and the member of the Committee are very happy to meet again and after a warm welcome scene the attention is abruptly drawn to the reason for this gathering.
The Committee tells Arthur what their actual aims are. They describe themselves as “the Committee on the Might in Men”, who try to understand human affairs and problems of their existence. Their task is to contribute to Arthur’s education in order to make him understand the world better.
In the following chapters they talk about the different political systems one can find not only in human but also in animal societies. Furthermore they argument about a proper scientific name for the human race for they do not appreciate the epithet sapiens. This causes three alternative suggestions which are ferox, stultus and impoliticus. The reasons for these descriptions are all plausible to him, but discourage Arthur in his endeavours as a king and he sees no reason why one should occupy with the problems of the human race anyway. However, the Committee assure him that there only aim is to help and offer some kind of foundation to solve his problems and puzzles. In order to support his education, Merlyn wants Arthur to transform into two kinds of animals, the ant and the goose.
When Arthur is turned into an ant he finds himself as part of a social system in which every member of the nest is a dedicated work force, whose only task and purpose is to do its work and that always in the same way and accurately. They do not know about individuality, happiness, freedom and satisfaction of own needs but just the satisfaction of their leader’s needs. Actually they do not know much about anything except what is right or wrong. In the ant’s world it is called Done or Not-Done. There are fixed patterns and images in their brains and they cannot be verified. Arthur feels uncomfortable in this system and is shocked by the fact that not even an ant’s stomach is its own property. When Arthur is retransformed, he tells his impressions to the others and they talk about the kind of system the ants live in. The result is a discussion about War, when Merlyn suggests that ants are living in a Communist state, but the badger disagrees for ants do fight wars and Communists would not, because they are striving for the world being a union and if there is only one union there cannot be war. Finally, Merlyn avoids a political classification and states that ants deny the right of the individual.
The second transformation brings Arthur into a group of White-Fronted Geese. He is instantly thrilled by being a goose, because of a great feeling of peace, harmony and comradeship. He enjoys the flying that gives him the possibility to perceive the whole beauty of nature and to float in the wind. He meets a female goose named Lyó-lyok. He talks to her about him being actual human and enjoying this new feeling of peace and insouciance. He asks her about war among geese and she is instantly shocked by the idea of whole groups of the same sort killing each other. They talk about their political system, which is very simple. It is based on individuality and free choice. The leader is not elected but just becomes a leader based on the fact that he is the one who knows the air routes best. After that he asks Lyó-lyok about the geese’s objectives and joys, which are rather simple and elementary. Their main objective in life is just to be alive. Additionally they enjoy living in comradeship, flying, eating, singing, being healthy and living in honour.
When Arthur is back in the Combination Room, he feels very sad, because he enjoyed being among the geese so much, that he could imagine being one forever. The feeling of mere existence and his growing love for Lyò-lyok made his comeback in his real existence less a pleasure than the one before. This deep connection to the geese makes him feel less connected to the humans he does not want to fight for them anymore. He expresses his strong desire to just live and enjoy the beauty of the world. He also accuses Merlyn for treating him like a chess figure and thus for not respecting his free will and choice.