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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Warning: here be rhapsodizing, part deux

At long last, my mother is reading my favorite book. And--surprise, surprise!--she wants to know why I never told her how great it is. What, Mom, watching me read The Once and Future King ten times annually from my eighth year on wasn't a giveaway? Yes, it's good. It's about King Arthur, and it's good, and if you haven't read it, you deserve to be shot, or at least scolded vigorously.

The thing about my mother is, even if I had brandished my poor dog-eared yellow paperback copy of T.H. White's brilliance and demanded that she read it RIGHT NOW, she would have asked, Why? What's it about? And then I would have had to reply, sheepishly, Well...it's about King Arthur. Which sounds childish at the very least, but then summaries of stories never do the tales themselves justice--imagine summarizing "The Lady With the Pet Dog". It'd end up sounding like a cheap soap opera! This is why I hate recommending reading material: people always want to know what it's about. Why can't people just take your word for it? Am I not trustworthy even to my own mother?

It's not my fault, really. Up until around this time last year I really DIDN'T know what T.H. White was getting at. I'm still not entirely sure, but I have a firmer grasp on it now than I did when my dear granny first gave me the book for my eighth birthday. See, The Once and Future King is only about King Arthur if you are in fact eight years old; once you grow up a little and are still reading it regularly even though you can quote whole passages (particularly the bit about Lancelot and the armor! Isn't that bit beautiful?), then it starts to take on more meanings. The more you read it, the more layers you peel back, onion-like, until finally you burrow into the core, cramped and uncomfortable and eye-stinging. T.H. White's magnum opus isn't simply a homage to Malory or one of many rewritings of the Arthurian legend; it's a complete social commentary on the state of nations at the time of publication, in effect a series of essays on human nature woven together and garnished with knights and fair damsels and Questing Beasts.

But maybe social commentary sounds unappealing. All right, I'll give that to you. But T.H. White, deeply and unhappily political man that he was, had an eye for reality. Part of what makes The Once and Future King so beautiful in its complexity is the intense humanity with which he manages to imbue his age-old characters. It's not easy to take characters beloved by so many, characters written and rewritten by countless poets, and revamp them into something believable. Therein lies White's genius: he can do what so many writers dream of--he can make you pine for creatures of ink, weep over personalities who live only on paper. Anyone who can make me care about Lancelot and Guenever is clearly a good writer.

I mean, isn't that what good stories are about? When you can worry about a character, when you can fret after their health or wonder what on Earth they were thinking, when you can fall in love with someone who does not exist...the author has completed his task. T.H. White completes his admirably, with verve and insane humor and utter compassion both for the doomed fairy-tale kingdom and his own living humans.
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