The Reading Room: July '22
The Arthurian bug has bit
The Once And Future King, T. H. White
The Death of King Arthur, Thomas Malory (retold by Peter Ackroyd)
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
Curse of the Chosen, Volume 1, Alexis Deacon
Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
I’m trying to figure out best practices for The Reading Room: Are these books read entirely during the month of June? Or just books on the bedside table, in the process of being read? I’m going with a hybrid of the two, so books will reappear on the list if the reading of them happens to straddle the months — if they linger, as they tend to do. For example, the first couple weeks of July were given over to reading The Once and Future King, a title which astute Machinists will remember seeing on June’s reading list. On the other end of July, I’ve only just cracked The Mists of Avalon, but I thought it would fit nicely in this month’s Reading Room. And Nicholas Nickleby, as usual, will probably still be kicking around on the list a couple months hence.
Back to TOAFK — where to begin? I’m curious how many folks out there have read this book — what was your takeaway? Did you read it as a kid or an adult? Having finished it, I can report that I loved it — but it’s a strange animal. I’m not sure if it was White’s intention, but as I was reading I started to see each individual book as a stage in a human’s life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age.
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The Sword In The Stone is so solidly a book for kids — it hits all the right notes for that style and genre. That tone carries over into the second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, with all that comedic stuff between Pellinore and Palomides and the Questing Beast. But there’s a darkness that starts to come in — Morgause and her relationship with the four boys begins to feel out of step with the lightness of the other chapters and the playfulness of The Sword In The Stone. By the time you hit the third book, The Ill-Made Knight, I think White has shed his juvenile audience altogether. That was definitely where 9-year-old Milo fell off; we were listening to the audiobook together and his interest started to flag as soon as Lancelot showed up. I picked back up solo with a hard copy, though I found this third section to be the most slow-going. There’s a lot of reported action, with long, unbroken bits of monologue and prose. I even think there’s a moment when White writes, and I’m paraphrasing here, “And then they go off in search of the Holy Grail — but Malory does a good job describing those adventures, so I won’t go into it.” WTF, T. H.? He’s such an evangelist for Malory’s retelling of the Arthurian stories it’s almost as if he’s all, “Why are you even reading this? You should be reading Malory.”
The fourth section in the book, The Candle in the Wind, I found however to be the most affecting of the four. The influence of White’s then-current predicament — the predicament of the 20th century — really starts to find its way into the story. Mordred and Gawain have become black-clad proto-Nazis, pushing for a kind of Gaelic ethnocentrism, and Arthur is stuck striving against them. The thrust of the story, however, is starkly anti-war, and you can see why White’s publishers were reticent to put out those last two books during the early forties, when England and Europe were contending with rising fascism and fighting “the good war.” Arthur’s meditations, in the super-beautiful and haunting last chapter, tend toward pacifism. War, Arthur realizes — no matter what kind of war — is inherently evil and a sickness in humankind that should be rooted out. It’s radical stuff, particularly considering the time in which it was written.
While I was reading TOAFK, Carson was re-reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and we talked a lot about the connections between them. The Buried Giant is a beloved book in this house — I’ve read (and listened to it) a couple times; Carson’s now two times through. We’re borderline obsessed. Of course, Ishiguro’s book is part of the Arthurian canon, taking place in an England shortly after the fall of Arthur. Ishiguro, like White, takes quite a few liberties with the myths — and I’ve been wondering how much inspiration Ishiguro drew from TOAFK. Having finished it, I have to think it was a springboard for his book. There’s this powerful bit in the last chapter of the book, during Arthur’s last long, dark night of the soul, where the king lands on this idea of how war might be stopped:
The blessings of forgetfulness: that was the first essential. If everything one did, or which one’s fathers had done, was an endless sequence of Doings doomed to break forth bloodily, then the past must be obliterated and a new start made. Man must be ready to say: Yes, since Cain there has been injustice, but we can only set the misery right if we accept a status quo. Lands have been robbed, men slain, nations humiliated. Let us now start fresh without remembrance, rather than live forward and backward at the same time.
And I’ll try not to spoil The Buried Giant for anyone who hasn’t read it (and if you haven’t? Get to it!), but this idea of forgetfulness, this kind of imposed erasure of memory in order to win peace, to undo the cycles of violence throughout history — it’s central to the book. Memory and forgetfulness is central to all of Ishiguro’s books, in fact. So I wonder: is The Buried Giant a kind of sequel to TOAFK? One that takes place place in a universe in which Arthur’s wish for forgetfulness is granted?
Moving on, I finally submitted to White’s constant proselytizing and grabbed a copy of Sir Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur. It’s Peter Ackroyd’s “retelling,” whatever that means. A kind of English-to-English translation, I guess. And yeah: White mostly cribbed all of Malory for his book, adapting the scattershot tales into a kind of contemporary novel. White hews pretty closely to Malory for the most part, but boy are there some significant divergences. It made me think of Ishiguro and the liberties he took with the myths; it made me think of the film Excalibur (mentioned in one of last week’s Machine Shop missives). There’s something about Arthurian myth that invites remixing and meddling. Nobody’s complaining that John Boorman, in his movie, does some economical editing. Morgan Le Fay and Nimue are collapsed to one character; the sword in the stone and Excalibur are conflated. It makes sense! Why are there two different swords, anyway? It’s confusing! And White, for his part, takes a lot of Malory’s retelling of the Sir Tristram myths and reapplies them, whole cloth, on to Lancelot. Arthurian legend seems to be like a sandbox that everyone is allowed to play in — more like fairy tales than other cycles of myth, where things are expected to be more or less true to the source material.
And, reading Malory, I get why people mess with them. The Arthurian legends, at least as put down by Malory, are a little wonky. They’re weirdly paced and repetitive. So many two-hour knight duels and jousts and people getting beheaded — and trust me, I’m a guy who really goes in for knight duels and beheadings. I find myself falling in and out of reading it, like I have a threshold for how much Malory I can take before I have to put it down and pick up something more readable. In that way, The Death of Arthur is like a collection of folk tales or fairy tales, meant to be taken in little sips. Which I suppose it is!
Suddenly desirous to get yet another take on Arthurian myth, I picked up a copy of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Now that’s a familiar cover. There was not a divorced-mom household in all of Helena, Montana, in the nineteen-eighties that did not have the purple-blue spine of Mists peeking out from its bookshelves. Even being the fantasy buff that I was back then, I had no interest in reading this book. Grown up stuff. Divorced-mom stuff. So it’s nice to cast off my prejudices and dive in. Already, it’s a breath of fresh air from Malory — yet with all the characters and lineages in place. I’ve got a keen eye out for what liberties Ms. Bradley will take.
I feel like I should insert a caveat here: I’m no Arthurian scholar. Maybe the little (and big) changes these writers have made to the Arthurian canon have some kind of foundation in alternate tellings, other writers, different sources. Any proper Arthurians out there that can slide into the comments and (gently) take me to task? Bring it on!
Meanwhile, the voyage continues. Thanks to a comment from a Machinist last week, I’ve added J. R. R. Tolkien’s retelling of the Arthurian myth to my reading list — I had no idea the great man had one. I’m open to more suggestions, if you’ve got an adaptation you love.
On the side, I’ve been sneaking peeks at Alexis Deacon’s mind-blowing graphic novel The Curse of the Chosen Vol. 1. I’d read the two books that make up this volume a few years ago when Flying Eye published them as Geis. For whatever reason, rather than publishing the third book in the series in the same format as the first two — originally they’d been published as stand-alone hard covers — the publishers decided to republish the first two in one volume, in a soft cover with new cover art, and follow that up with the newly published second volume. Not sure why they did that, but I imagine it had something to do with competing for kids’ eyeballs on the middle grade graphic novel shelf. Which, I’m given to understand, is as cutthroat as a two-hour knight duel.
Anyway, I’m happy to say: new look, same great taste. These books are a wonder of graphic storytelling. Deacon is a brilliant artist and his characters leap from the panels. The color palette is thoughtfully designed. But the story itself is so sui generis. I feel like you often find these graphic novel writer-artists who can do one side of that hyphen very well, but at the expense of the other. Not so in this case. The storyline is wonderfully batshit. It reminds me of the very best of the Moebius/Jodorowski collabs. Totally nuts, but sooooo engaging.
I’ll write more on my thoughts on Nickleby in future installments; he’s just met the Portsmouth players (who I love) and his sister is, apparently, being quasi-prostituted to her uncle's moneylending clients. Dickensian!
How about you? How goes your summer reading? Any threads you’re currently following? Chime in down below.
I also love the callback to Merlyn in that paragraph — the notion of “living backward and forward through time,” which Merlyn does. You can see the spot where The Book of Merlyn was meant to slot in — Arthur, in the midst of his meditations, thinks he sees Merlyn in the doorway of his pavilion. But no, it’s an illusion. I still contend there’s a better and more full TOAFK to be made by putting The Book Of Merlyn in as the fifth and final section of the whole. I think having Arthur being taken back to the lessons of his childhood would be a powerful end to White’s story.
I have two book shelves full of Arthurian legend books, which I started collecting when I was 12. The Mary Stewart books are my favorites with T. H. White very close behind. I also loved The Buried Giant.
Hi Colin, I'm pretty sure you'd dig "The Crystal Cave" by Mary Stewart.... Arthurian legend retold from Merlin's perspective, with Merlin as engineer/polymath, as opposed to pointy/metal-hat-wearing- magic-peddler. Love your work!