by, with a prologue by Sylvia Townsend Warner
University of Texas Press, $9.95
King Arthur, on the eve of his last battle, is a tired and disillusioned man, his Round Table dispersed, his wife an adulteress, his son an avowed enemy. As The Once and Future King, T. H. White’s classic version of Arthurian legend, closes, its hero is the personification of thwarted idealism, but still not immune to hope.
Arthur’s weariness and doubt reflected White’s own. The Book of Merlyn, which he intended as the final section of The Once and Future King (though it is published now for the first time), was written in 1941, while its author struggled with his personal fear and hatred of the war and his growing disgust with mankind. Arthur leaves his battlefield tent as if in a dream and returns to the badger’s sett he visited as a boy; there Merlyn and his animal friends lecture the despondent king on what they have discovered about the politics of man, his relation to the other animals, and the reasons for war. They succeed in filling him with a renewed sense of purpose, and he goes to his ironic, inevitable death the royal hero once again.
It is easy to see why The Book of Merlyn was eventually left aside. White had abandoned artistic distance to write what amounts to a political treatise, with Merlyn’s role little more than that of mouthpiece. Yet the book has considerable charm and sentiment; aided by Ms. Warner’s insightful prologue, White’s admirers will find much to recommend it. That it served to guide its author through his own confusion of feelings seems patent in White’s conclusion: “Here ends the book of the Onetime King. . . . Here also begins . . . the hope of the Future King. Pray for Thomas Malory, Knight, and his humble disciple, who now voluntarily lays aside his books to fight for his kind.” Illustrations.