White Magic


This being Harry Potter Eve and all, I'm wondering if T.H. White (1906-1964) has gotten the credit (or if you see it that way, the blame) that he deserves for at least foreshadowing the remarkable Potter phenomenon.

White is the author of the 1938 Arthurian fantasy, The Sword in the Stone, as well as a raft of sequels to it. Because White's old novel is full of good-natured wizardry and adventure—it tells the story of Arthur's boyhood, when he is tutored by an eccentric Merlyn who is living backwards in time—it turns up on lists of books that you'll like if you like Harry. But there's more to the story than that.

Both Harry's character and the idea of a school for wizards were foreshadowed by White. If this appreciation is correct, for example, Harry's character is in the debt of White's young "Wart," as the boy Arthur is called. A wizards' academy turns up as the narrative backdrop to a duel of spells between the good Merlyn and the not-so-good Mistress Mim, both of them academy graduates. Foreshadowing the primary setting, the general ambiance, and the main character of the most successful commercial series of all time seems worth recognizing.

Many of White's readers probably know him from The Once and Future King (1958), which combined his various Arthur novels into a single work. The older books were rewritten and edited for the amalgamated version, and some of the similarities to Potter are thus obscured. Arthur is an adult in most of the combined work, for example, and Mistress Mim never appears at all. Nevertheless, The Once and Future King has left a spectacular mark of its own.

Camelot, the popular 1961 Broadway musical, was drawn from White's combined novel. In the days following the murder of JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with New York Times journalist Theodore H. White (a very different T.H. White) with the specific intention of mythmaking to honor her husband's memory. She was wildly successful. Inspired by the musical, she and journalist White shaped a portrait of the Kennedy White House as a latter-day Camelot (the connection had never been made in JFK's lifetime), an association that has survived for over 40 years.

For all the apparent lightheartedness of his best-known work, however, White was a profoundly unhappy man. Some of his close readers see his Arthur fantasies as bittersweet laments of national mythology and memory. The odd thing is, that's just how the stories ultimately were used. Only, thanks to Broadway and Dealey Plaza, the mythology and the memories belong to a different nation.