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.

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  1. White's novels had some pretty explicitly anti-statist stuff in them, too. Especially The Book of Merlyn, which at times reads like an anarchist tract.

  2. what was it like in 1938 when the first White book was released Charles? 😉

  3. jesse:
    "the book of merlyn" was supposed to be the end section of "once and future king" when white first submitted the amalgam version in 1941. but because of the work's anti-military views, no british publisher would accept it then. when OAFK finally appeared in 1958, it had a completely different end section. "merlyn" was never published during white's lifetime; the ms was later discovered among his effects, and came out in 1977.

    backward-living merlyn asks, you mean what will things be like in 1938?

  4. Too bad Teddy never picked up that "turn into a fish" trick Merlyn showed Wart in the animated film version of the story. It might have come in handy if he could have taught it to his campaign aides, especially the young, cute ones.


  5. C.P. Freund,

    The Arthurian legends (as a whole or in pieces) have long been used in national mythology.

    One example is Chaucer's "Man of Lawe." There the Man of Law has his main character Custance (the Roman Emporer's daughter) travel to Britain in order to create an idealized history of the lawyer?s ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, with Britain becoming the new Rome. In this way, the MLT becomes a form of agitprop for Englishness and English nationalism and it echoes the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur.

    Further (and more directly) Geoffrey's Arthur (found in History of the Kings of Britain) was closely tied to the reigns of specific English Kings - like Henry II and Edward I. For example, in the case of Henry II, what better way could he find to solidify his blood-line than by claiming Geoffrey?s Arthur as an ancestor? By doing so, Henry II was claiming Englishness based upon the "true" genesis of Christian faith in Britain (the tale of Joseph of Aramathea found in the Monmouth's history) and a link by blood with that center of ancient "vertu," Rome (via Arthur's supposed links to Rome).

  6. Activist Tom O'Carroll has suggested one of the reasons for White's profound unhappiness was his pedophilia. It's easy to see The Once and Future King as the work of an evocative writer who loved boys and lived in a world where his passion would remain unrequited. I do recall it as a very sweet book.

  7. "the connection had never been made in JFK's lifetime"

    "Camelot" never existed in "Arthur's" lifetime, either, so I suppose that's appropriate.

  8. Just as well. It is a silly place.

  9. "The Marvelous... Magnificent... Mad Madam Mim!"

    Sorry, nothing intellectual to add, just a nice memory from growing up with a Disney record. And who can resist the alliteration.

  10. Madam Mim went to the academy, Merlyn was tutored:

    "Ha! said Merlyn. "Now we shall see what a double-first at Dom-Daniel avails against the private education of my master Bleise."

  11. So actually it was a pro-home schooling tract!

  12. Freund says, "For all the apparent lightheartedness of his best-known work..."

    The operative word there is "apparent," as in "apparent from all the adaptations and 2nd-hand appreciations of a work that many who discuss it have never read."

    "The Once and Future King" follows an arc that seems bright, inviting, and hopeful in the beginning, but becomes very dark toward the end. In that, it may very well resemble the darkening "Potter" novel series (as well as Mark Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"). Those who wax nostalgic about the "lightheartedness" remind me of those who think of Grimm's Fairy Tales in Disney terms: they have either bad recollection or no authentic exposure to the original. White's profound unhappiness (and Twain's, and perhaps even Rowling's, as we may someday learn) definitely comes through in the work.

  13. Man, I had to watch the Disney version of Sword in the Stone a couple months ago, and I gotta say, it was poor. The art was sloppy; the songs weren't catchy; the plot was thin and directionless; there was only one interesting character (Merlin) and he couldn't carry the story. In comparison, Robin Hood has much more well rounded. All of the characters in that are memorable from Robin Hood and King John on down the Friar and the Lady in Waiting; the songs are better; there's more action; the plot has a beginning and end.

    Anyhow, the book may be OK, but the adaptation was poor.

  14. My high school required us to read The Once and Future King and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress one summer. I remember wishing the Heinlein book was the long one!

  15. I could have added Henry VIII to my list, who was quite willing to argue that as Arthur was founder of English Church, that meant that Rome had no control over the English Church's affairs.

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