This week I’ve been reading the opening chapters of The Once And Future King by T.H. White, ready for our new reading course, and getting charmed all over again.
Here’s one of my favourite sections from book 1. It’s part of the description of Merlyn’s study/bedroom, and surely only a minimalist would fail to be charmed by this.
It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.
There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very lifelike and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the bookshelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and they did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time.
Perhaps you think it’s a children’s book. Many people do.
I challenge you to look at the end of this descriptive paragraph and tell me what age group would recognise and enjoy this kind of detail.
…two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic Varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paintboxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, Bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.
So to what extent is it a book for children?
I think that’s a question I’ll be considering with the reading group.