The last few weeks I’ve been alternating between two hats. For my reading group, I’m wearing a morphing, anarchic design, that has me flying through The Once and Future King.
I’ve been enjoying the way White plays with history, rippling time so that events shift in and out of period, and juggles with our ideas about the characters who make up the Arthurian Legends. I’m so comfortable with my head-gear that once donned, I forget I’m wearing it.
Like any extreme fashionista, I am a devoted follower of my latest mode. So for a moment I’m taken aback when some of the group say that they find TH White’s use of anachronism distracting.
This gives us some interesting discussion on techniques for reading texts that challenge us, and sets me thinking about writing intentions. The explanation White gave to his friend was:
I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned…
Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.
The idea that the past informs about the present can take a little getting used to, especially if you are someone who cares for exact dates. When I put my Life-Writing-Hat on, I have to care, and yet, looking around, it seems to me that few of us live exactly within our time. The things we use, wear, own and live with belong in variations to past days, weeks, months and years, even if we don’t live in historic houses.
It seems to me that reading history always requires some imaginative leaps. Usually we do that from a present-day perspective. What White does is to reverse this process, to comic effect, but also as an attempt at helping us understand something of what that past culture was like. How do you set a story in medieval England without long explanations? You translate every experience into a language children can recognise.
So I’m thinking of ways to translate dates and names into shareable texts, and what I see is that sometimes it takes an imaginative approach to explore truths. After all, wouldn’t we all rather have a designer hat, that’s maybe a little shocking, than something mass-produced?
*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.