More thoughts on, The Once & Future King.

This week was our first session discussing White’s novel, which for the sake of brevity, I think I’ll refer to as TOAFK, from here on.  Amongst the various thoughts we had about the reading, an interesting observation was that it was tricky to get hold of a second-hand copy from the usual local suppliers.

One shop said that the book rarely came their way, which led us to speculate about whether most people developed sentimental attachments to theirs.  I still have my first copy, held together with an elastic band, in the drawer with Wuthering Heights which also got read-to-bits.

Why do I keep them? It’s not just sentiment, they’re riddled with notes.  One of these days, when I’ve some spare time, I’ll sit down and see if there’s still any value in those old thoughts.

I don’t write in all of my books, usually only ones I’m studying.  I’m a bit precious about books, not even holding with folding over the corners of the pages – yes, you know who you are…we’ve talked about this.

annotated novelHowever, quite a few of my books have been annotated, because I often buy second hand, and I’m nosy.  I like to see what someone else thought, so given an option, I’ll choose the copy laced with resentment and exclamation marks.  Mostly this happens with old text books, but sometimes I’ll stumble over a note some reader was driven to make in the text of a novel.

Getting back to TOAFK, what I find interesting is that it’s still in publication.  You can buy a paperback or hardback copy, which suggests that it’s still selling well.

I like to think that copies of it are holding their places on a lot of family bookshelves.  Perhaps they are waiting to be re-read, perhaps to be handed on to the next generation.

 

david turnley  us military in saudi arabia

Photo by David Turnley.  U.S  military in Saudi Arabia

 

Judging books by their reputation?

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.

Launceston Corkindrill

The Launceston Corkindrill

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.

cameleopard  Edward Topsell, History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. 1658.

History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell. 1658

 

So to what extent is it a book for children?

I think that’s a question I’ll be considering with the reading group.

 

Which Shelf?

It was only after I’d checked the general novels and then the classics shelves that I thought of looking in the children’s books section.  Sure enough, there was T.H. White’s, ‘The Once and Future King’.  Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you, especially given the illustrations the publisher has used for the new cover.  51jAaoccw9L._SL190_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA190_Besides, ‘child’ covers a lot of time, anything up to…to…actually, now I come to think about it, I’ve no idea about this.  Looking back at my own history, I think my reading extended into the adult section somewhere around the time I started secondary school.  I wouldn’t like to pin that down specifically, mind, because for a long while I alternated, continuing with the children’s section for at least as long as I was in school.

I wasn’t just returning to the books I’d loved for years, the Famous Fives, school girl mysteries and the teenage ghost and horror collections etcetera.  I read contemporary writing for children too.  Sometimes these were recommendations, often they were random choices.  Which means, I suppose, that the covers attracted me.

Books, especially those chosen or read in public, are status symbols.  If you think that might only be true for children, and you’ve left that behind, let me ask what you would be willing to be seen reading on the bus or train?  Isn’t there a genre, or certain publishing house that you would not dream of being associated with?  What we carry brands us as directly as the way we dress.

Rumour has it that the popularity of kindle is partly based on it’s ability to disguise the genre being consumed.  There are some who claim that the rise in popularity of erotic fiction has only occurred because it can be read covertly.  I don’t know how true that is.

I do know that a lot of people are discussing the Fifty Shades sequence of novels, in public, but perhaps that’s just because of the publicity that surrounds it.  I hear a lot of, ‘Have you read it?’ ‘What do you think about the writing?’  (This can’t be the only book where a justification usually follows the admission, ‘Yes, I have..’ can it?)  I don’t hear many of those people admitting to reading other similar titles.

I also know that we only had one copy of ‘Fifty Shades’ donated to the bookstall at the local fete this year.  The first year any have turned up.

But I want to get back to T.H. White.  I think I was in my late teens when I first read The Once and Future King.  I still have that copy, though it’s now held together with an elastic band. Fontana imprintThis, I think is a book that I could have been seen carrying in public at any age.

I would also like to add that it’s a cover that more accurately conveys the content of the book.  I know it’s taken me a long time to get here, but this is my real question about this book, ‘Did the person who decided on the illustration actually read the book, the whole book?’

Here’s the opening:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.  The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.  She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate.  The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name.

Clearly, at this point, the main protagonist is a child.  I agree that if you ignore the academic references (can you?) it might be possible to assume the intended readers are children.  After all, there are plenty of younger reads that are meant to be enjoyed on another level by the adult who reads aloud.  I’m not convinced this is that kind of book.

The thing is, ‘The Once and Future King’ is composed of four, arguably five books, depending on which version you read. While the cover at the top of this page could apply to book 1, The Sword in The Stone, by book 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Arthur is a man.  There are still children at the centre of the story, there is still magic imbedded in the plot, but the story moves into adult territory.  While not graphic, there are seductions, rape, betrayals and battles.  This is, after all, based on the Arthur myths.

Now I’m not saying the book is unsuitable for children.  I haven’t attempted to define what age group childhood covers, let alone what material they should or should not read.

I’m thinking here about teenage, because that, at least, can be accurately summed up as thirteen to nineteen.  What concerns me with the issue in my top illustration, is that it limits this book.  I’m not sure how many older teenagers would be comfortable to be seen reading this copy, let alone adults.  Which is a shame, because T.H. White did not write these books for children, any more than Charlotte Bronte did with Jane Eyre, or Charles Dickens with Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby.

Here is the original cover for the collected novels, as it was published in 1958.  I ask you, which cover do you prefer?

Once_future_king_coverIncidentally, in the same shop, The Dark Materials trilogy and all of the Harry Potter novels were shelved amongst the ‘adult’ A – Z of authors.