The Milliner’s Tale

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.

Steampunk_Hat_PNG_Clipart_PictureI’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 Ladies-Steampunk-Hats by tag hatsWhite’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.

Got that?

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?hats

 

*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.

 

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.