The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White (written 1941; published 1977) 138 p.

T.H. White’s Arthurian saga The Once And Future King has a troubled publication history. The final volume, The Book of Merlyn, was submitted to his publishers in 1941 but was rejected as part of a collected volume due to wartime paper rationing. Undeterred, White took two major sequences in it – in which Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and then a goose – and inserted them into the first book, The Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn was thus unincluded in later collected editions of the series, until the manuscript was discovered amongst White’s papers after his death in 1964. It was included in future collected editions from 1977 onwards, but – in order to present everything as accurately as possible – retains the ant and the goose sequences in The Sword in the Stone, while also later repeating them in The Book of Merlyn. (This is particularly notable because the goose sequence is probably the most famous and well-loved thing White ever wrote.)

It’s a bit less confusing when you’ve read it all the way through, but the funny thing is that those sequences feel a lot more like they belong in the first book, when Arthur was a child being transformed into animals all the time as part of his education with Merlyn, rather than the final book, where Arthur is whisked away on the night before the great battle with Mordred to discuss human nature and warfare with Merlyn and his council of wise animals. The vast majority of The Book of Merlyn takes place in the badger’s cosy underground den, which has the air of a cluttered library or gentleman’s parlour, as White (through Merlyn) expounds his philosophy about the wretched, violent nature of man.

Understanding T.H. White goes a long way towards understanding The Once and Future King, and my edition has an afterword discussing how the book came about. White was an unhappy man for much of his life: an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual, and a pacifist in a time of just war. When World War II was looming in 1939, he relocated himself to neutral Ireland and spent the rest of the war there as a conscientious objector. At this stage The Sword in the Stone had already been published, but it’s clear that the outbreak of WWII greatly influenced the rest of the series. “I have suddenly discovered that… the central theme to Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war,” White wrote to his publisher. The Book of Merlyn expresses this more clearly than any other volume in the series; along with The Sword in the Stone, it effectively bookends the series, as Merlyn compares mankind to various animals – only now, with Arthur as an adult, Merlyn is no longer teaching a pupil but rather discussing an intractable problem with an equal, to the king’s increasing weariness and despair.

The Book of Merlyn ultimately presents no conclusion on the matter, no coherent moral or philosophy, because White himself didn’t have one. He was a confused man, a man full of doubt, a man aghast at the horrors of the world, a man who tried to make sense of it all as best he could. He was a writer, in other words, who moulded his love of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into his own unique, funny, beautiful epic, a meditation on the failures and foibles of the human race.

I liked The Book of Merlyn a lot; it’s probably my favourite out of the series. Despite a current of nihilism and despair, White brought back all the elements that made The Sword in the Stone such a success, and the result is a sweet and affecting tale of a man who tried to do his best. I didn’t always enjoy The Once and Future King, but The Book of Merlyn is a strong conclusion which serves the series well. And as for the series overall? I may not have always liked it, I may have been bored and frustrated with it at times, but I can nonetheless appreciate it objectively as a powerful and important work of English fantasy.