The Book of Merlyn – T. H. White

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T. H. White’s classic The Once and Future King had a coda. He produced a final book in the history of Arthur that told of Merlyn’s last effort to teach his famous pupil on the eve of a critical battle. The Book of Merlyn wasn’t published until 1958, likely because it is a powerful anti-war screed and was offered to White’s publisher in 1941, in the midst of World War II. Once the manuscript was discovered in White’s papers, the story of Arthur and Merlyn’s last encounter, and the account of what happened to Lancelot and Guenever (sic) was amended to the rest of the legend.

Arthur is old and exhausted—his kingdom in worse tatters than his heart. His cursed fate produced Mordred, the son who wages battle against him for the throne. His best friend and his wife have betrayed him. His Round Table is smashed and his dream of a peaceful kingdom might as well have been the ravings of a lunatic. As he waits in his tent for morning and the battle that will bring certain death, he is ready for it. He welcomes death as an end to his grief and disappointment. Then Merlyn appears.

At first Arthur believes he is dreaming but Merlyn soon relieves him of that notion and spirits him away to the old wizard’s cave where he meets with the Animal Counsel. White envisioned this ending to his saga as a neat return to the way he began it—the Animal Counsel includes a badger, a goat, an eagle, an owl, a hedgehog, a snake and others Merlyn enlisted to help teach the boy Arthur. Now Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and a goose to illustrate just how misguided the descent into war is and how animal species have arranged themselves to avoid such madness.

White’s language, often from the mouths of Merlyn, a badger or a hedgehog, is alternately humorous and playful or serious and didactic. Arthur’s despair is transformed into something far more resigned and enlightened; he finds the strength and wisdom to shoulder the burdens of kingship. And Merlyn, who lives backwards in time and knows the future (that White lived in) as he moves inexorably into the past, predicts momentous consequences for Arthur’s choices and, for an instant, banishes the encroaching dark.

The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King     T.H. White | Shaftesbury Publishing Company  1977

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