by Jas Faulkner
Every book feels like an unopened door. Every page turned is another step that could lead to high adventure or bittersweet romance or tutelage in a Platonic cave of our own making. This is why it is so important to keep reading and also why there are books that we may, for whatever reason, decide to revisit.
All kinds of circumstances can precipitate picking up a book that may no longer serve the function it once did, but still serves as a memorial touchstone. Where were you when you read Old Yeller? What music was playing when you were in the book shop when you first picked up a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or The Colour of Magic? Sometimes you can remember and sometimes it’s a trick of the mind.
You might have picked up the book because you wanted to be seen picking up the book, only too conscious of the music and whoever else happened to be wandering around and might see you with evidence of your intellectual acumen conveniently in hand. Other times, the music fell away, the odd sweet stink of the incense from the Spencer’s Gifts next door faded and you found yourself holding words written in fire that burned their way into your psyche. You wanted to fall into the worlds that unfolded on those pages. That was when Longfellow’s line about books became such a truism.
“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.”
It is this bit of life archaeology that compels us to pick up familiar books. Sometimes it’s a loved textbook or author in our academic discipline. Sometimes we are compelled by the sight of a much loved volume that reminds us of the physical act of opening that particular title at a specific time. Whatever it is, we are drawn to the words and quite often they take on a new meaning.
T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” was familiar to my parents as the source material for Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” and the screen adaptation of Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot.” Even though the book was already nearly thirty years old they, like many of their contemporaries, saw it was a perfect analogy of the Kennedy years.
I worked my way backward, reading the conclusion, “The Book of Merlin” that had been posthumously published in 1971 and then going back and reading “The Once and Future King”. In the mid seventies and barely into the double-digits age-wise, the tale seemed like a negative image of what I understood to be the state of the government at the time. White’s Camelot was place where goodness could prevail even though it seemed to exist in a time when humanity in general was fairly jaded and over it all when it came to nobility of spirit. Washington DC was portrayed as a den of vipers that existed almost unbeknownst to most of America.
The dichotomy of the significance of the book between generations was not apparent to my eleven year old self. For my parents’ generation it was the external evil that caused the fall of Camelot. What was rotten about Camelot was introduced by worming, insidious rot from the outside coming in or brute force that negated the mantra of “Right over might”. The same Camelot, White’s Camelot was so very different to my generation. It was like a beautiful piece of fruit that remained lovely on the outside but a cut to the heart would reveal a hand full of roiling maggots. Such was the backdrop for my first encounter with “The Once and Future King.”
The truth of the work as it came to life between my ears was that it was unbearably sad. For people who live and love books, the firsts are very important. We remember our first literary death. We remember the first time we wished we knew a character in real life. We remember the first time we dreamed we were in whatever we’d read that day. T. H. White’s book was the first time I had ever seen nearly everyone I’d cared about in a story come completely undone by human frailty. The loss of Camelot and all that it meant carried a huge emotional gut punch. Reading Arthur’s cry to return to the innocence of the days of Merlin’s tutelage echoed every sacrificial figure’s cry to be relieved of his or her fate from Enkidu to Balder to Jesus. To eleven-year-old me, it was unbearable. My parents actually took it away, they so hated the effect it had on me.
I have heard and read many people since then who have different views of the book. People who came of age in the 80s’ and 90s’ and who have read it at a much later age, usually some time in young adulthood, speak of it as a sharp satire about human nature. It sounds like this might be closer to White’s intention. These latter day readers do not see it as particularly weighted with the same historic references and my parents of I might. Is this a good thing? It’s hard to say. Many of those same young men and women point to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon books as their primary literary vision of Camelot.
Which brings me to the original topic of this essay. While browsing through a shelf of used books, I found two trade paperbacks side by side and seeing them in such a way was pretty ironic. Brian Fagan’s “Time Detectives” sat next to “The Once and Future King.” There was my personal archaeology for the day. Fagan is one of my all-time favourite science writers and I don’t care if this book did come out in the 90s’, he could convey his enthusiasm for archaeology like few people ever have and ever will. Maybe it’s time to revisit him as my own personal Merlin. As for “The Once And Future King,” maybe the remove of decades will give me a fresh take on the rise and fall of White’s Camelot.