My sibling is rereading The Once and Future King.
It's so strange - she was present at my first formative encounter with T.H. White, when daddy read it to us out loud as a bedtime story, but if I was a small girl at the time then she was a baby, and she scarcely remembers this massively important moment of my life. Talking on the phone last night she asked me not to spoil the ending! Of the Matter of Britain! But while King Arthur dominated my childhood she seems to be almost totally ignorant of the Death of Arthur. I can't imagine not knowing that story. I can't imagine it at all. But after talking to her about it, I went back to poking one of my old sore spots: queer/feminist criticism of White, which tends to cause me terrible cognitive dissonance, because I am loath to be the person who says, no that's not misogynistic, what are you talking about. I can see why Sylvia Townsend Warner saw White's Morgause as sexist, really I can - but unlike so many other feminist literary and cultural critiques, this one just doesn't feel right in my bones.
My father used White to teach me my first lessons about ethics, and one of the things I absorbed from the text was a sense of the necessity of sexual ethics in particular. Yes, Morgause is a nasty piece of work, sluttish and domineering, but I always felt that White made it clear: she is what her world has made her, the world where her mother was raped by Uther Pendragon. When White diagrams out the tragedy, it's Uther's acts that condemn them all, not Arthur's, not Morgause's. Morgause is less a passive, sweet victim than Arthur, but I think she is legible as a victim none the less - the same way that her son Agravaine, possibly a nastier piece of work than even his mother, is also in a way more victim than villain. White taught me to see the entire Matter of Britain as the consequence of an act of sexual violence done by a man against a woman, an act that involved deception, forced sex, forced impregnation, forced marriage, and massive, national-scale gaslighting. Morgause passes the trauma of her mother's triple rape on to her sons, and they repeat it to each other obsessively, and the resonance of that pain is what takes down Camelot in the end, and she's a weapon given impetus primarily by Igraine's rape. The Once and Future King
is sexist mainly in the way that all the good old fantasy novels are: they center on men, and women are relegated to the margins. As a girl-child reader, I could only regard Guenever as a puzzle, Elaine as a profoundly pitiable embarrassment. But as a girl-child reader willing to identify with male characters, as nearly all girl-child readers are (boy-children being notably less flexible), well, then I feel like this book actually gave me a fairly good picture of the paternal/patriarchal parts of the workings of power.
One of the bits of agreeable crit that I found in this round of poking the wound was at Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
, which puts White's issues with women into the context of his sexual sadism and history of abuse. And it is true that one of the overriding themes of the tome is child abuse: Morgause's emotional and in some cases sexual abuse of her children, but also the horrible kind old men who break the hearts and spirits of young Arthur and Lancelot with the weight of their expectations, or their Ideas. One of the (mostly subconscious, but I can see it now) reasons why I recorded The Book of Merlyn
, the unincluded last part of The Once and Future King
, as a Christmas present for my daddy last year was the passage when both Arthur and the narrator recognize the cruelty of Merlyn's use of the Wart as a way to bring about his political philosophies, the truth that Arthur might have been a happier man if he hadn't become the student of a genius revolutionary - because father and I have always played Merlyn and the Wart, Lancelot and Uncle Dap, and there is something terrible about feeling like a vessel for great expectations.