lotesse: (Default)
this essay at Alas, A Blog about misogyny and academic models and sociobiology is amazing, and I'm going to have to reread it in a moment when I'm not so stirred up; I was interested and nodding along, and then got to the claim that "Both ignore the scale that involves lying naked next to your husband and listening to him say appalling things about his last-boss-but-one, again, and then watching him pick his nose like an eight-year-old, and realizing you’re going to divorce him, even though at that very moment you have no idea how, and life after marriage is a blank, in your imagination, nothing there at all" - and sighed and settled and said oh yes that's right, I know that -

and then the essayist brought in T.H. White and The Book of Merlyn.

why does everything keep connecting back to that
lotesse: (Default)
There doesn't seem to be an attested link, not one that I could find in a cursory googling, anyway - but I've just been amazingly startled by something. I'm working on an essay about Alejo Carpentier's 1949 novel El reino de este mundo, a magical-realism work about the Haitian Revolution, and toward the end of it Ti Noel, the former-slave narrator, is starting to reach real wisdom; and he begins to be able to turn himself into animals; and he disguises himself as an ant, but it reminds him too much of carrying heavy burdens as a slave; and he disguises himself as a goose, . And I got to that bit of the text and went, holy fucking shit that's The Once and Future King, contrapuntal transformations into ants and wild geese as the culmination of a lesson in political wisdom.

I've been thinking a lot about White, the last month or so, so I might be reading too much in to things. The ants and the wild geese are a special pair of adventures, though - they're the ones that were translocated from "The Book of Merlyn" back into "The Sword and the Stone" for publication. In the full recombined narrative - which is the one I've been thinking about - they're the hope all-unlooked-for that comes at the very end: when Arthur sits in his tent at Camlann, reflecting on the failure of the table and his reign, Merlyn comes back to him and explains that he forgot to teach the Wart two key lessons as a child. He hadn't turned him into an ant, letting him experience fascism, or a wild goose, showing him the purity of anarchism. And Merlyn gives the old king those transformations, and it lets Arthur have this fucking essential moment of final character development where he gets angry about what he's sacrificed for his ideals and fantasizes about walking away and then chooses to go die for his people but with a lighter heart.
lotesse: (merlin_rexfuturus)
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.

daughter of the sea, oregano's first cousin


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