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The strange career of T. H. White's Arthurian tetralogy enters another phase with the publication of yet a fifth book which was laid aside after White and his publishers reached an impasse in 1941. The first three books had already been published as separate volumes; the war and the disagreement with the Collins firm broke off the projected completion of the epic. A unified one-volume edition did not appear until 1958--The Once and Future King in its present form as a tetralogy, shorn of the original ending. But White stubbornly managed to work some of the Book of Merlyn material into the revision of Book I, The Sword in the Stone. Now the brief fifth book has been resurrected from the White papers at the University of Texas, and published with a lavish--indeed over-lavish--crop of line drawings by Trevor Stubley and a fine, thoughtful introduction by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Even the most dedicated Whitean will have little difficulty in understanding Collins' rejection. The book is set on the eve of Arthur's last battle. Merlyn reappears to take him back to the beloved company of beasts he knew as the child Wart in The Sword in the Stone, and to hammer in a new but old lesson--the singular insanity of man among the animals. Unfortunately the hammering is carried out with a mechanical obsessiveness unworthy of White at his best. He seems to have ransacked some popular texts of comparative anatomy to come up with some half-baked pronouncements about brain structure and social structure, then put them into Merlyn's mouth with the subtlety of an indignant letter to the Times. The portrait of the aged Arthur--still Wart, the dogged loser--is extremely moving when White remembers to treat it as anything but a codicil to the argument. The section in which Arthur lives among a flock of wild geese (subsequently reworked into The Sword in the Stone along with a corresponding episode in an ant-hive) is a small gem of loving observation. But it is plain that at the Merlyn stage White was trying to fit the work into a conceptual straitjacket that the material itself somehow resisted. Nothing can alter the fact that The Once end Future King is substantially better without The Book of Merlyn; but for anyone with the slightest interest in White, it Will be virtually obligatory reading.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1977
ISBN: 0441070159
Publisher: Univ. of Texas Press