It is really no wonder that my idealistic pacifist mind so loves the legend of King Arthur and his Round Table. Of course, up until now, my take on the legend has been a very feeble one, based on children’s books and the movie “The First Knight”, which actually pictures especially Lancelot in a very different manner than T.H. White in his brick of a pentalogy “The Once and Future King”. Reading this lengthy narrative of silly little Wart becoming the confused Arthur becoming the kind yet troubled king becoming the defeated old King made me hope that these legends are indeed true and that King Arthur will indeed come again and set the world straight.
King Arthur was a king who loved jousting and warring while despising the cruelty of arbitrary Force. He was the king who sought to fight that Force with a righteous Force while building his democratic Round Table. The king who tried to slay the greed for power by equal distribution of power – how could anyone need more when they all had a just amount of power? The little bit too kind hearted king who was betrayed by everyone close to him: his wife, his best friend and first knight, and even his (illegitimate) son. The king who meant well, but was helpless against the brutal realities of humankind.
In the midst of an age, where disputes were solved by duels, King Arthur was a king who loved justice so much that he came up with a nonforcedriven justice system. He valued justice so much that when presented with the undeniable fact of Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s affair – which he was aware of for his whole life but decided to overlook for the love of them both – he saw no other choice but to act justly: he almost burned his wife alive, and was utterly relieved when his dear Lancelot did not fail him nor his Gwen but indeed came to the rescue and rode off with his wife.
Even then he was not done making decicions between love and justice for to make his life as miserable as possible, he still had to wage war on his best friend, the one huddled in a castle in France with his wife. Poor Arthur would have just left them there, for the sake of love and kindness, but Mordred had made sure that there was a feud that forced the King’s hand by way of justice for his own family. In the chaos of the Queen’s rescue, two un-helmeted nephews of the King were slayed. Lancelot swore he did not kill them, but if not he, then who? Cunning. evil Mordred, getting his revenge, setting his stage.
King Arthur was and illegitimate child himself, born of a relationship unjustly forced by the might of war. He was chosen by the magician Merlin to become the great King of England, one who would, with the help of wisdom from the animal world, end wars and human cruelty. It was a noble attempt and definitely something one would’ve hoped for him to achieve, but I guess nobody is surprised that in the end it all failed, even in a legend. Not even the sligthtly goofy Lancelot was able to help King Arthur in the end, for he had been banished for his traiterous sin of being the Queen’s lover.
Sir Lancelot, the Ill-Made Knight, was indeed ill made. Not even so much because of the apparently ugly face (which I had a very hard time picturing after seeing Richard Gere take the form of him in the aforementioned movie and thus in my mind more than two decades ago), but because of his rather feeble character. He was kind to a weakness, soft at heart to a fault, weak enough to absorb King Arthur’s ideas so throughly that he himself almost seized to exist. None of the arrogance of the movie character.
Lancelot was the boy whose only goal in life was to be the best knight in the world, serve King Arthur, and be blessed by being allowed to perform a miracle. Meek, yet strong. Childish, yet powerful. Feared, but not scary – unless you had to fight with him, and not only because he always won, but as much for his unrelentless mercy. Nothing more humiliating to a knight than to be spared by your opponent in addition to being held at his mercy by losing.
Sir Lancelot did indeed become the gratest knight in the wolrd and did perform his miracles, which in the end only served to make him ashamed for he understood that he was not worthy of them; no, for the betrayal of the King whom he loved before he loved the Queen, but did not love enough not to surrender to the love of the Queen, he knew his miracles were only due to the mercy of God and maybe King Arthur. For King Arthur had so much mercy and kindness in him that he let himself be influenced by Mordred and his whole thinking became muddled.
Queen Guinevere then? She was as fickle and fiery as Arthur was stable and solid. She was as feisty as Arthur was calm. She wanted to keep the cake and eat the cake. She did not much plod into her husband’s politics, as was the custom at the time – damsels were helpless and needed to be saved by the chivalrious knights from towers and boiling baths and other such atrocities – but she was active enough in her own court. She was particularily active in keeping the affair with Lancelot going. She would not let poor weak Lancelot go even when he pleaded for his freedom (to serve God).
King Arthur and the knights were at war a lot. There was the total war Britain and wars in France and wars to end all wars and in a way King Arthur was successful enough that he actually destroyed the feudal system and united the kings of Britain if only for his lifetime. When there was no war, there were the quests to fight Might with better Might and when that was done, there was the biggest quest of all: the quest for the Holy Grail. Finally there was the war started by the deceptive Mordred, heir to Arthur’s throne.
Mordred came up with the cunning idea that he’d speed up the succession by claiming that the King was dead, while he really was just on a wild goose chase in France. In the end, that war ended the regime of the Pendragons, as both Mordred and fater Arthur died in the chaos of a misunderstanding in the middle of the peace exchanges. If King Arthur had his pick, I believe he became one of those mentioned wild geese and had a good second life with the tender Lyó-Lyok, who had just accepted goose-Arthur’s proposal when Merlin plucked him back to humanhood.
The legend of King Arthur and his knights, the Orkeney clan (who were actually Arthur’s nephews), of Lancelot and Guinevere and of Merlin is an intriguing story but more than anything it is a story about war and a story about humanity. That White would make it such a (war)-philosophical work is no wonder, when you understand that White wrote the books in the aftermath of the First World War, then the threat of the next one, with Hitler rising already, and finally in the aftermath of the Second World War. To have Merlin live backwards – having lived his youth in the 20th century he was an old dude in Arthur’s time, sort of living in each time at the same time – was a rather clever way of inserting modern day knowledge into his teachings to Arthur.
Merlin was a pacifist from the very beginning of the story. He tried to teach the slightly dense Arthur to think outside of the time box he lived in, and in ways, he did. Merlin taught Arthur – actually Wart in his boyhood – lessons by turning him into different animals and letting the animals teach him. Merlin’s hope was that Arthur would learn how to end wars and maintain peace by experiencing the different lives and lifestyles of different animals. At the end of his life, Arthur finds himself depressed and guilt-ridden for having failed his mission, especially after a rather black-hearted rant by Merlin.
“The Book of Merlin” is the intended fifth book of “The Once and Future King” even though the publisher did not originally include it in the publication. Ironically, this fifth book got sort of lost in the chaos of war and the years of shortage that followed. The pentalogy was published in its intended form for the first time in 1958. “The Book of Merlin” is a sort of revisit to Arthur’s childhood years, to the atmosphere of the first book, where Merlin actively educates Wart with his fables and rants and the visits to the world of animals. In this last book the animals from the first book are all gathered with Merlin to finish Arthur’s education. The weary old King has almost given up, but finally rises up to one more lesson from his tutors.
Not that it matters much to Arthur who dies in the process of making a truce with his son – thought there is something to be said about leaving this world with a peace of mind, especially after being troubled and confused most of one’s life – but maybe we, the readers of the legend, can take something away from this final lesson while pondering Merlin’s ideas on nature and humanity.
When King Arthur was all broken and despaired in his tent on the last night of his life and war, he came up with the notion that the humans are not really homo sapiens, “wise human beings” but rather homo ferox, “ferocious human beings”. Merlin himself had pretty much come to that conclusion as well, with the humans being the only species to kill just for fun and wage war just for fun and sport. For, as Merlin noted, humans seem to have the tendency to get adrenaline depraved and need something utterly dangerous to satisfy their need for excitement and need for some sort of cruelty.
The badger of the story, the wise in its own way, yet totally aloof and absentminded communist of the story, had his own opinions about humans. His first notion was that they are actually homo stultus, stupid, but then thought a bit further and came up with a more intelligent word: homo impoliticus, the non-political human beings. Now, as much as we have politics, one could argue that this hardly is an intelligent option, but if you consider it from the animals’ point of view, ther may actually be a point to it.
People are fighting over this and that – power, territory, imaginary lines between areas, women, men, ideas, you name it – and unable to come up with a unified political order to end the need for war. Apart from ants, basically, people are the only species so wholly unorganised. This, according to Merlin, is highly due to the fact that people have been around for so much shorter time and have yet to establish their system. And this, then, was the main reason for Merlin to inject little Wart into different animal communities; to learn from them and help the world of humans get organized in a just and reasonable manner.
Merlin and the badger had had Arthur’s life time to banter back and forth about communism and capitalism and all manners of ideologies, still not coming to a full conclusion until Arthur (re)visits his life as an ant and then as a goose. It is only after these experiences which Merlin and the animals carefully watched, that Merlin came to the conclusion that communism, the ultimate state of everyone being a non-individual part of the state machine, was not the way to prevent war; rather it is individualism. The more collective the mind, the stomach, the thinking, the more prone to war the species is, while the more individual the species, the more it is prone to pacifism, was Merlin’s conclusion.
Looking at ants and geese, it seems rather obvious. The ants build their colony, their industry and their fort, where every single ant has its place and duty. In White’s ant colony there are no names, there are numbers. There is no moral system, there is only Done and Not-Done. There are no words for anything other than what the ant colony, the ant state needs. An ant straying into foreign territory, another colony’s territory, is immediately considererd a threat: it has no place here, it does not belong, it will disrupt and take our food and more will come and our system will break!
Where there is no state system, there is nothing that will break. There is no need to be territorial or jealous of land, collective possessions, system, where there are none. The geese fly through the sky without knowing any borders. They fly in flocks, families, and congregate in peace with other flocks and families. They don’t get jealous over a field they happen upon, just because some other geese happen upon the same field. They make their nests and only if that is threatened – the private property of a home – do they feel the need to defend what is theirs.
Anarchy! You might exclaim. Yes, anarchy seems to be what Merlin is after. He even states: “I am an anarchist, like any sensible person.” Merlin’s anarchy is not a destructive one, though, but rather constructive. He tries to find what is good in the world, namely the natural world, learn and teach Arthur what he has learned, in order to bring forth the individual kind of anarchy that would finally end all wars.
However noble the goal, he even concludes himself that it is not exactly achievable. Not because of original sin or any profound evilness of the human mind, but because of the way we are wired. Merlin goes into the anatomy of the brain, explaining that ants only have a corpus striatum, that acts like a one way mirror, while the humans – and geese – also have the neopallium, which is like a two-way mirror. This means, that the ants do not have a sense of themselves, only of the colony, the state, whereas humans and geese gain understanding of their own character through the neopallium, by seeing themselves through the eyes of others.
It is, according to Merlin, the corpus striatum that leads to a proletariat state and humans will never have that because of the neopallium. This double-mirror of neopallium is the doom of any communistic societies in human populations. There is way too much individualism for it to ever succeed. This seems to cotradict the idea of the wars being waged due to collectivism, but now the thing is that the human brain also has the corpus striatum. Thus, the idea of complete individualism is doomed too. While in nature animalscan be completely either, the human beings never will.
Somehow unsurprisingly Merlin and the animals never did solve the issue of warfare, the issue of stopping warring altogether. No, they actually came up with a list of pros and cons of wars. The pros including them being a venting system for the human need for blood or pent up ferocity as Merlin puts it, of wars being a population control system (a poor one, but still), and some more or less overlapping notions ot psychological and physiological needs for fighting. The cons, well, the royal we declares they know them already, so we don’t get a list. I suppose it could all be summed up in one word: misery.
Misery was definitely the state King Arthur found himself in on the last evening of his fight and life. Utter misery of a lifetime of trying to do right, but only ending up failing, being betrayed by everyone he loved and seeing the world no closer to peace than when he started. His misery only deepened when Merlin went into his diatribe of the failings and misgivings of the human nature. When Merlin snatched him from the sweet moment with Lyó-Lyok back to humanity, he broke down into a heap of nothingness.
It is, however, also in the human nature to be able to rise above oneself even from the throws of the deepest despair when needed. It was the urchin, the little overlooked flea-ridden urchin, who took Arthur’s hand and guided him to the spot on the hill, where he sang to Arthur while Arthur once again became the King he was. And not only the King, but England itself. He inhaled the country and his heart swelled in love for his country and countrymen and he returned to Merlin and the animal committee to finish his education. In the end, the student surpassed his teacher.
“Very good. We understand the puzzle,” said King Arthur as he rose from his chair and bid farewell – or Orrevoyer as the urchin said – to Merlin and the animals. Finally, it was mercy that ended his life as well as his son-enemy’s. King Arthur offered half of his kingdom to the rebellious son and he accepted. It was only due to a miserable mistake caused by a snake that the whole peace fell into pieces and both Mordred and Arthur died. Maybe from each other’s swords, maybe of someone elses. Lancelot never made it from his exile to King Arthur’s side. He only made it to bury his King and friend.
White is a very contradicting writer, a hugely troubled mind. Especially this Book of Merlin is more of a dialect of two opposing minds – in the forms of Merlin and the badger – than any kind of straightforward philosophy of a mind made up. This duel of minds makes it even more interesting for it offers more questions than answers, more suggestions and proposals than facts. It leaves space for one’s own speculation. It is not a polished product; can be refined further and a keen mind no doubt will. Mine was definitely intrigued by it – by the notions of positive anarchism, pacifism and individualism.
They say curiosity killed the cat. Idealism killed King Arthur. Long live King Arthur!