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White, T H

Entry updated 29 May 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1906-1964) Indian-born author, in the UK from the age of five, where he was raised by relatives; his overwhelming nostalgia for a lost England expressed itself vividly throughout nonfiction like England Have my Bones (1936), as well as in his two best-known fictional works, the nonfantastic Farewell Victoria (1933), and The Once and Future King (omni/novel 1958), a superlative tragicomic fantasia on Le Morte Darthur (written before 1471; 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory (1415/1418-1471). The Once and Future King is sometimes treated as a sequence and could therefore also be inscribed here as The Once and Future King. The 1958 rendering is taken from three earlier novels [see below and see Checklist], each here substantially recast, plus a previously unpublished fourth section, and is effectively readable as a single tale about the making of an adult Hero, or rather of two contrasting versions of the hero: King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. It was adapted by Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) into the stage musical Camelot (1960), and filmed as Camelot (1967) directed by Joshua Logan.

In their original, separately published versions, the first three novels – The Sword in the Stone: An Historical Novel (1938; rev vt The Sword in the Stone 1939), which was made into The Sword in the Stone (1963) directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, a philistine feature cartoon from The Walt Disney Company; The Witch in the Wood (1939), massively cut and retitled "The Queen of Air and Darkness" in the recasting; and The Ill-Made Knight (1940), which focuses on Lancelot – are themselves of very considerable interest as fantasias, as is the fourth part, "The Candle in the Wind", based on an unpublished play from the 1930s but written circa 1940, which applies a hindsight melancholy to the whole. Though there is some question as to what exactly may have happened at this point, it does seem that White's original conclusion, The Book of Merlyn (written circa 1940-1941; 1977), was found objectionable by his UK publishers because of its pacifist content; in any case, The Once and Future King (1958), with further small revisions though minus The Book of Merlyn, essentially retains an entre deux guerres melancholy, shading into expressions of anguish clearly in response to World War Two. The tale as a whole constitutes a remarkable and pessimistic exploration of the complexity of Evil and of the loss of innocence (see also Crime and Punishment). It is specifically notable as a pre-J R R Tolkien lament addressed to the decay of the Matter of Britain, modern England being envisioned with particular venom in the ant Dystopia to which Merlyn subjects the young Arthur as part of his education [for Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, Matter and Once and Future King see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The original version of The Sword in the Stone was voted a Retro Hugo for best novel of 1938 at the 2014 Worldcon.

Following an early Gothic, Dead Mr Nixon (1931) with R McNair Scott, and a mystery, Darkness at Pemberley (1932), White's work of sf interest begins with the Earth Stopped sequence, Earth Stopped; Or, Mr Marx's Sporting Tour (1934) and Gone to Ground: a Novel (coll of linked stories/novel 1935). In the first volume, after some Satire, rather like Evelyn Waugh channelling Robert Surtees (1805-1864), a Communist revolution ignites a devastating Holocaust, underlining the points White wished to make about contemporary civilization through the conversations and fox-hunting manias of his large cast. In the second volume, the Post-Holocaust survivors of this final Future War tell each other exemplary tales while hiding in a bomb shelter (the dustjacket supplies a subtitle not cited in the book, "Or the Sporting Decameron": see Club Story). The White scholar Kurth Sprague (1934-2007) reprinted a version of Gone to Ground as The Maharajah, and Other Stories (coll 1981), but without acknowledgement eliminated the author's linking material (at least fifty pages of narrative) and substituted his own story titles for White's numbered chapters. The effect of this behaviour was to extract these tales from the context within which they had been embedded, traducing White's intentions.

Mistress Masham's Repose (1946) tells how a group of Lilliputians, transported to England by Gulliver (see Imperialism), have survived in the capacious grounds of the vast estate of Malplaquet for 200 years, until a young girl almost destroys them by treating them as pets (see Great and Small; Zoo). The protagonist of The Elephant and the Kangaroo (1947), a mocking self-portrait of the author, becomes a new Noah in a hilariously pixilated Eire as the waters rise (see Ship of Fools). The Master (1957) is a Scientific Romance for young readers which, though conceived as early as 1941, may be White's only work of fiction more or less entirely composed after the personal traumas of the War; he thought of the tale as an homage to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), though the narrative more plausibly evokes the scatty adventurousness of a series like John Pudney's Fred and I books. A boy and a girl come across a plot to rule the world from the secretly occupied Island of Rockall, where a Merlyn-like Secret Master in utero, 157 years old, has perfected both Hypnotic control and a vibration device that will destroy all Machines; fortunately he treads on and is bitten by the children's dog, falls and breaks his leg, and – after taking some whisky and quoting Prospero's farewell-to-power speech – drowns himself in the sea (see Suicide). White's sf was of a piece with all his work, sharing the sentimentality, satirical power, sadness, narrative extravagance, longing for retrospective havens, manic Humour and compassion of his best fantasy. [JC]

see also: Children's SF; Sword and Sorcery.

Terence Hanbury White

born Bombay, India: 29 May 1906

died Piraeus, Athens, Greece: 17 January 1964

works (selected)


Earth Stopped

The Once and Future King

individual titles


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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