The Secret Equality
OKAY.. this was a bleeding hard essay to write and I don't think I expressed things properly. I was trying so hard to write something the professor would like and still be true to myself. I think I learned something by the end of it.
So I share it with you. Maybe someday I'll revisit it. I certainly came to feel a great fondness for T.H. White.
T. H. White's book The Once and Future King addresses human experience where the greatest threat to life is not resource scarcity, but armed conflicts between large groups of humans and this shift in traditional focus allows his characters a greater freedom from gender stylization; with this freedom in characterization comes an opportunity to see equality as the right of all human beings. The Once and Future King is a retelling of the Arthurian Cycle. The Arthurian Cycle is composed of stories representing British stories of origin that contribute to British identity and culture (Castleden 1). British culture and persons of British ethnicity have spread around Earth, thereby allowing a feeling of ownership of the. The universality of the Arthurian stories gives them an authority to speak to identify for both individuals and for larger associated groups.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs talks about the order in which a human's needs must be met (Simmons). Physiological needs must be met first. If a person does not have enough air to breathe, they are unlikely to be concerned about social status, at least not until that need is resolved. The need for safety, love, esteem, and finally for self-actualization follow along in order. It is possible to see behavior that does not conform to this hierarchy such as when an individual agrees to commit war-like behaviors which are inherently unsafe in order to achieve esteem. Needs for inclusion, love, and acceptance can induce individuals to accept social roles that may be neither supportive of self-actualization or even safety and physiological needs.
Arthurian stories have provided a framework for individuals to form shared history stories, community identity for over a thousand years. Wilhelm mentions a very early instance of the name Arthur by a writer named Nennius (Wilhelm 5). As sources of cultural identity, these stories also provided information on acceptable roles for individuals in society including gender roles. Gender roles enhance a sense of safety by delineating acceptable behavior and providing pre-negotiated responsibilities and rewards. Those responsibilities and rewards increase the likelihood of offspring reaching maturity. Children raised in homes where gender roles were successful could come accept gender role compliance as an indicator of safety.
T. H. White's experience of family did not provide him with an experience of safety. According to Sylvia Townsend Warner, in 1938 White wrote in his journal the following poem:
Of hapless father hapless son
My birth was brutally begun
And all my childhood o'er the pram
The father and the maniac dam
Struggled and leaned to pierce the knife
Into each other's bitter life.
Thus bred without security
Whom dared I love, whom did not flee? (21)
To further reduce White's experience of safety, his birth in 1906 would give him eight years until the start of World War I. WWI, called The Great War, saw the deaths of the better part of ten million fighters. Mustard gas has a very high probability of decreasing a sense of security. Increases in technology also served to diminish the safety of gender roles. A warrior with a sword may chose to spare a mother and her children. Mustard gas or shells lobbed from a distance spare only the very lucky or well-prepared.
White's The Sword in the Stone, the first book in the compilation that would be The Once and Future King was written between WWI and WWII, but it was published in 1938, according to both Crane and Warner. The Queen of Air and Darkness and The Ill-Made Knight were written in 1939 and 1940, respectively (Crane 15). The Book of Merlyn was written in 1941, but not immediately published (Crane 15). By 1941 World War II was well underway. In 1936 he attempted to be cured of homosexuality, but it is easier to gain a reprieve from the tuberculosis that he had had in 1927 than to cure homosexuality (Crane 14-15). He never married. The largest antagonists in The Once and Future King are war and frustrated love.
In The Ill-Made Knight, Lancelot fears giving into his desire because he fears losing his strength (White 368). Such a fear of losing strength and possibly masculinity with it, is a very vulnerable and human experience, perhaps reflecting the experience of an author who could not conform to standard gender roles because the biology of his desires set him apart from the ideal of his time. Lancelot's desire for Guenever is indisputable. Each time White typed her name, he also typed the word never. Such a small detail, over the course of a novel, of edits and re-writes, would wear into the soul as a trickle of water creates a valley.
There are the familiar trappings of gender roles in The Once and Future King, which would need to be there for the comfort of many of White's contemporary readers. In the core of what he writes though, "When she is beginning to hate her used body she suddenly finds that she can do it. She can go on living - not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often," the pronouns fail to have meaning (White 377). The lines could just as easily have been "He can go on living -." While war is a great threat to safety, the inability to find belonging and love prove to be just as disastrous over the course of a life.
The louder message in The Once and Future King is that of the importance of peace. White's Arthur achieves peace by understanding and applying Merlyn's lessons. Equality is achieved in the stories contained within The Once and Future King perhaps more as a refection of White's intrinsic values as a homosexual who desires an equal - a person of the same social role as himself, so when the writer imagines Lancelot's desire, his desire is for a Guenever who is desirable to the author. As a character, she is Lancelot and Arthur's emotional equal. As the legendary Queen of the Round Table, readers could read that equality as a potential value to be socialized into their own lives. A belief in equality provides for an experience of esteem. Love though, none of the three main characters in The Once and Future King achieved lasting love, which is also true of White's own life experience.
Castleden, Rodney. King Arthur: Truth Behind the Legend. London: Routledge, 2000. Ebrary.
Crane, John K. T. H. White. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1974. Print
Larrington Carolyne. King Arthur's Enchantresses: Morgan and Her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition. London: 2006. Netlibrary.
Simons, Janet A., Donald B. Irwin and Beverly A. Drinnien. "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" honolulu.hawaii.edu. University of Hawaii, 1987. Web. 25 March 2011.
Warner, Sylvia Townsend. T. H. White. New York: The Viking Press, 1967. Print.
Wilhelm, James J., Ed. _The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation._ New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994. Print.
White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: Ace, 1987. Print
Wright, Jacob L. "Military Valor and Kingship: A Book-Oriented Approach to the Study of A Major War Theme." Writing and Reading War : Rhetoric, Gender, and Ethics in Biblical and Modern Contexts. Ed. Kelle, Brad E. and Frank Ritchel. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008. Ebrary.