Thursday, October 6, 2016

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.2)




We pick up where the previous left off—with that ever so fascinating (re boring) scene involving the boys hunting; Kay becomes upset at the bird—Cully—perching himself in a tree, so he storms off, evidently because he has some serious issues with whiny, self-entitled boy disease. But because this hawk is important, with its master, Hob, spending up to fourteen hours a day in training the dull avian, Wart stays behind to try and capture it.

Good luck with that, Wart!

He needed the luck too, since, as the narration pointedly observes, the forest Wart is traversing is filled with both the mundane and the stuff of legend.

The mundane is a brief meditation on the presence of someone called Wat; this ‘Wat’ character, possessing an even more absurd name than Wart, something I seldom thought possible, was evidently a former resident turned bandit of Sir Ector’s village. He had no nose and was “weak in his wits,” thus once more positioning mentally ill people in an odd place, something which takes up a prominent place in this novel’s backstory despite not even constituting twenty pages so far.
As of now, we do not meet this Wat character but are treated to some examples of what the text means by those legendary creatures.

There was magicians in the forest… as well as strange animals not known to modern works of history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws… There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and hissed like kettles” (18).

Aside from the fact that this sounds like the most dangerous forest in the world, being, accordingly, no place for a small boy, we glean something interesting—turn your attention toward “Saxon outlaws.”

In later Arthurian literature, there is this tendency to increasingly equate the historical King Arthur with the tenth-century (I believe) Anglo-Saxon invaders who colonized Britain after previously being employed by the weakened Roman state (they fought other pagan tribes, such as the Picts). This is no accurate. If a King Arthur figure did live, then it is established that he was a Roman, that is Briton, commander who knew how to rally troops and fight back against the Anglo-Saxon tide. He was not Anglo-Saxon himself; so it looks like White’s novel gets the most important aspect of the legend correct: the Anglo-Saxons are seen as invaders, pillaging around in the forests, but distinct from the still ruling Britons.

Cool!                                                                   

He understood that once Cully had slept in freedom for a whole night he would be wild again and irreclaimable” (19).

Since we just learned that this bird was trained for fourteen hours a day, for an undetermined period, then how effective was this training if after a single night of freedom he is back to his old ways? Can one such Falconry/”hawking” enthusiast chime in?

A little after this moment, Wart begins to muse to himself. Here is an excerpt

’Perhaps,’ said the Wart to himself ‘even if Hob does not come, and I do not see how he can very well follow me in this trackless woodland now, I shall be able to climb up by myself at about midnight, and bring Cully down. He might stay there at midnight because he ought to be asleep by then. I could speak to him softly by name, so that he thought it was just the usual person coming to take him up while hooded.’”

There is more but this is enough. 

Wart doesn’t sound like a child. Moreover, he sounds very vanilla. Boring. I guess that is supposed to be his hallmark—calm, cool, and collected, unlike Kay who is ruled by emotion. Still, his inner dialog, though consistent with what little we have seen from his outer verbose, is simply dry. He speaks in statements and it is really stilted. How many people do you know who speak so mechanically? 

Person one: “Sidney went to the barber today.”
Person two: “That was informative.”
Person one: “indeed. She got a crew cut.”

Awkward.

After this, Wart is attacked by an outlaw but we never see the outlaw. It is alluded to that it is Wat; perhaps Wat is angry that Wart took his “r”. Alas, we will never know, as Wart hides and the presumed Wat simply strolls along after his first few arrows not striking Wart. Perhaps Wat suffers from a form of short term memory loss? Would be hardly surprising since this novel is quite insistent on rendering mentally unwell people in sultry predicaments.

Scrambling through the forest some more, Wart happens upon a questing knight in full armor. How convenient. But if you are wandering in a forest and attacked by bandits while chasing an animal, then fantasy law does dictate you meeting a high leveled—I mean, valiant knight as compensation.
Wart muses that the knight may be a ghost since, in case you haven’t been paying attention, this forest kinda sucks and is no place for a small boy. This possibility does not stop him from approaching the knight anyways and asking if he knows the way back home.

Obviously, the knight does not know which way Wart’s him is but does elect to help Wart try and find it after being offered a warm bed for the evening. Turns out that this knight is not well suited to questing; he has been searching for that famed Arthurian beast called the ‘Questing Beast,” something which, if I remember correctly, is supposed to be some kind of legendary and all powerful creature from the Arthurian mythos. Our errant knight, though, calls this creature the ‘Beast Glatisant,’ which rings a bell from my studies, but I can’t be sure. Anyways, he is King Pellinoire. We find that this knight has been on the trail of this beast for nearly a full year.

This is actually a fun part of the chapter because it feels real. Wart’s encounter with the knight lacks pretension, something which cripples modern fantasy with its Tolkein-esque smoke and mirror games. 

We learn that the knight is lonely and that he really only desires to settle down. He owns a so-called brachet (a dog?) and laments that he doesn’t like to let her loose upon the Questing Beast because she (the brachet-dog) can be gone for over a week and it gets lonely without his canine companion. After a tirade about all that the knight sees wrong with questing, this happens

’Oh, how I do wish I had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. If I were rich that’s what I would buy… I would put this beastly horse in a meadow and tell that beastly brachet to run away and play, and throw all this beastly armor out the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase himself—that I would’” (25).

This isn’t your typical Arthurian knight. He isn’t interested in quest maidens or glory, he just wants a simple, domesticated life. The moment that happens he is ready to leave all of this drudgery behind him.

I like that.

All too often in epic fantasy, and especially these Arthurian tales, events descend into juvenile power-fantasy tales of wish fulfillment. More often than not, in modern fantasy, if a character from a poor background encounters wealth, they have this fake-ass reaction to the wealth as if it simply doesn’t jibe with their humble, working class fibers; here, however, we see a conscious effort by White to depict someone who is alone and just wants to live the quiet good life. It is sweet and believable.
But then the Questing Beast suddenly reveals itself and this knight flies off in pursuit of his query, leaving Wart high and dry. Then the chapter ends.