Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.3)




With King Pellinore gone hunting that Questing Beast—I wonder if we will ever see him again?—our little Wart was forced to sleep in the woods. He has an odd dream featuring the stars and animals. It’s all inconsequential filler, so we will move on to something more interesting.

There was a clearing in the forest, and in this clearing there was a snug cottage built of stone” (28).

I wonder if a witch lives there and will try and fatten Wart up; wait, this cottage is not made of candy, so that would be a ‘no’. Thank goodness!

This cottage is then described and I found the description being hard to follow. At first it seemed like that it was Wart describing it, but this couldn’t be the case since he hadn’t entered the cottage yet and the description specified the interior, so it had to be that a-temporal narrator. This feels odd. Specifically, why the narrator would feel the need to go into such detail about a cottage which Wart could simply describe upon entering himself.

’Your name would be the Wart’
‘Yes, sir, please, sir.’
‘My name,’ said the old man, ‘is Merlyn’” (29).

Oh, SNAP! Name drop; our young hero meets the legendary one himself—cool! I was half-expecting that our wizard mentor wouldn’t show up until much later, or whatever. Good to see him so early, though; a lot of the fiction I have been reading lately has really taken a shine to introducing mentor figures way too damn late for my comfort.

I would comment on Wart’s stiff sort of formalism, but the next passage says all we need to know…
The magician was staring at him with a kind of unwinking and benevolent curiosity which made him feel that it would not be at all rude to stare back, no ruder than it would be to stare at one of his guardians cows who happened to be thinking about his personality as she leaned over a gate.”

On one hand, I think that describing Merlyn as a cow is perfectly apt as it captures the sort of demure quality White seems to be going for in his depiction. On the other hand, this is so old fashioned; it is a kind of conservative disposition mixed with how one would think that children would interact with adults in an aristocratic setting. Admittedly, I know nothing of how those interactions would happen, but this moment seems anachronistic in that White is superimposing this ‘children should be seen, not heard’ kind of morality into a medieval setting.

After this we then get a good look at the fantastical digs of Merlyn’s pad: thousands of books? Check! Reference to a ‘kingfisher’? Check! Phoenix, only one of which actually exists in the whole world? Check! Gotta say, Merlyn is a pretty sweet dude. Really livin’ the life, ya know? Oh, and Merlyn also has cases of guns, which the text remarks “would not be invented for half a thousand years” (31). Kick-ass!

There is also this magical owl named Archimedes which can talk. At first I thought that this so-called Owl was a parrot, that Wart was simply mistaking him for a different bird, and that the talking was contrived speech-phrases. But it turns out that the owl is just fantastical since his speech becomes more and more convoluted, eventually becoming abundantly clear that he is intelligent.

After such a formality, we move on to a breakfast scene, one of many such moments in literature where the author describes stuff that sound amazingly deliciously but would probably be rather rancid in real life. Things like

There were peaches. There were melons, strawberries and cream, rusks, brown trout piping hot, grilled perch which were much nicer, chicken devilled enough to burn one’s mouth out, kidneys and mushrooms on toast, fricassee, curry, and a choice of boiling coffee or best chocolate made with cream in large cups” (33).

Damn! I don’t know how historically accurate all of that is or how scrumptious it would actually be, but it sure does sound like a feast.

Soon after, though, we hear Merlyn drop a bombshell—he was “born backwards” and “lives at the wrong end of time.” I’m not sure if this makes him related to Benjamin Button, but he says that it makes him able to see what everyone else calls the future, essentially. “Some people call it having a second sight” (35). By and all, this is mighty interesting and a creative take on where Merlyn’s powers originate. Hopefully it is explored more in the future. (Since the narrator is a-temporal, I assume that the narrator is Merlyn.)

Once the time based shenanigans have gone by, Wart interacts with the owl some more and tries to give him a nickname. This is strongly rebuked by both the owl and Merlyn, who explain that though owls will sometimes act foolish to bemuse others, they are proud creatures. Wart and the owl make-up and Merlyn explains he will accompany Wart back to the castle. After all, he minus well since he is Merlyn’s new tutor.

The ending scene is so great I need to write it all out.

At this the Wart’s eyes grew rounder and rounder, until they were about as big as the owl’s who was sitting on his shoulder, and his face got redder and redder, and a breath seemed to gather itself in his heart.
‘My!’ exclaimed the Wart, while his eyes sparkled with excitement at the discovery. ‘I must have been on a quest!’” (37)

Words. Cannot.

If you read this scene and didn’t imagine it all as an anime, then shame on you! It is so strongly connected to an animated feature that one would need to be fairly dense to miss its storybook qualities. Then there is the last reference to him must of being on a quest; it is pretty self-aware fantasy! It is a book aware of its genre history. Considering that this scene comes off the heels of King Pellinore desiring nothing more than to settle down and live the good life, I have noticed that White is actively trying to subvert Arthurian platitudes. We will see how this keeps up for the rest of the book, but for now it is working fairly consistently.

Let's Read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Preface and Introduction)

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