Friday, November 11, 2016

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.7)

Onwards for another chapter!

So, this is a longer chapter and yet hardly anything happens, really.

It begins with Merlyn’s thoughts on what it means to be a properly educated individual.
Nobody got scholarships like they used to when he [Merlyn] was a boy, and all of the public schools had been forced to lower their standards” (56).

So… there is public schools in this version of the middle ages? I know for a fact that the idea of public school as we think of it today didn’t emerge until sometime, I believe, in the eighteenth century, and that was for boys only; in the middle ages, universities didn’t emerge until the verge of the Renaissance. So it is weird to see that in White’s version there is a public school system, and once which has apparently been around long enough to warrant discussion on the supposed lowering of standards.

Then comes a far too long section talking about jousting, or “tilting.” There is a weird moment in the narration where Lancelot and Tristram are described as good jousters, which is weird because neither of them have been announced in the narrative so far as of yet.

The best place for hitting people was on the very crest of the tilting helm, that is, if the person in question was vain enough to have a large metal crest in whose folds and ornaments the point would find a ready lodging” (57).

What a playful swipe! White here appears to be having some fun at literature’s expense; in Arthurian tales of the later period and onwards, we see a number of texts which have knights ornately dressed for combat. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as the later Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene feature knights with elaborate sets of armor hinting at a bit gaudy orientation.

Think back to all the armor you’ve seen in various high fantasy texts. Think of all the curves and twisting horns enmeshed in wave-like patterns of metal… think of how impractical it must be, and how expensive such a piece of show armor is, to not only own that suit but use it on quests. This is what White is taking aim at and it is needed, though not something that has helped reduce the number of surreal armored suits.

But… Wart and Merlyn discuss knights and what Wart wants to be when he grows up. Wart says that he would like to be a knight errant, had his parents been of nobler birth (assuming his parents were around to begin with, that is). There is a bit of a back and forth involving this as well as Kay and his training; Wart feels depressed at having to train for something which he can’t really do and is better suited for Kay.

The trouble with the Norman aristocracy is that they are games-mad, that is what it is, games-mad” (59).

Coolio. So we know have a definite temporal localization. 

The Norman Invasion was what unseated the Anglo-Saxon rulers after their own invasion following the collapse of the Roman Empire. After this early eleventh century invasion, England is more or less divided between Norman rulers who hail from France and some sort of local body of Anglo-Saxon rulers who function as a kind of puppet government for the now conquered England.

At any rate, I am unsure of how the historical Norman rulers viewed games. I vaguely remember something about the Normans enjoying games, but maybe that is just a false memory prompted by this book. Who knows. Point is we have a real time and place—England, sometime after 1066.
Things get interesting though when Merlyn talks with Wart about his future occupation. AS I remarked previously, Wart said that he would have liked to be a knight, and if that was a possibility then he would call himself The Black Knight, have a “splendid” suit of armor and never do anything but joust and go on quests. Can you tell that Wart is written as the archetypical boy?

Then Merlyn says this, however.

“’Your wife will scarcely enjoy the life’
‘Oh, I am not going to have a wife. I think they are stupid.’
I shall have a lady-love, though,’ added the future knight uncomfortably, ‘so that I can wear her favour in my helm, and do deeds in her honor’” (60).

Girls are icky—ew!

Can you tell that Wart is a little boy?

But, no, I love this section because the homoeroticism deepens. This hinges on the inclusion of the word ‘uncomfortably’ and the reluctant inclusion of retaining this purely platonic ‘lady-love’ as part of what a knight must to in order to be a knight; in other words, the lady-love is all part of the job. Mandatory heterosexuality works in weird ways, yes?

Sadly, this train of thought is not continued and instead Merlyn assents to Warts pleading to find a jousting match. Merlyn teleports them to a field where they meet King Pellinore, again. They encounter Sir Grummore Grummursum (hereafter referred to as Grum-grum). After a series of “hails” and “how-de-do”, which I feel is supposed to be a satire on formal etiquette since the characters repeat this formality so much and in a very blundering manner, we get onto the jousting match. King Pellinore battles grum-grum.

It is all very boring.

This scene goes on for too long and I honestly didn’t see the point of it. I think White was trying to defamilarize the idea of knightly combat by problematizing just how difficult fighting in a full suit of armor would be for participants today—reminding the contemporary reader that knights were not the elegant death machines which we think of them today, but rather, a bit clunky and cumbersome when they went about their business.

But, each mindlessly hammers one another and the battle concludes without a definite winner; each knight is depicted in a very immature practice: Pellinore and Grum-grum read like feuding brothers. After assuring Wart that neither of the combatants are seriously wounded, and will, in fact, be the best of friends when they awake, Merlyn whisks Wart back to the castle.

All in all, this was by far the most yawn-inducing chapter in the book thus far. Hopefully such lengthy scenes are not described very much in the future. If they are, I shall throw myself from the closest cliff rather than suffer yet another stuffy lecture.

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