Originally published May 10th, 2015
There are some books that, when you flip the final page, overwhelm you with emotion. You wish for more, for the universe you’ve been immersed in to continue and take you along with it. For just one more page of adventure.
This was not one of those books.
White took one of the most classic, long lived stories and made it boring. This should have been a gripping epic of romance, drama, and sword-fighting! It had knights! Treachery! Magic! Forbidden love! What more could you ask for in story-fodder? Apparently, in White’s mind, the missing component was moralizing. The entire book is one long rumination on how the human race should be run, from the perspectives of the unnamed narrator, Merlyn, a few enlightened individual characters, and several anthropomorphised animals. Even badgers and owls know what’s wrong with the human race. And they’ll spend pages and pages beating you over the head with it. (Hint: it’s because of national property. Only species that own property in common go to war. The ones that just have private property are all pacifists.(810) At least, that’s the conclusion Merlyn spent the last chapter of the book forcing down my throat. Although he did say glands may have been part of it.(828)) White seems to gloss over any event that could have been the least bit interesting to leave more room for pedantry. He spends more time railing at Guenever for getting old and wearing too much make up than he does actually describing her relationship with Lancelot. Who, by the way, is not subjected to the same vitriol over being a normal human being with a normal lifespan as what White dumps on Guenever. And White makes a point of mentioning that they are the same age, so if Guenever is old and wrinkly Lancelot is too. (Whenever Lancelot refers to Guenever as “Jenny” I picture him as Forrest Gump talking to the woman he had a crush on. This didn’t help me take the book seriously.) But White’s scorn for Guenever is nothing compared to his disdain for Lancelot’s unwanted admirer Elaine, who has the further audacity to get old and fat, instead of staying “pale and interesting” (457). I’m glad White mentioned that, I was hoping to find sexism and ageism sprinkled on top of my moralizing. I like the crunch.
Even when White has the opportunity to expand on a plot event which should be exciting he ignores it. [Spoiler Alert]
Near the end of the novel, when Mordred and Agravine have forced Arthur to acknowledge that Guenever is cheating on him with Lancelot and she is about to be burned at the stake for it, Lancelot shows up to rescue her. The King and Gawaine are watching from an upstairs window, and Gawaine’s brothers Gareth and Gaheris have gone down to add a token show to the guard. Mordred had requested that all three join the guard to attempt to stop Lancelot from saving the Queen, but Gawaine refused outright and the other two did not wear armor so that Lancelot would recognize them and know they were friends. Mordred disappears when the battle breaks out and returns with the news that Gaheris and Gareth have been killed, both with vicious head wounds. He blames this on Lancelot, in spite of the fact that Lancelot was close friends with those 3 of the brothers. The text seems to hint that Mordred did it, or got someone else to do it, but no one explores this idea. The closest we get to evidence is Mordred’s assertion that it was Lancelot, and Gawaine’s grief stricken cry that he “found a man wha’ saw it done.” (664) Lancelot doesn’t even remember doing it, and although I don’t personally have any battle experience, I feel like killing your unarmed friends would be something you’d remember. It’s so completely out of character for Lancelot I can’t take it seriously. The kind of events a normal writer would get a whole novel out of, White just glosses over and moves along. [End Spoiler]
I can see in places where White made attempts to add dimension to his characters, since we follow many of them over a lifetime we should see at least a couple personality changes. But it doesn’t seem successful, and his characters rarely seem to react authentically to anything. They’re all paper dolls, they don’t exist. Which may sound obvious, but when you consider praise of a book often includes discussing how the characters seem to “come alive on the page”, it’s an apt point. There’s not enough room for the character to breathe and grow. They’re too confined by White’s moralizing. As if he doesn’t want us to get emotionally involved with his creation. So I’d recommend that you don’t get involved. Don’t read it. There’s better stuff out there.