The dream of feathers...

T.H. White: a rescued mind


In her last book, Eating Stone (a meditation on life, wilderness, and bighorn sheep), the late naturalist writer Ellen Meloy penned this vivid portrait of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King -- a brilliant man who suffered from what might, today, be diagnosed as clinical or bipolar despression:

12282"For British writer T.H. White, as I read while out watching bighorns, a mind activated by beasts was a rescued mind. White averted mental disasters by keeping a proximity to animals and sustaining a voracious appetite for knowledge.

"Described by biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner as 'chased by a mad black wind,' this 'hermetic and sometimes cranky man' wrote more than twenty-five books. He was an illustrator and calligrapher. He translated medieval bestiaries. He painted, fished, raced airplanes, built furniture, sailed boats, plowed fields, and flew hawks at prey. Late in life, he made deep-sea dives in a heavy old suit with a bulbous helmet, which made him look like a Zuni mudhead.

"New skills 'aerated his intelligence,' Warner tells us. For his 1955 translation of a 12th-century bestiary, he taught himself Latin. Through a character in one of his novels he hinted at himself. 'The best thing for being sad,' the character says, 'is to learn something.' 

The Goshawk by TH White"Much of White's knowledge of the natural world resurfaced in his teaching -- he was for many years a schoolmaster -- although greater experts in his subjects accused him of smattering. 'But smatterer or no,' writes Warner, White 'held his pupils' attention; their imagination, too, calling out an unusual degree of solicitude -- as though in the tall, gowned figure these adolescents recognized a hidden adolescent, someone unhappy, fitful, self-dramatizing, and not knowing much about finches.'

"He wore scarlet. He was 'nobly shabby.' He drank, he said, 'in order not to be sober.' He kept owls and paid his students to trap mice to feed them. Fed, the owls perched on his shoulder as he sat under an apple tree, speaking to him in little squeals.

"He wrote a story about geese and geese hunters, one of them a 'mad generasl' who said one ought not to hunt geese and waved the birds away before anyone could. White's ardent love for natural beauty, his friends remarked, peaked in wild enthusiasm, then crashed into melancholy at beauty's transience. The melancholy may have been clinical. In gloom, he sought the air. In the late 1930s, he wrote:

'I had two books on the training of the falconidae in one of which was a sentence which suddenly struck fire from my mind. The sentence was: "She reverted to a feral state." A longing came to my mind that I should be able to do this myself. The word "feral" has a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, "ferocious" and "free." To revert to a feral state! I took a farm-labourer's cottage and wrote to Germany for a goshawk.'

"The Goshawk, published in 1950, chronicled White's seduction by a great and beautiful bird."

It's a strange, painful, and fascinating book...not an easy read, but I recommend it.



Completely off-topic, there's an interview with me and Ellen Datlow about (related to our new anthology After) over on the Figment blog for young readers, if anyone is interested:

Now back to T.H. White....

A man who has touched the lives of many. The Once and Future King is one of those books that ignited the love of myth, history and fable. My edition now being tatty and well thumbed.

It is sad that demons ride the shoulders of some of our most creative and magical communicators.

I love TH White - always have and will. Before I got to read my first Once and Future King, (someone had checked it out when I was scouring the library), I read "Islandia", who no one ever mentions or seems to remember. I am trying still, 35 years+ later, trying to find a copy. The man was truly a master - spoke right to me.

Thank you for remembering, sharing, and posting this.

OMG! LOL! I still love TH White, but somehow, I must have carted all these books home of his from the library, and also, Austin Tappan Wright - who wrote Islandia. (As you can see, I was raiding the "W" authors. (I do that, as a kid then and still now, in my venerable 50s) - shelf by shelf, stack by stack. Nothing so satisfying as a library binge buffet, especially during winter nights.)
Please excuse my yearning for these two greats, but at least it tells me why I kept hitting dead ends. lol - never to old to laugh at myself, just very good at mooning about books from 40 or so years ago. Maybe it's an omen!) excuse me for digressing, but these 2 ARE wrapped up for me. I am off to Amazon, White and Wright!

Islandia is one of my favorite books in the whole wide world. I read it at an impressionable age (15) and it had a huge influence on me. Absolutely huge.

It's a hard book to easily recommend, however, because you have to do so with caveats. First of all, it was written in the 1920s, and although it was rather progressive for its time in its treatment of women, sex, and ecological/anti-consumerist issues, some readers may have issues with the female characters if judged by today's standards. And issues of race in the book are extremely problematic, to say the least. (Fortunately that's a very small part of the book, but still....) Also, the author was a lawyer, not a professional novelist (he created the world of Islandia over many years, and the book was edited and published by his wife & daughter after his death in 1931) so the prose is serviceable rather than beautiful. Those caveats aside, I love it dearly.

I know the author's grandson, Tappan Wright King (author of "Downtown" and editor Beth Meacham's husband), and through him I was able to read a manuscript copy of an unpublished "history" of Islandia. A bit dry compared to the book, but fascinating to a hardcore Islandia fan like me.

Jenny, I'm so glad to know there are other Islandia readers out there! And I hope you've found your "alia."

White was one of my most dearly loved authors as a child, not only for The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlin, but also because of Mistress Masham's Repose. If he ever made a study of wildlife, he most certainly made a study of children and understood them more deeply than most authors because he addressed them and treated them as equals. That a child should transform into fish or fowl must have seemed the most natural thing in the world to White, and his gift to allow us to see things through the eyes of a wild creature gave his readers a particular sensitivity to the natural world. Thank you for posting this, and the wonderful image from Alan Lee.

Not only are both "Once and Future King" and "Mistress Masham's Repose" touchstones of my reading list, but I have always thought Sylvia Townsend Warner's bio of White one of the most beautifully written of the many biographies I--a Tonstant Weader of bios--I have ever read.

Here is a semi bio of my husband which this post touched off:

Feral bones

“The word "feral" has a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, "ferocious" and "free."--T. H. White

My husband had feral bones,
and a wanderer’s longing for freedom.
Not to be free of family,
books, a hot meal, warm bed.
He could not do without conversation,
embarrassing the children
by speaking with anyone:
waitresses about counting tips,
mathematicians in abstract sentences,
German scholars in their own rough tongue,
knocking Witnesses arguing theology,
talking to the passing stranger about weather
if nothing else presented itself.
His mind was ferocious that way.
But his real need was for fields,
mountains, sea air, the lands between
the borders of any place, where surrounded
by birdsong and windsong he could be free.

© 2012 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

The Once and Future King is my favorite book in the whole's funny the librarian always categorized it in her own way in our town under "books for boys"....that made me just more determined to see what boys were reading....i liked Little House on the Prairie Books...but i LOVED all T.H. Whites books...the perfect sit in the tree reading a book, dear to my heart..thx T

The Goshawk is an all time favourite! I have accidentally given away so many copies... the one I miss most was thebound in sculpted leather with my version of a hooded & jessed hawk on a glove but they never get returned! BTW no one stays up all night any more to tame a hawk, there are gentler ways these days! The other book that I miss and must find again is An Eagle to the Sky by Frances Hamerstrom.

Love the poem, Ms. Yolen, describes my dear, departed dad to a T. (and while some might have been, we never felt embarrassed when he talked to the waitresses)! ^________^

Lovely...tears in my eyes.

My! Terri and all! Always such a fine feast here, and a splendid place for visiting in the wee hours, when the madding world (and tenants) are abed. Then, I can unroll and drape like a fine carpet or tapestry, freed from mundane bindings. Thank you, thank you!

Oh, that brings David back so vividly. I know that my missing him is a drop of rain to your ocean, but I miss him too.

A flying carpet, perhaps, Jenny, a tapestry of air? I sometimes feel that is what the world of storying is. I see the ether populated with these folks of story, a great ball where Cinderella dances with the wolf in grandmother's nightdress, the twelve princesses chose woodcutters and trolls as partners, Anansi limbos with Coyote, and Old King Cole kicks up his heels to jig with the fiddlers three. All equals in the tapestry of air.


I was more or less delirious when I first read Once and Future King, such a deep, funny and whimsical book. It's rare to run into an author with such a powerful, delightful imagination.

White's depiction of the long love affair between Lancelot and Gwenevere is the most affecting love story I have ever read and it is accomplished by his uncompromising respect for unsentimental actualities.

The above drawing is wonderful.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn.
Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” - T.H. White, The Once and Future King
The kind of distress T.H. White tried to flee may be helped with nutrition and other natural means - bringing back joy without diminishing intellect and creativity.

Odd coincidence -- just today I received my copy of a book that includes all four of T.H.Whites Arthurian books in one omnibus edition. I have waited a while for it (budgetary constraints) and I have been looking forward to savoring it.

At first I just couldn't get into The Once and Future King. I could not get past what I thought of as
anachronisms. It was only a few years ago when I fell into it, fully and it broke my heart and mended it
and tumbled and recovered and it is so full. I did not know I would learn so much about hawks. I love
watching hawks, they swift descent and dramatic rising up into the air; their unbelievable hanging up
in the air like kites.Well, that is the name of some birds of prey. T. H. White felt like a long lost uncle,
a host to a world i never knew.

Oh! Terri what an interesting post. I actually have not read T.H.White ,a great mistake obviously.I would like to read the biog by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I love the internet when it gives so much inspiration!I will also get the the childrens books and see if my Grandsson Jowan would like them. love Angela

Oh, and thank you for letting us know about SylvieTownsend Warner's biography. I will
look for it. Her work is high on my list of literary fantasy joys.

Jane, thank you so much for that poem.

See, it's hard having folks not understand. That no matter how gregarious and outgoing you are, it can be really true that you're happiest in a wild place, with just birds and wind in the trees for noise. I spent the vast majority of my childhood alone in wood places and wild fields. I would find a pocket of woodlands in the most dense urban area and spend hours in it. I very much remember reading Once & Future King as a child. It was very important to me, and that quote on learning something when you're sad comes up to mind regularly.

I deeply remember reading it for the for the first time, and I was sitting on a tree that arched horizontally from the shore, over my grandfather's cattle pond. I think I was seven. I was dropping crumbs in the water for the turtles and fish. I looked up when I heard a hawk call and watched it circle. I would read out on that tree a lot. I wanted to be the hawk, like Wart.

I'm really tired and could use a week or six alone, in a wild place. Even my yard will do. Bordered by deep woods, bear and deer cross it, and lately it's been full of sparrows and juncos again. Yesterday a flock of five Blue Jays came through, and spent an hour at our feeder, before moving on. I wanted to roam south with them. A rowdy group of blue feathered boys looking for warmer temperatures.

I didn't know your husband, but I am very fond of his wife. I feel I know him a bit better now, and perhaps myself as well. Thank you.

Much Peace,
Shane Odom

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