Running with writers
Myth & Moor update

The Animal Helpers of T.H. White

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

From "The Beast in the Book" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."
 

Comments

such a magical painting of Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson, TH White's book has been a deep influence all my adult life!

Not referencing animals but a similar exercise to those Merlin used with Wart is found in the book "Mastering Trading Stress: Strategies for Maximizing Performance." One of the exercises in the book asks the reader to place her or himself into various objects. These include a stump, a cabin and a stream. I used to use the exercise or variations of it with groups when I was doing social work. It helped that I was aware of T.H. White's writing when I first discovered the exercise.

Becoming

He becomes a fish, a hawk,
He becomes a snake, an owl,
He becomes a badger.
He becomes himself.

That is how we all grow,
swimming inside our mothers,
flying out into the sun,
learning to slither through
the adolescent inaccuracies,
finding wisdom between branches,
till we sit in our own setting room,
badger-like, brusque, bristly,
worrying about the reigns of kings,
the reins of power.

Thinking about death.
Our own.
Others.


©2017 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Hi Terri

In the high desert, I have seen new creatures and variations on familiar ones (I knew back east). But when encountering them, I have also culled a certain wisdom or lesson from their behavior, stance and simple presence within my environment. They have either helped me to grow or heighten an awareness of my own insight, instinct and hunger. One such being besides the lizard is the desert salamander. Nocturnal and very circumspect, paranoia to the max in some cases, I have realized the importance of being aware, cautious and trusting any instinctual fear or uneasiness that may arise in new circumstances or surroundings. Even the smallest species can serve as a totem, guide or simply a reminder of what we need to grow and preserve our place in this world.

The Salamander

"Eye of newt"
yours becomes the seed of paranoia
in this cauldron of rock
widening at the hint
of any light, breath or shadow that moves.

You can sense weed or feather wisp, vine or hair tendril
quivering in the wind, You even know
when I blink-- watching from a distance
hidden by garden trees.

Sheltered under log or shrub,
you spend your day eluding the sun
but sometimes you settle under my skin.
An agile spine

tightening with fear, suspicion ( beautifully)
eerie in its own right
as the moon stretching over the pine's vertebrae.
______________________________________

The paintings are absolutely gorgeous in this blog entry and magical! I also love the work of T.H. White and have always been fascinated by his take on The Arthurian tales. Thank you for bringing them into light on your blog and letting us enjoy the splendor of his aim and purpose via the distinct perspective and clarity of Ursula le Guin. Another stunning writer as well.

Take care
Wendy

Hi Jane

A perfect title and beautiful expansion on the idea of how Arthur became himself and how we all evolve into our personal selves. What makes this poem so precise and powerful is not only the chosen animal models that allow us to behave and grow into mortal beings, but also the progression of thought. You show how each species contributes to our growth, both physically and mentally -- a combo of species' traits and nature's elements that gives us the ability to be who we must be.

That is how we all grow,
swimming inside our mothers,
flying out into the sun,
learning to slither through
the adolescent inaccuracies,
finding wisdom between branches,
till we sit in our own setting room,
badger-like, brusque, bristly,
worrying about the reigns of kings,
the reins of power.

Thinking about death.
Our own.
Others

And that last stanza really ends this fine poem so strongly. We all mature into thinking about our mortality and how it affects everyone and everything within and around us.

Thank you for sharing this,
I loved it!
Wendy

This is a lovely article. I too met and fell in love with TOaFK at age 13 or 14 and though it has been many years since I have reread it, this remains my most treasured of books. I do hope everyone who loves TOaFK has also read The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White. It was fashioned to be another of the Wart's transformative experiences, but was published separately (& posthumously).

Oops addendum: TOaFK = The Once and Future King. This is a four part collection which includes The Sword in the Stone as it's first book.

You always seem to understand my poems better than I do, and I thank you for that, Wendy.

Jane

"An agile spine

tightening with fear, suspicion ( beautifully)
eerie in its own right
as the moon stretching over the pine's vertebrae."

The doubling of the back images at the end tightens the meaning,
and makes the whole poem taut with ideas. Love it.

Jane

Wrote this a few years ago:


Releasing The Spirit Within

Man and machine. One being. Three thousand pounds of steel, rubber, plastic, flesh, bones and blood hurtling through the darkness along a narrow track of pavement. Raindrops beating on the windshield compete with the rhythm of the wipers, and the headlights of others shine in as beacons as the line of traffic snakes by. All this noise, this motion, and yet the driver is not there. The body surely, as the hand grips the wheel and the arm sways with the curves and bends in the road; the foot rests comfortably on the accelerator.

This ritual has become almost a reflex, and the mind drifts away, maintaining only the contact necessary to ensure smooth operation. In time the business of the highway is left behind – traded for a quiet country road, a driveway, and finally to stop. Stepping from the car and closing the door, the darkness swirls around, engulfing him. The raindrops continue their journey down from the heavens, and even in the dim light thrown from the neighbouring houses, everything is seen to shimmer as if sprinkled with dew.

Back down the driveway, left turn at the road, and the walk begins. It starts slowly at first; there are many old friends to greet along the way. These people haven’t been seen for some time, and there is some reacquainting to do. The old white pine, the cedars, onto the maples and the ash, all have been very patient with this one. He whispers greetings as he passes, apologizing for his long absence and thanking them for waiting. His Mother, too, has been patient with her lost child and he calls out to her as he walks. He laughs – a warm, heartfelt laugh and yet there is no sound. It did not come from this time, this place, it is the laugh of He Who Would Sing and it is only heard there.

From deep inside it starts, for it has been buried a long time. Moving toward the surface, a low, guttural growl emerges into the night. Hands become paws, earlobes stand erect, and the long, pointed snout sniffs the night air. Piercing eyes survey every flutter, and every rustle is heard and duly noted. Hard pads contact soft earth and pull away, sending sprays of sand flying backward down the trail. The heart beats faster. The lungs strain for oxygen, and miles of road become uncovered and eaten by the fog. Faster and faster, developing an easy lope that can be kept for hours. Raindrops glisten on the black fur and muscles ripple beneath as they move with perfect synchronicity.

After a time he slows to a trot, then a walk again. Sitting back, he tilts his head toward the sky and howls – a call to his sisters, his brothers, his ancestors. Again, and the sound cuts through the silence like a knife. The night returns and reclaims her own. In truth, he has come home.


Mike Pedde 01/04/90

Hugs,
M&M

P.S. How is it that we search the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence when we've barely begun to learn to communicate with those we share our own planet?

Hi Mike

Beautiful writing! I really like the way your release the "primal spirit" of man back to his wilder form. The build-up to the transformation is perfectly drawn with man and machine travelling down civilization's road while the mind wanders back to what it once knew, what it truly craves. This passage is I took particular notice of:

Stepping from the car and closing the door, the darkness swirls around, engulfing him. The raindrops continue their journey down from the heavens, and even in the dim light thrown from the neighbouring houses, everything is seen to shimmer as if sprinkled with dew.

Back down the driveway, left turn at the road, and the walk begins. It starts slowly at first; there are many old friends to greet along the way. These people haven’t been seen for some time, and there is some reacquainting to do. The old white pine, the cedars, onto the maples and the ash, all have been very patient with this one. He whispers greetings as he passes, apologizing for his long absence and thanking them for waiting

I think the "darkness engulfing him" and "the raindrops coming down" serves as a rite of passage, being reborn into the wild, the wolf; and of course, the cleansing of rain is like a baptism. Also like the way trees are greeted and treated as elders, guardians of a past time.

Thank you for sharing this, I truly enjoyed reading it!
Best
Wendy

Hi Jane

so glad you enjoyed the poem and as always, deeply appreciate your keen observation. I have always been particularly fond of salamanders and this one in my book yard is unique. Again, thanks so much!

Take care
wendy

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