T. H. White and The Sword in the Stone

Terence Hanbury White (Tim to his friends) the Arthurian scholar who became a well known author

T. H. White (1906 - 1964) is probably best known for his book 'The Sword in the Stone'. Born in Bombay to English parents he endured a difficult childhood with an alcoholic father and an emotionally cold and manipulative mother. White studied English at Queens College, Cambridge where he wrote a thesis on 'Le Morte D'Arthur' by Thomas Malory which probably prompted his life-long interest in matters Arthurian.

White taught at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire for four year and in 1936 published a memoir, 'England Have My Bones'. White left Stowe School that same year and went to live in a nearby cottage where he devoted his time to writing, falconry, hunting and fishing. Suffering from something akin to a depression, White returned to reading Malory and this triggered the writing of 'The Sword in the Stone' which dealt with the childhood of Arthur and which White described as a 'preface to Malory'. It was published in 1938 and quickly achieved significant success. 

White moved to County Meath, Ireland in 1939 where he spent the duration of the Second World War. It was here that he wrote 'The Witch in the Wood' (later to be rewritten as 'The Queen of Air and Darkness') and 'The Ill-Made Knight', which retold the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere - probably one of fiction's most celebrated stories of marital infidelity.

After the War, White moved to the Channel Islands (Alderney) where he lived the rest of his life. He wrote science fiction, novels and stories (sometimes using the pseudonym James Aston). White also wrote two non-fiction books: 'The Age of Scandal' and, more famously, 'The Goshawk' which tells of White's endeavours to train a goshawk using traditional falconry techniques (a book much referenced in the very successful  'H is for Hawk' by Helen MacDonald). 'The Goshawk' had been written much earlier (probably in the mid-1930s) and was only published at the insistence of White's agent in 1951 after it had been discovered by chance.

White continued working on the sequence of novels that made up 'The Once and Future King' with the final part ('The Candle in the Wind') being completed in 1958. This final novel in the series was not published separately but incorporated with the three earlier novels ('The Sword in the Stone', 'The Queen of Air and Darkness' and 'The Ill-Made Knight'). 'The Once and Future King' sequence was, of course, adapted for Broadway as the musical 'Camelot' and the Disney animated film 'The Sword in the Stone'. It wasn't until 1977 that 'The Book of Merlyn' was published posthumously. This was seen as a conclusion to 'The Once and Future King'.

Although White's Arthurian books are hugely entertaining and, in parts, madly comedic, they do have some dark undertones and include commentaries on both human nature and on war. The text of 'The Sword in the Stone' does differ between the original version and that which appeared in 'The Once and Future King'. It is the original which many readers prefer for its sensitive expression of some of these darker thoughts.

There is some evidence that White was a repressed homosexual and seemed to have some sad-masochistic tendencies. White had no enduring romantic relationships though several times he did come quite close to marrying. White's long-standing friend and literary agent (David Higham) was less convinced that his friend was homosexual - repressed or otherwise. It is hard to see how this really matters. What is clear is that White was a complex and deeply feeling man - 'Goshawk' is a particularly moving memoir of a battle of wills between a man and a highly intelligent bird - and he has left us a hugely entertaining body of work.

White died of heart failure on January 17th, 1964. At the time he was on board a ship in Piraeus (Athens), on his way back to Alderney from a lecture tour in the USA. He was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens.  

Several more recent writers have said that White was an influence on their writing. Probably the most obvious is J. K. Rowling who has said that White was a strong influence on her 'Harry Potter' books and some critics have made comparisons between White's Merlyn and Albus Dumbledore. Amongst others, Neil Gaiman and Ed McBain have both cited White as an influence. 

We currently have first editions of 'The Sword in the Stone' and 'The Ill-Made Knight' in stock. 

 

 

 

  • Date posted:
    03/08/2016
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