No. 1: The Sword in the Stone

What with one thing and another (she said, diffidently) I somehow decided it would be just as well to read through the various Hugo winners for Best Novel. I need a plan for my fiction reading, as I find myself so overwhelmed with options that it's hard to settle. Having decided that, I thought it might also be fun to blog about these books as I go.

So. I started with the 1939 Retro Hugo Best Novel, The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. I'm not going to be a stickler about editions, so I just grabbed the 1987 Ace edition of The Once and Future King I already own.

A few preliminary throat-clearings:

I'm no expert on SFF and its history. I've read a fair amount of SFF, I guess, mostly fantasy, but I've always been such an eclectic reader that I can't claim any expertise. I mean, I've read everything Tolkien ever wrote, but I've also read just about everything Agatha Christie wrote under that name, and I was making pretty fair progress on Dickens before I suddenly realized what I was doing. I've read a lot of books for young readers, and I've read a lot of what are called Classics, and there's never been much system to the whole thing. So I come at this with what I'd consider a decent grasp of the breadth of literature, but perhaps a slightly naive view of the history of SFF. In some ways, this is my attempt to remedy that.

Also, with respect to this book: I have read this book any number of times already. It hit me hard amidships right in the middle of high school, launched my brief and intense love affair with King Arthur, and even more than Tolkien settled my ambition to write fantasy. A lot of who I am can be traced back to this book (among others). So I make no pretension to any kind of unbiased perspective here, though I've tried to be as fair as I can within those limitations.

What I Like: This is a book that rewards you tremendously if you are willing to give yourself over to it. It's not to be read like, say, Pale Fire, where you must always keep your eye on what Nabokov is up to. Don't worry about what White is up to, at least not the first time through. Just enjoy the ride. If you do that, you'll find that he uses that authoritative prose style with great skill, and his descriptions are luscious without being purple.

The comic minor characters are tremendously lovable. Pellinore is magnificent no matter how many times you encounter him. Merlyn.. I mean, Merlyn. If you ask me whether I'd prefer Merlyn, Gandalf, or Albus Dumbledore, I'm afraid the answer will always be "Merlyn." He is a personality, not simply a Wise Man, and I like that.

The plot has that deceptive simplicity that can be so hard to pull off, but which is delightful when it can be done. It reminds me, strangely enough, of my vague memories of Things Fall Apart--the way life-altering plot twists come without fanfare, without significant buildup, in the midst of life.

To this day I love the deliberate muddling of timelines and chronology and historical development. This kind of historical horseplay is tremendously fun for me, in part because if done intelligently it tells us something about the muddled way we tend to imagine history. Also it's just perversely funny.

What I Don't Like: I keep trying to write something here about the attitudes underlying the whole thing, but I find it hard to explain because there are so many of them and none of them are really consistent. Between Merlyn-as-authorial-mouthpiece (is he always, though?) and the straight up narrative sermons, the whole thing goes all over. This in itself can be frustrating, but like the anachronisms you can take this as simply part of the overall perversity and contrarianism that gives the book its charm. However, I admit that some of the attitudes expressed in the whole mess are a bit hard to swallow from this historical vantage-point. I can definitely understand if some of them are too offensive to some readers to justify persevering (e.g. I find the way the book treats women almost comically inept; others may find it upsetting). I'd recommend giving it a shot, though, and seeing how you take it.

When I was younger I really loved the animal sequences, because I read everything about animals voraciously. These days I find them less compelling. The geese are probably the best one, because White focuses mostly on the experience of being a goose. The rest of them, at least for me, fall short both as compelling animal fiction and as philosophical object-lesson.

Extra Thoughts: In some ways I'm doing this book a disservice because I'm taking it in isolation, and its real strength is as part of the whole of The Once and Future King. It's the cheerful beginning that gives you spirit to persist throughout the tragedy that follows.

In some ways it reminds me more of The Wind in the Willows than anything else. So I guess if you liked that, read this.

Of course, like a lot of books from the twentieth century, the wars are in there. I don't feel it's right to elaborate on that, because I can pretend to understand but I don't. Just... read it for yourself, and find the wars there, and try to understand.

My Recommendation: Definitely give it a shot. It's a very particular pleasure and not for everyone, but it's worth a try to see if it strikes a chord with you.

Hugo-worthy?: To be honest I suspect the Hugo is really for the entire cycle, but I still think it earns its title fair and square.