When I was a child I read The Sword in the Stone over and over and thought it was the only available work by T.H. White. I was lucky enough to have the original, funny, iconoclastic edition. White went back to the book over multiple editions and real-ified it and took out most of the anachronistic jokes. I was furious when I saw Sword in the Stone as part of The Once and Future King and realized it didn't have Galapas the fascist pig of a giant, or Morgan Le Fay's castle of kitsch. ("Chocolates, prince, oh chocolates! You can eat them and fill up your pockets. They squish in the mouth, oh chockets! They also squish in the pocolates.") He cut out the beating heart of his own book. I am still mad. Look in the first chapter if you're not sure what edition you have. If the governess cut herself by sitting down on "a broken bottle at a picnic", it's the good version. If she cut herself by sitting down on "some armor" then it's an edition White diddled with. You know how Tolkien said that he wanted to go back to The Hobbit and cut out all the low humor and the Cockney trolls and the light-hearted character comedy and make it epic and mythic? The diddled-with Sword in the Stone represents what could have happened to The Hobbit if Tolkien had ever found the time. We are lucky he didn't.
Even self-censored White is still pretty good. A lot of people had their first experiences with Jacobean drama through the scene where Cully, the homicidal maniac hawk, sits muttering to himself on the next perch in the mews. ("Rip up my flesh and try. Ah, for quietus, with a bare bodkin!") This is the one detail that White improved instead of ruining. In the original, Cully is sitting there snarling racist slurs under his breath. That felt right for the character, too; he's like the creepy guy who gets on the empty subway car with you late at night and sits there talking to the air about how much he hates the world. In the later edition, though, Cully is muttering, "Damned administration. Damned Bolsheviks. Damned politicians. Is this a damned dagger that I see before me, its handle towards my hand?" Having him say "Bolsheviks" was funnier, I have to admit.
But to return to our muttons... The Maharajah was a delightful surprise for me when I was sixteen and whiling away time in a rural library. I was so happy to find new stuff by my favorite writer that I loved it all. I'm still so sentimentally attached to the collection that it's hard to see whether they're objectively good stories or not. I think a lot of them are, and even the failures are interesting for people other than White-completists.
The title story, "The Maharajah," reads like White trying to do Kipling. "The Maharajah seldom bought one of anything. Even Rolls Royces he generally took by the half-dozen." The Maharajah is a crafty weasel of a tyrant who dresses like a rich Westerner but can't quite get all the details right. Whenever he uses a figure of speech, it has quotes around it, making everything he says into an exercise in phoniness or perhaps sarcasm: "We are a devoted couple... It was a 'love match' from the start." Good use of scare quotes, White. For the rest, the story is a psychological thriller, perhaps horror, and it's as racist as hell, while patting itself on the back about how it's too enlightened to be racist and deconstructing its own Orientalism as it goes. The Maharajah wears Savile Row suits and drives expensive cars, and wants to get rid of his white American trophy wife now that he's tired of her. You can fill in the details yourself. He reminds me of the satire piece "How To Write About Africa", about how every fiction writer has to include a corrupt politician who wears... er, Savile Row suits, and drinks Johnny Walker, and is secretly a cannibal. This is the British India version of that. I feel dirty after reading literature that invites me to pat myself on the back for living in a First World country. White is Other-ing, while he's telling us at the top of his lungs in his self-conscious way that he's not Other-ing, honest. "His soul, like hers, writhed at the inescapable, unfair, global premise. She really did consider herself superior to him--an unforgivable situation between male and female in the East--and, worst of all, her body shriveled up his body, by dreading it." Oh, and by the way, women don't get the greatest rap in these stories, but you knew that if you've read any other White.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed "The Maharajah," morally bankrupt though it be, just for the surface qualities. The protagonist is visiting a country that's as alien to him as another planet, where your host will love you and pet you and serve you expensive beer, and then quietly poison you if he thinks you are going to be a nuisance. I enjoyed the melodrama and even the Orientalism. That's the hell of it--I love a lot of the grandeur and exoticism of Orientalism, even while I know it's presenting a theme-park version of a world where real people actually had to live or perhaps do still. I lap up Arabian Nights-style fairy tales, and movies like Thief of Baghdad (both versions) and all of Kipling, of course. I can't get enough of exoticism, if done well. Exoticism gives me a lot of the same things I demand from SF and fantasy. Perhaps that's one reason I like fantasy: there aren't a lot of areas left in the real world where you can write about someone who is Us, from your own daily experiences, going among the fascinatingly alien Others.
What else did I enjoy? "The Spaniel Earl" isn't that complex. There was this son of a noble household who lost his mind after seeing a dog killed in his childhood and decided that he himself was a dog. That's it, that's the whole story. The pleasure is in White's exploration of the details: the Spaniel Earl goes around on all fours all the time, and he has a bulge of muscle at the back of his neck from drawing his head up in that position, unnatural for humans but fine for dogs. He even brings down a rabbit in one moment of triumph. The boy's family eventually have to make the best of it, and find him a wife to make sure the family line is carried on. Fortunately there's a feral girl available, along the lines of Amala and Kamala... Like a lot of White's best work, there's a ton of wish-fulfillment here. White loved and identified with dogs and I think he's fantasizing about how much fun it would be to go round all his life as a beloved, petted, delusional spaniel boy. Certainly it's warm-hearted and even funny.
"The Troll" is the most famous story in here, judging by how often I've seen it anthologized. Its ending is a mere plot device, but everything up to then is fine supernatural horror. White uses down-to-earth details in descriptions of an impossible monster: "What my father saw through the keyhole in the next room was a Troll. It was eminently solid, about eight feet high, and dressed in brightly ornamented skins. It had a blue face, with yellow eyes, and on its head there was a woolly sort of nightcap with a red bobble on top... The Troll was eating a lady." Even with the silly ending, the story sticks with you.
White likes to keep up a constant ironic commentary on any given plot, by his narrators, or by the all-knowing authorial voice. At its best, this gives you a pleasurable sense of conspiracy. When White gets lazy, it feels just like a big dose of telling-rather-than-showing. In "The Man", which I'm guessing White never meant to publish, most of the tale is the authorial voice giving you a lecture on the main character. I put up with this because it's still rather touching. "Above all, at the school, he ought not to be in love with Peter Lea, who was fourteen. It was platonic--it was an empty cathedral of love and protection in his heart--but he accepted it as being shameful. In chapel, when there were lessons about David and Jonathan or innuendos in the sermon, he blushed and blushed."
White is pretty open about letting his male characters stand in for him and fall in love (his words) with other men. It crops up even in The Once and Future King a few times. But I can't imagine he'd have wanted anything this autobiographical to get out into the world. He lived in a time when they thought homosexuality could be "cured" via talk therapy, and he tried to have himself cured. Ouch. Even given that White was a jerk in some ways that offend me to the soul, I love the poor self-loathing so-and-so and wish I could change the past and make things easier for him. (I've still got to read his biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner. nineweaving has read it and once told me that White was a sadist. As though his life needed to be harder to fit into the mainstream world of his day. He had a porn collection and a couple of whips and a massive sense of shame about all of it. Ever since hearing that, I've thought of Cully as being White's id. White is both Wart, frightened and brave, and Colonel Cully, constantly raving to warn everybody that he is a monster and murderer. And that's all the snap psychoanalysis I'm going to attempt tonight.)
"Nostradamus" is about how girls say they want romantics and poets but really all they want are abusive bad-boys. "Kin to Love" is a character study about the execution of a murderer and would-be rapist. The former story repels me; the latter is kind of depressing, but doesn't do anything for me or inspire me with pity.
Oh, and "No Gratuities" is slight but cute. It's the monologue of a man who once trespassed on the estate of one Mr. Beckford, author of Vathek and a famous eccentric in real life. Beckford was as openly gay as you could be in the nineteenth century. The story is about Beckford delicately propositioning the narrator, who was oblivious at the time and still doesn't get it today. I wonder whether White expected that his audience would understand the situation at all? I did, of course, but I read slash, I like innuendo, and I knew White was closeted.
This passage, from "The Troll", may show you why I love White:
"Life is such unutterable hell, solely because it is sometimes beautiful. If we could only be miserable all the time, if there could be no such things as love or beauty or faith or hope, if I could be absolutely certain that my love would never be returned: how much more simple life would be. One could plod through the Siberian salt-mines of existence without being bothered about happiness. Unfortunately the happiness is there. There is always the chance (about eight hundred and fifty to one) that another heart will come to mine. I can't help hoping, and keeping faith, and loving beauty. Quite frequently I am not so miserable as it would be wise to be. And there, for my poor father sitting on his boulder above the snow, was stark happiness beating at the gates."