Monday, November 10, 2014

T. H. White, notes on Lancelot

Last week, when I drew on Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of her friend T. H. White, I mentioned that one of its strengths was the extravagance of her quotations from White's letters and diaries. Today, I'll indulge in some extended quotation myself, because a passage from White's diaries that Warner cites offers an excellent window into how White thought about Lancelot, the most interesting character in his one lasting masterpiece, The Once and Future King. So, with apologies in advance for its length, here's White's diary entry for October 4, 1939:
What kind of person was Lancelot? I know about half the kind of person he was, because Malory contented himself with stating the obvious half.

Malory's Lancelot is:

1. Intensely sensitive to moral issues.
2. Ambitious of true--not current--distinction
3. Probably sadistic or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle.
4. Superstitious or totemistic or whatever the word is. He connects his martial luck with virginity, like the schoolboy who thinks he will only bowl well in the match tomorrow if he does not abuse himself today.
5. Fastidious, monogamous, serious.
6. Ferociously punitive to his own body. He denies it and slave-drives it.
7. Devoted to "honour," which he regards as keeping promises and "having a word." He tries to be consistent.
8. Curiously tolerant of other people who do not follow his own standards. He was not shocked by the lady who as s naked as a needle.
9. Not without a sense of humour. It was a good joke dressing up as Kay. And he often says amusing things.
10. Fond of being alone.
11. Humble about his athleticism: not false modesty.
12. Self-critical. Aware of some big lack in himself. What was it?
13. Subject to pity, cf. no. 3.
14. Emotional. He is the only person Malory mentions as crying from relief.
15. Highly strung: subject to nervous breakdowns.
16. Yet practical. He ends by dealing with the Guenever situation pretty well. He is a good man to have with you in a tight corner.
17. Homosexual? Can a person be ambi-sexual--bisexual or whatever? His treatment of young boys like Gareth and Cote Male Tale is very tender and his feeling for Arthur profound. Yet I do so want not to have to write a "modern" novel about him. I could only bring myself to mention this trait, if it is a trait, in the most oblique way.
18. Human. He firmly believes that for him it is a choice between God and Guenever, and he takes Guenever. He says: This is wrong and against my will, but I can't help it.
Of particular interest in the passage is White's uncertainty not so much about Lancelot's sexuality, but about the very options available for conceiving it. White, who to all appearances was gay, reveals his naivete (and, to be fair, some of the naivete of the period) in that passage--a naivete that surely wasn't helped by a life that, through a combination of choice and unavoidable aspects of his character, he spent mostly in the company of his beloved dog.

More interesting of course is the overall picture of Lancelot the list offers, and the precision with which White's numbered points allows us to picture the knight. This is the essence of the mythic character being drafted into our contemporary, psychological stories: his deepest-rooted characteristics are beginning to be pulled and pressed in ways the let us read back into the past and start to suss out the mind and personality that could generate them. When it comes time to turn that analysis into scene and action, White's depiction of Lancelot is wholly convincing, and our ability to understand and sympathize with his predicament drives the best, most affecting part of the novel.

1 comment:

  1. I'm touched by the seriousness with which White takes Malory. I've read Malory as a grad student, taught him, and read a fair pile of scholarship in preparation for teaching him, but I've rarely seen anyone so thoughtfully explore Malory's Lancelot as a coherent character rather than a mere series of actions—but then, White appreciated Malory with a simplicity that I suppose isn't permitted to many grad students and scholars.