Edition: W.H. Collins, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1090
In the last few centuries, one of the most important changes in English literature, particularly popular literature, must be the rise of the "happy ending". At the end of a novel, which is the form that over this period has come to dominate, it is conventional for the good to triumph and for the wicked to fail, be punished or redeemed. This was clearly not always the case, and in medieval heroic literature it is often almost the opposite which occurs; Beowulf may triumph over Grendel, but the poem ends instead with his death at the hands of another monster. Taking things to the death of the hero rather than having a fairy tale ending is due to the idea that this is the only way their story could really end (though to the medieval mind death was not of course the end at all). Its appeal as a device is probably connected to the presence of death all around; as our own deaths have grown more remote, we have become more reluctant to face up to them or talk about the subject.
The cycle of Arthur stories is so much centred around his death that it was used as the title of Malory's version: the Morte d'Arthur. White bases the fourth part of The Once and Future King on the last two books of Malory's tale, the first of which is preceded by "and here after foloweth the most pytous history of the morte of kynge Arthur". In these books, Agravaine and Mordred go to Arthur and accuse Lancelot and Guinevere of having an adulterous affair; reluctant as he is to officially find out about this (and White makes it clear that he already actually knows), they eventually force him to allow them to lay a trap and catch them together. This leads to a reluctant estrangement between Lancelot and Arthur, after the former kills Agravaine and the knights with him even though surprised unarmed. Lancelot flees to France, and when Arthur goes overseas and besieges him, Mordred proclaims himself king. This is the start of the civil war which ends in Arthur's death and the end of his empire and the chivalry he stood for.
It is not to be expected, then, that White should turn this tale into something cheerful. Neither The Queen of Air and Darkness nor The Ill-Made Knight are, even starting with less "pytous" material. What he does is in accordance with his method throughout the quartet of novels (the later published Book of Merlyn is an exception), is to aim to make Malory's story and the effect it would have had on its medieval audience accessible to the twentieth century. In this case, the main technique he uses is to make the participants in the tragedy elderly and tired of life, rather than the teenaged lovers found in most modern fiction. This gives an elegiac feel to the story. Everyone knows that it ends in a tragedy, including the participants, but they have no choice but to wearily go through the motions. It is almost like Beckett in this, though his plays have a black humour not present here. It is very calm, and very sad.