An Unhappy Childhood
Terrence Hanbury (T.H.) White was born in Bombay, India, on May 29, 1906. The only child of Garrick White, a district superintendent of police, and Constance Aston White, the daughter of an Indian judge, he was born eighteen months into what he would later describe as his parents' doomed marriage. White's father's career kept him on the move; his often-neglected son became ill at the age of eleven and was ordered, by a doctor, to be removed to England. After a year, Garrick returned to India; eighteen months later, Constance followed him.
White stayed with his grandparents and was enrolled in Cheltenham College, a traditional school that dated to the Victorian era. White found the school more like a prison than a haven from his awful home life. According to White's diary, the housemaster was a "sadistic middle-aged bachelor with a gloomy suffused [blushing] face," while the prefects (senior pupils who helped discipline the younger boys) were "lithe and brighter copies" of the housemaster who used "to beat us after evening prayers."
As the reader of The Sword in the Stone (the first volume of The Once and Future King) may infer, White realized that education cannot happen if it is only associated with physical punishment — something to which Merlyn, in the novel, never resorts.
Cambridge and Italy
The one bright spot of White's time at Cheltenham was his meeting of a master named C. F. Scott, who praised White's talent and encouraged him to be a writer. Because of this, White often attested that he would "be grateful to him till I die." In 1923, White's parents obtained a divorce; the following year, White left Cheltenham and spent a year doing private tutoring in order to afford the tuition at Cambridge, where he enrolled in 1925.
White found Cambridge much more to his liking. It was there that he met the man whom he would call "the great literary influence in my life," L. J. Potts, one of his tutors who, ironically, White initially "disliked to the point of rage for about a year." White faced another hardship, however, when he contracted tuberculosis in 1927 and spent four months in a sanitarium. Potts raised enough money to send White to Italy to recuperate; it was there that White composed his first novel (although it was not his first published work), They Wintered Abroad. In 1929, White moved back to England, where his first book, Loved Helen and Other Poems, was published. The volume was favorably received, although he made no great impressions as a young Eliot or Auden. He graduated from Cambridge (with distinction) that same year, and for the next six years (1930-1936) he taught at different academies and published seven books, among them a murder-mystery (Dead Mr. Nixon), an experimental historical novel (Farewell Victoria), and a philosophical yet slapstick comedy (Earth Stopped). In 1936, White compiled and edited England Have My Bones, a memoir taken directly from White's own daybooks in which he recounts his life between March 3, 1934 and the same day a year later. The book, a collection of anecdotes and scenes about White's hunting, fishing, and piloting experiences (mixed with some philosophical speculation), was a bestseller and allowed White to resign from teaching in order to devote himself full-time to writing.
White, Malory, and Le Morte D'Arthur
While living in a gamekeeper's cottage near Stowe School, where he served as head of the English department until his resignation in 1936, White reread Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, the fifteenth-century chronicle of King Arthur, his Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail. Reading Malory purely for pleasure (rather than for an assignment) made White look at the Arthurian myth in a new light; he found the story exciting and relevant to modern life. White was unable to shake off its allure; in a letter dated January 14, 1938, he wrote to Potts, his tutor: "I was thrilled and astonished to find (a) that the thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning, and (b) that the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast . . . It is more or less a kind of wish-fulfillment of the kind of things I should have liked to have happened to me when I was a boy."
Later that year, White published his "wish-fulfillment" as The Sword in the Stone. It was selected as a main selection of the Book of the Month Club and received glowing reviews. Writing in The New Statesman, David Garnett called it "the most delightful book for old and young"; Vida D. Scudder, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, remarked, "If you are a boy, you can find here the best battles and enchantments going. If you are a serious-minded adult, you will savor the suggestions of an advanced educational theory."
The Once and Future King
Motivated by The Sword in the Stone's success, White moved to Ireland in 1939 and immediately began work on a sequel, The Witch in the Wood (later titled The Queen of Air and Darkness). Like its predecessor, The Witch in the Wood was favorably reviewed, although some critics found the story of Arthur battling rebellious Gaels less effective and more tedious than The Sword in the Stone. Writing in The New Yorker, for example, Clifton Faidman argued that "the novelty of [White's] special brand of humor, that of anachronism [is] pretty well exhausted by the first book." Still, White continued his romance with the Arthurian myth and, in 1940, released The Ill-Made Knight, his study of Lancelot and Guenever's adultery. Beatrice Sherman, writing in The New York Times, called this installment "a more thoughtful, adult and subdued piece of writing" than its two predecessors.
It was not, however, until 1958 that The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, and The Ill-Made Knight appeared together in The Once and Future King, along with a concluding volume, The Candle in the Wind. After The Once and Future King was finally released, readers on both sides of the Atlantic praised White's grandiose and accessible retelling of Malory's story. The Once and Future King proved so successful that the rights to it were bought by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe — the Broadway musical team responsible for Brigadoon and My Fair Lady — who turned White's novels into the 1960 musical spectacular, Camelot. Although White had nothing to do with the production, he approved of and enjoyed it. (The play was made into a film in 1967.) In 1963, Disney released an animated version of The Sword in the Stone.
The Book of Merlyn, which White had intended as the fifth installment of his series, was not published until 1977. According to John Mullin, who reviewed the novel for the journal America, World War II was responsible for the delay in the book's release: White's pacifism (as well as the paper shortage) ruined its marketability. Mullin notes in his review that this fifth volume of the story differs from the first four in its "saeve indignatio, a fury at the persistently cruel and pompous human race, which White expresses through argument and satire rather than romance." The Book of Merlyn is an interesting curiosity that reveals White's anger at what he saw as the violent and heartless world that surrounded him.
After moving to Italy in 1962, White wrote at a less frenetic pace than he had during the war years. He began an American lecture tour, however, in which he delivered a very Merlyn-like talk on "The Pleasures of Learning" and another on Hadrian, the Roman Emperor who constructed a famous wall of defense in England. White died of heart failure on a Mediterranean cruise on January 17, 1964; he was buried in Athens near Hadrian's Arch. 1965 saw the publication of America at Last: The American Journal of White, which recounted his American lecture tour.