What happens when you revisit the woefully misremembered fantasy and science fiction of your youth? Joe Howley (Latin teacher) and Johannah King-Slutzky (historical researcher) ask adults to re-read their genre favorites from childhood.
For the fifth installment in our series, we talked to bona fide adult Felix Gilman, the author of several fantasies, including The Half Made World, The Rise of Ransom City, and most recently The Revolutions. We spoke with Felix via Gchat about how T.H. White’s The Once and Future King inspired him to become a novelist, how to make sense of history in a book where one of the heroes lives backwards, and how children become fond of sadness. (The following conversation has been gently massaged for clarity.)
JOE HOWLEY: Hello?
JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Hi!
FELIX GILMAN: Hi!
JOE: We are here! Around the Round Table.
FELIX: Let’s talk Matter Of Britain.
JOE: Thank you for taking some time for us, Felix.
JOHANNAH: Yes, thanks! I’m so excited to discuss this book with another fan.
FELIX: Thank you for inviting me!
JOHANNAH: So shall we get into it?
JOE: Cards on the table: this was my first time reading this book. I think I tried, several times, as a younger person, and never made it past the falconry bit.
FELIX: What have you got against falconry?
JOE: Only, in my youth, a dreadfully short attention span. But Felix, what was your relationship with this book like?
FELIX: I think I recall reading it in childhood, really small childhood and I re-read quite a lot.
JOHANNAH: The whole book? Or just the first part?
FELIX: The whole book, I think; I recall being very disturbed by the (very disturbing) bits with the Orkneys. There is a radical shift in age-appropriateness between Book One and Book Two, for anyone who hasn’t read it. The thing with the unicorn is quite disturbing even for an adult reader.
JOE: Did I see on Twitter that you were reading the book with one of your kids?
FELIX: Not the unicorn thing! This is one of my favorite books, and it’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to pressing on my kids, but the oldest is only four. I read him some of the set-pieces where the Wart gets turned into a fish or a bird. He liked those.
JOE: Would you say this is what started you down the dark road to becoming a fantasy novelist yourself?
FELIX: Absolutely it did.
JOHANNAH: Let’s back up a second. So you read it as a very young child in its entirety. How did you feel about it? It clearly left an impression. Were there certain characters you attached to, themes you cared about, episodes that stayed with you?
FELIX: Hard to say what my initial reaction was; I’ve read it too often since then. What strikes me about it now is how sad it is, which I’m not sure is how it struck me at first. I may actually have liked the sadness as a child too, I was that sort of child.
JOE: Yes, so melancholy!
JOHANNAH: I was telling Joe earlier that one of the things that made me love this book was the pathos of the episodes — like the unicorn scene — where people keep trying to do things to impress another person, usually their superior whose love they’re trying to earn — and it goes not just ignored, but tragically misinterpreted.
Now that I think about it, the unicorn scene reminds me a lot of Narnia where Aslan is shorn and tied up. There may be some Christ metaphors in the unicorn thing here too.
FELIX: Yes! And poor Arthur screws himself up for Merlin’s sake, and Lancelot screws himself for Arthur’s sake.
JOHANNAH: And Lancelot for Guinevere.
FELIX: And Elaine, oh god the pathos of Elaine.
JOE: Agh, Elaine, just a normal person with the misfortune to be part of someone else’s legend.
JOHANNAH: The counterpoint to these figures is Bors, who gets to find the Holy Grail but is repeatedly referred to as a misogynist. Bors never tries to impress anybody or do anything good for other people, because he only cares about God’s law.
FELIX: Lancelot also of course screwing himself up very badly for God’s sake.
I love the way White tells the Grail story through the worldly knights coming back and grumbling about how awful Galahad is to be around.
JOHANNAH: So Felix, you liked the book for its sadness, which I’m sure we’ll come back to as we get into things more deeply. What else appealed to you about the book?
FELIX: It’s very funny, it’s very kind; White tries to be very kind to all of his characters, one feels, even Mordred. It’s unpredictable; the tone constantly changes; there’s an overall movement from the childhood larks to stately tragic old age but it goes down a lot of weird roads in the meantime.
JOE: I was talking to Johannah about the book’s historical atemporality, the way different time frames are referenced at random, and the way Merlyn and the narrator both talk about things that happen in the future. I wonder if those jumps between old age and childhood are doing something similar.
FELIX: I’ve been thinking about how to describe the atemporality.
JOHANNAH: Yes, we had some difficulties with that. I thought it was LESS atemporal than it’s rumored to be. There aren’t very many references to historical events outside the domain of Arthur’s historical time period and then the early 20th century.
FELIX: But what is Arthur’s time period though?
JOHANNAH: 500sish? And the allusions to Tristan and Isolde would have been the right time period.
JOE: White refuses to commit to a time period until pretty close to the end, and I love that.
FELIX: I think quite early on he has Arthur as a contemporary of William the Conqueror. (This is part of the anti-Celtic stuff about which the less said the better perhaps.)
JOE: Yes, the anti-Celtic stuff is one of the few really troubling notes. Maybe I just had trouble following the historical cues, although I continue to be flummoxed by “Lucius, dictator of Rome.”
JOHANNAH: No, you were flummoxed for a reason. I just looked it up and gunpowder was supposedly invented in the 9th century and wouldn’t have made its way to England until after King Arthur’s supposed historical reign.
FELIX: And the armor which Lancelot describes in loving detail is much later medieval.
JOE: Wait, Felix, you have a degree in medieval history, don’t you?
FELIX: Yes, sort of.
JOHANNAH: There might be some shuttling between setting Arthur in the 6th century, when he was supposed to have lived historically, and the 12th century, when he was written about.
FELIX: And then there’s the fact that he meets Robin Hood.
JOHANNAH: Yeah, that was bizarre.
FELIX: I’ve always read him as pretty firmly situating his Arthur in a period that starts in about 1066 and ends at the end of the medieval period. It’s Mordred who introduces cannon and peasant revolts.
He’s overwriting English history with his own fantasy. Merlin is TH White; TH White, looking back from 1940-ish, where he’s sitting in a cottage in Ireland despairing for the fate of civilization, as you well might in 1940, is trying to overwrite English history with his own superior version in which someone figured out how to stop War, and the constant reminders of the utter ahistoricality of all this remind you, tragically, that this didn’t happen. Not that Arthur succeeds in the frame of the story either.
JOE: I was wondering about the emphasis on the “futurus” part of his epitaph. Is the idea that Arthur might “return” as some kind of memory/dream of this just, peaceful england free from “racial strife” and “force majeur”?
FELIX: Have you read The Book of Merlyn?
JOE: Ah! no! I guess I should.
JOHANNAH: I would be interested in a more literal explanation as well, but I thought the “once and future king” was a) a Christ thing and b) because Arthur comes to personify law, which is not supposed to be temporal.
JOE: (Wikipedia tells us The Book of Merlyn was kept out of the omnibus text of the Once and Future King by wartime paper shortages, damnable war.)
FELIX: I will refrain from discussing The Book of Merlyn except to say that the epitaph there, and an aside about a monk during the black death, really struck me with the extent to which White seriously doubted that civilization had a future when he was writing; imagining Arthur’s return is very powerful just because it implies some sort of future at all.
JOE: That’s a very 1940 perspective, I’ve seen it in all sorts of academic writing from the time.
JOHANNAH: In the States we don’t get a sense of how apocalyptic World War II felt in England.
FELIX: Supposedly the first version of The Sword In The Stone was less about World War II. When he went back and revised it he stuck in more war-focused stuff. It’s Tolkein’s perspective too I think. Tolkein and White are both full of small-c conservative sentiment for the past, which one can sympathize with when you think what the future must have looked like in 1940.
JOE: In addition to small-c conservative, the book also struck me as definitively and endearingly English. I wonder if that’s part of your connection to it, or something you had a response to on rereading it? [ed. note: Felix is English.]
FELIX: It certainly is very English.
Johannah, you mentioned Aslan above and it reminded me that one of the things I like about this book is the portrayal of Christianity.
JOHANNAH: YES, me too.
FELIX: Lancelot’s miracle in the end of “The Ill-Made Knight” where he heals Sir Urre despite being a bad person affected me in the same sort of way as the shearing of Aslan. “This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which had been hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle.” Chills down the spine.
JOHANNAH: What elements in particular reminded you of Aslan? Lancelot is less Christlike than Arthur or Galahad or Bors.
FELIX: Something about Aslan’s shearing (and return and breaking the stone) and Lancelot’s being allowed to do a miracle have a similar power for me.
JOHANNAH: The reprieve element. You thought you screwed up, but actually, you’ve been given another chance.
FELIX: Lancelot’s thing is powerful psychologically but it’s also powerful in a very straightforwardly religious way: this is God’s mysterious and ineffable grace. And the fact that the true meaning of Lancelot’s miracle is hidden from everyone; or maybe rather that it has an exoteric and an esoteric meaning. (I am not religious and I don’t think White was particularly either.)
JOHANNAH: I like that you point out the importance of God’s mysteriousness, because communication is such a central theme in this book. People are constantly trying to communicate with others and being misinterpreted to pathetic effect.
JOE: And the tragedy of Lancelot’s religiosity and the tragedy of Arthur’s civilizing mission of justice seem kind of parallel but are ultimately on a collision course.
JOHANNAH: I agree there is a parallel there, but one difference is that Arthur’s mission seems really doomed, while the book offers at least three counterpoints to Lancelot’s failure with the knights of the Grail– true holiness is really possible.
FELIX: Although true holiness isn’t especially appealing in this book.
JOE: Holiness is possible for other people, who are Unpleasant.
FELIX: Perhaps it’s just not possible to write about Malory or about medieval people without writing about God a great deal.
JOE: To switch gears: Something we wondered about was whether White thinks Kings are a Good Idea. How sincere is the encomium of feudalism in book 1, for example?
JOHANNAH: The section Joe is referring to with the encomium is: “It has never been an economic proposition for an owner of cattle to starve his cows, so why should an owner of slaves starve them? The truth is that even nowadays the farm labourer accepts so little money because he does not have to throw his soul in which the bargain.”
FELIX: Without wanting to say too much, by The Book of Merlyn he’s pretty clearly moved on from feudalism to a sort of smallholding anarchism. I think he’s dead serious that we would probably be better off if we were geese.
One of the many projects he has going here is reclaiming the medieval period from the condescension of posterity. I think the praise of feudalism is part of that — medievals weren’t so stupid and we’re not so smart. But that’s certainly one of the lines that makes one wince these days.
JOE: I also wanted to ask you to say some more about reading this as a novelist, and whether you see any of its influence in how you write. The fluid refusal to be pinned down in time, and kind of space, sort of reminded me of the setting of your books Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City.
FELIX: Sorry, my internet crapped out there for a bit. The medievals had no Time Warner, and they were happier for it.
JOE: They only had Missals and whatnot.
FELIX: I’m sure it influenced me — there’s a certain tone White has that I would very much like to capture. I’m also sure that White’s approach to world-building, which is that he’s not going to do it, was a big influence.
JOE: It seems kind of a bold statement for a fantasy novel compared to Tolkien’s world building.
FELIX: Turns out you don’t need it.
JOE: I suppose when he was writing it was him, Tolkien, Peake, Evangeline Walton?
FELIX: Michael Moorcock knew him and Peake, don’t think he knew Tolkien.
JOHANNAH: And what about the content? Do you see any reflection of the characters or emotions in your own work or extracurricular interests?
FELIX: Well I’m very into falconry. And I will say that the last time I read this book I didn’t have children, and the bits about e.g. Arthur forgetting his childhood transformations affected me much more deeply this time round. Obviously this isn’t hard; making a parent of small children feel things about childhood is as easy as poking them with a stick.
JOHANNAH: Haha yes. I’ve been noticing how many fantasy books mention childhood amnesia, it pops up in the strangest places. This book doesn’t even need it, it’s not a universe where magic can’t exist, so it’s a bit odd that Arthur has to forget his magical education.
JOE: This book is 600 pages long, and I think it must be one of those books that lots of people find lots of things in. Like, Johannah really wanted to talk about asceticism and sacrifice, but I just wanted to talk about historicity. And you are into falconry, naturally. We have a whole list of notes that we couldn’t possibly get to all of. Gay stuff! Why all wickedness flows from women! The weird anti-Celtic thing! It seems like a good book to read and re-read.
FELIX: It is a very hard book to describe.
JOHANNAH: Which is very impressive considering how little world building there is. It’s all psychological architecture.
JOE: Right, this is not like Game of Thrones, where it’s hard to describe because too much happens.
FELIX: It’s largely an argument about Malory, and White seems to casually assume that of course you’re deeply familiar with Malory, which shouldn’t work at all as a readable bestselling beloved classic, but.
JOHANNAH: It’s a very charming assumption.
JOE: It obviously holds up for you on rereading. I’d like to think it would still appeal to a first-time reader today. We will check in with you in ten years to see if your son liked it.
FELIX: He liked the owl bits but that’s an easy sell.
JOE: Any final thoughts, either of you?
JOHANNAH: Just that it was a pleasure being re-introduced to this book, I’m very glad you picked it, Felix.
FELIX: It was great to discuss it with you both.
JOE: Thanks for your time! I will now sail off in my magical boat to Avalon.
FELIX: Back to the falcons.