The term 'interstitial' suggests a kind of between-ness. It connotes something not easily categorized, not placed behind high walls as definitively one thing or the other. A strange label, perhaps, to be applied to something that seems so known, so certain, as one of the most oft-told stories in literature. Yet King Arthur is quintessentially interstitial. He is both once and future. He is the Dux Bellorum of Rome, the Pendragon of the Welsh, the rightwise king, born of all England. The legitimate heir to the throne, but an illegitimate child whose kingship was proven by ordeal (or, at the least, magical selection). He sleeps on Avalon, and under the hill, and is buried at Glastonbury Tor, but will return to save us in our hour of need. He has been claimed by so many people, his story told in so many places, that he is no longer a historical person (if he ever was, before he was born into story) but an archetype. No longer Arthur, but simply Dragon Prince.
The stories, for all they are the places we think to look for Arthur and the shadow he casts, are nearly as varied and as variant as Arthur himself. We might find pieces of him in their words, if we look carefully. But do we start with the Welsh tales, with their darkness and their poetry, and Arthur's voyage to the land of the dead? Or the French romances, with their fatal love triangle? With Geoffrey's Historia or Malory's Morte, or do we cast our eyes closer in time, a little more than fifty years ago, and look at T.H. White's The Once and Future King?
If one has questions, a wizard is a good person to look to for answers.
"Would you mind if I asked you a question?"
"It is what I am for."
Arthur, or Wart, as he is called, when we meet the future king in "The Sword in the Stone," the first book of White's four-part The Once and Future King, has a number of questions for his tutor, the wizard Merlyn. "The Sword in the Stone" is one of the few places in literature where the story of Arthur before he is Arthur is told not Arthur as the war leader on the edge of victory, or the rebel on the cusp of liberating his nation, but Arthur as child, as Wart. As someone we would be paying no attention to at all, were it not for the fact that his tutor is named Merlyn, and ah, we know how this story ends.
That is the power and the peril of this story. If I say Guinevere, you say Lancelot, and if I say Arthur, you say Mordred, and if I say Camelot, you say fall. We know how the story ends.
But forgive me. Like White's Merlyn, I am seeing time from the wrong side, from the end, rather than from the start. Let us return to the beginning, and Wart. It is here, at the book's beginning, where White's work most resembles the traditional expectations and preoccupations of fantasy. At the beginning of The Once and Future King, we are introduced to the wizard Merlyn, who, rather than continuing lessons in Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, transforms his pupil into various animals. Disguised as magical adventures, these transformations are Merlyn's way of instructing Wart in what he'll need to know to be king. By placing Wart among ants, and geese, and in the mews, Merlyn exposes him to different types of societies, immersing him in their structures, their nuance, and their flaws, in the hope that he will remember these lessons when he sits on the throne. There is the first appearance of the Questing Beast, and an adventure with Robin Hood, er, pardon, Robin Wood, to rescue friends and Wart's dog Cavall from the enchantress Morgan le Fay. And finally, at the end of this first part of the book, Wart pulls the sword from the stone, and Merlyn speaks the words that change everything: "Yes, King Arthur."
Those words are the beginning of the end, and the point at which Arthur disappears from his own story. Well, perhaps not disappears. It might be more accurate to say Arthur becomes interstitial to his own story. He becomes the empty places that can be filled with symbol, the gap between Guenever (to use White's spelling) and Lancelot, the line between might and right, and, eventually, the obstacle between Mordred and the throne. In White's hands, once Arthur takes the throne, the story of the once and future king isn't so much about the king at all, but about the pieces of stories that have built themselves around him. Arthur is symbol and catalyst, but no longer character.
The problem is that we as readers, like Merlyn, see time from the wrong side, or at least, we read the story from the wrong place. We know how the story ends, we know all the pieces of it because somehow we've always known the story of Camelot, and as White says, "that way of telling the story can only be done once." And so White turns his text into a kind of commonplace book of Arthuriana, referencing not only the already-told story, but those who have had the telling of it. He explicitly requires the reader to fill the interstices of the story with her knowledge of the other Arthurs, the other stories.
Lancelot is described as being "like the man in Lord Tennyson," and Elaine, at her death "was not a lily maid of Astolat." References to Malory, whose Le Morte D'arthur is perhaps the best known piece of English language Arthuriana, are rife, and explicit. White often refers to "what Malory tells us" when explaining various points of the story. These explanations do not ever encompass the large arcs of the story, but instead touch on the minor plot points, such as the shift in the affections of the Questing Beast. White refers to Sir Palomides taking on the role of an analyst for the Beast, causing her to transfer her interest to him: "This is why, although Malory clearly tells us that only a Pellinore could catch her, we always find her being pursued by Sir Palomides in the later parts of the Morte d'Arthur."
At the end of his book, White then wraps this conceit in on itself: The young page Arthur tells his story to on the eve of the final battle introduces himself to the king as "Tom of Newbold Revell." Before he leaves the king's presence, Arthur calls the page "Sir Thomas of Warwick," thus strongly, if not quite explicitly, implying that the young page grows up to become the historical Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in Warwickshire, who writes Le Morte Darthur and tells Arthur's story not just for the sixty or so years Arthur imagines, but for all time. White grounds his allusions in specific texts, but rather than limiting our perspective on Arthur and his story, the metatextuality only serves to make Arthur more variant: he is at once the Wart, grown, and at the same time, he is all the Arthurs who ever have been and ever will be.
Then the world outside of books intervened, and the story changed again, giving Arthur a new time, a new home. The Once and Future King was first published in the composite edition in 1958. It was an extraordinary success, and became a powerful influence on the way Arthur's story was told. In 1960, the musical Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on The Once and Future King, premiered on Broadway. It won four Tonys and the original cast album was the number one LP in America for 60 weeks. Among the households that enjoyed the recording was the Kennedy White House. After the tragedy of President Kennedy's assassination, Camelot became an American place as well. And in 1963, with the release of the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone, we returned to the beginning of the story before Morgan and Mordred, before Lancelot saw Guenever, to a boy, and a wizard, and a sword, and hope.
In neither instance the Lerner and Loewe musical nor the Disney film was the Arthur presented White's Arthur. The Sword in the Stone reduces the Wart to a good-hearted bumbler, who quite literally falls into his destiny. Camelot omits all the events of Arthur's youth, and makes the tragic (and chaste) love triangle between Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot the foundation upon which their musical is built. Both adaptations change the tone of their endings from White's as well. The Sword and the Stone ends by announcing "the glorious reign of King Arthur had begun," with no hint of the tarnish that would soon cover the glory. Camelot ends with the page, Tom, singing out Camelot, "with pride and joy," emphasizing the hope that the magical place won't be forgotten, not the reality that the magic is gone.
The Once and Future King does not, as so many works of fantasy do, end in Tolkien's eucatastrophe. Camelot falls, Arthur's reign, and his life, are over: catastrophe, only. As White points out, King Arthur's story is a tragedy: "It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur." (emphasis White's). White's title for his book, taken from what Malory said was the inscription on Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury rex quondam, rexque futurus acknowledges Arthur's death as well. Again, from the moment it begins, we know how this story ends. All that remains to us are the places between.
Perhaps that knowledge is the reason why Arthur's story is told so often, and in so many varying details. Even though we know the ending, because we know the ending, we keep hoping to find the magical gap in the story the between place that might crack wide enough to let new words in.
It is in the story already, of course, that between place. It is hope. Of all the places Arthur has been said to dwell, it is here, the most interstitial of all, that he lives. Rexque futurus. The final words of White's text are "The Beginning." The lack of eucatastrophe means there is hope it will come later that Arthur will return from Avalon, that Camelot will rise again, that this time it will last for more than one brief shining moment. We hope that we have lived the story backwards, and that Arthur is before us, in our future, immortalized in all the stories.
About the Author
Kat Howard's short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine. When she's not writing, she teaches medieval and speculative literature at Stony Brook University, where she is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow. She can sing all the songs from Camelot and Spamalot.
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