Book Notes

T. H. White Biography

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The Once and Future King Author/Context

The Once and Future King is T.H. White's most famous book. He was made very wealthy by its popularity, though, being a bachelor without expensive taste, he could hardly find a way to spend his money. Its plot is based on Le Morte D'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory. This formidable history of King Arthur, written in the fifteenth century, is the basis for most popular Arthurian myth today. White was fascinated by the mixture of vigor, tragedy, wildlife, religion and character analysis found in Malory. He wanted to write a modern version of the book which would address the Round Table in terms of the current social climate. He wrote The Once and Future King shortly after the end of WWII, and he was often deeply pessimistic about the nature of humankind. He wanted his book to explain why Malory called his book The Death of Arthur. He wanted to represent Arthur as a role model, as relevant in the twentieth century as when Malory wrote. He was very concerned about the social aspect of politics--were people generally evil or generally good? What was humankind capable of? He wrote many other books, most of them relating to outdoor life in England. His first book, a collection of poems called Loved Helen, was published when he was 23. While it was clearly derivative of other English poets, such as Housman, it revealed a sense of artistry that, combined with his sense of philosophy and adventure, made The Once and Future King so popular. England Have My Bones is his collection of diaries. He also wrote The Godstone and the Blackymor and The Goshawk, both of which reflect his fascination with falconry and wild forest animals. He was an avid medieval scholar, as is evident at times in The Once and Future King. He translated The Book of Beasts, a picture book illustrating mythical animals, from Latin.

White himself is considerably more complex than his literary biography seems to suggest. He was born in Bombay in 1906 to mismatched parents. Garrick White was a alchoholic, temperamental police officer who does not seem to figure much in his son's later life. Constance White, on the other hand, inspired thoughtful loathing in her son for his entire life. Possessive, vain and self-absorbed, she stifled him until, he said, he could no longer stand women. She insisted that he love her most, in every way, and he despised her for it. His parents fought constantly and soon divorced. Their only son, Terence, was a good student from the beginning, so that a teacher even told his mother that she must make sure he continued his education. After leaving Cambridge, he taught at a prep school and wrote novels for profit under the name James Aston. He claimed to be desperate to succeed at everything; he had always been bright, so he became obsessed with learning to use his hands. He hunted, fished, and began to keep dogs to accompany him. (Though he had several lifelong friends, he never maintained a romantic relationship.) His dogs were his best friends; he treated them like wives. Brownie, his first Setter, spent her life with him, and when she died he was overcome with grief. He was given another Setter, Killie, by a friend, and treated her well, but his mourning for Brownie was intense and unabated. He had a temper and was at times difficult to get along with, but he could also be very kind. The conflicts in his own life, he admitted, made it easier for him to write such contradictory characters as Lancelot, Guenever, and Arthur himself. Late in life he began to bring blind people in search of companionship to his sprawling rural home, and became very good friends with some of them. Because he contributed so much to the happiness of others (through writing and companionship) but found little happiness for himself, his tombstone reads, "T.H. White, 1906-64: Who, from a troubled heart delighted others loving and praising this life."


Warner, Sylvia Townsend. T.H. White. Viking Press, NY, 1967.

White, T.H. England Have My Bones. Collins, London, 1936.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. J.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1958.

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