Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: The Witch in the Wood

This is a very strange book. (Book 2 of T.H. White's The Once and Future King)

It seems like five random and unconnected plots which all begin but never finish or join together. Granted - I have not yet read the sequels so I don't know if these plots will make sense later, but for now it was just weird.  (It was also later retitled "The Queen of Air and Darkness)

It's a collection of short stories. Some are silly: like the tale of the questing beast. Some are gruesomely disturbing: like the take of Gawaine and his brothers killing the Unicorn.

The only parts I really enjoyed we're the conversations with Arthur, Kay, and Merlyn.
Arthur learns much about the nature of war in this book.  Merlyn is constantly teaching him, helping him, and giving him examples.  He teaches Arthur that his problem is that he doens't care about the serfs, the foot soldiers.  Arthur and his knights have fun in war, and earn huge ransoms, while the people are murdered, raped, pillaged, etc...
Here are my two favorite lessons from Merlyn:
1. Merlyn tells Arthur there is never a reason to go to war, unless the other man starts it.
Arthur points out "If one side was starving the other by some means or other - some peaceful, economic means which were not actually warlike - then the starving side might have to fight it's way out."
Merlyn answers: “There is no excuse for war, none whatever, and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine–short of war–my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it. A murderer, for instance, is not allowed to plead that his victim was rich and oppressing him–so why should a nation be allowed to? Wrongs have to be redressed by reason, not by force.”

2. Later Kay tells Merlyn he has thought of a good reason to go to war.
"There might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings — you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way from saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests by the sword."
The magician clenched his fists, twisted his gown into screws, and began to shake all over.
"Very interesting," he said in a trembling voice. "Very interesting. There was just such a man when I was young — an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people."

This is part of the joy of having a character like Merlyn in the book.  He can draw examples from any era, and use any example he wants. He mentions both Jesus and Hitler in this example (which is impressive since the book was published in 1939, before the majority of Hitler's horrors had occured)

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