The Book of Merlyn

by T. H. White

Paperback, 1999



Local notes

PB Whi




Ace Trade (1999), Edition: Reprint, 193 pages


The unpublished conclusion to The once and future king that tells how Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot come to their ends.

Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

193 p.; 5.12 inches

User reviews

LibraryThing member edgeworth
T.H. White’s Arthurian saga The Once And Future King has a troubled publication history. The final volume, The Book of Merlyn, was submitted to his publishers in 1941 but was rejected as part of a collected volume due to wartime paper rationing. Undeterred, White took two major sequences in it
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– in which Merlyn transforms Arthur into an ant and then a goose – and inserted them into the first book, The Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn was thus unincluded in later collected editions of the series, until the manuscript was discovered amongst White’s papers after his death in 1964. It was included in future collected editions from 1977 onwards, but – in order to present everything as accurately as possible – retains the ant and the goose sequences in The Sword in the Stone, while also later repeating them in The Book of Merlyn. (This is particularly notable because the goose sequence is probably the most famous and well-loved thing White ever wrote.)

It’s a bit less confusing when you’ve read it all the way through, but the funny thing is that those sequences feel a lot more like they belong in the first book, when Arthur was a child being transformed into animals all the time as part of his education with Merlyn, rather than the final book, where Arthur is whisked away on the night before the great battle with Mordred to discuss human nature and warfare with Merlyn and his council of wise animals. The vast majority of The Book of Merlyn takes place in the badger’s cosy underground den, which has the air of a cluttered library or gentleman’s parlour, as White (through Merlyn) expounds his philosophy about the wretched, violent nature of man.

Understanding T.H. White goes a long way towards understanding The Once and Future King, and my edition has an afterword discussing how the book came about. White was an unhappy man for much of his life: an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual, and a pacifist in a time of just war. When World War II was looming in 1939, he relocated himself to neutral Ireland and spent the rest of the war there as a conscientious objector. At this stage The Sword in the Stone had already been published, but it’s clear that the outbreak of WWII greatly influenced the rest of the series. “I have suddenly discovered that… the central theme to Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote to war,” White wrote to his publisher. The Book of Merlyn expresses this more clearly than any other volume in the series; along with The Sword in the Stone, it effectively bookends the series, as Merlyn compares mankind to various animals – only now, with Arthur as an adult, he is no longer teaching him but rather discussing an intractable problem with him, to the king’s increasing weariness and despair.

The Book of Merlyn ultimately presents no conclusion on the matter, no coherent moral or philosophy, because White himself didn’t have one. He was a confused man, a man full of doubt, a man aghast at the horrors of the world, a man who tried to make sense of it all as best he could. He was a writer, in other words, who moulded his love of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into his own unique, funny, beautiful epic, a meditation on the failures and foibles of the human race.

I liked The Book of Merlyn a lot; it’s probably my favourite out of the series. Despite a current of nihilism and despair, White brought back all the elements that made The Sword in the Stone such a success, and the result is a sweet and affecting tale of a man who tried to do his best. I didn’t always enjoy The Once and Future King, but The Book of Merlyn is a strong conclusion which serves the series well. And as for the series overall? I may not have always liked it, I may have been bored and frustrated with it at times, but I can nonetheless appreciate it objectively as a powerful and important work of English fantasy.
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LibraryThing member alaskabookworm
Intended to the be the fifth and final installment of White's "The Once and Future King" series, it never got included. Without it, "The Once and Future King" lacks closure. Apart from "The Once and Future King," "The Book of Merlyn" probably won't make sense. But White brings his meandering saga
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of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table full-circle with this book.
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LibraryThing member threadnsong
What an amazing book. I started reading it late last year after not having read Once and Future King for about 30 years, and it didn't quite make sense. So I re-read King and am now reading this book to finish the story.

Once again, Merlyn arrives to teach Arthur, but it is an aging King whom he
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sees bent over his war plans with tears on his face. Merlyn realizes that the King has forgotten the lessons of the Wart, as so many of us do when we become older and forget the beauty and joy that was sometimes in the world when we were younger. The idea of a single thing that could grab your attention to the exclusion of all else - this is a remembrance that Arthur finds when he is with the geese.

As polarized as this country is now, there are some who will object to T.H. White's thinly-veiled essays against war. The geese do not fight against their own kind just because": they see the world as one great big planet over which they fly and land when they need to. Different species share the same rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. By the same token, ants from different "tribes" will start the drumbeat and the propaganda for war the minute another ant arrives.

And of course, it is into misunderstanding and an ultimate war that Arthur faces as his reign comes to an end. He is heartbroken that his Round Table has come to its end: his best friend is exiled, his wife is trapped in the Tower of London, and his son wants to kill him. It is a tragic end to an otherwise beautiful story, and I am glad that White wrote these chapters and that they were finally published."
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LibraryThing member Mary_Overton
Sylvia Townsend Warner, in her preface "The Story of the Book," does an excellent job of putting into context both this final volume of THE ONCE & FUTURE KING and the entire Arthur legend, as interpreted by T.H. White. She quotes extensively from his notes and his letters.

In December of 1940, as
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WWII rages, White writes to his former Cambridge tutor:
"...I am going to add a new 5th volume, in which Arthur rejoins Merlyn underground (it turns out to be the badger's sett of Vol. I) and the animals come back again, mainly ants and wild geese. Don't squirm. The inspiration is godsent. You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d'Arthur is to find an antidote to war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man it to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal. I don't want to go into all this now, it will spoil the freshness of the future book..." (pg. xvi)

How White goes "into all this," is to have Merlyn and the animals classify humanity as merely one of "'two hundred and fifty thousand separate species of animal in this world...and of these no less than two thousand eight hundred and fifty are mammals like man.... [M]an is a parvenu among the rest, nearly all of which had already solved his problems in one way or another, many thousand years before he was created.'" The main problem is "'the control of Might.'" How not to war upon his own kind. (pg. 25)

The solution is for humanity to evolve in a way that enhances "the speciality of man," that part of the brain dedicated to "memory, deduction and the forms of thought which result in recognition by the individual of his personality. Man's top-knot makes him conscious of himself as a separate being, which does not often happen in animals ..., so that any form of pronounced collectivism in politics is contrary to the specialisation of man.'" (pg 116) White abhors all the "-isms" - communism, fascism, totalitarianism, capitalism. "'[T]he Individual is more important than the State. He is so much more important that he should abolish it....[M]ight was never right... the state never excelled the individual... the future lies with the personal soul.'" (pg. 117) Merlyn proclaims, "'I am an anarchist, like any other sensible person.... The destiny of man is an individualistic destiny ...'" (pg.124)

Also in Warner's preface is White's analysis of Arthur's tragedy:
"The whole Arthurian story is a regular greek doom, comparable to that of Orestes.
"Uther [Arthur's father] started the wrong-doing upon the family of the duke of Cornwall, and it was the descendant of that family who finally revenged the wrong upon Arthur.... Arthur had to pay for his father's initial transgression, but, to make it fairer, the fates ordained that he himself should also make a transgression (against the Cornwalls) in order to bind him more closely in identification with the doom.....
"....Mordred [Arthur's son] was thus the fruit of incest (his father was his mother's half brother), and it was he who finally brought the doom on Arthur's head. The sin was incest, the punishment Guinever, and the instrument of punishment Mordred, the fruit of the sin. It was Mordred who insisted on blowing the gaff on Launcelot and Guinever's affair, which Arthur was content to overlook..." (pg. xi)
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LibraryThing member aulsmith
I put off reading this book for over thirty years because I feared that it was more a political diatribe than a true ending to the saga. I was correct. It was rather like having a favorite uncle suddenly turning up senile and running off at the mouth about nonsense. You can still see touches of the
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master, but the politics are just too preachy to endure.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
Interesting from an historical sense, T.H. White transferred large parts of "The Book of Merlyn" into "The Sword in the Stone." While uses this fifth volume to expostulate on war, writing during the early years of Britain's involvement in WWII. Unlike the earlier volumes that were included in "The
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Once and Future King," this one is less about Arthur or his knights than it is about mankind itself. Additionally, though White always included a bit of presentism through Merlyn, who is living backwards through time, this book has the most of it during Merlyn's lectures and those of the animals as they weigh in on mankind and its tendency to war. Arthur, when he is active, is brilliant as the representative of humanity trying his best to do right, but the story glosses over his death, with White discussing the various interpretations of Arthur's death through different writers as if he were writing a literary critique of his own work.
Anyone who wants to know more about White or the history behind "The Once and Future King" should pick up a copy of this if they come across it, but it's not necessary for enjoyment of the Arthurian legend as White interpreted it. The book is more about White's horror at World War II and, though it's beginning and end are tied to the larger narrative of "The Once and Future King," the middle is a philosophical lecture about the nature of war. Despite these caveats, White's beautiful prose is on full display here and Trevor Stubley's illustrations are haunting, especially as he portrays the aged Arthur.
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LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
This is a disappointing fifth book to the four books that constitute The Once and Future King. One wonders if White's editor omitted this section intentionally because it was weaker or if it is weaker because it was omitted and therefore polished less.
LibraryThing member drewandlori
Not nearly as good as "the Once and Future King", but still an intriguing way to end White's epic version of Camelot.
LibraryThing member hockeycrew
My only recommendation for this book would be that you a) read The once and Future King first and b) read The Once and Future King shortly before reading this last chapter. I found myself a little lost because I had not read the previous 4 chapters in many years.
LibraryThing member upstairsgirl
Due to a paper shortage during the war, The Book of Merlyn was not included with the rest of The Once and Future King, although several of the episodes from it were included in "The Sword in the Stone" section. Stylistically, it's quite different from the rest of The Once and Future King, and, had
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it been appended as White intended, one would have lost the beautiful tragedy of the old and reluctant King rising to face his final battle, having entrusted his history to the young page who would grow up to be Malory. The Book of Merlyn at its worst is a splenetic, rambling, furious screed, and even at its best, it is not up to the standard White set for himself in The Once and Future King.
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LibraryThing member laurscartelli
This book is WEIRD. I completely understand where White was going with it and why he wrote it...but it's SO dense and SO condescending. While reading it, I just remember thinking WHY AM I PUTTING MYSELF THROUGH THIS!?! I get it! Society is corrupt! Humanity is corrupt! in 2009 EVERYONE IS WRITING
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ABOUT THIS so it's almost useless to read a book like this NOW. In 1977 the publishers thought it was a good idea. Thought that, even though White wasn't around to approve the proofs, it was classy reading. Ugh. In 1950 it would have been a good read. In 1967 it would have been perfect. Now it's just....annoying.
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LibraryThing member angeliquestratt
The Book of Merlyn loses itself in its political message. The plot is essentially nonexistent and most of the book consists of political commentary thinly masked as conversations between characters. This book lacks the character development and plot development of The Once and Future King. That
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said, I have to admit I had some good laughs reading this book. Its absurdity makes it humorous. This book can be read as a satire of White's work, and I found it enjoyable to read from that perspective. If it doesn't sound appealing solely for the humor, I'd avoid it.
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LibraryThing member samlives2
I loved this book almost as much as The Once and Future King, but I wish it had been published with the original. It would have worked better and probably appealed to more people if it had been written as another chapter as opposed to its own volume.
Nevertheless, I adored this book. Arthur, now an
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old and wizened king, goes back to the days of his boyhood, and learns a few more important lessons from Merlyn by being changed into animals and learning their ways. White's commentary is insightful, and though there is little plot progression or action, anyone willing to sit down and think will enjoy this volume just as much as The Once and Future King.
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LibraryThing member comfypants
There's no story; White just uses Merlyn to give a lecture. And it's a really bad lecture. He'd been smoking the Ayn Rand pipe.
LibraryThing member leandrod
Lovely. I might disagree wiþ some of White’s moralising þru Merlyn & Arþur, but yet it is touchingly told.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
This book was much publicized when it came out, but was disappointing. Apparently, the author used bits of it in the rest of "The Once and Future King". The characters are flat and didactic, and when I discovered that the book had been finished in 1941, the obsession with non-violence becomes
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understandable, but the treatment is unimaginative. give it a pass.
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LibraryThing member ejpells
My All-time Favorite book
LibraryThing member Nicole_VanK
The subtitle "The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King" is ridiculous of course. I have a copy, which proves it was published. But never mind, it's sort of cute.
LibraryThing member Lucky-Loki
While the characterizations are lovely and the final few pages are very poignant, as a book the novel is horribly hampered by White's (via his mouthpiece Merlyn) pontificating and propagandizing of his personal philosophical revelations. As a discourse, the lectures on various warfare and violence
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related topics are entertaining enough, but as a novel there is an utter lack of drive and flow of story (with the exception, perhaps, of the ant colony chapters, and the introdoctury and epilogue chapters providing the framewok of the book). But for any reader of "The Once and Future King", it is nevertheless deeply touching to see how White originally wished to end his epic on a heartfelt and educational note, even if he gets in hiw own way by devoting an entire book's worth of break in the narrative to do so. For the particularly interested completist, this is therefore well worth the read, but I unfortunately wouldn't recommend it as a story on its own merits.
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LibraryThing member nx74defiant
Not so much a story as a philosophical discussion on the nature of man.
LibraryThing member atreic
I am not sure if I love or hate this book. It shouldn't exist - T H White wrote it as the fifth book of The Once And Future King, but then decided to scrap it, which means big chunks of it were shoved forcefully into The Sword In the Stone and the Candle in the Wind. Was it a good decision? I think
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so, it is a bit _too_ navel gazing and lecturing, War Is Bad, Communism Is Bad, Individuality is Good. But then why do I keep it on my bookshelf? There is something sad and sweet about these final scenes, Arthur about to die retreating to the world of Arthur in his childhood, rediscovering his animal friends. The bitterness he feels of having been a slave to what others needed him to do all his life, his final joy under the stars with England spread out at his feet and the hedgehog singing sweetly to him. The extra glimpses of Arthur make the heavy handed and moralising tone of this one still worthwhile.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
I agree with so many others who have said this is the worst of the series, but I did love seeing the characters’ stories wrapped up. I also got to read the ant & swan sections so many mentioned from The Sword in the Stone. My version didn’t have it in that section. Apparently it was originally
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in this book, but was shoved into the first book in later editions. Heavy-handed on the messaging, but I’m still glad I read it.
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LibraryThing member parelle
In which it is discovered that TH White honestly really did have a political mission. A mixture of passages from the Sword in the Stone and other animal adventures mentioned but not seen in the Once and Future King, I'm not sure that the tale would have been better ended where it did after all.
LibraryThing member mirryi
A very confusing final volume to the series, in that it swerves into a wildly different direction. There's something of a bittersweetness and sense of nostalgia that permeates this last council as the Wart reunites with his animal friends---and I very much liked that---but the content of their
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discussion, which I suppose comes from White taking the opportunity to expound upon his philosophical ideas about humankind and war, is downright unsatisfying as the conclusion to this long and storied tale.
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½ (439 ratings; 3.6)
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