We’ve just been listening to a scene between Lancelot and Elaine that feels as if it could have come from a contemporary Afternoon Play…
This goes to the heart of what I feel about The Once and Future King – for all the fancifulness and the fantasy that’s in the book, and the fantastical ideas that are being dealt with in the myth and legend, White roots it in real human emotions. These are ordinary people to whom really extraordinary and often bizarre things are happening; and there’s a point with all the characters where you’re able to identify with them on just a level of pure humanity. They’re never remote in a way that legendary and mythological characters can be, where it can sometimes feel as if you’re observing them through a haze of literary convention. Here, they are all real people: suffering from the pangs of love and hatred, or are seeking revenge, forgiveness or absolution for the things they’ve done. All those emotions are churning around, and that’s why we identify with them. For all the armour, swordplay and magic in the book, it was the human experience that I most wanted to capture.
So is this an adaptation of the single volume The Once and Future King rather than the original stories that were brought together?
It depends! For example, the enchantress Madam Mim features in this version, although she’s only in the original edition of The Sword in the Stone, not in The Once and Future King. However, I read The Sword in the Stone long before I read the rest of the cycle, and to me that encounter simply had to feature somewhere in this series. Also, many people are familiar with elements of the story from Disney’s 1963 film, and the Wizard’s Duel is a memorable highlight of that film, so there was no question that Madam Mim wasn’t going to be there!
I actually went back and read all three volumes that preceded the publication of The Once and Future King: The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood – which as the second section of The Once and Future King becomes The Queen of Air and Darkness – and The Ill-Made Knight.
The second book, The Witch in the Wood – which is really the story of Morgause and the Scottish contingent that rebel against Arthur’s new kingship – is heavily truncated, cut to a shadow of its former self in The Once and Future King. In the original book, Morgause’s character is quite different, she’s almost a kind of vampish, witchy character, not dissimilar to Madam Mim: a mix of coquettishness and witchcraft. All that was pretty much pared out of The Once and Future King, probably because White thought it too facetious within the context of what had grown into a more serious story, so in that instance I followed The Once and Future King.
But, in reading the original versions, I made very detailed notes and thought I could do a useful service to mankind by actually providing a breakdown of all the differences between the various volumes: I now have them all that information – set out in a grid – if anyone ever needs it!
I’ve also drawn on The Book of Merlyn, which was published posthumously. It was originally White’s intention to incorporate it into The Once and Future King but that never happened – although it has now been recently added to the one-volume edition as a kind of coda… So, as you can see, it’s all quite complicated but really rather appropriate for a mythological subject that there’s no one clear source for my radio version!
Towards the end of the Once and Future King, there’s a point where Arthur is talking to Merlyn in his mind and looks up, and it’s almost as if Merlyn has come in, but it is just in his imagination. In The Book of Merlyn, however, on the night before Arthur’s battle with Mordred – which brings about both their deaths and the end of the great chivalric dream – Merlyn comes to counsel Arthur for one last time. Though thought to be mystically imprisoned in a cave by the enchantress, Nimue, Merlyn is permitted a ‘leave of absence’ to meet and talk with his former pupil.
This idea from The Book of Merlyn provided me with a framing device to hold these six plays together. From one o’clock in the depths of night until seven o’clock in the morning, we are with Merlyn and Arthur in the King’s pavilion on the battlefield prior to the final battle with Mordred as they look back across Arthur’s life.
As a result, I was able to avoid having two episodes that were exclusively devoted to the adventures in The Sword in the Stone, and then suddenly having to change mood and gear for the more adult, serious, intense relationships between Arthur, Guenever, Lancelot and Elaine. It’s much more of a patchwork, so, for example, in the very first episode, we hear Arthur’s first meeting with Guenever among all the episodes from The Sword in the Stone; in the second, we encounter Lancelot for the first time, even though Arthur is still on his journey to draw the sword from the stone.
It’s a mosaic, which is triggered by the conversation and memories shared by Arthur and Merlyn. If you were to listen to the plays consecutively, they would be the six hours of the night prior to this battle, during which these two characters, who are fond of one another, look back and try to analyse how they’ve got to where they are. In reliving Arthur’s life through flashback, they are able to review the story of humankind’s inability to cope with peace and why it always seems to resort to war, giving Arthur a new perspective on what’s happened to his own plans and dreams and why it has all turned to grief. Most importantly in the end, without giving away too many spoilers, it enables Arthur to go to his destiny knowing that it wasn’t all for nothing and that the legend will live on, which is something that White is very keen to drive home. And of course it does: it’s a myth out of time now. Every version is different, and they’re all a million miles away from any real person who may have existed by the name of Arthur.
The rest is an exploration of as many of the themes as we could – concepts of war, peace and justice – but essentially it follows the order of the remaining volumes in the sense that the third episode is very much about Queen Morgause and Gawain and his brothers, the fourth is very much about Lancelot, and then five and six are about everything that thereafter goes wrong: the realisation that Mordred is going to challenge Arthur, the King’s growing awareness that Lancelot and Guenever are having an affair, then the relentless drive through to Guenever’s trial and execution – eventually frustrated by Lancelot’s heroism.
It’s fifty years since I first read this book. In 1963, I saw Disney’s The Sword in the Stone and I bought the tie-in movie copy only because it had pictures of Merlyn and Wart on the cover and I was a crazy Disney fan who loved the film. I remember I was 15, reading it under the cover of bedclothes with a torch – it was way after the time I should have gone to bed because I was still at school, but I just couldn’t put the book down and immediately wanted to read the rest of the story. Fifty years on, I’ve been able to do something with this wonderful series of books which is a tremendous thrill.
In part 2 of this interview, Brian Sibley and producer Gemma Jenkins describe the process by which The Once and Future King reached the airwaves.