Friday, July 29, 2005

And People Complain About Political Undertones in Tolkien and Lewis

From T.H. White's The Once and Future King:

Everybody was happy. The Saxons were slaves to their Norman masters if you chose to look at it in one way--but, if you chose to look at it in another, they were the same farm labourers who get along on too few shillings a week today. Only neither the villein nor the farm labourer starved, when the master was a man like Sir Ector. It has never been an economic proposition for an owner of cattle to starve his cows, so why should an owner of slaves starve them? The truth is that even nowadays the farm labourer accepts so little money because he does not have to throw his soul in with the bargain--as he would have to do in a town--and the same freedom of spirit has obtained in the country since the earliest times. The villeins were labourers. They lived in the same one-roomed hut with their families, few chickens, litter of pigs, or with a cow possibly called Crumbocke--most dreadful and insanitary! But they liked it. They were healthy, free of an air with no factory smoke in it, and, which was most of all to them, their heart's interest was bound up with their skill in labour. They knew that Sir Ector was proud of them. They were more valuable to him than his cattle even, and, as he valued his cattle more than anything else except his children, this was saying a good deal. He walked and worked among his villagers, thought of their welfare, and could tell the good workman from the bad. He was the eternal farmer, in fact--one of those people who seem to be employing labour at so many shillings a week, but who are actually paying half as much again in voluntary overtime, providing a cottage free, and possibly making an extra present of milk and eggs and home-brewed beer into the bargain. In other parts of the Gramarye, of course, there did exist wicked and despotic masters--feudal gangsters whom it was to be King Arthur's destiny to chasten--but the evil was in the bad people who abused it, not in the feudal system.

"But they must listen." Small flecks in the iris of Mordred's eyes burned with a turquoise light, as bright as the owl's. Instead of being a foppish man with a crooked shoulder, dressed in extravagant clothes, he became a Cause. He became, on this matter, everything which Arthur was not--the irreconcilable opposite of the Englishman. He became the invincible Gael, the scion of desperate races more ancient than Arthur's, and more subtle. Now, when he was on fire with his Cause, Artur's justice seemed bourgeois and obtuse beside him. It seemed merely to be dull complacency, beside the savagery and feral wit of the Pict. His maternal ancestors crowded into his face when he was spurning at Arthur--ancestors whose civilization, like Mordred's, had been matriarchal: who had ridden bare-back, charged in chariots, fought by stratagem, and ornamented their grisly strongholds with the heads of enemies. They had marched, long-haired and ferocious, an ancient writer tells us, "sword in hand, against rivers in flood or against the storm-tossed ocean." They were the race, now represented by the Irish Republican Army rather than by the Scots Nationalists, who had always murdered landlords and blamed them for being murdered--the race which could make a national hero of a man like Lynchahaun, because he bit off a woman's nose and she a Gall--the race which had been expelled by the volcano of history into the far quarters of the globe, where, with a venomous sense of grievance and inferiority, they even nowadays proclaim their ancient megalomania. They were the Catholics who could fly directly in the face of any pope or saint--Adrian, Alexander or St. Jerome--if the saint's policies did not suit their own convenience: the hysterically touchy, sorrowful, flayed defenders of a broken heritage. They were the race whose barbarous, cunning valiant defiance had been enslaved, long centuries before, by the foreign people whom Arthur represented. This was one of the barriers between the father and his son.

And yet, for all that, still more fun and less insulting than the humorless, shrill The Mists of Avalon.

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