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The Words of T. H. White

Terence Hanbury White (1906 – 1964) best known for his Arthurian novel sequence, The Once and Future King (1958) was born in Bombay in British India but had a troubled childhood, with an alcoholic father and an emotionally cold mother. While at Queens' College, Cambridge, White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur. He taught at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire for four years and in 1936 published England Have My Bones, a memoir about a year spent in England. In 1936 also, White left Stowe School and lived in a cottage nearby, where he wrote and took up falconry, hunting, and fishing.

Earth Stopped (1934) and its sequel Gone to Ground (1935) are White’s science fiction novels about a world disaster. In 1937, he wrote 'I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognisable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.’ The novel became The Sword in the Stone, which was well-received.

White moved to Doolistown in County Meath, Ireland, in 1939 where he lived out the Second World War as a de facto conscientious objector and wrote most of what would later become The Once and Future King.

In 1946, White settled in Alderney in the Channel Islands, where he lived for the rest of his life, publishing Mistress Masham's Repose, a book written for children in which a young girl discovers a group of Lilliputians (from Swift's Gulliver's Travels) living near her house. A year later he published The Elephant and the Kangaroo, and in the early 1950s White published two non-fiction books, The Age of Scandal (1950), a collection of essays about 18th-century England, and The Goshawk (1951), an account of White's attempt to train a goshawk using traditional rather than modern falconry methods.

In 1958 White completed The Candle in the Wind, the fourth book of The Once and Future King. His work was adapted as the Broadway musical Camelot (1960) and the animated film The Sword in the Stone (1963).

White died in 1964. In 1977 The Book of Merlyn, a conclusion to The Once and Future King, was published posthumously.

J. K. Rowling has said that White's writing influenced the Harry Potter books and author Neil Gaiman's character Timothy Hunter was allegedly based on Wart.

Here are a few quotes, mainly from The Once and Future King, which show something of his style and wisdom:

'It is a pity that there are no big creatures to prey on humanity. If there were enough dragons and rocs, perhaps mankind would turn its might against them. Unfortunately man is preyed upon by microbes, which are too small to be appreciated.'

'The bravest people are the ones who don’t mind looking like cowards.'

'There is one fairly good reason for fighting - and that is, if the other man starts it. You see, wars are a great wickedness, perhaps the greatest wickedness of a wicked species. They are so wicked that they must not be allowed. When you can be perfectly certain that the other man started them, then is the time when you might have a sort of duty to stop them.’

'The best thing for being sad,' replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, 'is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.'

'There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules.'

'She hardly ever thought of him. He had worn a place for himself in some corner of her heart, as a sea shell, always boring against the rock, might do. The making of the place had been her pain. But now the shell was safely in the rock. It was lodged, and ground no longer.'

'Life is such unutterable hell, solely because it is sometimes beautiful. If we could only be miserable all the time, if there could be no such things as love or beauty or faith or hope, if I could be absolutely certain that my love would never be returned: how much more simple life would be. One could plod through the Siberian salt mines of existence without being bothered about happiness.'

'Perhaps we all give the best of our hearts uncritically--to those who hardly think about us in return.'

'I can imagine nothing more terrifying than an Eternity filled with men who were all the same. The only thing which has made life bearable…has been the diversity of creatures on the surface of the globe.'

'We cannot build the future by avenging the past.'

'A chaos of mind and body - a time for weeping at sunsets and at the glamour of moonlight - a confusion and profusion of beliefs and hopes, in God, in Truth, in Love, and in Eternity - an ability to be transported by the beauty of physical objects - a heart to ache or swell- a joy so joyful and a sorrow so sorrowful that oceans could lie between them...'

'If people reach perfection they vanish, you know.'

'You could not give up a human heart as you could give up drinking. The drink was yours, and you could give it up: but your lover’s soul was not your own: it was not at your disposal; you had a duty towards it.'

'Everything not forbidden is compulsory.’

'Perhaps he does not want to be friends with you until he knows what you are like. With owls, it is never easy-come-easy-go.'

'Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.'

'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 civilised world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he 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.'

'The most difficult thing in the world is to know how to do a thing and to watch someone else do it wrong without comment.'

'It is so fatally easy to make young children believe that they are horrible.'

'The Destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.'

'We find that at present the human race is divided into one wise man, nine knaves, and ninety fools out of every hundred. That is, by an optimistic observer. The nine knaves assemble themselves under the banner of the most knavish among them, and become “politicians”; the wise man stands out, because he knows himself to be hopelessly outnumbered, and devotes himself to poetry, mathematics, or philosophy; while the ninety fools plod off under the banners of the nine villains, according to fancy, into the labyrinths of chicanery, malice and warfare. It is pleasant to have command, observes Sancho Panza, even over a flock of sheep, and that is why the politicians raise their banners. It is, moreover, the same thing for the sheep whatever the banner. If it is democracy, then the nine knaves will become members of parliament; if fascism, they will become party leaders; if communism, commissars. Nothing will be different, except the name. The fools will be still fools, the knaves still leaders, the results still exploitation. As for the wise man, his lot will be much the same under any ideology. Under democracy he will be encouraged to starve to death in a garret, under fascism he will be put in a concentration camp, under communism he will be liquidated.'

'Only fools want to be great.'

'They made me see that the world was beautiful if you were beautiful, and that you couldn't get unless you gave. And you had to give without wanting to get.’

'Now, in their love, which was stronger, there were the seeds of hatred and fear and confusion growing at the same time: for love can exist with hatred, each preying on the other, and this is what gives it its greatest fury.'

'Might does not make right! Right makes right!'

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