Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Hello Goodbye

Today's xkcd touches on a part of TH White's The Once and Future King that's obsessed me since I was a kid.

When Merlyn is first introduced in White's novel, he is a fairly light-hearted, absent-minded-professor sort of character, until shortly after his first meeting with Arthur we get the following scene.
He stopped talking and looked at the Wart in an anxious way.

"Have I told you this before?"

"No, we only met about half an hour ago."

"So little time to pass?" said Merlyn, and a big tear ran down to the end of his nose. He wiped it off with his pyjamas and added, anxiously, "Am I going to tell it you again?"
Then there's a particularly melancholic scene with Merlyn and Arthur's foster brother, Kay, a short while later.
"Oh, well," said Kay, "I bet the old man caught it for him."

"Kay," said Merlyn, suddenly terrible, "thou wast ever a proud and ill-tongued speaker, and a misfortunate one. Thy sorrow will come from thine own mouth."
Gene Wolfe did a little riff on this in Urth of the New Sun, with Severian meeting characters who were travelling backwards in time, which from their perspective was their final farewell. I stole a bit of it in a couple of scenes in End of the Century, with characters meeting each other out of sequence. And, come to think of it, did something similar in AEGIS: Book One, though there's no telling when that one will see the light of day.

So far as I know, the business about Merlin living backwards was an invention of TH White's, since I don't recall seeing anything similar in any of the stuff I read while researching Arthurian myths for EotC. Does anyone know if I'm in error, and White was building on an existing tradition?

Huh. I've always had that "Melin lives backwards" thing in the back of my mind, but now that you mention it, I can't think of any source other than White that has it. And I didn't even like TOAFK that much, so the idea's really had staying power on it's own.
Post-White, Sean Williams does it in the Books of the Cataclysm, and wait till you guys read The Somnambulist!
Yeah, I'm almost convinced it's just something that White cooked up to graft onto the existing legend, and other writers since have picked it up as being part of an existing tradition.

But not like Once and Future King? What the heck is wrong with you, Blaschke?! (Mind you, it's been years since I read it, but I *loved* it as a kid.)
I've got the second of the Books of the Cataclysm here, I know, but I'll have to check and see if I've got the first one yet or not. I've recently started to adopt a rule (which I'm so far only half-assedly following) to wait until series are done until I start reading them if the books aren't standalone, since I inevitably end up going back and rereading the earlier installments when the later ones finally come out. So something like Kage Baker's Company novels I can read as they are released, since they more-or-less stand on their own, as do Scalzi's OMWiverse stuff. But something like Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight I *should* have waited and read all in one go, since now I've got the second half of the series sitting on my To Read shelf, and for the life of me I can't remember any but the most general details about the first half I read two or more years ago. I'm burning to read the Books of the Cataclysm, though!
Of course, it didn't occur to me until later last night that Sean's Cenotaxis, the novella MonkeyBrain is releasing this fall, does a bit of this as well, though approaching it a bit sideways.
Well, I came to White's work after I'd read most of the other landmark Arthurian fiction already, so it wasn't as fresh or revelatory as it'd have been had I read it first. Mixing his mythology--bringing in Robin Hood and such--grated on me.

Of course, I consider Mary Stewart's "The Wicked Day" as a high water mark in the subset, so that probably explains a lot right there.
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