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|T. H. White|
Photograph of White lecturing on his Arthurian fiction
|Born||Terence Hanbury White
29 May 1906
Bombay, British India
|Died||17 January 1964
Piraeus, Athens, Greece
Terence Hanbury "Tim" White (29 May 1906 – 17 January 1964) was an English author best known for his sequence of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King, first published together in 1958. One of his most memorable stories is the first of that series, The Sword in the Stone, published as a stand-alone book in 1938.
White was born in Bombay in British India, to English parents Garrick Hanbury White, a superintendent in the Indian police, and Constance Edith Southcote Aston. Terence White had a troubled childhood, with an alcoholic father and an emotionally cold mother, and his parents separated when Terence was fourteen.
White went to Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire, a public school, and Queens' College, Cambridge, where he was tutored by the scholar and occasional author L. J. Potts. Potts became a lifelong friend and correspondent, and White later referred to him as "the great literary influence in my life." While at Queens' College, White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and graduated in 1928 with a first-class degree in English.
White then taught at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, for four years. In 1936 he published England Have My Bones, a well-received memoir about a year spent in England. The same year, he left Stowe School and lived in a workman's cottage nearby, where he wrote and "revert[ed] to a feral state", engaging in falconry, hunting, and fishing. White also became interested in aviation, partly to conquer his fear of heights.
White's novel Earth Stopped (1934) and its sequel Gone to Ground (1935) are science fiction novels about a disaster which devastates the world. Gone to Ground contains several fantasy stories told by the survivors; these stories were later reprinted in The Maharajah and Other Stories.
White wrote to a friend that in autumn 1937, "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 recognizable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book."
The novel, which White described as "a preface to Malory", was titled The Sword in the Stone. Published in 1938 it told the story of the boyhood of King Arthur. White was also influenced by Freudian psychology and his lifelong involvement in natural history. The Sword in the Stone was well-reviewed and was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.
In February 1939, White moved to Doolistown in County Meath, Ireland, where he lived out the Second World War as a de facto conscientious objector. It was in Ireland that he wrote most of what would later become The Once and Future King; two sequels to The Sword in the Stone were published during this time: The Witch in the Wood (later cut and rewritten as The Queen of Air and Darkness) in 1939, and The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. The version of The Sword in the Stone included in The Once and Future King differs in several respects from the earlier version. It is darker, and some critics prefer the earlier version. White's indirect experience of the war had a profound effect on these tales of King Arthur, which include commentaries on war and human nature in the form of a heroic narrative.
In 1946, White settled in Alderney, the third largest of the Channel Islands, where he lived for the rest of his life. The same year, White published Mistress Masham's Repose, a children's book in which a young girl discovers a group of Lilliputians (the tiny people in Swift's Gulliver's Travels) living near her house. Mistress Masham's Repose was influenced by John Masefield's book The Midnight Folk.
In 1947, he published The Elephant and the Kangaroo, in which a repetition of Noah's Flood occurs in Ireland. 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 northern goshawk using traditional, rather than modern, falconry techniques. Written while at his cottage in the mid-1930s, it was only published after its chance discovery by, and at the insistence of, White's agent, David Garnett. In 1954 White translated and edited The Book of Beasts, an English translation of a medieval bestiary originally written in Latin.
In 1958 White completed the fourth book of The Once and Future King sequence, The Candle in the Wind, though it was first published with the other three parts and has never been published separately. White lived to see his work adapted as the Broadway musical Camelot (1960) and the animated film The Sword in the Stone (1963), both based on The Once and Future King.
White died of heart failure on 17 January 1964 aboard ship in Piraeus (Athens, Greece), en route to Alderney from a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in First Cemetery of Athens. In 1977 The Book of Merlyn, a conclusion to The Once and Future King, was published posthumously. His papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin.
According to Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1967 biography, White was "a homosexual and a sado-masochist." He came close to marrying several times but had no enduring romantic relationships, and wrote in his diaries of Zed, a young boy: "I have fallen in love with Zed [...] the whole situation is an impossible one. All I can do is behave like a gentleman. It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them."
Broadcaster Robert Robinson published an account of a bizarre conversation with White, in which he claimed to be attracted to small girls. Robinson concluded that this was really a cover for homosexuality. Dame Julie Andrews wrote in her autobiography, "I believe Tim may have been an unfulfilled homosexual, and he suffered a lot because of it."
However, White's long-time friend and literary agent, David Higham, wrote, "Tim was no homosexual, though I think at one time he had feared he was (and in his ethos fear would have been the word)." Higham gave Warner the address of one of White's lovers "so that she could get in touch with someone so important in Tim's story. But she never, the girl told me, took that step. So she was able to present Tim in such a light that a reviewer could call him a raging homosexual. Perhaps a heterosexual affair would have made her blush."
Lin Carter in his book Imaginary Worlds portrayed White as a man who felt deeply but was unable to form close human relationships due to his unfortunate childhood: "He was a man with an enormous capacity for loving. It shows in his prodigious correspondence and in his affection for dogs and in the bewildered and inarticulate loves his characters experience in his books; but he had few close friends, and no genuine relationship with a woman."
Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock enjoyed White's The Once and Future King, and was especially influenced by the underpinnings of realism in his work. Moorcock eventually engaged in a "wonderful correspondence" with White, and later recalled that "White [gave] me some very good advice on how to write".
J. K. Rowling has said that White's writing strongly influenced the Harry Potter books; several critics have compared Rowling's character Albus Dumbledore to White's absent-minded Merlyn, and Rowling herself has described White's Wart as "Harry's spiritual ancestor." Author Neil Gaiman was asked about the similarities between Harry Potter and Gaiman's character Timothy Hunter, and he stated that he did not think Rowling had based her character on Hunter. "I said to [the reporter] that I thought we were both just stealing from T. H. White: very straightforward."
Gregory Maguire was influenced by "White's ability to be intellectually broadminded, to be comic, to be poetic, and to be fantastic" in the writing of his 1995 novel Wicked, and crime fiction writer Ed McBain also cited White as an influence.
White features extensively in Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. One of the components of the book is a biographical account of White and also The Goshawk, an account of his own failed attempt to train a hawk.
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