As a child, I had a horror of the idea of Christmas in a hot place. Somebody told me that in Australia they ate roast turkey on the beach. This sounded positively irreligious, and I gave no consideration to the fact that the chief subject of the Christmas story probably never enjoyed a white Christmas himself (though it can be surprisingly cold in the Judaean hills at this time of year). Actually, I never experienced a white Christmas either, on the day itself, though I do remember the evening of Boxing Day 1962 when it began to snow, and didn’t melt till March. The other day, I re-read The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. I loved the book when I was eight, but had almost forgotten it. It is the story of a boy known as the Wart (rhyming with ‘smart’), whose real identity may be guessed from the book’s title. The story is set in a medieval context whose tone is part Malory, part Monty Python (before the latter existed). White, I now realise, shaped my idea of Christmas. In old England, he says, ‘when the forests rang with knights walloping each other on the helm, and the unicorns in the wintry moonlight stamped with their silver feet and snorted their noble breaths upon the frozen air’, there were many ‘great and comfortable’ marvels, but the greatest was that ‘The weather behaved itself’. In the winter, ‘which was confined by statute to two months, the snow lay evenly, three feet thick, and never turned to slush’. Thus ‘It was Christmas night in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage [where the Wart lived], and all around the castle the snow lay as it ought to lie.’ How I loved this idea of weather obedient to one’s imagination. How repeatedly disappointing it was in a Sussex child’s Christmas.
White’s book is the first part of a tetralogy called The Once and Future King. I did not read the later volumes — I may have heard that they were less funny — but now I mean to try. The books were once extremely famous, but seem more recently to have fallen out of fashion. Like The Lord of the Rings, the work was begun shortly before the second world war, but both Tolkien and White seem to be writing, in very different ways, about that conflict — or rather, about their own country in the light of that exterior threat. C.S. Lewis did something comparable later, and David Jones did it in verse in the Anathemata. It is as if they all wanted to rescue the essence from prospective destruction. The other three had a more or less explicitly Christian purpose too, but White is different — pagan, strange, disorderly, closer to animals than people, good on subjects like the madness of hawks. Given his biography — he was gay, drunk and a repressed sadist — he is surely due for a revival. He had something at which the English once excelled — a unique, unclassifiable imagination. Here is his oak tree speaking in a sort of parliament of the forest. He could be ventriloquising the author: ‘My leaves come the last and go the last. I am a conservative, I am; and out of my apples they make ink, whose words may live as long as me, even as me, the oak.’ A happy (T.H.) White Christmas to all readers.
This is an extract from Charles Moore's Notes, which appears in the Christmas issue of the Spectator