The Queen of Air and Darkness
|Author||T. H. White|
|Original title||The Witch in the Wood|
|Series||The Once and Future King|
|Publisher||G. P. Putnam's Sons|
|Preceded by||The Sword in the Stone|
|Followed by||The Ill-Made Knight|
The Queen of Air and Darkness is a novel by English writer T. H. White. It is the second book in his epic work, The Once and Future King. It continues the story of the newly crowned King Arthur, his tutelage by the wise Merlyn, his war against King Lot, and also introduces the Orkney clan, a group of characters who would cause the eventual downfall of the king.
The original second book in the series was The Witch in the Wood, published in 1939. It has the same general outline as the replacement work, but is substantially longer and most of the text is different.
The Queen of Air and Darkness is the second book in the four-part work The Once and Future King which chronicles White's own version of the legend of King Arthur. Although it is the shortest book in the series, it is a vital point in the story for several reasons:
- Arthur invents the idea of the Round Table, which was central to the plot of the third and fourth books.
- Arthur also defeats barons those rebelling against him, thereby securing his role as king.
- Arthur's understanding of "might vs. right" is explored more deeply in this book.
- The Orkney faction is introduced. These four children (Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth) become major characters for the rest of White's work.
- King Pellinore gets married and has several children who will become important in The Ill-Made Knight.
The novel begins with the four Orkney children, Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth, telling each other stories late at night. As they speak, it becomes clear that they have great respect and love for their mother, the beautiful Queen Morgause, although she does not devote herself entirely to motherhood, but has a desire to understand and unlock her magical powers whilst her husband, King Lot, is off to war against King Arthur. We also learn that Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, had raped Morgause's mother, Igraine, making Morgause Arthur's half-sister (although no one is yet aware of this fact except for Merlyn, who had forgotten to tell it to Arthur).
Arthur is still being tutored by Merlyn, although the relationship between the two has changed. Instead of seeing Merlyn as an almighty sage, Arthur treats him as more of a friend throughout the novel. Despite this, Merlyn still attempts to teach Arthur how he can create a perfect society out of his newly formed kingdom. Arthur is unimpressed, and would rather be off fighting wars than taking care of peasants.
Meanwhile, back in the Orkney Isles, the four Orkney children are bored and seek a story from their own tutor, St. Toirdelbach, a very different teacher from Merlyn. He tells them a story, but quickly becomes annoyed with the boys, and threatens to hit them with his shelleleigh if they refuse to leave him alone. This is one of White's best examples of how different the loveless childhoods of the Orkney children were from the happy childhood of Arthur. As the children are walking on the beach after visiting St. Toirdelbach, Sir Grummor Grummursum and King Pellinore arrive on the shore in a magic barge. Along with them is a Saracen knight named Sir Palomides who has apparently befriended them between the previous book and their arrival on the Orkney islands. The trio had previously been in Flanders where Pellinore fell in love with the Queen of Flanders' daughter. The knights entered the boat and had been unable to turn it around, causing Pellinore to become so lovesick, he no longer wishes to hunt the Questing Beast, his lifelong passion.
Arthur, meanwhile, is preparing for the battle against Lot's Gaelic warriors which lies ahead. He has begun to buy into the idea of chivalry, and of "might vs. right." He announces to Merlyn that he plans to first put down Lot's rebellion and then use that power to enforce justice throughout his kingdom.
Morgause is pleased that the three bumbling knights have landed because they have no idea that England is at war with Orkney. She takes advantage of their ignorance and attempts to make them fall in love with her. She attempts an unsuccessful unicorn hunt with the knights. The boys consult St. Toirdelbach and then attempt to catch a live unicorn to present to their mother. They almost succeed but Agravaine kills the unicorn in a fit of rage (the boys were pretending the virgin who lured the unicorn was their mother and Agravaine hated the unicorn for touching their "mother"). The other three brothers are angry, as they believe Agravaine has ruined their chances of getting a reward from their mother. Only Gareth feels sorry for the unicorn. Morgause is not pleased at all that they succeeded where she failed; on the contrary, she has them whipped.
Meanwhile, on the plains of Bedegraine, Arthur is making final preparations for his battle. Arthur announces his idea of the round table, and Merlyn informs Arthur that another king has such a table. Ironically, this king is the father of Arthur's future wife, Guenever. Sir Kay, Arthur's foster-brother, says that he believes that if war will help the conquered race to live a better life, they should be conquered. Merlyn angrily informs him that there is a certain Austrian who shared Kay's views, and "plunged the world into bloody chaos." This is an allusion to Adolf Hitler.
Sir Palomides and Sir Grummore, concerned about King Pellinore's lovesickness, plan to impersonate the Questing Beast and lure him back to chasing it. Their plan backfires when the real Questing Beast appears and chases them; they spend the night caught half-way up a cliff.
Morgause, frustrated that the knights have not fallen for her, decides that her children matter more to her. Gareth rushes to the stables to tell his brothers that she loves them, and he arrives to find that Gawaine and Agravaine are in a heated argument. Agravaine wants to send a letter to Lot, informing him of the three knights and telling Lot that Morgause is cheating on him. Gawaine is infuriated by the idea, and he considers it betrayal to their mother. The argument ends when Agravaine threatens Gawaine with a hidden knife, and Gawaine nearly kills him. White explains that Gawaine was never able to get over these kind of sudden passions he underwent, and that they would plague him for life.
Merlyn knows that his time with Arthur is nearly up, as he will soon be locked up for a thousand years. Arthur is distressed, and asks why Merlyn can't avoid the imprisonment that awaits him. Merlyn tells Arthur a parable which explains that no-one can escape fate (the famous story of a man who learns of his death, then rides to escape death, but ends up running into Death while escaping.) He also warns Arthur about Guinvere and Lancelot, but Arthur is too saddened by Merlyn's departure to take the warning to heart.
Early the next morning, King Pellinore is walking alone on the beach when he spots Palomides and Grummore stuck on the cliff, with the Questing Beast waiting for them below. He explains that the beast has fallen in love with them (as she thinks that they are her mate when they were in disguise), and refuses to slay the creature. He simply holds it down while Grummore and Palomides escape to Morgause's castle. Pellinore is reunited with Piggy, the daughter of the Queen of Flanders. He returns to the castle to find that the Questing Beast is waiting outside the castle. Around this same time, Merlyn has begun his journey to find Nimue and passes by them. He advises the pair of knights to psychoanalyse the Questing Beast. They do so, but it backfires and the Questing Beast falls in love with Sir Palomides instead. Pellinore gives up chasing the beast then and Sir Palomides takes up the job.
Arthur has engaged Lot in a fateful battle which would determine who would rule Britain. Arthur overcomes Lot with a sneaky ambush in the night, despite Lot's larger number of soldiers. Contrary to the code of "chivalric" battle (or White's version, at any rate) he also attacks the enemy knights first rather than the foot soldiers. Arthur seemingly finally realizes the wrong behind slaughtering the peasants for the fun of the rich knights, as Merlyn had insisted in his lessons. Assisted by the French noblemen, Ban and Bors, Arthur wins the battle.
The defeated Lot returns home, and the three English knights are shocked to learn that Orkney has been at war with England. Morgause heads south to England in order to reconcile with the English, and brings with her children and the three knights. Arthur holds Pellinore's wedding to Piggy, as he remembers Pellinore fondly as being the first knight he ever met. At the same time, St. Toirdelbach also has a marriage. After the ceremony, Morgause seduces Arthur and becomes pregnant. It is then that Merlyn, far away in North Humberland, remembers that he had forgotten to tell Arthur that Morgause was Arthur's half-sister. Therefore, Arthur's adultery is also incest, a very grave sin. Morgause becomes pregnant with Mordred, who will one day come to ruin his father's kingdom.
The title comes from a poem by A.E. Housman. It refers to Morgause, Witch-Queen of the Orkney Islands. She has four sons but does not care for them, and prefers her magic. She serves as the main antagonist for this book and as a secondary antagonist for the next book, The Ill-Made Knight.
The Witch in the Wood
The Queen of Air and Darkness is a substantially different book from The Witch in the Wood, and less than half its length. The general outline is similar, but the tone and many of the details are quite different; Sir Palomides is the tutor to the boys, for example, and the satire of Queen Morgause is longer and less pointed.
- A.E. Housman. Last Poems, III ("Her strong enchantments failing"). 1922. (Online at the Gutenberg Project.)