Waxing Philosophical (A Lesson from T.H. White)
I hauled out my battered copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King last night to look up a particular quote, one I had been thinking about using as a signature for emails and such. I hadn’t read the book in some time, and it took me a few minutes to locate it. I have a large and not terribly well organized personal library, and things tend to get shifted around when I get new acquisitions or attempt to cull a few books from the mass.
I finally found the book on a top shelf with my few treasured fantasy novels, cheek by jowl with J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin and Douglas Adams. I stood thumbing through the pages for a while, enjoying the sensation of rediscovery, like seeing an old friend after a long time apart. I knew the quote occurred in “The Sword in the Stone,” the first section of the book, but I dawdled a while before getting down to the actual search.
I do so love White’s narrative voice: whimsical, wry and yet wistful. When I was a child, the animated Disney version of “The Sword in the Stone” was one of my favorite movies, but after I read the book I found it difficult to watch the film again. Compared to White’s prose, the movie’s tone seems all wrong – raucous and coarse.
Eventually I got down to business and found the quote I was seeking. It’s in the latter part of “The Sword in the Stone,” where Merlyn has informed The Wart that the time has come for them to part ways. I was startled to see that during some previous reading of the book, I had circled the page number and drawn a star next to one of the paragraphs. Clearly, the section had spoken to me before. The starred graph is actually earlier than the quote I was seeking, and with a genuflection to the gods of Fair Use and Proper Attribution, here is the paragraph:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is 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.”
Dear old Merlyn goes on at some length about what one can learn, and how long one can spend learning it. The Wart is feeling low because he has already been cast aside by his childhood companion Kay, who is about to be made a knight, and he feels worse knowing that Merlyn is leaving and he will lose the two people closest to him at the same time.
I stood re-reading the paragraph and wondering what circumstances in my own life had driven me to circle that page number so I could find it again. It had to have been at some time of major upheaval which no doubt caused me a lot of sorrow, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was now. But I think I must have gone off with the lesson ringing in my head, because I am a learning fool when I get curious about a topic. That’s the beautiful part about writing and acting both: research is a huge part of both crafts, and there is nothing more satisfying than packing your brain full of wonderful information that, while it may never find its way onto either the page or the stage, can still inform the choices you make.
A few paragraphs below the one I marked lies the quote I wanted. Merlyn asks The Wart if, in all the years he has been under Merlyn’s tutelage, The Wart has learned anything. The Wart responds:
“I have learned, and been happy.”
Something about those words makes my heart leap every time I see them. I’ve underlined them now, so I can find them more easily. If I was ever to have an epitaph, that is what I would want it to be – but since I plan to be cremated and scattered (along with a generous libation from a really good bottle of Pinot Noir), I have engraved the words on my heart instead. A cure for cancer or world peace may be beyond the scope of my ability or skill, but to be able to look back at the end of my life and say those words truthfully – for me, that would be a life well lived, and more than enough.
Well said my friend! I find it interesting that most of my friends that are of, or near the generation that I came from, find it necessary to ponder their lives and accomplishments and attach some value or validation to that journey. We all seem to feel the need to make the rest of our time better, more focused on the little things that matter in life, and to just stop for a while and let life catch up. Though I have never seen you act, I’m positive you do it with the same passion and zeal that you use when you write. I have seen that and know your talent. You have learned and been happy…now share your writing!