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The Book of Merlin : T H White’s Anti-War Dream



White’s fifth volume of his Camelot series, The Book of Merlin, related one long dream of Arthur’s. Merlin appeared to tell the King--and reader--that violence always begets violence and war is never justified. White’s publishers refused to publish it. This talk explores the role of dreams in this fascinating little volume.
The Book of Merlin : T H White’s Anti-War Dream
Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School
Talk presented at
20th Annual International Conference of the Association for the Study of
DreamsoJune 27 - July 1, 2003oBerkeley, California
"Merlyn," said the king, "It
makes no difference whether you are
a dream or not, so long as you are
here. . . . Tell me the reason for
your visit. Talk. Say you have
come to save us from this war."
-T H White, The Book of Merlyn1
The Book of Merlyn consists of one long dream of King Arthur’s—-a
problem solving one. White intended ‘that one brief shining moment
that was known as Camelot’ to be quite different from what emerged in
the published version of his Once and Future King2 or the musical and
film it spawned.
In White’s fifth and concluding volume, Merlyn was indeed appearing
before the King on the eve of impending war with his son Mordred to
‘save them.’ “I have suddenly discovered,” White wrote to his former
Cambridge tutor, “that the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find
an antidote to war.”3 White acknowledges this is a departure from the
message of the first three books; he has Merlyn—who lives time
backward--chronicling 20th century books about Camelot and includes “. .
. poor White who thought we represented the ideal of chivalry” 4
Despite the popularity of the earlier books of the series, it was
1940 and England was embroiled in WWII. Pacifist messages are
invariably suppressed in wartime—ironically the only time they really
matter. White’s publishers incorporated just enough scenes from Merlyn
into the fourth volume to make the series end coherently. Their
version left the impression that “chivalry” was the ultimate ideal--
with The Round Table’s absolute principles and laws which could be
enforced by execution, ignoring extenuating human circumstances. Their
King . . . would be a ‘highest-level’ moral schema in the rating system
which Lawrence Kohlberg was developing about that time and a distinctly
‘male-biased’ one in the alternative which Carol Gilligan proposed in
the 1970’s.
It was, in fact 1977—peacetime following an unpopular war—when
Merlyn was finally published by a small academic press in the United
States. Reception was positive if uneventful and trade houses in both
the US and England put out their own editions. It’s still one of the
most passionately pacifist—if ardently cynical—books ever written and
is obviously still as relevant as when White penned it.
I’d like first to tell you some of what the book has to say about
dreams. Then I’ll focus on White’s main point— that violence always
begets violence and war is never justified. Last I’ll look at why
White chose the dream to make those points.
Book four—as originally written by White--ends with Arthur dozing
off in his tent. So when book five begins with Merlyn appearing at his
door, the king reasonably suspects—as does the reader—that he may be
dreaming. This leads to a Chang Tsu—style reflection on the
difficulties in knowing whether dreaming or not. White first dispatches
old clichés:
“A ghost can prove he is alive by being pinched,” Merlyn
observes” but not so with a by-our-lady dream. . . you can
dream of pinches. Yet hist! There is the noted remedy, in
which the dreamer pinches his own leg. Arthur,” he
directed . . . “Be pleased to pinch yourself.”
Arthur complies and winces.
“Now, does this prove you’re awake?”
“I doubt it.”
The vision examined him sadly. “I was afraid it would
not,” it agreed. (p. 12)
Merlyn goes on to propose a better test—showing White’s keen powers
of observation on dream content—twenty years before the Hall and van de
Castle norms were published:
“Have you ever dreamed of a smell? . . . You have
dreamed of a sight have you not? And of a feeling:
everybody has dreamed of a feeling. You may even have
dreamed of a taste. I recollect that once when I had
forgotten to eat anything for a fortnight, I dreamed of a
chocolate pudding which I distinctly tasted, but it was
snatched away. The question is: have you ever dreamed of a
“I do not think I have. . .”
“Then smell that,” cried the necromancer snatching off
his hat and presenting it under Arthur’s nose with it’s
cargo of mice, frogs and a few shrimp.
“Am I a dream now?”
“It does not smell like one” p. 13
But Arthur reiterates his belief that he dreaming and the argument is
resolved only with his statement which I quoted at the start that it
“does not matter…”
White used dreaming partially as a plot device-—to allow magic to
occur unquestioned and to let events unfold which could be erased when
Arthur woke up. He also acknowledges what a cliché this device can be
when he has Merlyn say:
“When I was a third-rate schoolmaster in the twentieth
century—or was it the nineteenth—every single boy I ever
met wrote essays for me which ended: ‘Then he woke up.’
You could say that the Dream was the only literary
convention of their most degraded classrooms.” (p.12)
White used this ‘literary convention’ more realistically than most
authors. His fabrication serves some of the same purposes that real
dreams can: to entertain innovative modes of behavior which one would
discard pro forma awake--and to rehearse possible futures. {And the
problem White wishes to discuss alternatives to is war. }
Arthur’s’ dream unfolds with an anti-war—-and somewhat anti-
mankind--lecture from Merlyn and then demonstrates alternatives from
his animal mentors of The Sword in the Stone.
Merlyn tells him, among other things:
- Between 1100 and 1900, the English were at war for four hundred and
nineteen years of those years--the French for three hundred and seventy
- 19 million men are killed in Europe every century
-The amount of blood spilled in European wars alone would feed a
fountain running seven hundred liters an hour since the beginning of
-Any exceptional man from Socrates on who’s tried to give the bloody
hordes advice has been murdered for his trouble
-That in fact, Europe’s favorite religious myth is of God becoming a
man, coming down to earth to deliver truth-and being murdered.
The animals chime in to observe that “the so-called primitive races
who worshipped animals as gods were not so daft as people choose to
believe.” They ridicule man for naming himself “Homo sapiens,” seeing
little evidence of wisdom and suggests “Homo ferox” as more
appropriate: the most ferocious of all animals. They point out that:
-Man is unique as an animal which kills for pleasure; “not another
beast in this room will kill other than for meal.”
-Man even trains other animals to kill for his pleasure.
-Man is the only animal that slaughters his own kind en masse.
Here, some animals mention that actually ants are the one other
species to behave as badly with their own and there is a well-done
dream discontinuity in which Arthur finds himself briefly an ant. Two
ant colonies’ simple-minded warriors repeat platitudes perhaps even
more apt in our times than in Whites:
-We are more numerous than they are, therefore we have a right to their
-They are more numerous than we are, therefore they are wickedly trying
to steal our syrup
-We must attack them today or they will attack us tomorrow
-In any case, we are not attacking them at all but offering them
incalculable benefits.
The next sequence of the dream is a mock court where animal lawyers
argue the cases for and against war. The pro-war case consists of
cynical arguments that war is the only method humans will practice for
birth control and that, as a satisfying outlet for violence, it reduces
the need for child abuse, soccer audience riots, and overzealous
dentistry. Its strongest ‘plus’ is the slight chance that it might
eliminate man entirely. Lest one think that White is entirely facetious
here, as he wrote this he lived alone on the coast of Scotland and had
no friends save a few correspondents. His sole companions were two pet
geese and an owl he’d nursed back to health following a wing injury.
The arguments against war suggest that people might better be
regularly injected with adrenalin—as that seems to be the point of it
all. Or that instead of the present conventions, all officers on the
losing side should be executed at its end—irrespective of specific “war
crimes”--so that the outcome would be as suspenseful for those
declaring war as those sent to fight it.
Arthur then finds himself flying—and descending to live with a
flock of geese. The geese live idyllic lives at peace with each
other-“well, they may scuffle a bit over a nesting spot.” When Arthur
tries to explain to them the concept of war, they can’t comprehend
“Great bunches of geese scuffling with each other—how funny” “They
kill each other—I can’t believe that!” Goose leadership emerges from
natural abilities, experience, knowledge—not fighting. Nothing would
be worth dying—or killing a fellow goose for.
Arthur awakens and offers Mordred half his Kingdom. "Mordred
accepted but Arthur had been prepared to give him all if he'd refused."
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