While returning home to Alderney in the Channel Islands from a lecture tour of the US, the English writer TH White suffered a fatal heart attack aboard ship when the vessel was docked in Piraeus, the bustling port of Athens. It happened 50 years ago, on January 17th, 1964, only 23 days after the Christmas Day release in Hollywood of an animated film inspired by one of his books.
White was 57 and he had by then long fulfilled his ambition of becoming a full-time writer, largely thanks to that book, the first volume of his four-volume Arthurian sequence.
Ironically fewer people nowadays appear to respond as readily to the title The Once and Future King as might be expected. But mention The Sword in the Stone, the opening book, which was first published in 1938 when White was 32, and there will be smiles of immediate recognition, although they may be due more to the enduring popularity of the Disney classic upon which it is based. The Sword in the Stone is very funny, but it is also deeply philosophical and moral, a most unlikely, if effective polemic.
White was an original, a romantic, solitary, ill at ease with humans and extraordinarily astute, with an affinity for tradition and folklore. There was an eccentric logic to his world view – he had a fear of heights so he learned to fly.
If he lived in his imagination it was probably because it was far more appealing than reality. He had been born in India to English parents; his father was a police superintendent and White was a child of the Raj. His parents separated when he was 14. Predictably he was despatched to an English public school, Cheltenham College, and then on to Cambridge University where he wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory's romance tales, Le Morte d'Arthur, which had been published by William Caxton in 1485, and were based on early French literature. White graduated with a first-class honours degree and spent four years teaching English at Stowe School.
He had already begun to write; there were six novels, before his science fiction yarn, Earth Stopped, in 1934 which was followed within the year by a sequel, Gone to Ground, in which the survivors of an apocalyptic disaster tell their stories. His early life in India seems to have given him an intense love for the English countryside and in 1936 England Have My Bones appeared. It is an engaging memoir about living in rural England, a brisker variation of Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).
By then he had resigned from Stowe and was living alone in a workman’s cottage hunting and fishing, wandering into the nearest village. He had also decided to satisfy a passion – to “man” or train a goshawk on his own, with only a 16th-century tract to help him. It kept him busy. Even in his self-absorption, White was aware of the growing threat of war but had no desire to become involved, famously announcing he could shoot rabbits but not people, and in 1939 moved to Ireland and spent the war years in Co Meath.
Before that, though, he had had his experience with Gos, a young German male goshawk that had been captured by a falconer and sent to White, who kept a record of the many trials and frustrations and ultimate failure, as Gos flew away. White remained relatively stoical and always loved the wild, enigmatic bird. Something else was also brewing in White's mind. Caught between reading and writing, he returned to the Malory he had read as a student and again struck by the heroic tragedy of the tales, he wrote The Sword in the Stone as a complete story. But there was more; further books followed. The Witch in the Wood came out in 1939, and the title would later be changed to The Queen of Air and Darkness. It was soon followed by The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. The final volume, The Candle in the Wind, took longer and did not appear until 1958. The four books were published together with some changes, and the overall tone was darker. White had not served in the war but it had affected him.
Chance caused The Goshawk, White's record of his abortive attempt at falconry, to be published in 1951. His agent apparently sat on the manuscript while visiting White at his Alderney home. It was a stroke of luck for all; The Goshawk is one of the most exciting, passionate and compelling encounters with the natural world – in this case in the form of a goshawk – that one can hope to read.
TH White, a solitary, wary of humans and of himself, is buried in Athens.
*This article was amended on September 10th 2014