reading notes – The Once and Future King

September 21, 2009 at 2:52 am (Uncategorized) (, )

In lieu of real content, I have reading notes.  In addition to reading for the PhD exam right now, I’m also doing a directed reading on medievalism in literature.  And taking Latin.  So this is kind of representative of where my head is these days.  (See how I sneakily sneak in some Old English like a sneaky person?)


Timor mortis conturbat me

As part of the Wart’s education, he is sent to the mews to spend the night with the hawks.  The solemn formality, and indeed the real danger, of his ritual ordeal with these birds is clearly meant to contrast with the silliness of the human knights in White’s story.  Where Pellinore and Grummore fight like schoolboys during their joust – Pellinore mumbling “non” under his breath while Grummore calls him a cad (65) – the birds of prey converse a mid a “silver silence” with an air of restrained dignity (75).  Where Kay’s knightly vigil will result in not much more than taking a bath, having his spurs popped into the soup, and receiving a lecture on ideals from Grummore and Pellinore (183), the ordeal in the mews is overseen by hawks and falcons as “motionless” as a “statue of a knight in armor” (74), in a mews described with the solemnity of a chapel, amidst a congregation of birds described as the “rapt nobility of the air” keeping “their knight’s vigil with knightly patience” (74).  However, through White’s treatment of their nocturnal rituals, their seemingly dignified traditions only serve to further emphasize the novel’s focus on the problems of Fort Mayne.

The hawks’ ordeal song evokes a sense of ancient traditions of hereditary nobility and knighthood.  The peregrine refers to the ordeal song as the “Ancient but not Modern No. 23,” or the “Ordeal Hymn” (78), and indeed even its vocabu lary conjures an air of ancient formality. [1] Its refrain is taken from the solemn tradition of the medieval meditation on the inevitability of death.  Timor mortis conturbat me [Fear of death troubles me] appears in several medieval lyrics, such as this anonymous 15th century lyric in which a weeping bird explains her tears: “I am a musket both fair and gent; / For dread of death I am all shent: Timor mortis conturbat me” (Morley 231). The Latin line is taken from the office of Matins, traditionally recited at midnight: “Peccantem me quotidie, et non me poenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me: Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei Deus, et salva me” [The fear of death doth trouble me, sinning daily, and not repenting: for that in hell there is no redemption, have mercy upon me O God, and save me] (Gunhouse).  But to the birds, timor mortis conturbat me is a “lie” which is “proffered” to “beasts of chase” (79): the birds of prey sing a different hymn, in which they are excited by their prey’s fear of death, which is a fear of the predator: “Timor mortis exultat me” (79). By virtue of their talons, their strength, and their noble bloodlines, the hawks turn a meditation of humility and memento mori into a service of slaughter.  Whether White meant to contrast this hymn with the meditative context of the Book of Hours, or perhaps Anglican hymn No. 23 (“Through the day Thy love hath spared us, / Now we lay us down to rest”), or even Psalm 23 (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”), the hawks’ hymn of dignified formality and hereditary knighthood contains another critique of Fort Mayne, against which the Wart will continuously struggle as he grows into kingship.

[1] See, for instance, line 2, “dree,” derived from the OE dreogan, to suffer, and the Gothic driugan, to do military service; line 6, “bruckle,” from the OE brucol, fragile; and line 6, “slee,” from the ON slægr, able to strike; sly, cunning, skilful (OED).

Works Cited

Gunhouse, Glenn, ed.  “Matins, Third Nocturne.”  Hypertext Book of Hours. The Primer, or Office of the Blessed Virgin Marie, in Latin and English. Antwerp: Arnold Conings, 1599.  Available

Kelly, Thomas. “Through the Day Thy Love hath Spared Us.” The Lutheran Hymnal.
St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941. No. 553.

“Matins.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia. Available

Morley, Henry and William Hall Griffin.  English Writers VI: From Chaucer to Caxton.  London: Cassell and Company, 1890.

Oxford English Dictionary.  Available

Singleton, Robert and Edwin George Monk.  “Through the Day Thy Love Hath Spared Us.”  The Anglican Hymn Book.  London: James Parker and Co., 1871. No. 23.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King.  New York: Ace Books, 1996.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: