“Time in Teaching,” Part 2: T.H. White’s Merlyn

A Guest Post Series by Joseph Torres, Ph.D.

Merlyn the Architect

To explore Merlyn’s teaching style and decisions as they related to his reversed timeline, we will first explore White’s purpose in having Merlyn live backwards in time. According to La Jeunesse, White’s novel is “a literary science experiment in which White attempts to engage the subject of war with the intent of producing a real-world solution” (23). In other words, White uses the novel as a means to explore the causes and nature of war and ultimately to find a path to permanent peace for his own time. In this context, Merlyn’s backwards living is a device which enables White to send a character into the remote past who has White’s knowledge of the effects of war. That is, White crafts Merlyn into a vessel that enables contemporary knowledge to interact
with the remote past. Thus, in order to solve the problem of war, White constructs an experiment in the establishment of peace by sending Merlyn as an avatar of himself back to the young Arthur to tutor him. Since we have established White’s use for Merlyn’s inverted timeline and Merlyn’s
purpose in educating Arthur, we should now analyze the methods Merlyn uses to accomplish his goal. First, observe that Merlyn usually seeks the Wart’s input as to the type of educational experience he might prefer to have. For instance, when Merlyn begins Arthur’s education, Arthur expresses his wish that he were a perch (White 45). It is only after this that Merlyn grants his request. Therefore, Merlyn builds Arthur’s educational experiences using Arthur’s input. Furthermore, the experiences Arthur has in animal-form cause him to confront his own presuppositions concerning war. When he is a perch, Arthur has the experience of victimhood under the tyrannical pike who believes “Might is Right” (White 52). When he is among the ants, he experiences the use propaganda to motivate hatred of neighboring communities and eventually
war against those communities (White 129). Finally, Arthur’s experience as a goose teaches him of the abhorrence which war against one’s fellow human should inspire and the utter meaninglessness of borders (White 170). Thus, Merlyn helps Arthur understand the problem of war in “The Sword in the Stone” by giving Arthur experiences of the relationships of different
species to violence and war.

Now that we have analyzed the substance of Merlyn’s formative techniques, it remains to discuss Merlyn’s assessment of Arthur’s progress. Before they leave Arthur’s castle for Bedegraine, Merlyn observes that Arthur is trying to trick his tutor into thinking for him. Merlyn responds, “You will have to think the rest yourself. Is might right – and if not, why not, give reasons and draw a plan” (White 225). Merlyn refuses to solve the problem of war for Arthur. Therefore,
his approach to education precludes even hinting at a solution or even outright admitting that might does not make right.

Before the battle at Bedegraine, Arthur summarizes for his advisors the problem of war. The scene resembles the defense of a capstone project, since Arthur makes claims such as “Might is not Right” (White 247) and must defend them orally to his advisors. In this capstone defense, Arthur does not only demonstrate an understanding of the problem, but also proposes a solution to
the problem (White 248). He organically develops this solution rather than having an algorithm thrust upon him by his tutor. Indeed, his tutor does not even ask leading questions to help Arthur arrive at a solution. Thus, Merlyn’s assessment of Arthur resembles an oral capstone defense in which the student must ultimately demonstrate an understanding of the problem as well as
developing his own solution to the problem.

We should finally note the way in which Merlyn evaluates Arthur’s performance in his capstone defense. Merlyn responds to Arthur’s proposed solution through the recitation of the beginning of the Nunc Dimittis (White 248). Here, White references the prayer of St. Simeon in the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. In St. Luke’s account, St. Simeon receives a promise from God that he will witness the coming of the Christ. Therefore, the Nunc Dimittis is a prayer of
thanksgiving to God for the fulfillment of one’s life. Merlyn’s recitation of the Nunc Dimittis is a strong endorsement of Arthur’s solution, since it amounts to a statement that the purpose of Merlyn’s life has been fulfilled. Not only has Arthur passed his defense, but he has also caused the fulfillment of Merlyn’s goal.

We may now compare Merlyn’s pedagogical style to Harootunian and Quinn’s archetypes. Their Architect “stresses the importance of understanding the problem first and then forming an appropriate plan for solving it” (18). However we have seen that Merlyn’s education of Arthur consists in a set of experiences that cause Arthur to encounter the problem of might, and then
allows Arthur to develop his own solution based firmly in his own understanding of the problem. Therefore, Merlyn certainly focuses on cultivating an understanding of the problem first.

Furthermore, Harootunian and Quinn’s Architect “values the input of his tutees” and uses that input to model further experiences (18). This is also consistent with our observations of Merlyn, who constructs Arthur’s experiences as various animals based largely on Arthur’s own
input. Hence, Merlyn is a prime example of the Architect.

Failures and Successes

Having analyzed Merlyn’s teaching methods and philosophies, we turn now to the efficacy of those methods. To begin, we will observe Merlyn’s one great failure. In “The Sword in the Stone”, Merlyn reveals to the young Wart that Merlyn’s mind is muddled with respect to time as a result of his backwards living (White 35). His time-muddled mind causes him to neglect
to warn Arthur that he and Morgause share a mother (White 311). At the end of “The Queen of Air and Darkness”, White ascribes the eventual failure of Arthur’s kingdom partially to Arthur’s unwitting act of incest with Morgause and partially to Mordred, who was the fruit of that incest (312). Therefore, if Merlyn were not muddled about time, he might have prevented Arthur from
begetting his eventual downfall. It follows that due to Merlyn’s failure to clarify the distinction between past and future in his mind, he is a partial cause of the eventual downfall of Arthur.

The question now arises as to whether Merlyn’s failure erases his success as a tutor. As we observed earlier, Merlyn was certainly successful in the short term, since Arthur did eventually understand the problem of war. As a result, Arthur is able to teach most of his knights the value of peace and unity, which is particularly evidence in the reconciliation of the Pellinore and Orkney
clans (White 455). At the end, Arthur tells his tale to Tom of Newbold Revell and convinces him to pass on Arthur’s ideal to later generations (White 637). Therefore, Merlyn’s education of Arthur still ends in a form of success.

Furthermore, this success is due to Merlyn’s reversed timeline. Adderley states that Tom “is keeping alive the dream of civilization Arthur had” (57). This is the “candle” that Arthur asks Tom to carry (White 637). Merlyn knew this would be the result of his education of Arthur and thus his backwards living enables him to let that idealism take root in English literature. Adderley
rightly sees this as Merlyn’s ultimate success (57). He points out, “Merlyn’s education has been designed to make Arthur think for himself, and this is what Arthur enables the rest of mankind to do in the last chapter” (57). Therefore, while Merlyn’s failure brought about the fall of Arthur’s kingdom, it did not end all hope for civilization. Indeed, through Merlyn’s education of Arthur, we
have all been taught the ideals of justice and peace for which Arthur worked and sought paths.

Furthermore, we may consider the novel insofar as it is an experiment in peace. La Jeunesse comments, “in the scientific world, it isn’t unheard of for an experiment to fail, for the scientist to die before results are achieved, and for another person to pick up the work where his predecessor left it” (34). White’s novel is an initial experiment in peace. However, in science, even a failed first
experiment gives insight. It enables the scientist to modify hypotheses and then try a new experiment to test those. Thus, in this reading, by sending himself through an avatar backwards in time, he enables his readers to formulate their own solutions to the problem of war and to develop
their own experiments to establish peace.

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