Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Once and Future King. By T.H. White

The Once and Future King

T.H. White

This is one of the first 'modern' reworkings of the Arthurian legend. Originally published in 1939, the copy I read is a 1959 edition. There are 4 books. The first one is called 'The Sword in the Stone', and describes the happy childhood and education of Arthur, being brought up in Sir Ector's castle educated by his tutor Merlyn (the wizard). This part is lovely, with a lot of magic. White's style of writing, depicting Arthur, known as Wart, as an eager, intelligent, brave child, gently being molded for greatness, is refreshing and very readable. Merlyn is a man who is living backwards, predicting his own eventual downfall by enthrallment to Nimue the beautiful witch. White uses a lot of references to contemporary politics and culture - he even mentions cricketers like Jack Hobbs and Bradman. Sir Kay is a boy who 'would neither be a follower nor a leader, but only an aspiring heart, impatient in the inadequate body that imprisoned it'. White's general language in this book, and throughout most of the other books, is amusing, somewhat Oxford Donish. One may imagine that JD Bernal would speak in this manner. There are also roles for characters not part of the original Arthurian legend (as I know it), e.g. Robin Hood.

The second book is called 'The Queen of the Air and Darkness' and there is a description about Morgause, half sister of Arthur as a witch who, in the opening chapter, boils a live cat almost simply for amusement. The tone is this book is quite dark as compared to the first one, even though the characteristic turns of phrase continue. This book also describes the seduction by Morgause of her unwitting half-brother Arthur and the birth of their child Mordred, eventually to cause the downfall of the Arthurian Kingdom. Her four previous sons are also described, all to play somewhat negative roles in the legend.

The third book is about Lancelot, Gwenever, King Arthur, the search for the holy Grail, Galahad. This is an interesting story, all Norman knights, and jousts, and swordplay and chivalrous deeds. The first two books appear to be set in pre-Norman times (like Mary Stewart's series on the legend). This book is firmly in the middle ages, around 1200 to 1400 AD. Lancelot is frequently compared to Bradman and described as being at the top of the averages.

The last book is a sad and sorry tale of the downfall of the kingdom. Mordred leverages the love-affair between Gwenever, Arthur's queen, and Lancelot, to wreak vengeance for all the wrongs, real and imagined, done to him by Arthur and the rest. White, I think, deliberately uses the device of the Greek tragedies, to show the inevitability of the downfall.

White's writing is magnificent, and his construction of the tale is outstanding, as is his language. It is amazing that Hollywood has not made a series of movies (I see at least 5) based on this. I see great scope for wonderful battle scenes, fights, magic, all with a strong classical story line. I know there have been many version of the King Arthur and his knights out of Hollywood, including a couple I have seen, but none I think based entirely on White. Where White really goes out of my favour is in his politics when he appears to speak favourably of the feudal system, and in too laboured stress on the inevitability of it all, as well as the fact the Arthur was trying to create 'civilization' (in five years!). The last 25 or so pages are a great disappointment. You keep expecting a fresh retelling of the lady in the lake, and Gwenever going to the nunnery, etc. but the book ends with just a line mentioning all that.

A great read, anyway!!

Three quotes.

Say not therefore to the Lord "What doest thou?" But say in your heart, "Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?"

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have till they are middle aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people because it is not logical and does not obey laws that are constant. It has no rules.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's 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. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Way of the Cell. By Franklin M. Harold

The Way of the Cell - Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life

Franklin M. Harold, 2001

Oxford University Press.

This is the second time I am reading this book. At the first reading, a few years ago, I was terribly impressed not only with the writing style but also Harold's rational attitude to the scientific questions of origins and evolution of Life, which however does not advocate molecular fundamentalism. On this second reading, some 5 years later, I still like it a lot. But I can detect some overstatements and confusions.

In brief, Harold believes that we need to go beyond DNA and the genes they encode to understand Life. He talks about emergent behaviour, about how the chemiosmostic process that supplies energy to the cells is not specifically coded for in the genes, though the molecules that are involved are; he talks about what he calls 'morphogenetic fields' that are produced by chemical gradients within a cell and which map proteins and protein function to specific positions of the cell. Again these fields are not coded in the genes. He talks about how the very machinery of gene expression requires not only a host of genes, but also a bag, the lipid membrane, to localize all the players and give the cell some integrity. These membranes are also not specified in the genes but are directly inherited by the daughter cells from the parent. He states that evolution may also act on organisms as a whole (at least natural selection does) and not on the genes directly, though variation probably occurs mainly, if not solely in the genes. He describes epigenetic transfer of hereditary information, in which patterns of DNA methylation or protein phophorylation may be a vehicle to transfer this from one generation to the next. He also hints that protein folding is guided by some such morphogenetic field.

On the whole he make a convincing case for going beyond genes to understand Life. However he does appear to overstate the case at times. Richard Dawkins and others could probably interpret some of the above (including morphogenetic fields and protein folding, but may not epigenetic information) in terms of genes and variations in them being selected for fitness. Occasionally Harold appears to contradict himself, as for example when he says, towards the end of the book, that Life can finally be explained in terms of Physics and Chemistry, and maybe without any new 'biophysical' laws required.

Harold is a pleasure to read, with extremely lyrical writing. There were several sentences and phrases I wanted to memorize and maybe reproduce to my students. But unfortunately, I didn't and now I do not recall any of them. I wish I had written them down then and there. Maybe I should get a palmtop or some such device to do this. Or maybe I should just carry a slim notepad always. I will have the read the book once again, maybe a couple of years from now. But the book could age, and become somewhat out of date by then. I hope not though!