Sunday, December 30, 2012

Instructions from a bestiary

I LIKE best these times. After the mad and maddening whirl of days, everything seems to move towards this point: a dog and his human in a room, a book open on the table, the fading of another year.

Birds taking wing and the blue vault of a summer sky are sublime, but this, too: the dog sleeping at her feet, his hind legs sometimes kicking in a dream of puppyhood he is returned to by a mid-morning nap.

For a while, everything is perfect. But the human, flipping pages, finds his quietude irresistible and rubs him with her foot. He halfheartedly growls and, when the offending foot finds the spot behind his ear he is particularly sensitive to, rises to his paws and plops down on a spot several paces away, his behind pointedly facing her.

A dog is a human’s best friend.

Even under the scalding abrasions of that kinship, loyalty and love for their human is fixed in the canine nature.

In the same way, we know how fragile peace is and cannot resist breaking it.

Our abrasiveness finds its natural outlet in that most unnatural of occupations: making war on each other.

That is at the heart of Merlin’s tutoring of Wart, the dreamer who later grows to shaky manhood, pulls out a sword buried in an anvil in a church courtyard, and moves on into an even more tenuous rule in T. H. White’s luminous retelling of the Camelot legend, “The Once and Future King”.

The Penguin Group recently published an edition that’s in stock in a national chain of bookstores. The cover illustration is partly a watercolor rendering of a knight mounted on his steed and wielding a sword, and partly a visual giveaway since White’s novel is like a Rorschach ink blot test for one’s notions about power.

In the novel’s first part, “The Sword in the Stone,” Wart, the future King Arthur, is turned into several animals as part of his education with Merlin.

Portrayed by Walt Disney as a magician and by White as a nigromancer or practitioner of Black Magic, Merlin is growing backwards or becoming younger with each year. Being able to see how the king will meet his end gives Merlin an unrivalled vantage point to guide his education as a child, an excellent qualification for teaching that later inspired J. K. Rowling to create Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.

How can being turned into a perch (a kind of fish “braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike”), merlin, ant from the Afric shore (more “belligerent” than Norman ones), owl, wild goose and badger prepare Wart to become the once and future king?

“Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance,” decrees Merlin.

So transformed, Wart first learns that “might is right” from the murderous ants who view war as neither sickening nor honorable, just “Done”. Asked to stand sentry as other wild geese sleep, Wart misunderstands the nature of the enemy.

When he asks the young female, Lyo-lyok, if he is guarding against other geese, she finds his notion of geese killing other geese obscene: “But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?”

It is in the novel’s second part, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” that Wart is told by Merlin the fine point of his education as different animals: “learn to be a human being”.

Wart is now the young King Arthur, fresh in ascendancy but ancient in his lust for the sporting game of fighting other humans. The young king of England surveys the scene of one battle and confides to his old mentor that he enjoys war, specially the part about winning.

Merlin replies that chivalry is fine when one is encased in armour and seated on a horse or directing from the battlements of a castle: “The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”

Though elegant in prose and elegiac, White is nowhere close to Udo, my saintly aspin, who forgets and forgives and insinuates his muzzle back to warm my feet. I look down on that napping head. I look away. Something directs my foot back to that sensitive spot behind his ear. Humans, alas, learn only too well.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 30, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

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