Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
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1216 / England

T.H. White Confronts the King of the Moat

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fish2.jpg

“I wish I was a fish,” said the Wart.

“What sort of fish?” asked Merlyn.

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.

“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. “They are braver than the silly roach and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”

Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”

Immediately there was a loud blowing of seashells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared, seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with MABEL written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn, and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

“Oh, Merlyn,” he cried, “please come too.” ‘’For this once,” said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, “I will come. But in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”

The Wart found it difficult to be a new kind of creature. It was no good trying to swim like a human being, for it made him go corkscrew and much too slowly. He did know how to swim like a fish.

“Not like that,” said the tench in ponderous tones. “Put your chin on your left shoulder and do jackknives. Never mind about the fins, to begin with.”

The Wart’s legs had fused together into his backbone and his feet and toes had become a tail fin. His arms had become two more fins—of a delicate pink—and he had sprouted some more somewhere about his stomach. His head faced over his shoulder, so that when he bent in the middle his toes were moving toward his ear instead of toward his forehead. He was a beautiful olive green, with rather scratchy plate armor all over him, and dark bands down his sides. He was not sure which were his sides and which were his back and front, but what now appeared to be his belly had an attractive whitish color, while his back was armed with a splendid great fin that could be erected for war and had spikes in it. He did jackknives as the tench directed and found that he was swimming vertically downward into the mud.

“Use your feet to turn to left or right,” said the tench, “and spread those fins on your tummy to keep level. You are living in two planes now, not one.”

The Wart found that he could keep more or less level by altering the inclination of his arm fins and the ones on his stomach. He swam feebly off, enjoying himself very much.

“Come back,” said the tench. “You must learn to swim before you can dart.”

The Wart returned to his tutor in a series of zigzags and remarked, “I do not seem to keep quite straight.”

“The trouble with you is that you do not swim from the shoulder. You swim as if you were a boy, bending at the hips. Try doing your jackknives right from the neck downward, and move your body exactly the same amount to the right as you are going to move it to the left. Put your back into it.”

Wart gave two terrific kicks and vanished altogether in a clump of mare’s tail several yards away.

“That’s better,” said the tench, now out of sight in the murky olive water, and the Wart backed himself out of his tangle with infinite trouble, by wriggling his arm fins. He undulated back toward the voice in one terrific shove, to show off.

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Animals
About the Text

From The Once and Future King. A quartet of novels published between 1938 and 1958, The Once and Future King adapts Thomas Malory’s late-fifteenth-century Le Morte d’Arthur, the first English prose account of the Arthurian legends. White achieved his first literary success with an autobiographical book, England Have My Bones, published in 1936. A reclusive man with interests in fishing and hunting, he also published a book on falconry, The Goshawk, and two works of social history. He died at the age of fifty-seven in 1964.

Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.
Samuel Butler, c. 1890
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