Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 1. March 3 1968
New view on Camelot
New view on Camelot
A Tale Of Arthur, by William F.
Humble. Published by Anthony Blond Ltd. $2.60. Reviewed by Carol Phelps.
This first novel by a 16-year-old spastic boy is a book which disappoints as it fascinates.
Here problems about the use of lime, of conservation of energy, of prerogatives, are presented in a truly satirical way refreshingly different from their handling in the mind-plumbing psychological novel — and perhaps more effective. There are conflicts that beset men of all times and temperaments to some degree, but the neurotic King Arthur finds they torment him and demand systematisation:
"Life stretched out in front of him, and it was silly to use up all the pleasures of life before retirement. If there was nothing left for him to sit back and enjoy when ripe old age crept upon him and left him without the faculties to enjoy anything any more, what would his lot be?"
Arthur is an example of more than a bored and satiated modern made anxious by life's endless contradictions. He is a caricature of a dictator, suffering the fears, worries and loneliness of absolute power.
Throughout the book, one has only a hazy picture of Arthur, whose growth has been stunted by anti-hormone pills and whose paunch is the most startling aspect of his appearance. The author keeps a skilful distance between him and the reader, most appropriate to satire, so that one is never sure whether or not to believe completely in him.
One senses that Humble, with his use of "ghettos" and "race-hatred" and his references to Arthur's sickness of the mind and wild gesticulations, is directing us too forcefully to a comparison with Hitler. The push is resented.
There is a puzzling ambivalence in Humble's attitudes toward the values he is satirising. 1 often felt that he would have done better to decide on his stand once and for all.
His evasiveness is, however, provocative — at time approaching genius. Time and again we are led on and on, with mounting anticipation, to be lost suddenly in a haze or to find ourselves jammed against a wall — having bumbed our heads for nothing. The author delights in false clues: "Almost . . . though not quite, for that's another story as so many things are." After many paragraphs as smart and perplexing as "But I shall call them [the lowest strata in Arthur's town] 'ordinary spastics' to show you how cruel Arthur was in calling them that. It is quite disgusting", the reader at last gives up looking for hidden meanings and delights in or tolerates the unfinished, the enigmatic, and the highly original with which "A Tale of Arthur" is crammed — delights in or tolerates according to his temperament.
Arthur's Town is well-named, for it is Arthur and only Arthur who comes to see the fireworks display, who uses the drawbridge who rides in a vehicle. Arthur becomes a patient in Arthur's Hospital. Arthur is King. Priest, and Special Doctor of his town. The enjoyment of the ordinary people who are not overmuch worried by Arthur as long as he leaves them alone — the extraordinary ordinary people who have their own secret union and try to stir up discontent against Arthur's absolutism, and the spastics headed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John who are despised by all others and do only the most menial tasks — the enjoyment of all these is sacrificed to Arthur's gratification, and to lofty "Culture".
The spastics' simplicity and clarity of thinking is compared favourably with Arthur's complexity:
"They [the spastics] found the day as good or bad as the night. The two were much the same, save that one was darker than the other, with the one rather lighter than its fellow. They had worked these things out and they were very brave about it because it was silly not to be."
Their insignificant enjoyment is weighed against Arthur's abundance and there seems little to choose between them. They have only one thing to enjoy; hence they escape the anxious deliberation which is Arthur's lot.
"Arthur didn't like them one bit, but he didn't show it. You wouldn't notice it from just looking at them like he did in that way of his."
Arthur is a ridiculous figure, but he is also more than that. He is alarmingly typical of crazed dictators who believe themselves to be impregnated with greatness in the womb and who drop dead at football matches.
His is a town where there is no communication between the workers and himself, where he can commend all, yet deny responsibility, where he can advocate freedom of worship because he knows there is not the slightest chance of its taking place.
Humble succeeds most in his satire, however, when he keeps his story on the level of a fairy-tale with absurdity predominant over horror. His one or two close brushes against realistic horror are not successful — the pathetic and absurd horridness that is the chief fairy-tale mood of his story is more suggestive and powerful.
When Arthur dies at a football match on the day of his wedding he thus quietly defeats the plans of the extraordinary ordinary people to overthrow his regime and those of the fairy folk to turn him into a frog. This deliberate anti-climax is a failure. It leaves the reader with a chance for immediate assessment of what has gone before and for a quick decision that "A Tale of Arthur" is no work of genius after all.