|(Drawing by Trevor Stubley in T.H. White's The Book of Merlyn)|
“Thou has done champion,” says the Hedgehog to King Arthur, towards the end of T.H. White’s The Book of Merlyn.
King Arthur has been whisked away on the eve of his last battle to spend his final hours in the company of his childhood tutors, Merlyn the magician and a host of animals. White, more than any other teller of Arthurian tales I know of, focuses on Arthur as a person, rather than a Legend. In White’s version, Merlyn trained Arthur to be a king and a leader of men by magicking him into lots of different animals as a child. Arthur spent time with these different species to see how they behave, how they commune, how they organize and how they are in the world. White was anti-war, and a far better than amateur naturalist, so these animal interludes are both more biologically accurate and politically astute than mere Disney cartoon magic. The point is amply made.
But, here at the end of his life when the beauty and justice and idealism of Camelot has crashed down around him in the angst and fury of Mordred’s Fascist rabble, Arthur is miserable. He worries that his fight for justice, his lifelong attempt for equality, all of his struggles and sacrifices, all of this has been for nothing because humans, it seems, are innately violent and ignorantly evil. Because he sees his fight as ending, and he himself losing, he believes it all a failure.
And then, in the midst of the animals fussing and complaining about warlike humans—all of which makes Arthur feel increasingly awful and personally responsible for all the evils of mankind—the little flea-bitten Hedgehog takes Arthur’s hand and pulls him back outside, into the moonlight and the landscape, and helps him to see how the world is beautiful, even though intrinsically flawed. The Hedgehog puts Arthur where he can see what he fought for, rather than parsing how he fought. And he congratulates and affirms Arthur, with those four words, which is the most graceful permission to exit I can fathom.
Since recently re-reading The Book of Merlyn, every time I see or hear or read anything about the evening of Obama’s presidency, the speculation about his legacy, the looming unknown specter of Trump’s dawning era, I want to yell and pray “thou hast done champion.”
Because, folks, it has been a wonderful eight years. Not a perfect time, by a wide margin, but a Good time in the metric I use for success. What the legacy of it all will be, I do not know. I hope that it will be an active legacy, that those who felt the spark of hope and change will remain rooted and engaged, that we will perpetuate our beliefs with our actions and words, rather than sit down and mourn the loss.
Along with the Hedgehog and King Arthur, I’ve been taking comfort in Jack Gilbert’s poem about Icarus, “Failing and Flying.” The end of the Obama era is not a failure—it is merely “the end of his triumph.” And, there was flight, there was progress. Hillary Clinton put her million more cracks in the glass ceiling, Barack Obama made the White House a little less white and a whole lot more dignified, and Martin Luther King jr.’s arc of the moral universe bent ever closer towards justice.
How long that arc is, how young this country is, how slowly evolution happens…all of this has given me pause and ballast in recent weeks. Change is grindingly slow, and our personal lives are brilliantly brief, so this makes change seem even slower. In The Book of Merlyn, as the old man Arthur questions his life’s work, Merlyn explodes over the disconnect between human history and evolution: “When will they learn that it takes a million years for a bird to modify a single one of its primary feathers?...Quite regardless of the fact that evolution happens in million-year cycles, he thinks he has evolved since the Middle Ages. Perhaps the combustion engine has evolved, but not he.”
Racial and gender equality, economic justice and environmental salvation—these are challenges that present-day Americans and the world need to address on a faster than a million-years-a-feather speed. And yet, if we can remember that we are, after all, only human and only one more species on this beautiful world, trying to govern ourselves, it lends some perspective to see how glacial evolution is. This is not a free pass; we must continue the work of hastening our evolution, of bending the arc towards justice, but we must have perspective in the scope of how we measure our progress.
This is not to say that I believe that everything and everyone will be fine throughout Trump’s presidency. This will be a hard and ugly time. For the sake of those who threw the Hail Mary pass, held their noses at the brassy violence of Trump’s character, and voted for him purely on personal economic needs—I hope jobs are saved and created. However, I do worry intensely how the founding ideals of our country will go—I hear that the White House Press Corps is possibly being invited to move out of the Trump White House, and that more alternative bloggers and other media hosts are being invited in. The White Supremacist who advises the future President Trump announced this media change.
I do not doubt that there will be a violent lack of dignity within this administration, and that many shadowy corrupt dealings will take place in the background while the spotlight is on the histrionics of a Commander in Chief who doesn’t seem to understand he is playing with nuclear fire. People are going to get hurt—whether by armed conflict or loss of health insurance or recalibrated racism or climate change fueled floods and famines or all of this, I cannot speculate, but believe all are on the table. I ache with recognition that what I do, where I live, the color of my skin, I am unlikely to be one of the injured. And I know these protections are thinner than the dime all things can change on.
I imagine the Arc of Moral History to be something like a huge, timeless barrel hoop. Our jobs are to catch it, hold it, and hone it towards justice. We had it in our hands, but something slipped, and these next few years are the ricochet. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is how things move forward, this is how we evolve our primary feathers, how we fly. And in that, we will fail, sometimes. But the important thing is that we tried, that we bent the arc, that we flew, that we did.
As Merlyn lists off all the poets and writers and storytellers who will carry Arthur’s legend forward, all the places where his story emerges, all the ways in which he is not forgotten, I thought of all the acts of kindness and resistance that I know are happening as we go from Arthur to Mordred, Obama to Trump. King Arthur and Camelot—these are not remembered and retold because Mordred’s petulant rage broke the Round Table. The bitter end does not erase the sweetness of the being. The attempt is the triumph.