I'm listening to all five of the books in White's series The Once and Future King, but I was only able to finish The Sword and the Stone during September. The story of King Arthur is one of the (many) stories I thought I knew about and it turns out I do not. It is fantastic. I was into some of the adventures more than others, but the little nuggets of wisdom and the humor made all of it really wonderful. I'm sure much of that is thanks to the reading of Neville Jason (I checked his imdb page and I haven't seen anything he's done - too bad).
We are introduced to Arthur when he's a young boy living with Sir Ector and his family. Arthur knows he's not legitimate and that he'll end up being a squire to his "brother," Kay. One afternoon Arthur is asked to go find a hawk that has wandered off and on this "quest" (I love all the talk of quests in this book - very tongue-in-cheek) he runs into Merlin. Merlin is a wizard who is living his life backwards. As time moves forward for everyone else, Merlin is going back into time and he has been sent to educate The Wart (Arthur's nickname). The way Merlin educates Arthur is to turn him into different animals and experience their point of view for a little while.
Arthur doesn't understand why he's getting an education instead of Kay, but he goes along with all of Merlin's adventures. "The Wart did not know what Merlin was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him, but the ones who went on talking in their usual way leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned." Isn't that delightful language? At one point Merlin tells Arthur that "education is experience and experience is self-reliance." Yes!
I listened to the last hour of the book as I was stirring salsa late into the night last week. Merlin said something very wise that I couldn't stop stirring to write down - something about the only way to cure sadness is to learn something. So true. He said it to Arthur because Kay was becoming a knight and Arthur was going to be a squire to Kay. Arthur was trying to be brave and not jealous of his playmate, but he was having a hard time. Sir Ector and Kay hear about King Pendragon dying and how the next king will be the one to pull the sword from the stone and they decide to take the entire household to London to see what's up. Arthur wasn't in the room at the time, so he didn't hear the part about the sword. Once in London, Kay forgets his sword back at the hotel (or whatever) and orders Arthur to go get it. The hotel is locked up tight, so The Wart has to scrounge up another sword so that Kay won't be embarrassed. Of course Arthur finds the sword in the stone and not realizing what it means, he pulls the sword out and gives it to Kay. I don't know why, but it was an emotional moment. I knew it was coming, but it was so brilliant that I cried. I liked reflecting on all the things that led up to Arthur discovering his destiny. Probably all of our lives are like that - we're led by each relationship and decision to our destiny.
From what I understand there is some gory stuff in the next books. Hmmm. Don't know if I'm up for it. This one was definitely worth my time, though.
2. FDR by Jean Edward Smith
I didn't finish this massive book. I will, though. I'm to the part where Britain has entered World War II, so there isn't much left. My impression of FDR before reading this was that he was a cheating cheater in his marriage and a power-hungry politician with a vengeful streak. (I don't know where I got that stuff. I can only think of Edward Hermann playing him in "Annie" and the tiny snippets I got reading Truman by David McCullough. Not much to base an opinion.)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born into serious privilege. His mother almost died giving birth to him and her doctors recommend that she not try to have another child. She was 24 and the only real birth control at the time was abstinence. Ouch. Her husband was in his sixties, though, which was OLD at that time. Franklin's mother, Sara, put her whole soul into raising Franklin - making sure he had a first-rate education and that he traveled extensively. Franklin was always optimistic, always confident, and always charming. When he met Eleanor, the two of them hit it off and wanted to get married right away, but Sara asked them to keep the engagement secret for a year (hoping they would grow apart). The two of them wrote loving letters to each other over the course of that year and still wanted to get married once the year was over.
That's her! That's Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt (cousins!). She's beautiful! Eleanor comes from the Theodore Roosevelt line of Roosevelts. I was so happy to see that Eleanor and Franklin were so in love in the beginning. Now that I'm close to the end, though, and their relationship is a mess, I'm sad for both of them. Eleanor had six children (that's how many Franklin thought he wanted). They lost one baby in infancy, but the rest lived to make a mess of their lives. (I'm just going to say it, Franklin and Eleanor were terrible parents. Probably because they had a terrible marriage.) After the sixth baby, Eleanor informed 34 year-old Franklin that she was done. They wouldn't be sharing a bedroom anymore. Franklin had begun his political career and was about to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration. He was a handsome, athletic, intelligent man. This is where I can sympathize with both Eleanor and Franklin - because still the only real birth control was abstinence.
So, Franklin had an affair with Eleanor's social secretary, a woman who practically lived with them. Interestingly, all the children are quoted that they loved this other woman and thought no less of their father because of the affair. One of Eleanor's cousins even said that Franklin deserved to get happiness where he could because he was married to Eleanor. YIKES. When Eleanor found out about the affair, she had her bags packed and she was ready to go, but Sara Roosevelt (Franklin's mother) and Louis Howe (Franklin's closest friend, later his chief of staff) convinced her to stay. They knew there was no way Franklin would ever be elected president if he was divorced. And no one said anything about the affair (Franklin broke it off, that was one of Eleanor's conditions for staying) for years. Even biographers in the 1960s and 1970s didn't write about it. Eleanor later had an affair of her own. Franklin knew about it and seems to have encouraged it. Theirs was a complicated relationship, to put it mildly. (From the photos in the book, I see that Franklin went back to Lucy toward the end of his life. She was with him when he died.)
I knew that FDR had polio, but I didn't know he contracted it when he was 39 years old. (THAT'S MY AGE!) He got it while at a Boy Scout Encampment in Palisades, New York. Getting polio made Franklin D. Roosevelt a better man. Isn't that always the way? I don't know if he could have been President if he didn't have polio. It took the nation and fellow politicians seeing FDR's courage in overcoming being paralyzed that made them want him to be their leader. He was a brilliant person with a gift for making decisions, which made him a good president. But nothing inspires quite like overcoming adversity.
FDR also had a gift for public speaking. Since it's always bothered me that this quote is usually attributed to JFK, I'm going to put it in here:
"This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
There is so much in this book. Like the last presidential biography I read, I've marked enough pages to make another long book. There is plenty of political intrigue and FDR did some pretty shady stuff as president. I'm interested to see how in the world he was elected four times (right now his popularity is low during his second term). As always, I'm more interested in his personal life and the not-so-public parts of FDR. I feel better informed about American history. And I have great respect, now for Franklin Roosevelt.