Sunday, 23 November 2014


In 1939 T H White wrote a sequel to  The Sword in the Stone, his highly successful account of the boyhood of King Arthur. 

The Witch in the Wood (first American edition right) told the beginnings of the story of Gawain, Agravaine and Gareth, children of the rebellious King Lot of Orkney and Out Isles and his magic-meddling wife, Morgause – but in a literary style that would be unfamiliar to anyone who has only ever read The Once and Future King in its one-volume form.

As originally recounted, the story is high in comedic content with Morgause being portrayed as a somewhat ditzy vamp who sets her cap (or crown) at every prospective male she meets, including Sir Palomides, the Orkney boys' black tutor, and (from The Sword in the Stone) the comic knights, Sir Grummore Grummursum and King Pellinore, along with the latter's suddenly less than elusive Questing Beast.

When, in 1958, White gathered his Arthurian novels into one volume as The Once and Future King, The Witch in the Wood (first British edition left) underwent a drastic revision: much of the comedy was downplayed or eliminated, the plot was trimmed back to the bone and it was retitled 'The Queen of Air and Darkness' after a line from one of A E Housman's Last Poems...

Her strong enchantments failing, / Her towers of fear in wreck, /Her limbecks dried of poisons / And the knife at her neck, / The Queen of air and darkness / Begins to shrill and cry,'O young man, O my slayer, / To-morrow you shall die.' / O Queen of air and darkness, / I think 'tis truth you say, And I shall die to-morrow; / But you will die to-day. 
It is White's later, more focused – and decidedly darker – version that I have drawn on for the third episode of the BBC dramatisation of The Once and Future King that can be heard this afternoon, on BBC Radio 4, at 3:00 pm and features the delicious Kate Fleetwood  as the sinister enchantress Morgause who turns her dark powers against the newly-crowned Arthur.

Oh, yes... and this episode also includes a flashback to Arthur's childhood and his encounter with another witch (a character from The Sword in the Stone, but later excised from TO&FK) –– Madam Mim, who made such a memorable appearance in Walt Disney's 1963 telling of White's first Arthurian tale...

The above interpretation of Madam Mim's transformations during The Sword in the Stone's celebrated Wizard's Duel is by Joshua Mattes.

'The Queen of Air and Darkness' will be repeated next Saturday 29 November at 9:00 pm and, along with the first two episode, will be available on BBC iPlayer.

Also on air today...

BBC Radio 4 Extra are currently repeating Ray Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre, a series I co-dramatised with Catherine Czerkawska back in 1995. Tonight at 6:00 pm you can hear my adaptation of the chilling story, 'The Jar'...

By the way, the BBC website not only fails to credit the dramatist (outrage!), rather more importantly it omits the fact that the play (as with all the tales in this series) was personally introduced by Ray Bradbury!

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