Terence Hanbury White was born on May 29, 1906, in Bombay, India. His father, Garrick Hanbury White, a district superintendent of police, and his mother, Constance White, had a tempestuous marriage. White’s mother, who was considered beautiful, had been berated by her own mother for being unmarried at almost 30. In response she swore she would marry the next man who asked her. She did, and the result was a disaster.
When he was five, White’s parents placed him in school in England. They returned to India (and to their quarreling) while Terence-Tim, as his friends later called him-lived with his mother’s parents, the Astons. When he was seventeen, his parents finally divorced, and even though his family life had never been good, White was devastated. An only child, White continued to feel alone and insecure throughout his life.
To escape the sadness of his personal life, White turned to learning, just as Merlyn advises the young Arthur to do in The Sword in the Stone: “The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.” White was a brilliant student at Queen’s College, Cambridge, taking first class honors with distinction in English. He was later appointed head of the English department at Stowe School. Learning, for White, was clearly not confined to books. During a tour of America near the end of his life, White often delivered a lecture, “The Pleasures of Learning,” in which he would list all the things he had learned to do. The list included archery, carpentry, knitting, flying airplanes, riding show horses, and training falcons.
Most of all, White wanted to learn to write. In 1936 he resigned his teaching position to devote his full attention to writing. Since his college days, White had been interested in Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Le morte d’Arthur, which recounts the story of King Arthur and his knights, and he now began writing his own work based on Malory’s material. The publication and success of his first novel, The Sword in the Stone, gave White the financial independence to continue. To escape the coming war, he moved to Ireland, where he devoted himself to hunting, fishing, falconry, and developing his Arthurian novels.
The books came quickly. The Witch in the Wood (later rewritten as The Queen of Air and Darkness) was published in 1939 and was followed by The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. He finished The Candle in the Wind by 1941, but did not publish it until its inclusion in The Once and Future King-a collection of White’s first four Arthurian tales-in 1958. The Book of Merlyn, also completed by 1941, was omitted from that collection and published posthumously in 1977.
Between 1940 and 1958 White continued to write, publishing the fairly successful Mistress Masham’s Repose; The Goshawk (1951), a nonfiction account of his attempt to train a falcon; The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (1954), a translation from the Latin; and other books. Yet White’s powers seemed to have faded, and he never wrote anything that matched the power of his Arthurian novels.
In 1958 the publication of The Once and Future King, a best seller in both the United States and England, revived White’s popularity. The saga’s 1960 stage production as Camelot made White not only a wealthy man but a celebrity, and resulted in a successful speaking tour of the United States.
While on a Mediterranean cruise, the 57-year-old White suffered a fatal heart attack and died on January 17, 1964, in Piraeus, Greece-some thirteen years before the publication of The Book of Merlyn. He is buried in Athens, within sight of Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus.