Posted by: Mark | May 11, 2022

T.H. White Review: The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods

The stories in T.H White’s The Maharajah and Other Stories have alternated back and forth from “I liked it” to “I hated it.” I liked the last story and expected a bad time with “The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods.” White is having the last laugh on me: “The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods” was one of my favorites in the collection.

Whether White reflected real historic ages in his writing is debatable but he could make readers believe he was reflecting different ages. Typically he hit on a few key differences between the eras and suddenly a story became a portal through time.

“The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods” felt like the early 1800s. Sure, maybe his story wasn’t really like the 1800s but, having never visited the past, he gave me a convincing impression.

Some writers research ancient Rome for decades but their story about Hannibal feels like it’s set last Thursday. To his credit, White delivered the verisimilitude.

White eased into the story with an extended exposition about quirks of early 19th century England. This could have been excruciatingly boring but he set it to dialogue between two slightly sarcastic characters. Two major quirks that they discussed were betting and dueling.

One famous bet of the era was that a man could survive 12 hours under water. Supposedly some poor dope volunteered as the subject and was never seen again. Family fortunes established in the feudal system were lost in card games, bets on where dogs would mark their territory, and, in one case, which fly would stay on a window the longest.

Along with deranged gambling, dueling was all the rage. Everyone knows about Burr/Hamilton, but Andrew Jackson also was a seasoned duelist. Poe campaigned against dueling in three of his stories and through journalism, but for years there was no stopping the hotheads.

As a kid, I remember reading anecdotes about rampant upperclass twit gambling and dueling, and “The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods” brought it all back to me.

The story concerned a very short upperclass scion who stood only 27 inches tall. (I checked–that’s not the shortest height for an adult male on record but it’s close.) As much as he tried to fit in, he was abused by his neighbor, first through insults, then a bet with a prank, and finally a duel. For all his efforts, 19th century society rejected the little man.

“The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods” is a framed story, told along the lines of “The Spaniel Earl” and “Soft Voices at Passenham,” my two other favorite stories in the collection. It’s unclear if the speakers are the same characters in all three stories but they serve the same roles.

When I started reading it, I remembered an old joke–two gunfighters were headed for a showdown. One was a huge man and the other tiny. Before high noon, the big guy realized it wasn’t a fair match up: “I’m twice the target as you are!”

The little gunfighter said, “Make an outline on your body the size of me. Any gunshot outside of that doesn’t count.”

I was waiting for that line or a variation but White either had the good luck to have never heard that dumb joke or the good taste not to include it.

Instead of making the whole thing a joke, the story ended poignantly, with the outsider permanently excluded from society.

This collection of stories has been uneven but “The Philistine Cursed David by His Gods” is one of the highlights.

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