Knights and the 1960s: J.B. Priestley’s Comic Fantasy

J.B. Priestley’s semi-Arthurian fantasy The Thirty-First of June possesses little seriousness, less depth, and no plausibility. The book’s settings are sketchy, its plotting haphazard, its worldview dated, its reviews mixed, and its characters thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Fifty-five years after its publication, it enjoys few readers and little reputation.

Having said all that, I must admit I quite enjoyed the book. It is light in every way: light in pages, light in difficulty, and, most importantly, light of heart.

Though he was very famous by the time he wrote The Thirty-First of June, if you’ve never heard of J.B. Priestley, you’re very far from alone. The author photo on the back shows an elderly man in a book-lined room, peering into the distance with a meerschaum pipe in his hand. He’s the very image of the mid-century British public intellectual, the sort of writer very influential in his day but quickly, and perhaps unfairly, forgotten soon after he’s left the scene. Though he wrote dozens of books and plays, his single most enduring work seems to be his play An Inspector Calls, which has had a good twenty-first century: In the past two years, it’s been filmed in Hong Kong, interpreted by the BBC, and revived for London’s West End.

Priestley wanted the comedy-drama of An Inspector Calls to thrill, amuse, and enlighten, while The Thirty-First of June exists only to please. Sam Penty, commercial illustrator, tries to imagine the perfect medieval princess to adorn an advertisement for a new line of women’s stockings. She looks like Sam’s ideal woman, but of course someone like her cannot exist in real life. In another world, the beautiful Princess Melicent, heiress to one of Camelot’s tributary states, gazes at a magic mirror and falls in love with the man the mirror shows thinking of her. The decrepit enchanter Marlagram informs her that the man in the mirror isn’t from real life, but that Marlagram, as a powerful sage, can bring him to reality. Bringing the two together would be easy, were it not for the intervention of a second magician, the slightly sinister, but mostly ridiculous, Malgrim. All kinds of chaos erupts: Transformations into dragons, geese, and rats; medieval and contemporary characters changing places; the establishment of a cross-reality ad agency. Despite the transformations, the sinister Red Knights, the trips to dungeons, and, most perilous of all, a trip to a British food expo, all ends well.

One of the most striking things about The Thirty-First of June is just how nice everyone in it. When Sam, hapless resident of twentieth-century London, finds himself in the cod-medieval dungeons of Peradore, his pseudo-cockney jailers supplement his bread-and-water rations with food stolen from the castle kitchen and apologize for the weight of the shackles. The dragons are friendly, the sinister knights graciously surrender to the hero, and fistfights end in apologies and offers of friendship. When a petulant king mentions hanging, drawing, and quartering as something that has occasionally happened, the reader blinks: Surely this tale’s innocents have never heard of something so nasty?

Like so many books over a half-century old, The Thirty-First of June may occasionally strike contemporary readers as too old-fashioned. Take, for instance, the character of Captain Plunket, a semi-seedy bounder and con man evidently imported from a one of Graham Greene’s tropical novels. His anecdotes of thoroughly defrauded and equally improbably named African kings, his tales of deceived foreigners, and his general posture of boorish superiority may not play well today. I’d complain that none of the women—even the scheming damsel who claims to be Lady Macbeth’s cousin—has much agency, except really the only person with power in this book is the narrator.

While fustiness has its drawbacks, being old-fashioned has its charms. Priestley’s satire on the “progress—and—er—the triumph of—er—our great modern civilization” reminds us just how much and how little has changed. Few of us can get away with a three drinks at the pub on lunch break these days, though thankfully TV has improved enough that it’s no longer “dreary drivel.” Some things, of course, are eternal. Here, for example, is one character speaking on high technology: “I’m an electronic computer engineer—very important. They can make some bad mistakes even when they are adjusted, but when they aren’t they go haywire.” I think we’ve all been there.

Given that it’s the story of a modern man plopped into an Arthurian world, it’s not surprising that author, publisher, and reviewers all invoke A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain’s book is tragedy disguised as comedy, of progress corrupted and ignorance triumphant. Priestley’s book is no such thing: It satirizes modern life, but in with amused condescension counter to Twain’s anguished denunciation. Twain denounces cruelty, slavery, and superstition; Priestley is content poking fun at boring pub conversations, vapid talk shows, silly ad campaigns, and loud jackhammers. There’s nothing challenging or controversial, just the assertion that contemporary life can be just as ridiculous as the most ludicrous chivalric romance. Twain’s Camelot was doomed from its inception; Priestley’s Peradore exists without any shadows of ruination, doom, or malign fate. When they’re briefly mentioned, we learn that everyone knows, no one cares, and no wars are fought about Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. Mordred is inconceivable, and, although Morgan Le Fay is mentioned, presumably never conceived.

At the beginning of this review, I said that The Thirty-First of June had few readers and little reputation, but apparently I am not the only one to read it these days: I find that Valancourt Books has recently reissued it. If you’re in the market for something old-fashioned, charming, frivolous, and, yes, minor, you should consider giving it a try.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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