Sunday, August 31, 2008


I've recently started The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I can already tell that this classic fantasy is going to keep me in fodder here for weeks!

I'm of two minds about this post, as it isn't perhaps quite in keeping with what I've set out to do here. This is not a word I'm actually familiar with. However, there's really no reason not to learn it now. Rather than search my mind for vague assumptions, I can search the text for clues. The reference comes from the moment when "Wart", alias King Arthur-to-be, steps into Merlin's home for the first time. One of the many unusual things he sees is "a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible wth glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When it's master came into the room, it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed."

Obviously this is something that once lived and is capable of being stuffed. It sounds like a fish of some sort, though, given the book, I'm tempted to guess it to be a dragon. It doesn't help that this is a British book. For all I know corkindrills are quite common around England. The only other thing I can get out of the name itself is that it might be something like a swordfish, with some sort of odd, sharp, useful beak. Shall we see?

Well, this is actually quite interesting. My web search has led me immediately to "T.H. White FAQ", because this is really the only reference to the word. But that doesn't mean it is just a fanciful word. A Dr. Zoe-Jane Playdon, University of London, leads us straight back to Dickens, where Peggoty, listening to young David Copperfield read from a book on crocodiles asks, "Now let me hear some more about the Crorkindills." Playdon thinks the allusion may be a deliberate echoing of the David/Peggoty relationship in the Wart/Arthur relationship. It's very interesting to me as I continue with this book to think of Dickens as White's spiritual father.

Peggoty gets the word wrong. But so, apparently did pretty much everyone else. "Crocodile" is one of those words that didn't really become rock solid for awhile. Other posts on this site remind us that there is an evolution of the word "calcatrix, cockatrice, corcodrile, crocodile."

Now to make this even more of a wonderful muddle, another poster has shown that the confusion lies not just in the way people heard the word, but even in the way they imagined the animal. In his novel, White is imagining a half-fanciful medieval, or even pre-medieval England, where a crocodile would have been a largely mythical sort of creature. In this poster's thought, the reference is to the confusion between what we think of as the crocodile, and the creature who ate its eggs, a Nile mongoose called Ichneumon, which was translated, somewhat improbably, in Latin to calcatrix. Since I can't hope to be any more lucid than he, here are John Dyson of Indiana University's words on the subject. "Both the words and the animals were so exotic in Europe that a truly bizarre bestiary grew up around them, occasionally fusing the two into a single animal with a single name. The "r" in crocodile wandered all around the word."

I suppose we are still not really privy to what White was thinking when he used this word. But as with so much in language, it is packed to the gills with shadowy hints and implications.


  1. what an excellent little essay! I just started reading The Sword in the Stone to my kid, and you more than answered our question (now you mention it, I remember the conversation with Peggoty, but it never would have occurred to me otherwise).

  2. Why thank you, anonymous! It's been quite awhile since I wrote it, and I'm sorry to tell you that I don't think I got much further with the many unfamiliar words in the book, though I believe that most of them had to do with knights and heraldry, so that shouldn't be too hard to figure out.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment here. I appreciate it.

  3. Very cool. My daughter is reading this book and just asked me about the word. I feel lucky to have found your site because of it. Thanks!

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment here, Cris.

    I hope your daughter enjoys T.H. White as much as I did!

  5. This was really helpful, I just started reading The Once and Future King for my Honors Lit class and I was stumped when I read this sentence.

  6. TXgirl, it seems that this post has been one of the more helpful I've written over time. Totally inadvertently, of course.But I'm glad it was useful to you. I came to this book a bit late in life, but I really loved it and hope you'll enjoy the experience as well.