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A king's life: an Arthurian legend

One of the most widely respected Shakespeare scholars in the world, Arthur Henry King would have been 100 this Saturday, Feb. 20.His life was devoted to education and serious thought, and he rose to prominence in the British government, where he served on the British Council. He was responsible for cultural and educational matters throughout the commonwealth. So for almost three decades, in his role as assistant director general (similar to the U.S. secretary of education), King lectured and taught in Pakistan, Iran and India, and in universities throughout Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Germany.A book of his essays, Arm the Children, gives gospel insights worthy of C.S. Lewis, to whom he has been often compared; and some of his poetry has been published in the Ensign, New Era, BYU Studies and Dialogue.Queen Elizabeth twice decorated him for his innovations in curriculum development — for instance, his pioneering work in teaching English as a second language. Conversant in five languages and acquainted with the classics of the major world cultures, Arthurs eloquent way with words made him sound like he was reading a text rather than merely speaking.Conversations with him inevitably contained insights and observations on everything from the gospel (his favorite subject) to dogs, to some idea about politics or society. He would casually, and it seemed automatically, embed jewels and gems from great writers and thinkers into even the most everyday comment or response. I would walk away from a conversation with him either highly stimulated or highly perplexed, because he was completely comfortable with irony and the complexities of existence.__IMAGE1__After Arthur joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1966, President Harold B. Lee sensed the influence that this distinguished convert might have on Mormons, particularly at the university level. So President Lee asked Arthur to come to BYU and be "a missionary in reverse," meaning "come and open our thinking and help us become less provincial." He saw the need for Latter-day Saints to become less insular and more aware and more expansive in our thought and perception.One of Arthurs frequent comments about BYU, after spending years there on the faculty, was that it shouldnt try to imitate Harvard University and the Ivy Leagues; it should be distinct and unique, allowing the spiritual to enhance the intellectual. After all, he insisted, all the great universities of the world were founded on religious principles, if not by religions, but theyve all abandoned those in favor of an intellectual humanism.__IMAGE2__Life as an educator came naturally to King, particularly after a teacher profoundly influenced his life when he was 14. Having been born to devout Quaker parents and having lost his father at the age of 9, Arthur was of an unusually serious nature. His Latin teacher told him, Youre gloomier than you need to be. It appears you have chosen to follow Platos notion that happiness is an idea rather than Aristotles concept of happiness as a way of being.It turned my life around, King recalled. Without moralizing, my teacher taught a truth, and I was never the same after that. And he went on to distinguish himself as a first-rate scholar, winning a scholarship at the University of Cambridge that had previously only been offered to graduates. He went on to Lund University in Sweden, where his doctoral degree that carried the title laudatur — an honor that had not been given in humanities since 1887 — was conferred upon him by the King of Sweden.Offered a chair at Cambridge, where he could have spent a comfortable life at the premier university of England, Arthur saw a great need for the teaching of English among those in the non-English speaking world. So he undertook a quest that would establish the teaching of English as a second language as a formal discipline.His groundbreaking vision united the U.S. State Department, the Ford Foundation and the British Council to develop curricula that are now part of the curriculum in universities — as well as high schools — the world over, and was the foundation of the Peace Corps English Language Program.It may have been this work that launched his detailed analysis of the texts of Shakespeares plays. Here again, he pioneered an approach that was unique enough that it became a major contribution. All serious Shakespeare scholars eventually come across Kings comprehensive study of the way the Bard used words — their history, their implications, their context and their syntax. It won him the attention of the scholarly world.Brother King, the title he valued over any of the others, loved the gospel above all else and valued the scriptures above all other literature. When he applied his analytical mind to the scriptures, familiar passages (as well as obscure ones) took on a new clarity. His incisive mind invited awe, not so much for what he knew — though that could be intimidating — as for how he opened any subject to a more expansive view, in which contradictions became somehow reconcilable, complexities revealed a pattern and the wonders of creation engaged our humility.This serious intellectual had a most childlike sense of humor, especially word play, like puns. He took delight in the simplest things — sunlight glancing off Utah Lake, colors on the side of Timpanogos, chocolate savored on a picnic in the Uintas.His 90 years of vigorous living ended, as his beloved Shakespeares had — near his own birthday. Even in his final hours, he was working on a poem, written in a shaky hand. I will treasure that scratchy scrawl in that little notebook, as I will treasure knowing the poet and teacher who left it.


Giles Florence Jr. is a former student of Arthur Henry King and one of Kings honorary children.