The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White tells the story of the boyhood of King Arthur. He has no idea he is descended from royal blood. He’s growing up in the family of Sir Ector in his castle near the Sauvage Forest in England. Arthur is known then as “The Wart” and knows he is not a “proper son,” but we’re not told yet where he came from and how he got there. Sir Ector’s son, Kay, is about the Wart’s age, and they take lessons together in everything from History to jousting and hawking. Kay’s destiny is to become a knight: the best that The Wart can hope for is to become Kay’s squire.
When Sir Ector decides the boys need a tutor, the Wart happens upon Merlin. Merlin is a magician who is moving through time backwards, which often confuses him as to whether something is about to happen or has already happened. He is an able tutor, but he gives more time to the Wart, telling him it’s best to learn from experience and therefore turning him into various creatures, like a fish, a snake, an ant, a bird, and a badger, and sending him into each creatures environment to interact with others.
The Wart feels bad that Kay doesn’t get any adventures and wants Merlin to turn him into something, but Merlin insists he can’t use that magic for Kay. But he does send them off on a trail in the forest which leads them to Robin Hood’s camp and an expedition to save prisoners from the fairy queen, Morgan la Fey.
The word that seems to stand out to me to describe the Wart as a boy is decent. It’s not that he’s brave because bravery is a good trait in itself, but in doing the right thing he has to exercise bravery, such as when he and Kay take their father’s prize hawk into the woods to hunt rabbits, and Kay mishandles the hawk, resulting in its flying into a tree and not coming back to them. Kay goes home, but the Wart stays all night alone in the forest to keep an eye on the hawk so they don’t lose it. He’s also thoughtful, merciful, humble, and kind.
The musical Camelot is based on White’s version of Arthur’s story, and once I saw an interview with Richard Harris, who played Arthur in the film version, in which he said that he played him as someone who has greatness thrust upon him, but Richard Burton, who played Arthur on stage, played him as someone born to greatness. I can see both elements here. He is born to greatness, but he doesn’t know it yet. But events like the climatic removing the sword from the stone are done, not with the desire to overcome the challenge and prove himself king, but to help someone. He discovers only later that the sword would only come out for the person destined to be king (having missed the conversation in which everyone else talks about it) and at first feels quite uncomfortable with Sir Ector and Kay treating him like a king.
The Wart’s various experiences with animals were not just to teach him about nature. According to various sources, they also served to teach him about various governments. The pike, for instance, who was the king of that particular body of water in which the Wart was learning to be a fish, had absolute power but was deceptive and cruel. A colony of ants, on the other hand, acted like mindless automatons working for the greater good, which some suggest is meant to portray Communism (oddly, the ants aren’t included in the version I listened to, but I saw them mentioned in other sources). Perhaps what he learns about governing from each of them is brought out in the later books, but in this one, the various lessons he learns from them come back to him as he tries to pull the sword out of the stone. For instance, when he was trying to learn to swim as a fish with fins instead of arms and a tail instead of legs, Merlin kept telling him to “put his back into it.” That as well as bits from his other experiences came back to him in that moment.
The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White was originally published in 1938 but eventually it was combined with other books about the legend of King Arthur in The Once and Future King in 1958. It underwent quite a bit of revision by the time the 1958 version was published, incorporating some material that White had wanted to include in a fifth book in the series. According to Wikipedia, stand-alone publications of the novel tend to use the first version while publications of all four books into The Once and Future King used the revised. According to the PDF accompanying the audiobook I listened to, this version uses elements of both.
This book reads like a fairy tale or a boy’s adventure story, but it’s not technically aimed at children. There are comic moments along with the adventures and lessons as well. It was the basis for the Disney movie by the same name, but, as usually happens, much was changed in the cartoon version. I understand that the rest of the legend gets darker as it progresses in the other books. I haven’t decided yet whether to read them.
As far as potential objectionable elements go, there’s the whole issue of Merlin being a wizard, the Wart being turned into other creatures, and a fight with a witch. If you allow fairy tales, these shouldn’t be a problem: when my kids were young, I avoided stories with witches, but at some point when they were older decided that fairy tale witches were different from the real thing and operated more as the antagonist in stories. But if you have a problem with that or think your children shouldn’t be exposed to that yet, then you’d want to avoid this book. There is also a good deal about evolution and a good bit of violence, though it’s not gratuitous nor overly descriptive. The one brief part I didn’t like was the flippant portrayal of God in one legend.
But when it comes to the adventures themselves and Arthur’s growth into the man and king he eventually became, I enjoyed the story quite a lot.This book ends not long after Arthur’s coronation, and I assume the next one picks up some time after that.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)