T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone,” is the first book (meaning, section) of his novel The Once and Future King. This is White’s epic re-telling of the King Arthur legend. Since I have only finished the first book (see the Let’s Read which covers the first book—ch.1-24), I cannot comment on the novel as a whole, which encompasses three other books, but I can comment on the story so far.
“The Sword in the Stone” covers the future King Arthur’s pre-adolescent and early teen years. We learn that Arthur, called Wart, was taken in by a kindly lord called Sir Ector as he was abandoned on his steep as a baby. He and the lord’s actual born son, Kay, become friends; Kay is pushy and emotionally uneducated, prone to temper tantrums. Wart, meanwhile, is a self-proclaimed hero-worshipper who is a bit sensitive and prone to fits of crying. But, that is the point, as we will see.
Turns out that Sir Ector is in the market for a tutor for the boys—to give them a proper education, as you know. A few chapters into the book and that tutor is found; why it is none other than Merlyn himself! Wart finds him while wandering in the forest after a stubborn bird named Cully.
Skipping some irrelevant details, Merlyn takes up teaching the two boys a variety of subjects, but it is Wart’s special education which concerns the bulk of the story—while Kay is content to learn the subjects of concern for his upbringing as a knight, Wart is transformed into a variety of animals, each one imparting a different life-skill or mastery.
As I commented on my Let’s Read, I thought this was a risky move on White’s part since, until the final two or three chapters, there is not really much of a story—it is, literally, just Wart being transmogrified into various creatures and having small adventures as he and Kay grow up, learn, and prepare for their futures. Honestly, the “Sword in the Stone” is better described not so much as a ‘book,’ as in something which has a cohesive and singular plot thread, but rather as a collection of intertwined short stories.
Amazingly enough, however, this form of writing pays off and by the end of the book, the magnitude of Wart’s adventures, those written and unwritten, take on an epic quality.
When Wart takes grasp of the titular sword in the stone, hundreds of animal friends from his adventures fill the town square cheering him on and reminding him of his trials and tribulations. What is so neat and empowering about it, is that we only see Wart become transformed in the first book five or six times, so the fact that the square is filled with hundreds of animals, makes one hair stand on edge; even more so when one realizes that because Wart is ignorant of the magnitude of event which is transpiring before his eyes, believing this sudden outpouring of support to be simply spontaneous. The congregation of animals takes on not a high-pressure scenario but one of a friendly, no-pressure encouragement. Something, in other words, which would have been a hearty and much-needed event for our young protagonist, seeing as how he had lost his best friend and was all alone in the world.
Why this is so inspiring is because it is a part of the text to be taken in conjunction with everything which led up to it. That all of Wart’s training was not so much pointless or needless, as it was secretly preparing him for the task of freeing this sword—something which he does in the context of the story not for himself, to become king, since he is ignorant of its importance, but to instead find a sword for Kay who is to participate in a jousting tournament.
Taken alongside Wart’s selfless and caring disposition, we understand that White has propped up the idea of ‘The Fair Unknown’ by subverting its usual elements; instead of giving us a protagonist who is macho, full of himself, and eager to prove his mettle against the evils of the world (i.e., someone like Kay), White throws the ball to the other end of the spectrum and gives us the exact opposite—someone who does not want to be a king or leader of nations, someone who is kind and caring while remaining humble enough to be afraid of leadership.
I mused in my Let’s Read that since this book was published in 1939 and likely written earlier, then that this subversion would have been a unique phenomenon. I would not be surprised if a great number of writers ripped off White’s idea of a youth full of fundamental goodness accidentally stumbling on to his destiny (right, J.K Rowling?). Though it is obvious that many did, I would be curious to do a more thorough bit of research where I see if White’s take as common or highly uncommon.
Considering the actual construction of the narrative—White’s authorial style, the atmosphere connoted by the book, and the pacing—everything comes together extremely well.
All through the characters themselves are nothing to write home about, they feel believable as people. Wart and Merlyn especially are written with a happy yet melancholic flair which should be a case study in sub-text. Many authors would stumble when it comes to writing an angst-ridden, yet fundamentally joyful, adolescent (right, J.K Rowling?), but White manages to write Wart as simultaneously rambunctious and moody; his downer attitude modulated by Merlyn’s whimsical knowledge and mode of interaction with the world. Overall, the book emotes a feeling of the cartoonish; this is not to say that the story is childishly immature (though it is clearly a children’s story), but that it is heavily pushing the animated Disney feel before a time when Disney was the unstoppable corporate juggernaut which we know of it today.
The chapters by whereupon Wart is turned into various animals are odd, but they are the best parts of the book. Filled with anachronistically charged references and political musings which deserve a steady hand to unpack (in order to see what sort of autobiographical relation they have to White), each transformation imparts a different moral and virtue, while the world building associated with each encounter is a smart, grin-encouraging affair as White builds an elaborate animalistic parody of human social system.
There is a lot of other aspects to discuss, from White’s continued reference to mental illnesses to an exploration of depression and childhood romanticization, but I feel those topics are better left to either separate critical essays or as a longer theoretical exploration of the novel as a whole (meaning, all four books of The Once and Future King). As it stands, “The Sword in the Stone” is a lovely re-telling of Arthur’s childhood which makes the character easy for young boys to sympathize with while identifying with his struggles growing up. The text is not perfect since it suggests some less than savvy politicking, but as an initial impression, White’s rendition performed ably.