The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938)
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.’
Thus, Merlyn’s delightful philosophy of education is summed up in The Sword in the Stone. This book can be read as a standalone, but it's also the first in a four-part series: The Once and Future King.
The Sword in the Stone follows the childhood of The Wart, a young put-upon squire to the older Kay. Wart has a brotherly relationship with the somewhat obnoxious Kay, but while Kay has the prestige of being the son and heir to Sir Ector, Wart (real name Arthur) is of unknown parentage, and a bit of an underdog-Cinderella character. However, Wart is not a goody-two-shoes Cinderella, he is kind and rather adorable, but he’s also gently flawed and plucky, and will get into fisticuffs with the lordly, overbearing Kay when the need arises.
Wart's fairy Godmother shows up in the form of the wizard Merlyn who appoints himself tutor to Kay and Wart, but it’s Wart that Merlyn gives the benefit of his wisdom to. A medieval education for a knight-to-be and his squire includes all the usual things: fencing, archery, tilting, hawking, chivalry and hunting, but Merlyn considers natural science to be the most valuable subject, and his means of teaching are literally magical, as he transforms Wart into various birds, animals, fish and insects in a series of lively adventures. The adventures are more than just for fun, however. Merlyn knows what Wart's destiny is: to be King Arthur, thus his lessons give him experiential examples of different kinds of rule and leadership. He sees tyranny in the rule of the pike, the dire communism of the ants, and the peaceable comradeship of the wild geese. Wart's transformations expand his world beyond the ordinary senses and transform him from child towards man, from innocence towards wisdom.
I loved the setting of 13th-century feudal England. Sir Ector has a humble castle and estate on the edge of Forest Sauvage ‘an impenetrable forest’, in the days when wolves, wild boars, small dragons, outlaws, mad men and magicians roam the densely wooded land. The details of medieval life are as meticulous as any historical novel, but it’s sprinkled with eccentric anachronisms via Merlyn who lives backwards through time, having visited many eras of the future.There’s a wry humour running through the narrative. No one is truly evil (people do get nastier in the next book), even the inept, questing old knight, Sir Pellinore, hunting a vicious beast, has a fondness for the monster it stalks. The only scene I didn't enjoy was the very descriptive wild boar hunt, which left me feeling sorry for the poor boar and the dogs. (I was pleased to see in the opening of Book 2 that Merlyn has become a vegetarian, and no longer approves of hunting!)
Wart and Kay eventually outgrow the need for a tutor. Kay is knighted, Wart resigns himself to a life of subordination as his squire, until a strange thing happens in London - King Uther Pendragon dies, leaving no heir, and a sword, in an anvil, in a stone, has appeared outside a church. Enscribed on this magical sword reads: ‘Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England.’ Thus, Kay and his squire head off to join the tourney in London, and obviously Kay tries his luck..and fails, but Wart aka Arthur…well, you know how it ends, especially if you’ve seen the old 1963 Disney film of this story (feel free to break into a chorus of Higitus Figitus migitus mum - Presti-digi-tonium!) As Wart pulls the sword out of the stone and transforms into Arthur, he is aided and cheered on by all the animals he has met through his education.
I loved Wart, but my favourite character was Merlyn, reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey and Radagast the Brown with his gruffness and affinity with animals. He’s both bumbling and wise, he knits and he time-travels and he teaches ‘insight’ by ‘backsight’.
I think the Disney film caused this book to be labelled a children’s classic, but I would rate it as YA+. I think it would be a difficult read for most children, being quite densely written in parts, mature in some of its humour and themes, and lacking the fast-paced narrative drive that modern readers expect. It’s witty, whimsical, slightly madcap, and has a lot of words I didn’t know the meaning of: tintinnabulation, scombre, fewmet and tumulus, anyone? Merlyn gives the reader as much of an education in language and natural history as he does young Arthur!