The Sword in the Stone

Spoilers for The Sword in the Stone ahead. Eventually.

Take a gander at the movie poster for Inglorious Basterds. Go on, it won’t take you long. Watch the full-length trailer if you’ve got the chance.

If you’ve seen the movie, something about this should strike you as odd. What about Shosanna? What about the German soldier boy, Zoller? Those weren’t exactly bit parts, you know. And, more subtly, what about the character of the movie? The trailer cuts to black as Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew, swings his bat at the sergeant’s head, but in the movie we see every gory detail. We see the Basterds laughing while Donowitz strikes the sergeant’s convulsing body, again and again, until it finally goes limp. I think it should be obvious that a movie that cuts away from that impact (to a shot of Brad Pitt and his jolly band of misfits wincing, perhaps) is very different from the one that lingers and forces us to watch. If not… you’ll have to take my word for it, because really, the point is that I went in to the theater expecting to see one thing, and I got something almost entirely different.

I may have gotten a little carried away in making that point. But, all that said, I’m here to tell you that the folks in marketing have been doing the same thing for decades. In books, even!

The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic

Yes, this is literally a case of judging a book by its cover and the dangers thereof. Regardless of the conventional wisdom on the matter, you don’t put “THE WORLD’S GREATEST FANTASY CLASSIC! CAMELOT AND ROMANCE AND WIZARDRY AND WAR” on the front of a book unless you’re hoping to foster a certain set of expectations. Specifically:

  • Chivalric Romance
  • Epic scope
  • Great pride in the fantasy genre, possibly to the point of self-seriousness
  • Wonders, mystery, majesty

With those expectations in mind, let’s have a passage:

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.
“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”
Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”
Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

So much for Wizardry in the World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic.

Alright, with that out of the way, let me introduce the book.

The Once and Future King is T.H. White’s novelization of the Arthurian legends, published in 1958. It is composed of four books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind, of which the first three had been previously published individually (though The Queen of Air and Darkness was originally The Witch in the Wood, a longer novel with, reportedly, substantial differences). To place this in the history of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings had just been published in 1955, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950. But White had been writing and publishing the individual pieces since 1938—we certainly can’t expect a whole lot of influence from that first round of postwar fantasy novels.

I’ve read The Sword in the Stone. It seems reasonable to stop there and write about it before continuing, seeing as it originally stood alone, and I’ve got a lot to write about. Admittedly, it was not then billed as The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic. So let’s set that complaint aside for a bit and get into it.

Living Backward

White wastes no time introducing and characterizing the story’s main characters. The very first paragraph gives us the Wart (whose name is derived from Art, which is further derived from his full name, which at this point is no mystery1), the batty governess that takes out her frustrations by rapping his knuckles, the firstborn and heir to the estate Kay, and his father and local authority figure Sir Ector. We lose the governess by the end of the paragraph, but at this point we’re only short one major character and a handful of minor ones, and we already feel for the poor Wart and can sense future tension between him and Kay, who is apparently above such unfortunate nicknames. All this I very much appreciate.

Things take a turn for the comedic before the first page is flipped over. The battiness of the governess is played for laughs, and once she’s dismissed, Sir Ector has a conversation with Sir Grummore Grummursum, local knight who happens to be questing in the neighborhood, over some wine and about the boys’ tutelage. Tough day questin’, asks Sir Ector? Yup, replies Sir Grummore. White is the one who’s playing with the word quest like this, not I. The two knights talk about questin’ a bit like that’s the word they use for their nine-to-five. And speaking of which, White introduces us to another one of his devices here. Sir Grummore suggests sending the kids to Eton. The narrator helpfully explains that Sir Grummore didn’t say exactly this, because Eton is understood to be the home of a boarding school that hadn’t been founded at that point—rather, the narrator is just trying to get you the feel for what was said. Same with the wine—they’re not drinking port, really, but it’s the same idea.

Huh.

The Wart eventually gets lost in the woods thanks to Kay’s careless falconry, where he meets the terrifically bumbling King Pellinore (whose title and very existence I can’t yet explain) and, later, Merlyn. Merlyn is an odd fellow who keeps a talking owl (Archimedes) and a whole host of more mundane animals for company, and he claims to live backward through time (and cleverly illustrates how this affects his daily endeavors by asking the Wart to draw a letter by looking at it through a mirror). Let’s be explicit about this: Merlyn is a walking anachronism. When his spells backfire, they do so in goofy ways, like accidentally conjuring the Morning Post or a bowler hat instead of his wizard’s cap. He rattles off anecdotes about Britain in the 1800s to a puzzled Wart.

Again: huh.

Throughout all of this, White’s prose is wonderful. He writes with that fantastical, contractionless storybook lilt that should sound familiar to anyone who remembers fairy tales with fondness. At the same time, he brings to bear a mighty vocabulary for the trappings of day-to-day life in medieval England: fieldwork, jousting, falconry, you name it. It wonderfully illuminates the differences between medieval life and ours. The exacting and subtle classifications of woodland mammals and birds, in particular, seem like they could only be at home in an era where the Forest Sauvage was your back yard and its wild denizens constant companions in your daily life.

I suppose White’s intention is to build and really immerse the reader into the lives of his subjects and then, by breaking up the narrative with some allusions to times closer to ours, contrast it sharply to our weary world. I really wish he hadn’t done this. I’d rather cannonball into the fantasy world and stay there, even if it is a bit of a silly place. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s 2014 (or 1938, whatever) to understand how different, mysterious, and fanciful it is.

And it is fanciful, indeed. The short list of the Wart’s exploits include being transformed into a fish, falcon, ant, goose, and badger (to learn lessons about might, nobility, war, unity, and humanity, respectively), finding Robin Hood, learning the art of woodsmanship from Maid Marian, infiltrating Morgan le Fey’s fey castle, and, of course, pulling a certain sword out of a certain stone.

These adventures are all, essentially, parables, told with an honest simplicity. Wart’s time as a falcon is spent amongst the other hooded falcons, and he must navigate their parliamentary procedures and rituals with his wits and his guts. The ants march to war, but amongst them the Wart only feels alienated and disturbed by their, frankly, alien and disturbing society, which in turn says things about our own. These are not especially profound revelations—the Heart of Darkness, this is not—but, again, they are simple and honest, and they show us the color of our main characters: the Wart, earnest and humble, who thinks himself trapped by circumstance and is mostly unaware of his own great potential and destiny; Merlyn, a wise old man who strives to communicate the Truth in its truest form, parable, and who has amusing quarrels with the local feudal authorities; and Kay, the haughty young nobleman with everything to his name, but who we’re pretty sure has a decent heart way beneath all of it2.

Of Alternate Histories

Oh, and different is another word for it.

Some background: the island of Great Britain was originally inhabited by a Celtic people known as the Britons. The Roman Empire founded a province called Brittania in 43 AD, which crumbled in few centuries but left its mark all the same. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, a mix of Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons, settled/migrated/conquered the island, displacing the Britons and founding, eventually, the Seven Kingdoms of England. Vikings periodically rolled in to make a mess of things. In 1066, William the Bastard (later, the Conqueror) of Normandy would claim the throne by defeating Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, who had hurriedly marched his army to Hastings from its victory over the Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge. This ushered in the era of Norman England, where French became the language of court and William the Conqueror set precedents for the English aristocracy that last to this day.

Historically, King Arthur is guessed to be a king in Sub-Roman England: that is, he was a Briton who ruled after the Roman Empire departed, but before (and during) the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

This did not suit T.H. White.

In chapter 22, King Pellinore delivers the news: King Uther Pendragon is dead. So far, nothing unusual about that; we know King Arthur needs to take the throne eventually. But then, Pellinore says this:

“It is solemn, isn’t it?” said King Pellinore, “what? Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216.”

I had spent the greater part of the book wondering what kind of role King Arthur was going to play in the world, and, of course, what the historical/fantastical balance of the story was. This line resolved those questions so violently it made my head spin. The unmistakable implication is that, in this world, Uther Pendragon won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and proceeded to rule for a century and a half3 (a fact buttressed by references to the Norman aristocracy and Anglo-Saxon “rebels”4 elsewhere in the story).

Maybe it doesn’t line up to the historians’ best guess at the situation, but it is really damn cool. T.H. White spends quite a bit of time establishing and foreshadowing future themes in the Wart’s education under Merlyn, like clashing cultures, propaganda, unity, and war. I can only imagine that the legacy of Uther Pendragon, a larger-than-life version of William the Conqueror5, is going to be loaded with these heady, weighty struggles for his young heir. That is most exciting.

Rightwise King Born of All England

I opened this essay with some acrid questions about what kind of great fantasy classic The Sword in the Stone was, and you may have noticed that I’ve pretty well backed off since then.

Normally, I might edit my introduction so that it would join better with the rest, and so all of my thoughts would flow gently toward some coherent, proper conclusion. But this isn’t high school, so I didn’t. This way better captures my opinion of the book, anyway. I started completely put off by White’s anachronistic style and irreverent play on high medieval romance. But the technique he employs and the flair with which he fulfills that vision are mightily impressive, and honestly, those self-absorbed knights could stand being knocked down a peg anyway. And beneath the satire and the trappings and the prose is a kind of pre-coming-of-age story with well-thought-out characters who are both mythical and so very human, and maybe it’s because they don’t need to fill those stuffy romantic archetypes. For that, I can’t hold a grudge.

All I can do now is be excited to see these characters launched into the meaty middle of the Arthurian legend.


  1. But it isn’t written out until the very last word of the book! That’s dedication. 
  2. Kay’s character seems, to me, very ambiguous and his development incomplete. Merlyn sends the Wart and Kay off to Robin Hood’s hideout, a quest which culminates in their successful infiltration of Morgan le Fey’s castle and their troublesome exfiltration, where Kay slays the griffin as it bears down on the Wart. A re-reading of the passage where the Wart asks why Merlyn never transforms Kay suggests that Merlyn is safeguarding Kay’s bravado: if Kay fails before his time, so too may his courage, and presumably that would cause some calamity. So Kay’s involvement on this quest may be part of Merlyn’s plan to bolster his reputation and ego—but to what end? And later, Kay claims that he pulled the sword from the stone, a bald lie that he recants immediately when pressed for honesty by his father. This puzzles me. Was it a lie of convenience that he backed down from when Sir Ector got him to consider the morality of what he was doing? This reading would demonstrate that Kay, underneath, really is a good guy and is destined to be a loyal knight, even with his hubris. But it seems unsatisfying. Maybe that’s just because it’s a situation I’m not used to seeing in literature, TV, or movies—more often, characters that lie will live and die by their falsehoods. 
  3. I wonder, too, if 1216 is significant. It is the same year King John died of illness on the march during the First Barons’ war, although it does not seem like King Uther was at war. Maybe it’s a hint that King Uther’s reign extended past what would have been the date of the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), and thus, that never happened in this history? 
  4. Robin Hood is apparently one of these. I am undecided as to whether I like this or not. It contravenes most Robin Hood legends and scholarship, which place him as a yeoman, earl, or thief rather than an Anglo-Saxon partisan, but White just did the same kind of thing with King Arthur, and I haven’t complained about that yet. Robin Hood remains an anti-authority figure and retains his band of merry men, but surely he loses the Sheriff of Nottingham in this transition. What is Robin Hood without his Sheriff? In this book, he’s a kindly guide to the Wart and Kay, and he’s friend enough to Sir Ector that they can look past the fact that they’re supposed to be political enemies, or something. Hopefully he steps up his outlaw game in the next few books. 
  5. William the Conqueror is one of the most important people in western history. Can you imagine a larger-than-life version of him? It’s like trying to imagine a bolder Julius Caesar or a more brilliant Isaac Newton. If Uther Pendragon is half of what I’m imagining him to be, he’ll still be a perfect emblem for the potential of the fantasy genre.