“The Sword in the Stone” is the first book of T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, a retelling of Arthurian legends. As someone who is really fond of these kind of legends, I just had to pick it up. Finally.
First, I want to say something about the style. Some aspects of the story are explained and described in terms which did not exist in the Middle Ages – for example, the Badger speaks about his doctoral dissertation, which I found amusing. And really, mostly this is quite humorous, and it worked great. Sometimes, though, I wanted to be dragged into the world of king Arthur and this prevented me a little bit. However, I did find some references quite interesting as they referred to our time in a critical way, which gives another aspect to the novel. I also liked some references to the medieval tradition, for example Robin Hood appears in the novel. I especially liked how maid Marion was portrayed.
Now, let’s talk about the story. “The Sword in the Stone” part follows young Arthur’s childhood and education, the times when he was still called Wart. Wart is raised by Sir Ector and lives in the shadow of his son, Kay. Since Kay is Sir Ector’s real son, he’s supposed to become a knight, and Wart his squire. Wart wishes he could be a knight, but accepts his destiny. However, the boys’ tutor Merlyn pays much more attention to Wart.
Throughout the book, Merlyn gives Wart some life lessons and transforms him into different animals. By learning about the ways in which the animals live, Wart learns about the world in general. And here comes the part that I found most enjoyable. It’s easy for a book about knight and chivalry to portray fights and war as something interesting and almost good. However, T.H. White turns this around. For example, this is how a goose reacted when Wart asked her if geese have wars against other geese.
“What a horrible mind you must have! You have no right to say such things! And of course there are sentries.There are jer-falcons and the peregrines, aren’t there:the foxes and the ermines and the humans with their nets? These are natural enemies. But what creature would be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” …
“I like fighting,” said the Wart. “It is knightly.”
“Because you’re a baby.”
Arthur is quite naive in the beginning. He looks up to the knights, who act funny and whose tournaments look like jokes – which is also a nice comment on violence. He also looks up to Kay, the boy he grew up with, even though Kay is vain and not kind to him. The author stresses this himself, and makes sure that the reader is aware of Wart’s naivety:
The Wart continued to be stupid, fond of Kay, and interested in birds.
Several years later, Wart has a conversation about fighting with the Badger, in which the Badger also says how humans wage war against each other, and how they are feared by all animals. Wart says that he would like to be a knight, go to war and show his courage. He also says that the ants fight against each other. And in the end, the Badger then puts everything in the right perspective:
“Which did you like best,” he asked, “the ants or the wild geese?”
The chapter ends here, but to the reader it’s obvious that Wart didn’t really like the ants, and that he enjoyed his time with the geese.
Silly Wart will become the great king Arthur, which is shown in the end, when he manages to draw the sward from the stone. To do this, he had to use all the knowledge he gained from Merlyn and the animals. II think this shows that he has the ability to grow and become wise. In the beginning of the second book (I’ve read only three chapters so far) Wart is still not completely changed, but Merlyn still teaches him the same values.
“(…) What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armour, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like. The only risk you run is of getting a few bruises if you happen to come across another knight. (…) All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day’s work to hurt each other, an the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that’s the motto.
I really like Merlyn’s words and criticism, and it will be interesting to see how Arthur’s character will develop.
I will post another review once I finish the entire book. I’m really excited to see how it progresses. 🙂