Sunday, May 27, 2018
Sword in the Stone (Essential Modern Classics) Paperback – March 3, 2008 by T. H. White (HarperCollins Children's Book)
The Sword in the Stone tells the story of Wart (make sure you rhyme it with 'art' please) as he's known, from the time the magician Merlyn becomes his tutor until the day he pulls the sword from its stone. Wart, an orphan child, in is the care of Sir Ector and is being brought up with Ector's son Kay. He is destined to become Kay's squire once Kay has grown up and become a knight, so he's being raised and educated along with him. The book is the first of a series of four written by T H White, The Once and Future King, telling the Arthur story through until its sad but hopeful end. So, once you've read this one there are three more to go, each as good. The story opens with Wart alone in the Forest Sauvage as he attempts to rescue Cully, an escaped goshawk. He is already showing the sense of responsibility that will mark him apart as King. In the middle of the forest he meets Merlyn, the magician living life backwards, his future guide.
Merlyn and Archimedes, his owl, return with Wart to Sir Ector's castle where Merlyn takes up a position as tutor to Wart and Kay. Merlyn is an enthusiastic but unorthodox teacher, and leads Wart into magical adventures and experiences. Merlyn is wise; he's living his life backward you see, so he always knows what will happen next. He also knows the value of the natural world and gives Wart his education through experience of it. Wart is transformed into a fish and learns how to guard himself from danger in the shape of the predatory pike. He learns courage when Merlyn turns him into a falcon and he must test himself against Cully, the goshawk. He sees life transformed into a snake and a badger too - as the snake sees it; in terms of history and what has gone before and as the badger sees it - through science and the natural order. These magical adventures are fun for Wart but they hold valuable lessons for him too.
Despite these enchanted adventures, life goes on at Sir Ector's castle. It's not a Dark Age settlement from the true time of Arthur, it's a mediæval castle with a moat, a drawbridge, jousts, falcons and hunting dogs. Kay and Wart have lessons in archery and jousting, for they must learn the practicalities of their future lives. They see King Pellinore and Sir Grummore duel, and even meet and adventure with Robin Hood, or Wood as we discover he should be known. These anachronisms, together with the weaving of ancient Celtic mythology, mediæval jousts and notions of chivalry and also Merlyn's constant references to the modern world of science and invention (he cures Wat the lunatic not by magic but by psychotherapy, which always makes me laugh) add not only to the fun and the humour in the book but also make it still relevant. I don't think it will ever be out of date.
Of course the time when Wart must fulfil his destiny and become Arthur the King soon approaches, and we move from the Castle of the Forest Sauvage to London and that famous sword stuck fast in the stone. It's superbly written, The Sword in the Stone - think Mark Twain and Kenneth Grahame mixed and perhaps you're almost there. For your children it's a funny book, full of exciting adventures, and for the silly adults like me it's rather romantic too.
I think that all of the Arthur stories, but particularly The Sword in the Stone, are such that they may well furnish children with their very first ideas of both the strength in gentleness and the power that comes with disciplined restraint. Not that children can put these qualities into words, but they are there, embodied in the strong but kindly Sir Ector, King Pellinore, Sir Grummore and Robin Wood and also, and especially also, in Merlyn, the educator who never patronises but always shows the way. The sword came out of the stone for Wart and for no one else, because he had been taught to be the kind of person for whom swords ought to come out of stones; because he had been truly educated.
I loved the Arthur stories myself as a child - I read this book and others about him, over and over again. Much of it went over my head - I didn't know what was meant by 'dolorous stroke', or 'damsel', or 'hart' or 'brachet', or even that the Holy Grail was a cup. I didn't fully understand the notion of chivalry but I loved the adventures and the magic and I knew who the goodies were for sure.
And I don't think it matters at all that a lot of The Sword in the Stone goes over the heads of children the first time they read it. They still enjoy it, they still laugh, they still enjoy the adventures, and they even understand that as Wart pulled the sword from the stone he used all the knowledge that Merlyn and his experiences with the fish, the birds, the snake and the badger had given him. They may not understand why or how, but they understand that Wart would not have been able to do it without Merlyn and perhaps even that he wouldn't have been able to do it without Merlyn's particular brand of education. Wart, a child himself, puts it far better than me:
The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to jump along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.