Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Sword in the Stone

Sometimes it just works out that you discover a great book because of a movie, and not the other way around. That is the case with T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, which first made itself known to me (and, I'm sure many other people) through the Disney movie of the same name. But as good as that movie is (I love it as a kid), the book far surpasses it.

Generally, the story goes like this. Wart lives in Sir Ector's castle in the very ancient times of England when there were still valiant knights and dragons to fight and wizards and witches and Robin Hood (excuse me, Robin Wood – White clears history's name fumble quite nicely). Wart is not Sir Ector's son, though, that honour falls to Kay who is a couple of years older and despite all of his advantages, at least eight times more insecure. Anyway, Wart goes into the Forest Sauvage (old England has some suspiciously French names in White, which I suspect is a nod to the original Morte d'Arthur) and, after spending a rather harrowing night in the wild trying to retrieve a lost hawk, he stumbles upon Merlyn.

Of course, Merlyn knew he was coming because he ages backwards and because he's a magician. Wart and Merlyn head back to the castle and Merlyn becomes the boys' tutor. And, sure, he teaches them both all sorts of important things, but really he saves the best – and most cryptic – lessons for Wart. Merlyn, of course, knows that Wart is going to become King Arthur (his real name being Arthur) and he goes about preparing him for the job by turning him into various animals and letting him learn indirect lessons about valour and bravery and history.

The lessons are one of my favourite parts of the book. I like the way White has imagined the the different social codes and ingrained memories of the various animals. I also like that Wart isn't a natural as any of them. He has to learn to swim like a fish; he has to be taught how to fly; he is conscious of the way the shape of his body changes and White describes it all in a way that makes you think of how weird it would be to suddenly become a snake (or whatever). 

My other favourite part are the anachronisms. The story is full of them – because Merlyn a) ages backwards, and b) is not always very good at his spells, which means sometimes bowler hats end up in the 12th century – and the characters' reactions are perfect. Usually, they don't even notice because whatever is being mentioned or conjured is so foreign that they can't even begin to understand it. Merlyn, though, goes into fits over it, which is hilarious. Additionally, because the book was written in the '30s (prior to the outbreak of WWII), a lot of the anachronisms now seem really old fashioned, which adds another level of humour to the references.

Of all this, though, I'm not sure how much younger readers pick up. There are certainly points that are obviously funny and meant to make kids laugh, but there's a lot going on that would be so far over their heads that it can only have been written for their parents. It's a pretty quick read – certainly as face-paced as any thriller – and it's the sort of perfectly engaging book to bring on a picnic or something, during which you'll chuckle about something and the person you're with will want to know what's going on, so you'll have to explain to them something about a giant, at which point you'll realize that White has cleverly inserted a Hitler-Mussolini figure into the story who gets defeated before he does any real damage, and you'll wish that were really the case. And that's when it will strike you that, for all the lightness and the adventure, White's retelling of King Arthur's coming-of-age is also about England itself.

It's quite ingenious, really, how he buries that metaphor. And it works perfectly, elevating a children's story into something much greater and, in some ways, much sadder – but always gripping and almost always hilarious.

The Sword in the Stone
by T.H. White
First published in 1938 (cover image shown from Laurel Leaf edition)


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