Wednesday, 6 February 2002

T.H. White: The Sword in the Stone (1939)

Edition: W.H. Collins, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1081

Even without the Disney film, the first novel in White's Arthurian saga, The Once and Future King, would be a major classic of the fantasy genre. The story here is the familiar one of the childhood of Arthur, growing up ignorant of his identity with Merlin as a tutor, and yet it is told in a way which is different to any other version of the tale.

White's world is made by combining several backgrounds. His Arthur comes principally from Malory, with its late medieval setting, which is put together with a traditional picture of "Merrie England", with Robin Hood in the forest, and stereotypes of the English countryside before the First World War - hearty squires discussing jousting statistics as real ones would have talked about cricket. Entirely White's own, so far as I know, is the method of Arthur's education, as Merlin transforms him into a succession of animals.

It is in the character of Merlin that much of the charm of this novel subsists, the quality most clearly brought out in the film. The Sword in the Stone is a children's story, while the remaining volumes (four, including the rather different Book of Merlyn) are really aimed at teenagers and adults. It is humorous where the others are serious, even if there are chilling moments (Wart's time as an ant, in particular). There is also an anti-war message (or at least an anti-fascist one) encapsulated by the badger almost at the end, when he asks Wart whether he preferred being an ant or a goose; this is no doubt prompted by the situation in Europe while The Sword in the Stone was being written. It will surely be still enjoyable for most older children and adults and will continue to be so even if it is beginning to seem a little dated.

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