Like his fellow author Rudyard Kipling (coming up shortly in this reread), T.H. White was born of two worlds: Great Britain and India. White’s early home life was miserable—his father was an alcoholic reportedly prone to violence, and his parents divorced when he was a child. White was sent back to live with grandparents in England, losing his early home. As an adult, he never married or formed any lasting relationships, except with Brownie, an Irish setter. By his own admission, the dog was his family; he was devastated when she died. Some critics have speculated that he might have been gay, and had difficulty accepting that identity, but the evidence for this is ambiguous.
In any case, until the dog, like many lonely, miserable children, he ended up finding his solace in books. Among these: Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which White used first as a subject for his university thesis, and later as a subject for a series of novellas finally collected in The Once and Future King, by far his most popular work. It can be read as an epic, or as an individual work: in this post I’m going to focus on the first novella: The Sword in the Stone.
The Sword in the Stone functions as a sort of prequel to Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory’s chief concern in that book was to contrast the glorious chivalry of King Arthur’s times with the social disintegration and moral dissolution of the 15th centuries. A moral dissolution Malory seems to have been personally familiar with: he’s been tentatively identified with a Sir Thomas Malory who spent significant time in prison on charges of morally dissolute rape, kidnapping and theft. This concern meant that Malory had mostly focused on adult concerns, and later authors had generally followed his lead. No one, White realized, had really discussed Arthur’s childhood and education, or explained how a boy raised in the household of a comparatively minor knight had become king. White saw a missing story, and proceeded to write it, with considerable satire and—shall we say—a rather liberal interpretation of the traditional Arthurian characters.
The novella is more or less set in the early 13th century—1210 to 1216, to be exact, if we can believe the book, which I don’t think we can. Oh, sure, from time to time, White tells us it’s the twelfth or thirteenth century, and some twelfth century sorts of things—jousting, archery, Robin Hood—happen in the book, but White, well aware that the majority of Arthurian retellings could hardly be called historically accurate, made almost no pretense at creating an accurate description of the medieval period. Quite apart from Merlin’s time travelling anomalies, anachronisms abound: a fish discusses evolution, for instance (and is described as having an American, Uncle Sam look); Sir Ector refers to the battle of Crecy in 1346 as a past event; the characters sing the 18th century song Adeste Fideles; a couple of characters have access to quinine, and so on.
The anachronisms are deliberate. White wanted his The Sword in the Stone (and its sequels) to be understood as a 20th century work, not a historical novel. He wrote it while keeping a watchful and cynical eye on what he deemed distinctly modern problems: rising totalitarianism systems and surging population growth, two things he was not fond of, as an adventure with ants demonstrates. Not that White was overly fond of democratic systems, either. Instead, The Sword in the Stone rhapsodizes over the feudal system, wishing it could return. Or at least the feudal system as practiced by Sir Ector. White does admit that the peasants are not doing quite as well in other sections of the country, and King Arthur ended up having to go after evil nobles for a reason. Still, even a system with evil nobles and oppressed peasants is better, White suggests, than contemporary political systems.
But oddly enough, despite this rhapsody, much of The Sword in the Stone ends up undercutting this pro-feudalism arguments—starting with the depiction of Arthur. The ideal of knighthood, chivalry and feudalism in most pre-20th century tellings, and certainly in Malory, Arthur is here presented in a distinctly un-ideal, realistic telling. Arthur is not all that bright, poorly educated, and often lazy—a fairly typical kid, that is. Whether this represents a crack in the feudal ideal—that its ideal king is, well, not all that ideal—or a point in its favor is an open question.
Apart from this, Arthur—here called Wart—is not yet a knight, let alone a king. He’s training to become a squire, unlike his foster brother Kay, who is training to become a knight. Wart does not know who his parents are, and as a foster child, his options are limited. That makes Arthur different—shades of what White had felt in his own childhood—until he finds Merlin, who becomes his new tutor.
Merlin just happens to be one of those tutors who believes in teaching through experience, and by experience, Merlin means “transform Wart into various animals.” When, that is, Merlin isn’t sending Arthur and Kay out on adventures.
These transformations also work to let White indulge in wordplay and political criticism. An adventure where Wart turns into an ant, for instance, turns out to be more about linguistics, totalitarianism and conforming to expectations than about, well, biology or ants, although I was left with the sneaking suspicion that White was not overly fond of ants. It also contains a withering dissection of the false logic White had seen used to persuade citizens to go to war, a theme White frequently returns to and emphasizes, as in a moment when Wart is spending some time flying with geese:
But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?
The geese may war against other species, but never war against each other.
(Before my North American readership protests, I’m guessing that White never heard or encountered Canada geese, a definite exception to the geese war issue, but that’s not really the point here.)
And just in case any readers may have missed the not very subtle point, a badger later asks the not all that bright Wart which he preferred: the ants in their endless war or the geese, who refuse to fight. Wart, still struck by a love for knights and colorful chivalry, doesn’t answer, but it’s not too difficult for readers to remember that Wart hated living with the ants, and loved living with the geese.
It may seem an odd message to find in a book that otherwise praises feudalism and is, more or less, about chivalry and learning to fight in a culture that teaches its boys very little beyond hunting and fighting, a culture that admires Maid Marian because she is an accomplished soldier, not for her many other skills—like, say, imitating several species of birds. But by 1937, White, along with others, could see the signs of war on the horizon, and his fears bled into this book. A later edition—written after White spent World War II writing in Ireland instead of joining the British Army—would be even more anti-war.
And for all of White’s clear love of Sir Thomas Malory, White also had no problems poking gentle fun at chivalry and knighthood—as in, for instance, the great joust between King Pellinore and Sir Grunmore, which proceeds vvvveeerrrryyyyyy slowly because of a) the weight of their armor, b) Sir Grunmore’s later refusal to yield, c) King Pellinore’s refusal to cut off his head. Or the boredom Pellinore feels after years and years of chasing the Questing Beast—and his panic and near despair when the Beast nearly dies.
In the end, The Sword in the Stone turns out to be less about chivalry, and more about finding your place in the world when you seem to have none—and not, perhaps, being all that pleased once you discover it. Wart may not want to be king, but even the worlds he enjoys—like the world of the geese—turn out to be wrong for him.
And also, of course, a way for White to cheerfully reinterpret various characters from Arthurian legend. I find that I can’t quite believe his description of Morgan le Fay as “a fat, dowdy, middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache”—I’ve read far too many alternative descriptions of her to believe that—but his description of the none too bright Arthur and the easily distracted, temperamental Merlin work brilliantly.
With all the satire, the reinterpretations, and the political commentary, this is not a book that moves quickly—meandering is probably the best description of it—and more than once White reveals moments of deep cruelty and cynicism that feel a bit shocking in a book that started on such a lighthearted note. But that cruelty and cynicism help set up the later, stronger parts of The Once and Future King, a mediation on war, and choices, politics and grief, perfection and failure. It inspired not just the Disney film, but a Broadway musical, and the book had a powerful influence on several 20th century fantasy authors, including David Eddings, J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. Both Belgarath and Dumbledore owe quite a lot to Merlin. I wouldn’t call this the definitive King Arthur book by any means, but if you do like King Arthur stories, it’s not one to miss.
Two warnings for readers. One, The Sword in the Stone was published in three very different editions: the original 1938 British one (which I have not read), a partly revised American version (which I read some time ago), and another revised version in 1958 intended for The Once and Future King that eliminated a couple of events from the first edition and added a few other passages—including the passage about the geese. The Retro Hugo award given to The Sword in the Stone was for the original 1938 edition; for this reread, I read the 1958 version since it was easily available. Two, the version of The Sword in the Stone found in the 1958 edition of The Once and Future King contains some uses of the n-word. The word is only used by unsympathetic characters, but even in this context, readers may find these uses offensive.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.