Book review of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone
Its a bit strange reviewing a book whose original copyright date is 1939. I was lucky enough to come across a copy of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone prior to starting The Once and Future King, which has been sitting on my shelf unread for over a year now. The Sword in the Stone serves as a sort of prequel to The Once and Future King, detailing the schooling of a young King Arthur. My only knowledge of the novel stems from the 1963 Disney movie, which I had seen when I was a child. It may have been one of the first influences that steered me in the direction of a love for fantasy novels.
Leading up to starting The Sword in the Stone, this was my preconception: this is a child’s book. While I still believe that this book firmly holds a place in the Young Adult genre, the fact that it was written in 1939 do make it subject to a few signs of the time. The “n” word surfaces a few times, which is really surprising as you’re reading through a book you believed geared toward a younger audience. Parents also may want to be wary of a religious passage toward the end of the book. Personally, I think the more religious ideas we expose our children to, the more worldly their knowledge will be; I just want to give fair warning where it is due. These two items withstanding, the tone is very light, accessible, and definitely geared toward a younger audience. There are a few moments that are comical, if only for the fact that they seem slightly out of place. For example:
What with the warmth and the chickens and the cream he had poured over his pudding and the continual repassing of the boys and the tock of their arrows in the targets – which was as sleepy to listen to as a lawn-mower – and the dance of the egg-shaped sunspots between the leaves of his tree, the aged magician was soon fast asleep.
It just seems unnatural to make a comparison in a story told about times long past to a machine of very modern design. There were frequent moments like this that definitely gave me a chuckle.
The novel is set in fifteenth century England. The entirety of the story takes place around the castle of Sir Ector, the surrounding Forest Sauvage, and London. There are many adventures in and around the castle, as Merlyn is constantly turning young Wart into a variety of animals in order to teach him invaluable life lessons. Because of this, the landscape shifts completely to the perspective of the current animal; be it bird, fish, or land mammal. The author has the unique ability to truly make you believe you are in the body of these animals. It must have taken some extensive research to achieve this particular goal. The cast of characters is bright and vibrant, including the typical retinue of a castle, knights, a witch who lives in the woods, and ranging to a mythical race and creatures that live beyod the forest. Even Little John and Robin Hood make an appearance.
Some of T.H. White’s scenery descriptions are simply breathtaking. Rather than describe them myself, I’ll let the author do what he does best:
It was that rather sad time of year when for the first time for many months the fine old sun still blazes away in a cloudless sky, but does not warm you, and the hoar-frosts and the mists and winds begin to stir their faint limbs at morning and evening, with the gossamer, as the sap of winter vigor remembers itself in the cold corpses which brave summer slew. The leaves were still in the trees, and still green, but it was the leaden green of old leaves which have seen much since the gay colors and hapiness of spring – that seems so lately and, like all happy things, so quickly to have passed.
This flavorful type of description appears frequently throughout the novel, and truly transports the reader to the season, the location, and the moment in time.
T.H. White sets a brisk pace, with the descriptions finely broken up with sharp conversation. Merlyn often gets frustrated to the point of no return; once blasting himself to Bermuda, and another arguing with his magic over which hat he is actually requesting. In the latter instance, T.H. White took the opportunity to actually sketch out the hats, which appears in the middle of the text, which is rather entertaining.
The Sword in the Stone can be described as a truly delightful novel. It is the journey of a young man through adolescence, and really points to the value of a good education. It describes the nature of the relationship between teacher and student, which is most evident in this advice from Merlyn to Wart:
“The best thing for disturbances of the spirit,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love and lose your moneys to a monster, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the poor mind can never distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
This is where The Sword in the Stone really finds its magic. The student is greater than the sum of all lessons imparted on him by the teacher. For this, I am grateful to have followed young Wart on his adventures, and eager to see where T.H. White takes the young squire on his adult escapades. Bring on The Once and Future King.
You can purchase The Sword in the Stone over at Amazon.com.