Today is T.H White‘s birthday, the man who wrote the series The Once and Future King, about the legend of Arthur, Merlyn, and the knights of Camelot. Terence Hanbury White was born in Bombay in 1906, and was 32 when he published The Sword in the Stone, which was initially meant as a prequel to Sir Thomas Malory‘s famous 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur. Two sequels were published, The Witch in the Wood (later rewritten as The Queen of Air and Darkness) in 1939, and The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. But when the complete collection was compiled there were five stories in total and the order was altered a bit. The version of The Sword in the Stone included in the complete text The Once and Future King differs from the earlier version. It is darker, and White’s indirect experience of World War II had a profound effect on these tales of King Arthur, which include commentaries on war and human nature. This is certainly evident in the later books as well.
I knew nothing about T.H White and reading up on him he certainly was interesting, there are speculations he was a homosexual sadomasochist; into small girls; not a homosexual, all these things. Good ol’ Wikipedia has the theories and the references if you wish to explore his life a bit more, I’ll admit I am only here for the wonderful stories. He revised Sword in the Stone a few times, which resulted in a few stories being added and removed and all sorts of things. I read a couple versions and trying to figure out what went where and who was left out does your head in, so I won’t try and explain how that went down and what stayed in or not.
In old Merry England weather behaves. In the Castle of Forest Sauvage, Wart (rhymes with Art for Arthur) follows Sir Ector’s ‘proper son’ Kay, two years older. Wizard Merlyn, fewmets from talking owl familiar Archimedes, turns boy into perch, hawk, owl, stone, and badger for their lessons and stories – until King Uther dies without heirs.
The Sword in the Stone is the first book as part of what became ‘The Once and Future King’ series, and my first criticism is that I can see why there are sequels, you can’t get it in one book, and because White starts from the very beginning it would hardly do it justice. I read the version that ended up in the collection, so I don’t think I got to experience the lighter version as it were, but it was still great. This first story is about a young orphan named Arthur living in medieval Great Britain. Arthur is nicknamed Wart, and works as a page for his guardian Sir Ector. With his companion and foster brother Kay, he leads an ok existence, but the true adventure begins when he stumbles across Merlyn, a time travelling wizard, and Arthur soon becomes the student, alongside Kay, to Merlyn’s tutelage. Merlyn guides Arthur and teaches him about the world through magic, and trains him in the ways of the world.
So much of this book is setting up Arthur and his life as a child and his adventures, the known aspects of the story are not a main focus, instead we see Arthur and his relationship to Sir Ector, Kay, and the Merlyn. Kay does have a few roles to play in this early tale, and while Merlyn focuses on Arthur, Kay is not left out of the loop much, either that or Merlyn concocts some distraction to find some time to play with magic.
With Merlyn’s help, Arthur is turned into animals of all kinds to gain a sense of their life, and he has many adventures with other humans such as Robin Hood (Wood in the book) and Maid Marian, King Pellinore in his quest for the Beast, and many more. These adventures seem trivial and fun at first, but with Merlyn’s knowledge of the future, he is essentially training Arthur to be the King, teaching him about the world, nature, and man’s duty in the world.
It was a pretty good book, especially some of the explanations and science behind why things are what they are. I think having Merlyn be a magical character who knew more than most was a great advantage because you had modern knowledge in the medieval setting. And White’s knowledge of the medieval era was excellent, his attention to detail about the sports, dress, and other aspects added to this sense of reality, however there are clear indications that no real effort was made for some aspects of historical accuracy, as well as the fact that Merlyn was a wizard, a wizard that experienced time backwards rather than forwards.
After accidentally starting an abridge version, when I switched to a full copy I realised a few good stories had been removed which I thought was a shame because in the version included in the complete collection they all kind of return in the end and come full circle so I am not sure how the edited text would have covered that.
The animal stories White explores when Arthur is transformed by Merlyn, are very sweet, and give you a great look at the inner workings of the animals and their lives. The way White explores the life and manner of the animals, and Arthur’s uneasy and new presence in there, it is pretty spectacular, it balances out the anachronisms. There is some realistic and detail science and observation evident, and manages to teach you things.
The Sword in the Stone is such a famous story and I did not know there was more than one, and waiting as I read to find the familiar scenes I knew was interesting because it is a very drawn out story. I guess in a way the extra novels means that it is not condensed into one, and there is no hanging unexplained conclusion about what happened, but it is interesting that the key moment is such a small part of the first novel in terms of pages. The effect of course would be seen in the sequels.
There was a Disney version in 1963, because there always is, and it is rather good. This only covers the first book and sticks to the general plot, and a lot of the fleshed out substance is removed, but a lot of the scenes are similar to what is found in White’s. Perhaps there are just some elements of this story that will be kept true, even if other aspects are reimagined.
So Happy Birthday T. H. White, and I thank him for writing this series. I know everyone upon everyone has done an Arthur story and made a version, or told a story about it, but I loved White’s telling. You get drawn into the life of this kid, who started out small and became so big. By the time I had finished all the books I was so enthralled and amazed it was simply divine. I do recommend that you read Sword in the Stone and the sequels because it is well written and as I say, manages to teach you about things you never really thought about before, not just about animals, but about humanity, war, education and even a little bit of history.