Tolkien Gestures Book 3: The Sword in the Stone

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre, in an attempt to overcome my deep-seated fear of elf-infested epic myth cycles. This week, we head to the romantic and pastoral England of times past to visit the young King Arthur and what are probably best described as his early “japes”.

One of the things I really wanted to read this year was some Arthurian stuff; because i really never have, and whilst the back half of the reading list is littered with big High Fantasy gubbins i also wanted to get a feel of the potential breadth of the genre. Bizarrely, amazon didn’t have The Once and Future King in stock, so I settled for T H White’s The Sword in the Stone, nominally a children’s book (or at least that’s where you tend to find it), to fill that gap. I was familiar with the Disney adaptation, but was expecting to have taken large liberties, and I was both right and wrong, although I’ll come to that later.

So, The Sword in the Stone tells the story of The Wart, the adopted son of Sir Ector of the Forest Sauvage, as he grows up under the somewhat erratic tutoridge of Merlin. It is in many ways very much a kids book – it’s writing is clear and direct, and it flows cleanly from short, dramatic adventure to short, dramatic adventure, but at the same its one of those comparatively rare kids books with a lot going on underneath that. For a start, there is a lot of evident, and occasionally very funny, satire going on – Wart’s visit as a bird of prey to the Falconers Mews, in the style of a rambunctious Officers’ Mess, stands out particularly, but also much of the Knightly antics of characters like King Pelinore feel like affectionate but pointed barbs are the strange habits of the ruling classes of the 30s. This was of course somewhat unexpected, and i suspect that a lot of it passed me by, what with the passage of time and all, but it shows an interesting intent to use the artificiality of the setup to take some broad and largely affectionate swipes at society at large.

The other thing that is going on here is a broad tour the English mythological landscape; there are extended sections with Robin Hood (under an ever-so-slightly-different name), the usual Arthurian themes and images, and whilst there is a no attempt to reinvent anything – a curse of more modern times, perhaps – I suspect that White sees no need to do other than simply present his story warmly and strongly to a audience as broad as possible. There are key elements of the Arthurian story here as well – most of the escapades seem to be there to teach Wart object lessons in Kingship and Statecraft and Leadership, although for some reason Merlin omits to teach him not to let his best friend sleep with his wife. So much for the wisdom of living backwards, eh?

But the strong point, and something that surprised me, was the strength of the characters and their interactions. The unspoken tension between Kay, Ectors heir, and Wart ebbs and flows as they grow up, and both Kay and Ector feel like rounded, interesting characters in their own right. Merlin, living his life backwards and constantly slightly befuddled, works as a child-friendly bumbling mentor but carries a solid undercurrent of foreknowledge. I think what says it all, actually, is that the scene at the end, when Wart has unwittingly claimed his destiny, and Ector falls to his knees in supplication and begs for a place at Warts side for his son, is genuinely moving and distressing, as Wart realises in one moment that for all he has gained, he has in some way lost both a Father and a Brother at the same time. It was a strangely sad moment that caught me somewhat off guard.

But for all that it’s on the whole a light, fun read that i cracked through quickly and really enjoyed.

A final aside, i think, on the Disney adaptation. Oddly, much of it is spot on. Merlin lives a life of anachronism – at one point he bemoans the lack of electric lights – and does indeed have a talking owl companion. Much of the transformation sections are totally changed to be more “perilous”, losing their “the message is…” context, although the Madame Mim bit is simply moved to the end of the film whereas in the book it occurs quite early. However, they do get Kay and Ector completely wrong, presumably in order to go for a “Cinderella” vibe, something the original book didn’t need, and actually detracts, heavily, from the subtlety of the books characterisation and much of its familial warmth. Strange choice, I think.

Next up: “Real” Literature with Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com

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