The Sword in the Stone
by T. H. White
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 29, 2019
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T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone was originally published in 1938, eventually becoming the first part of a collection of stories entitled The Once and Future King. That came out in 1958, and included revised versions of the various stories. The image to the right is the currently available paperback of the original story, but I have the collection released by ACE Books in 1987. It has been adapted as a radio play at least twice by the BBC, and of course most are aware of the 1963 animated version from Disney. Its latest claim to fame is winning a Retro Hugo award for Best Novel in 2014. It is more whimsical in nature than the stories that inspired it, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, mainly because it deals with a period of Arthur's life that Malory neglected, his childhood.
I was thinking I had read this before, or maybe just an excerpt, or else I'm confusing it with various other versions of the King Arthur legend. There are many anachronistic elements, and not just from the narrator, several characters talk about things that didn't exist at that time. Perhaps that was used to reflect Merlyn's aging backwards through time, and the influence he had on all the events. There may be some historical precedence for Arthurian legends, but most scholars believe they were an amalgamation of many different people and places, some not even in England. The same can be said for Robin Hood, and even though nearly a thousand years separate the first mentions of the two, White presents them as contemporaries. Thus the story is set after the Norman Conquest rather than the 4th or 5th Centuries, but with Uther Pendragon the King of England from 1066, rather than William. Also, on several occasions the country is called Gramarye, and the only definition of that I've found is "occult learning; magic," so maybe that refers to Merlyn's tutelage of Arthur (aka Art, aka The Wart).
There are several well-written literary scenes, primarily those in which The Wart was transformed into various animals. Unfortunately, those were few and far between, overshadowed by pointless scenes of so-called noble men doing ridiculous things, such as King Pellinore's continuing pursuit of the Questing Beast, or both Pellinore and Sir Grunsmore's ineptitude at jousting. Many of the conversations The Wart has with other animals also seems pointless at first, but what he retains from those conversations eventually enables him to perform the feat of pulling the Sword out of the Stone, which doesn't come until the final chapter. This is the first book in a long time where I skimmed through several sections rather than reading it complete. It was a quick enough read, not a waste of time, but ultimately unsatisfying. I have too many other books waiting now, and I only read this because it's part of my project of reviewing award winners, so I'm not inclined to continue with the collection. It's possible the later stories would prove to be better and more enjoyable than this one. If I did have the time, I think I'd rather look to Malory's work (some of which I think I've read), or if I wanted another satirical pastiche, maybe re-read Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex instead.
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