Retro-Hugo 1939, Best Novel

The Sword in the Stone

T. H. White


Fellow nominees:

  • Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  • Galactic Patrol by E. E. Smith
  • The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson
  • Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I think we’re all familiar with the legend of King Arthur. You know, a young boy pulls the legendary Excalibur from the stone to become the king of England. Accompanied by his tutor Merlin and his Knights of the Round Table, Arthur would become the legendary leader of Great Britain. But where did it all begin? Today we uncover these origins in the Retro-Hugo award-winning novel, The Sword in the Stone.

Photo by Casper Johansson on Unsplash

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, White found inspiration for his novel from Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. This title featured Mallory’s interpretations and retellings of classic Arthurian mythology. For The Sword in the Stone, White reinterpreted these events and set the novel before Mallory’s text, back to Arthur’s youth. Intended as a single volume, he would go on to publish three additional titles in the series and one posthumously. Thus, he created the tetralogy, The Once and Future King. I should acknowledge before continuing that White’s novel became an inspiration for Walt Disney. I, like many, credit the 1963 animated classic as my introduction into the Arthurian legend.

The Once and Future King

  1. The Sword in the Stone
  2. The Queen of Air and Darkness
  3. The Ill-Made Knight
  4. The Candle in the Wind
  5. The Book of Merlyn

To my benefit, it’s been a long time since I last watched Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. I appreciated this lack in memory as it allowed me fresh eyes into White’s writing. To his credit, White’s interpretation of the main characters, Arthur and Merlyn, is this novel’s legacy. In Arthur (or Wart as he’s named in the novel) we see a young, fallible boy. He knows nothing of his elite pedigree, and yet, he lives life as the dutiful squire to his friend, Kay. He shows obedience, but also shows a natural curiosity common amongst his age. Much of the novel follows Wart’s tutelage under Merlyn’s guidance, in which we see the young man transform into the varying animals around Sir Ector’s realm. In my opinion, this was a fantastic idea!

When I think back on Arthurian mythology, and if I scrap any notion of Disney’s ideas, I think of something wholly different. I think of sword fights, duels, and jousting. It’s a legend thought of in violence, but we don’t see that here. Here we see a whimsical view of the world. Wart is learning about life from the life that predates man.

Photo by Andy Watkins on Unsplash

‘The sentries,” he asked. ‘Are we at war?”

She did not understand the word. “War?”

“Are we fighting people?”

“Fighting?” she asked doubtfully.

– Wart to Lyo-lyok

For instance, in one segment, he spends considerable time as a goose, where he makes the acquaintance of a fellow flock member. In one particular scene, Wart notices sentries in the flock and inquires if the geese are at war. This new friend knows not this concept of “war” and determines it a human thing. This one encounter forces Wart to question the nature of men, and that’s just one of the many trips Wart takes into the animal kingdom. I like this notion of Arthur learning a peaceful existence from the animals as it creates an image of a man not solely focused on fighting. He’s learning to care about the land and its many inhabitants.

Image by Franck Barske from Pixabay

Every student needs a teacher, and Wart finds his in Merlyn. Again, we all must have an image of this wizened old man. We picture him in his pointed cap, wearing his cloak, and stroking his long white beard. That’s very much the case in the novel. However, White makes an interesting choice by having Merlyn be a person living through time backward.

I know, it sounds a lot like Benjamin Button, but it’s an idea that brings some “sci-fi’ into a very fantastical narrative. Throughout the text, Merlyn’s predicament allows for anachronisms, where he speaks of events yet to happen or still far in the future. While Merlyn’s depiction in the novel includes magic, a lot of his power comes from his vast knowledge of the future. He knows what’s going to happen, and he can set actions into place to ensure or deter those outcomes. It’s almost as if White’s commentating on the adage, “knowledge is power.” You could have all the magic or all the weaponry, but if you don’t know how best to use it, what’s it all worth?

Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.

– Merlyn

I must note that I read the revised version of The Sword in the Stone featured in the omnibus noted below. Many critics consider this the inferior version for it lacks several scenes from the original and includes material intended for a fifth volume, The Book of Merlyn. This title would later find release long after White passed. Many cite White’s anti-War sentiments, following the Second World War, as darkening the tone of the novel in its revision. Being unfamiliar with the original text, I can’t speak to whether the critics are correct. While a lot of the whimsical notes still shine through, there are moments of introspection that slow down the pacing. It’s clear to see how his personal experiences became fitted into the text.

What’s your opinion? Is the unrevised version superior? Should I go back and read that version? Sound off in the comments below, and let me know your thoughts.

Thanks until next time!

The version of The Sword in the Stone I read came from The Once and Future King (ISBN: 0-425-03796-7), purchased from Half Price Books online. Published by Berkley Medallion, this omnibus collects the first four books in The Once and Future King series together.

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