Book Review: The Sword in the Stone

Book Name: The Sword in the Stone
Author: T.H. White
First Published: 1938

T.H. White was born in Bombay, British India, to Garrick Hanbury White and Constance White. His parents separated when he was fourteen years of age and he returned to England to finish his schooling in Gloucestershire. He later studied at Queens’ College in Cambridge where he was tutored by scholar and author L.J. Potts. Potts would become his friend and correspondent throughout his life. White considered him to be “the great literary influence in my life.” It was at Queens’ College that White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was exposed to the legends of King Arthur.

After his graduation in 1928 he began teaching and to write. His first novels were science fiction. Earth Stopped in 1934 and its sequel Gone to Ground in 1935 concerned dystopian themes. Once they were completed, White was searching for a new subject to write about. He wrote to a friend in 1937, “I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.”

This book was The Sword in the Stone, which White considered a preface to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that he had written his thesis upon. It would bring a child’s delight to the story of Arthur’s early days and was influenced by Freudian psychology and White’s love of natural history. The book became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.

In 1939 White moved to Ireland where he remained during the second world war as a conscientious objector. During his time there, he wrote the sequels to The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood and the Ill-Made Knight.

White died of heart failure in 1964 while aboard a ship en route from Piraeus, Greece after a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in Athens and his papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin, USA. White had no children and was never married.

Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England.

The Sword in the Stone began as a single novel, but later became the first tome of the classic series The Once and Future King. Of all five books, it is the most lighthearted and could be considered a young adult novel. The rest of the series is darker and clearly for adult readers. The Sword in the Stone follows the story of a young orphan boy who is nicknamed “Wart”. He lives with Sir Ector, a knight of the King and works as a page in medieval Great Britain. One day, while retrieving one of Sir Ector’s birds, which his foster brother Kay has lost, he meets Merlin, a wise wizard who lives his life backwards, growing young as the years go by. Merlin knows Wart’s true heritage and has come to tutor the boy. He becomes both Wart’s and Kay’s teacher.

Merlin and Wart go on a series of learning adventures, each one designed to teach Wart the skills necessary to become a great and wise ruler. Wart rescues people with Robin Hood and Maid Marian, goes on a quest with King Pellinore for a beast, and turns into a wide variety of animals to experience the world in new and more interesting perspectives. In the end, he gains enough knowledge and wisdom to fulfill his destiny, to pull Excalibur from the anvil and be proclaimed the rightful King of England. For Wart is actually King Arthur of Camelot and he will become the stuff of legends.

The Once and Future King is a reworking of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact T.H. White wrote in a cameo appearance for Malory as one of the historical figures that populate the tales. While the first book is light-hearted and has a boy protagonist, White follows the entire life of King Arthur including many of the darker aspects of his life in the later books. This is not a series for children, although The Sword in the Stone can be thought of as a young adult novel. The books are full of medieval references that could be confusing to those that are not familiar with common terms of the time period, yet the writing style is quite readable and as the story continues, the darker side of man is revealed.

The Sword in the Stone was made into a famous cartoon by Walt Disney in 1963. The movie features a famous battle between Merlin and the Sorceress Madam Mim. This battle was removed from later editions of the novel by the author and usually is not found in the later collections of the series. Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” is based on the last two books of The Once and Future King series and later this musical was turned into a movie of the same name in 1967.

You’ll find references to these stories woven into our pop culture from the Broadway musical and the movie, to its being an inspiration to author J.K. Rowling as she wrote her Harry Potter series and to Neil Gaimann’s character of Tim Hunter. If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur or stories about the middle ages and have some familiarity with the time period, you will find this series of books to be enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone Book CoverThe Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, original version The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)
The Book of Merlyn (1977)

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sword in the Stone”

  1. I read The Once And Future King as one book when I was in my first year at university. There was certainly a rewrite of the first book – when I did get The Sword In The Stone, I was surprised to find there were bits I hadn’t read. Loved this version! It was my favourite of the Arthurian books based on Malory, while Roaemary Sutcliff’ Sword At Sunset was my favourite “historical” Arthur, with Mary Stewart and Parke Godwin between. :-)

    I, too wrote a thesis with Malory in it, though I did some others as well(“Arthur From Epic Hero To Master Of Ceremonies In ME Literature”). And wrote some Arthurian fiction. It gets to you! :-)

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