This post should begin with an explanation. The version of The Sword in the Stone being discussed here is the first British edition, which differs from the first American edition mainly in the chapter about Robin Hood. It differs still more from the version that opens The Once and Future King, which incorporates two episodes from The Book of Merlyn (the final book of the sequence, posthumously published in 1977). That’s the reason many readers will find episodes discussed here that aren’t in the version they read. I’m still convinced that the first British edition is the best, but then that’s the one I read in my childhood…
No writer before T H White, I think, had been so flamboyantly anachronistic in fantasy. The Sword in the Stone (1938) is rooted in anachronism, steeped in it, inhabits it as its element. The clash of periods is embodied in Merlyn, the ancient wizard, who not only lives backwards (like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass) – meaning he is a little confused as to the conventional order of events – but seems to have lived for hundreds of years, since he remembers all the major incidents and changes of fashion between White’s lifetime and the fifteenth century. But Merlyn represents only one small strand of the book’s enmeshed anachronisms. Another is the date in which it’s set. The technology described in the narrative is clearly that of the late medieval period, when Sir Thomas Malory wrote the Morte D’Arthur, despite the fact that the roots of the Arthurian legends are usually traced to around the fifth century. Robin Hood turns up in the guise of Robin Wood – a less outrageous anachronism, since the earliest surviving rhymes of Robin Hood are from the fifteenth century, when Malory was writing, though by the end of the following century he had been firmly relocated to the reign of King John (1166-1216). White’s sources, then – the works of Malory, the rhymes of Robin Hood, the educational tracts, technical manuals and natural histories he draws on – are as enthusiastically blind to what we’d now call historical accuracy as he is. They were reader-facing – primarily concerned with the tempestuous times their writers and their first readers inhabited, rather than with the often impossibly remote times when the events described took place. Malory’s Arthur resembles a participant in the English Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the noble Houses of Lancaster and York which was being waged in Malory’s lifetime. And White’s version is clearly the product of the late 1930s, when dictatorships were flourishing in Europe and the Second World War loomed on the horizon.
The pre-war period is most clearly alluded to in White’s own illustration to Chapter Nineteen of the first edition, where the giant Galapas has the Nazi swastika and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle embroidered on his clothes. White lived in an age of murderous bullies – Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini – and he was not alone in using children’s fiction to combat their aggression. A few years later Eric Linklater penned a sort of wartime companion piece to The Sword in the Stone, The Wind on the Moon (1944), in which a pair of badly-behaved sisters rescue their father from a dungeon very like that of Galapas, where he has been incarcerated by a tyrant called Count Hulagu Bloot. Like White’s protagonist, the Wart, the sisters turn into animals (they spend most of the first part of the novel as kangaroos), and enlist beasts to help in the rescue – most notably a Golden Puma and a Greenland Falcon, who they meet in a local zoo. And as in The Sword in the Stone, the comparison between animals and humans elicited by this interspecies contact is not very flattering to the latter. When the girls-as-kangaroos admit to being children the Falcon thinks it’s brave of them to ‘admit such a lowly origin’; and both the Falcon and the Puma assume that as children they have little experience of ‘freedom’. In fact the girls, unlike the Wart, never know what it is to be animals, despite their transformation, because they never meet a real kangaroo, never learn how you see the world when you have a pair of powerful legs, a muscular tail, and no limits to your freedom of movement. Anarchic though they are in their behaviour (the title of Linklater’s book refers to their periodic bouts of naughtiness, which happen, their father says, whenever there’s a wind on the moon), they never really escape the condition of being young girls, with all its restrictions. Instead it’s the falcon and the puma who forego their freedom to help them in their quest to free their father, and one of whom pays a heavy price for giving its assistance.
The Wart’s transformations, by contrast, enable him to immerse himself in the state of being an animal; and his immersion is a form of technical as well as social, political and moral instruction. This is because White’s animals are first and foremost highly sophisticated pieces of technology. Each of them has a specialist function or set of functions, as is brought out in the episode where a scholarly badger explains to the Wart ‘why Man has become the master of all the animals’. Having created the embryos of all living creatures, God invites them to choose the tools that will be attached to their adult bodies, whereupon each species makes its selection at the eternal throne: ‘They were allowed two or three specialisations, so that some chose to use their arms as flying machines and their mouths as weapons, or crackers, or drillers, or spoons, while others selected to use their bodies as boats and their hands as oars’. Only Man chooses no accoutrements at all and remains a ‘naked tool’ all his life, though a user of tools; always having the potential to be something, never fully achieving that potential; ‘able,’ as God points out, ‘to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys’, like a half-made thing – though in compensation he is half of something astonishing, a deity. Having correctly guessed what God wanted when he allowed the embryos to choose – that is, acknowledgement that his creatures should be contented with the way he made them – Man is duly placed in charge of the rest of Creation. But the notion of beasts as technological marvels has already become clear in the course of White’s novel, and their specialisms don’t diminish them in White’s eyes; they are perfect, in their various kinds, as Man is not. Swimming as a small fish, Wart finds, is both an efficient and a tricky accomplishment. Flying as a bird is as hard as flying an aeroplane – which White could do, as he explains in his memoir England Have my Bones (1936) – and as delightful. Deploying the tools of a badger properly – the forks of its arms, the weapons of its mouth – needs experience and craftiness. Being a snake is technically easier than being (say) an owl (though it’s not that easy to know how venom works), but it also entails the learning of endless stories to fill one’s dreams in the months of hibernation, a by-product of the snake’s seasonal operating system. To be an animal involves no less ingenuity than to be a human being, though the ingenuity is of a different kind.
White’s use of anachronism does something similar for the Middle Ages to what his account of the technical difficulties of being a fish does for the beasts: it helps to shatter the sense of superiority the twentieth-century reader is apt to bring to his or her reading of old texts. White makes Malory our contemporary, just as the critic Jan Kott sought to do for Shakespeare. William Morris did something similar in his late romances, which show an admiration for the technology of the fifteenth century – in particular the making of clothes, a central theme in The Water of the Wondrous Isles – very like White’s. Morris’s romances, however, root themselves firmly in the past through their language, which expertly mimicks the language of Malory’s knights and ladies even while rendering them utopian, representatives of a perfection that never existed and has not yet been achieved. White loved his Malory as much as Morris did, but he wasn’t wedded to the past; as I said, he learned to fly as well as to hawk, and wrote well about both experiences (for the former see the fine passage on flying a helicopter in The Master (1957), chapter 22, for the latter see The Goshawk (1951)). His knowledge of new technology surfaces quite often in The Sword in the Stone, most particularly, perhaps, in the section where the Wart learns to fly as an owl. And he writes about the technology of the Middle Ages with the same care and attention as he does about the more modern problem of propelling yourself forwards and backwards underwater, another skill the Wart has to master, this time as a perch. Quite simply, he doesn’t give you a moment to consider the arts of jousting, hawking, or hunting any less complex than the art of landing a helicopter. His anachronism brings his middle ages alive, both as a location where real skill and artistry can flourish and as a place you can laugh about with pleasure rather than superiority. His knights, peasants and scholars may be funny but they can’t be mocked, because their lives are clearly quite as complex as the life of the twentieth- or twenty-first century reader.
Animals and human beings live in a symbiotic relationship in The Sword in the Stone, best expressed in King Pellinore’s relationship with the Questing Beast. The Beast exists only to be hunted, and pines away when Pellinore decides to accept Sir Grummore Grummursum’s invitation to sleep in a feather bed for a while and forget his lifelong quest. The quest itself is not violent but playful; Pellinore’s attempts to catch the Beast are doomed to failure, not just because his tools are inadequate – he’s dressed in full plate armour that restricts his vision, his dog is better at tying him up in its lead than following a scent, the King himself knows very little of the art of hunting – but because the Beast itself is so good at hiding its tracks (it walks backwards, scuffs the ground with its tail, and performs a dozen other tricks to confuse its already confused pursuer). But the very inequality of this relationship – in which the Beast is so clearly the superior intelligence – is what makes it innocent, the ideal representation of the quest celebrated in so many chivalric romances. The knight rescues the Beast from the depths of despair by consenting to abandon his feather bed and return to the chase; the Beast reciprocates by rescuing the knight from the dungeon of the giant Galapas; and witnessing these things presents the Wart with a model for chivalry which will never be matched in all the history of the Knights of the Round Table which he later sets in motion.
More serious symbioses occur elsewhere: in the relationship between hawker and hawk, which explains the immense pride of Hob the austringer when the Wart succeeds in bringing home the errant goshawk, Cully; in the relationship between the professional huntsman Master Twyti and his dogs, so movingly demonstrated at the death of his favourite hound; in the appointment of a boy to live in Sir Ector’s kennels with the hounds; in Master Twyti’s passion for the humble hare, which he describes with as much admiration as if it had been the rarest of mythical creatures (and indeed it is mythical, since Master Twyti’s hares can change sex, ‘which […] no beast in the earth did except it’). This takes us to another point White makes about animals: that the medieval attitude to them was as intellectually challenging as our own scrupulous efforts at taxonomy and empirical observation. For medieval people beasts, like history books, were designed to be made respectful use of by human beings, for moral and philosophical purposes as well as for food. Scientific accuracy about their behaviour wasn’t important; what mattered was how they were read. White knew this from the medieval bestiaries (he translated one, magnificently, in 1954), where the panther’s ability to attract its prey with the sweetness of its breath was likened to Christ’s ability to draw humanity to him, while the beaver’s practice of biting off its testicles and flinging them at hunters became an exhortation to pious men to fling their sins at the devil as a means of discouraging him from his pursuit of their immortal souls. No matter that panthers don’t hunt with their breath, or beavers castrate themselves; the memorable strangeness is what matters, and the morals, often surprising, which that strangeness calls to mind. White even includes a scene in The Sword in the Stone where the local priest exerts all his intellectual energy to find a suitable moral to a story from that peculiar compendium the Gesta Romanorum, in which beasts and people alike become arcane books whose contents must be expounded by the learned for the benefit of their unlearned listeners, who could never have imagined how a white cow could stand for the Church or a pack of noisy dogs be a mob of slanderers. An actual bestiary makes its appearance in the second book of The Once and Future King, Queen of Air and Darkness (originally The Witch in the Wood, 1939), when the Orkney boys, Gawain, Gaheris and the rest, use its instructions to catch a unicorn. But those boys inhabit a world like ours, where the reading of animals such as the unicorn’s body is not practised, so they can’t think of anything to do with it once it’s caught but kill it and cut off its head. The deed foreshadows the loss of innocence that always threatens and finally destroys King Arthur’s Round Table. Later in the same book, King Pellinore accidentally beheads the boys’ father, King Lot of Orkney; and this innocent accident (the old knight was chasing the Questing Beast, as usual, and had nothing further from his mind than assassination) sparks off a feud that leads to his eventual murder, one of a series of murders by the Orkney brothers that escalates with horrible inevitability till it evolves into the final battle between King Arthur and the Orkney boys’ half-brother Mordred.
This brings us to the third theme that runs through The Sword in the Stone alongside exuberant anachronism and instructive animals. The theme is cannibalism: the process by which human beings convince themselves that it is acceptable to treat other human beings like beasts – but without the respect that’s due to beasts according to the medieval rules of the chase – and eat them for dinner. All the episodes in the book that don’t involve beasts contain cannibals: Madam Mim, who keeps boys and beasts in cages ready for the table; the Anthropophagi, who trap the two most animal-friendly humans in the book – the Dog Boy and the wild man, Wat – and plan to devour them; Galapas the giant, who keeps ‘several corpses of human beings hanging up in [his] game cupboards until they should be ready to eat’, and wants to wring a ransom out of another animal-friendly man, King Pellinore. In the version of The Sword in the Stone which he revised as the opening section of The Once and Future King, White abolished the Anthropophagi but replaced them with a witch, Queen Morgan Le Faye, who lives in a castle made of meat, apparently under the illusion that its malodorous walls and roofs will be as attractive to passing strangers as fragrant gingerbread. In The Queen of Air and Darkness Merlyn becomes a vegetarian – though with a lingering and guilty love of hawking – because all human carnivorousness, at least, has become for him a form of cannibalism. To know animals as Merlyn knows them is to find it impossible to eat them, as the Wart discovers when he meets one of the wizard’s pet hedgehogs in the form of a badger. Conversely, to kill men is effectively to be a cannibal; which means that White, like Merlyn and Arthur, found himself living surrounded by cannibals for much of his life.
What this brings home is the sense of a fully-functioning holistic ecology that runs through The Sword in the Stone in all its versions. The anachronistic Middle Ages of the book – rooted as it is in historical sources – is a time when rules of courtesy and scrupulous good conduct govern the relationship between men and beasts, between men and women, between men and men. The later books of The Once and Future King expose the fragility of this ecology; but the Wart’s discovery of its principles in his childhood lays the foundations for his efforts to establish a similar ecology when he ascends to the throne as King Arthur, the king that was and will be. That title – The Once and Future King – identifies the element of utopianism in White’s book; the idea of a way of life from the past (the Wart’s childhood, a reimagined Middle Ages) that may furnish a model for the future, as it did for Morris. White’s, though, is a tragic utopianism, not the Good Place (eutopia) of Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) but the No Place of More’s bittersweet satire, rendered the more painful because of the affection in which we hold its protagonist after living with him through his education.
The Wart represents a community – the birds, beasts, trees, stones and human friends he assembles in his adventures, whose imagined presence helps him draw the sword out of the stone at the end. He assembles this community in much the way that Merlyn assembled the assorted hedgehogs, mice, owls and assorted clutter in his cottage; or as Pellinore assembled the various materials – horse, dog, quarry, equipment – which he needed for a lifetime of questing. Arthur seeks to keep his community close by him when he becomes king, by inviting King Pellinore and Sir Ector to join his Round Table, and by opening a menagerie for the animals to retire to when they get old. But we know, and he learns, that he will never establish a similar community among his human subjects. The attempt, though, is worthwhile – as he says of his adventure with Galapas when he and Merlyn are about to be chopped to pieces by the giant dictator.
Mind you, Merlyn disagrees:
‘Good-bye,’ whispered the Wart. ‘It was worth it.’
‘Good-bye,’ said Merlyn. ‘I don’t think it was at all.’
Most readers of White, I suspect, will agree with the Wart. But then, most readers don’t live backwards.