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White, t.h. the sword in the stone
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One of the most inventive and charming retellings of the Arthurian legend and the first part of The Once and Future King. Through a series of adventures that involve being turned into animals, an encounter with a very hungry witch and a meeting with the real Robin Hood, Merlyn instructs Wart (Arthur) and his brother Sir Kay in the ways of the world, and broader wisdom too. One of them will need it - the King has died leaving no heir, and a rightful one must be found by pulling a sword from an anvil resting on a stone...
Neville Jason is in general an avuncular narrator well matched to White's prose. This is education the way it ought to be. --Christina Hardyment
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The Wart is a young orphan boy who lives in the castle of Sir Ector, his foster father. The son of the latter, Kay, is his best friend and model, for one day he will be Sir Kay, the master of the estate.
One day, they decide to go hawking together on the edge of the Forest Sauvage, but they're inexperienced and Cully the hawk flies away. They have no choice but to enter the foreboding woods and go after it. And soon the Wart gets lost. In the forest, he meets with King Pellinore, whose Quest is to catch the Beast Glatisant, and later with Merlyn the Enchanter, who brings him back to the castle and becomes his tutor.
As the Wart gets turned successively into a fish, a merlin, an ant, yet several other species of birds and finally a badger to add to his education, the novel itself sort of turns into a book of natural science, more than an actual fantasy, and not much else happens. The author's tendency to address to the reader is somewhat annoying too, and in general The Sword in the Stone far from lived up to my expectations. Not to mention that you have to wait until the fifth to last page for the Wart to finally remove the actual sword from the stone.
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Well, the truth is these lost parts are still out there if you wish to find them. Some of the lost episodes include: Kay and Wart taken captive by Madam Mim, a wizard's duel between Merlyn and Mim, Wart and Kay battle a giant who has taken King Pellinore captive, Wart becomes a snake, and Archimedes takes the Wart in bird form to meet his mother Athene and hear a song from the trees. The version I found that still contained these passages was published in 1963 and features Disney illustrations on the cover. I do not know if other versions include these chapters, but the Once and Future King does not.
Some speculate that White thought these episodes to be too childish and light-hearted, but I think they are wonderful. The Sword in the Stone is a very difficult book for children. I believe it needs these light-hearted moments to offset the preachy life lessons. Don't get me wrong, I think the lessons that can be learned from the book are innumerable, but everyone needs a little fun with their learning.
If you are looking to read the Sword in the Stone, I encourage you to seek out the oldest version with the chapters still in tact. They're worth it.
Sir Ector's ward Arthur (known as "Wart") has no idea what he's in for when he accompanies Ector's son Kay out on a hunt. When a bad-tempered hawk escapes and refuses to come out of a tree, Wart ends up staying behind all night in the hopes of recapturing it. But he's interrupted by an odd old man called Merlin and his talking owl Archimedes. Merlin captures the hawk -- and then comes home with Wart. Soon he is firmly established as tutor to the two boys.
But they soon discover that nobody is quite like Merlin, and the lessons he has to teach Wart are more than just math and Latin. Merlin transforms Arthur into a fish, an owl, a hawk, and sends him on bizarre journeys with Robin Wood (Wood, not Hood -- a common mistake) and his band of Merry Men, a duel with an evil witch, a gathering of trees, a fumbling King and the Questing Beast, and capture in a sinister giant's castle.
T.H. White was a wonderful author, and an even better comic author. His characters are fully fleshed and endearing (even the nasty ones), but at the same time there is a delightful lightness to them. There isn't a speck of realism in the entire book -- chronology is bent and spindled, magic and realism are twisted together, and readers won't care at all. In a sense, "Sword" seems almost to exist in a parallel universe where animals talk, Robin Hood chit-chats with the once and future king, and carnivorous humanoids roam through Britain.
"Wart" is a good hero -- quiet, unassuming, thoughtful, and occasionally puts his foot in his mouth. His foster brother Kay is also good -- Kay is hot-tempered and a little loud-mouthed, but he is a nice person at heart. Merlin is the perfect crabby gray wizard, eccentric and unashamed to use his magic in a perfectly casual manner, and constantly a little befuddled due to his ability to live backwards in time. He'll endear himself to readers from the first page onward. There are dozens of equally funny characters: The always-questing King Pellinore and his Beast, the worried Sir Ector, the walking mustard-pot, the crabby but kindly owl Archimedes, and many, many more.
White's writing goes at a slightly uneven clip: Sometimes it zips along quickly, at other times it crawls. He displays plenty of knowledge about medieval times, and seems a little too eager to reveal it to the readers. But his descriptions and dialogue are delightful, a mix of the modern and the medieval. There are some extremely frightening scenes, and some (such as the having to put down a fatally-injured dog) that will make you cry.
Readers will come out of this book feeling like they have made a number of memorable, kindly friends. It's a must-read for anyone who loves the legends of Arthur.
White was clearly impacted by the struggle to hold views of evolution and a God-centered world view, and was also clearly impacted by the tensions of war torn Europe. He weaves some fun stories of Robin Hood, life in a hawk mew, and light-hearted jousting in with all his explaining and metaphorizing, though. I can't imagine not liking the vivid imagery and exotic story-telling, and if you are a fan of any of the other initialed British writers you'll certainly feel at home with T.H. White. Read the Sword in the Stone- it won't take much time, but then by all means read The Once and Future King one day for the real masterpiece.
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