The Sword in the Stone

by T. H. White
[Putnam, $2.50]
THIS book is ‘For Sir Thomas Maleore, Knight,’ and the impression of the casual reader is that the good old author of Le Morte Darthur would at first be perfectly scandalized at having it offered to him. Mr. White has cheerily added entirely new material to the vast corpus of Arthurian romance. He has given us an ‘Enfance’ of King Arthur. Strange that no one before him had had the happy thought. The ‘Enfances ’ of Lancelot and Perceval are among the most engaging phases of the romances; but, except for cursory and secondary treatment in the prose Merlin, the childhood of the hero around whom all the great figures revolve remained untold. It is just as well. The theme waited for a man who knows boys, and modern theories of education, from A to Z; who, though he lacks the advantage of living in the twelfth century, has at his finger tips an astounding detail of mediæval lore; and whose sympathy with true chivalry is none the less keen because he stems from Alice in Wonderland as well as from Sir Thomas. In comparison, Tennyson’s high-bred sentimentalities, Swinburne’s sonorous sensualities, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s sad disillusions, seem flat and faded; while not Don Quixote tilting at his windmills, not Ariosto’s hero seeking his lost wits in the moon, not Mark Twain’s knights on bicycles advertising Persimmons’ Soap, fill us with such glee.
The book is riotously funny. Breathlessly, joyously, not at all in the leisurely tempo of old romance, it proceeds with unwearied gusto and endless variety of invention. And we grow increasingly sure that Malory would like it as well as we do. For here his robust English temper has full right of way. did the continuity of Never English life, unchanged down the centuries, shine out more clearly than in this absurd jumble of old and new. Confusions do not matter; do we not move in the Timeless, since Merlin is master of ceremonies—and to Merlin past and future are all a muddle. A magnificent Merlin!
What a tutor for Arthur! Merlin can initiate his pupil into all that modern science can offer, giving him the one capacity most needed by a king, or anybody else, to identify himself with alien forms of life. Becoming a fish, Arthur learns from the great pike, ‘Mr. M.,’ in a thrilling and quite awful scene the secret of Power — not to mention the relativity of our vision of things. As a bird, a Merlin, he meets superbly the challenge to courage. Science becomes the handmaid of romance as the tender-hearted snake instructs him on world history — incidentally giving a startlingly fresh account of Saint George and the Dragon. The delightful owl Archimedes leads him into the presence of Athene, where he perceives this mysterious universe moving from chaos toward harmony, gaining what may be to the author the equivalent of the Vision of the Holy Grail. It is the Badger at the last, however, that tells him how Man is the only creature to have guessed the Divine Riddle, and to receive the full blessing of the multiple God.
So comes the end. Deep insights have flashed on us, absurd anticlimaxes have rejoined us. As Arthur prepares to draw the sword from the stone, we revert almost to the very language of Malory; indeed, all along Kay and Ector come straight from him, even if the fourteenth-century Sir Ector would never have taken an interest in haying. Atmosphere grows mystical in that courtyard as the fate of England waits on the issue, while the unseen presences of all the forces in nature recall the boy’s lessons and nerve his arm. The education is finished, the King can reign. It is a splendid scene. And we leave Merlin appropriately and completely mixed up.
If you are a boy, you can find here the best battles and enchantments going. If you are a serious-minded adult, you will savor the suggestions of advanced educational theory. If you are just an ordinary person, it would be a pity for you to miss King Pellinore, blood-brother to the White Knight, and his household pet, the Blatant Beast; or Friar Tuck, turned into a pink china Cupid on Morgan le Fay’s mantelpiec;or the living room of Madame Mim, B.A. Whoever you may be, don’t miss this book. You won ’t get the full joy of it unless you know your Malory; but if you know nothing at all you can enjoy the endpieces by Robert Lawson —a sort of combination of Dürer arid Arthur Rackham; and as for the bits of verse scattered through the pages, some deserve to live with the poems of Lewis Carroll.