The Sword in the Stone

By T. H. White

(1938) The Sword in the Stone is the first and most familiar of T. H. White’s tetrology based on the life of King Arthur. It is also published collectively, along with its companion books, under the title of The Once and Future King.

Synopsis and notes: (written by Marie Macdonald, edited by Jason W. Moulder)

The Sword and the Stone is an example of Arthurian Legend. The Arthurian Legend was developed in the Middle Ages regarding Arthur, the semi-historical king of the Britons, and his order of knights. The legend is a complex weaving of ancient Celtic mythology with later traditions, around a core of possible authenticity. The Sword and the Stone deals with Arthur’s childhood and his life shortly after becoming king. Throughout this childhood, he learns the theories of chivalry, which involve the graduations of page, squire, and finally knighthood. As an innovation to the Arthurian Legend, T. H. White incorporates fables throughout the story, which make it more humorous and enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone takes place in Medieval England*, at the Forest Sauvage, and in the environment around it. A small part takes place in London. The setting is very important to the story because it provides a place of learning for Arthur. Instead of book learning, it provides worldly and fundamental knowledge that stays with Arthur for life and could not be traded for a lesson from the Summulae Logicales. The setting in this story contributes to Arthur’s maturation process.

The central conflict of The Sword in the Stone is an internal one which takes place in Arthur's mind, who is commonly known as the "Wart." This conflict involves the Wart's struggle to become a man; to become knowledgeable, intellectual, and mature. A secondary conflict involves the Wart's struggle to be equal in many aspects to his older brother, Kay. T. H. White’s depiction of this conflict is very thorough, making it very clear that the Wart has a strong desire to learn, especially through extraordinary means.

The climax of the story comes when Merlyn sends Arthur on his final lesson, which involves turning Arthur into a badger and sending him to talk to another badger who is very wise. Before Arthur goes, however, Merlyn asks him, "Do you think you have learned anything?" Arthur replies, "I have learned and have been happy." In becoming worldly-wise and maturing in intellect, Arthur is ripe for the advance of his destiny: to become king.

The story begins with Sir Ector, determined to find a tutor for his "proper" son, Kay, and his adopted son, the Wart (Arthur). One day, while chasing after Cully (one of his father’s hunting falcons), Arthur becomes lost and stumbles upon the cottage of Merlyn, a magician, in the middle of the forest. Merlyn shows Arthur around the cottage, which is, to say the least, in wild disarray. Merlyn lives his life from the future to past, going backwards in real-time, so he is expecting Arthur. He shows Arthur the way back to the castle, and from there on, with a little skepticism on the part of all concerned, becomes tutor to Arthur and Kay.

Merlyn puts much of his energy into teaching Arthur by through experiences; by magically transforming him into an ant, a fish, a bird, and a badger. He also sends Arthur and Kay on a dangerous and exciting adventure, in which they meet Robin Wood (sic), Marian, and Little John, to name a few. Merlyn takes Arthur to a real jousting tournament, where King Pellinore fights Sir Grummore Grummursum. Finally, while preparing for Kay’s knighthood, the news is spread that King Uther Pendragon, ruler of England, has died. There is word that there is a sword stuck fast through an anvil on a stone in London, which has the inscription, "Whoso Pulleth Out the Sword of the Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England."

This news is especially important to the people because there is no heir to the throne. Kay desperately begs Sir Ector to go, reasoning that he also has a jousting tournament on New Years Day, the special day. Sir Ector agrees, but before they leave, Arthur becomes very upset because Merlyn and Archimedes (Merlyn's pet owl) are leaving. When they arrive in London, at the jousting tournament, Kay realizes that he has left his sword back at the castle, so he sends Wart, his new squire, back to get it. Upon returning to the castle, Arthur realizes that Kay's room is locked, so he sets upon the streets of London, determined to find Kay another sword.

Quite unintentionally, Arthur comes across the sword, stuck in a stone, and, not realizing it is the sword, tries desperately to pull it out. He is finally able to pull the sword out by mustering all of the strength, knowledge, and maturity which Merlyn has helped him to realize. He returns to the tournament and gives Kay the sword. Kay recognizes that it is not his sword, and after asking Arthur where he got it, realizes that it is the sword in the stone. Kay tells his father that he (Kay) pulled the sword out, and is therefore king. But when Sir Ector takes Kay and Arthur back to the stone, Kay confesses that he has lied and that Arthur is the rightful King of England. All bow in acknowledgement and submission to their new monarch.

*On the time frame:

by Bobby Davidson (24 September 1996):
The setting is clearly vaguely placed in medieval England, but I do not believe it is as specific as the period just after 1066. T.H. White must have been aware that he was setting it in a sentimentalised picture of Old England as it never quite was, legends of Arthur pre-date 1066, and there are references to Eton, the Eton Boating Song, and the British national anthem.

by Ruth Barker (7 November 1996):
T. H. White said, "I am looking through 1939 at 1489, itself, looking backward." So the time period is pretty clear. Just thought you'd like to know. I've taught the book for several years and done much research.
Thanks, Ruth Barker, Davis High School, Kaysville, Utah

by Kurth Sprague (26 December 1996):
The action in TOAFK takes place between the beginning of the thirteenth century and the end of the fifteenth: from about 1200 until possibly 1485. While the young Arthur is at the Castle Sauvage, Sir Ector receives a letter from Uther Pendragon dated "12 Uther."
At this time, Arthur and Kay are probably about twelve years old: they have been on an adventure with Robin Hood, are old enough to resent the attentions of the Old Nurse, and still delight in throwing snowballs; the possibility is that Arthur's birthdate is about the same year as Uther's ascension to the throne. When Uther's death is announced, King Pellinore comments, "Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216." This would seem to be . . . (continued)


the Wart — Arthur
Kay — Arthur's half-brother
Merlyn — An absent-minded magician
Sir Ector — father of Sir Kay and guardian of Arthur
the Governess — who has looked over the children all of their lives
Sir Grummore Grummursum — a neighbor and good friend of Sir Ector
King Pellinore — an eccentric, decrepit old man who spends his entire life in the forest, chasing after the "Beast Glatisant".
Archimedes — Merlyn’s talking owl, teaches Arthur a few lessons in life.

More notes:
It is not enough to call this book a phantasy, it is inaccurate to describe it as a novel, it is foolish to call it, as some careless readers will, a juvenile; it is true enough to say that it is a humorous satire—but that leaves out the obvious fact that it is one of the most engaging and picturesque accounts of medieval England ever attempted. If you remember how Mark Twain wrote about King Arthur's Court, and then guess how Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, would have handled the story of Arthur's youth, you will come within some miles of guessing what The Sword in the Stone is like.

At the beginning it is a most interesting account of everyday life on a great medieval manor, with two boys, Kay and the Wart (who turns out to be King Arthur), learning the code of being a gentleman, and busy with hawking, jousting, sword play, hunting. Sir Ector, who is Kay's father, is "country" and "public school." (The 13th century and the 20th flow into each other in this narrative, just as the land of children's fancies and the 19th century flow into each other in Alice in Wonderland). The boys must be educated, so he sends for Merlin, and the story begins to move through reality and phantasy like a wood path in shadow and moonlight. . . .

Merlin is the key to this book, and makes it an entirely convincing and realistic anachronism. Merlin is a character, and amusing, like everyone in this story, except Colonel Cully, the mad goshawk. But he is world wisdom personified; naturally, since he is living backward instead of forward, and so knows what is going to happen next, and can manage clairvoyance without difficulty. And also magic of a most educative variety, for he has learned in the far future from which he came, that education is an understanding of life, and that life flows out from man through nature (or the other way, if you please) so that birds and beasts see aspects of it which are necessary for sympathy. He varies his formal education with experience—life as the fish see it, an adventure for the Wart in the cool depths of the moat, where tench and pike teach the law of self-preservation—life as the knightly falcons see it, when the Wart, transformed into a [falcon], is initiated into the code of bravery and honor, and submits to the ordeal of possible death from the poor mad Colonel Cully, who fights all night long his impulses to slay—a magnificent chapter of narrative. And life as the badger sees it, who knows about embryos, and a good deal that will be modern science. And life as the snake sees it, who remembers the prehistoric world.

Indeed if I were starting all over again I would describe this book as a humorous, satiric commentary on education—real education . . . And I will start all over again by saying that the outline of this story, which contains digressions so much more significant than the tale itself, is the narrative of how the boy, Wart, was made worthy to become the king and leader, Arthur. The sword (as in the old legend) came out of the stone for him and for no one else, because he had been taught to be the kind of Homo Sapiens (as the snake called them) for whom swords ought to come out of stones; because he had been truly educated.

Mr. White is evidently a scholar. His knowledge of the codes, the customs, the courtesies of medieval England, is extraordinary. . . . He knows the psychology of hawking, he knows the economy of a great manor, he understands the medieval imagination, which, since it was not warped by too much sense of history, saw all time focussed upon the present, and so got a juster view than we do of the continuity of human experience.

In short, this book is unique. You may not like it, if, by chance, you cannot take a mixed drink of phantasy and realism, edged with satire, and beautifully blended by a humorous imagination. But if you like it, you will not like it moderately.

Henry Seidel Canby,
—In the Book-of-the-Month Club News.

Notes: Selected by the American Book-of-the-Month Club in 1939, this proved to be the first real money-maker for White, as well as broadening readership of his work.

England Have My Bones: For the Reader of the Works of T. H. White
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Unless otherwise noted, entire contents 1996, J. Moulder and M. Schaefer. All rights reserved.
Revised Sunday, 29-Sep-2002 19:10:12 CDT.