No.81 Brian Alderson
Rex Quondam begins his Journey with…
Comfy? Then let’s begin:
‘...then it was lesson time: Divinity, French, History, and Latin. Divinity was easy as it was about Noah’s Ark...’
Oops! Sorry. Start again:
‘On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology...’
but the muddle over curricula is forgivable. The mispeck to begin with was from the first page of John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (discussed in this column in January 2005) and its likeness to the first page of T H White’s The Sword in the Stone is no accident. ‘A chef d’oeuvre of the imagination... a book which I love this side idolatory,’ said White of The Sword’s predecessor, published some eleven years earlier, and the two books share a quality of free fantasy that sets them above most of the more leaden-footed explorers of spacetime.
(to rhyme with Art) as Arthur is known in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage has much in common with Kay Harker among the midnight folk. Both are being brought up under guardianships and are at once stoutly independent and immensely likeable characters. Each, in quest of what the Wart’s Sir Ector calls ‘eddication’, ventures among animals, becoming privy to some of their ways, and each encounters, for good or ill, figures from local myth. And both have their stories told with a captivating brio.
The difference though
lies in the management of the narrative. From the very start Kay’s adventure is directed by a desire to find Grandpapa Harker’s lost treasure, while the Wart is at the mercy of his creator’s quicksilver imaginings. T H White certainly founded his story on the first book of the Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory, to whom The Sword is dedicated and from whom some phrasings are taken direct, but a huge tissue of authorial invention is interposed between the child Arthur being first brought to Sir Ector’s castle and his eventual drawing of the sword from the stone. (As in Malory, that famous dramatic moment arrives with only minimal preparation in the final few pages of the book.)
What precedes it is a romp.
Eddication for the Wart and for Sir Ector’s son (another Kay) requires a tutor and the magician Merlyn arranges for himself to be so appointed and then generates most of the events of the story. It’s an episodic affair, conducted with occasional glimpses of Malory as a source, but mostly as a series of riffs by White (with his own line drawings) on those elements in the myth that attracted his practical imagination. He was a man who needed to know how things worked, whether medieval tournaments, the hunting of boar, or the inner nature of hawks or fish, and, with Merlyn as his surrogate, he opens up Arthur’s understanding to the world and the people around him.
It’s hardly a conventional schooling though.
White has no truck with lecturing either his pupil or his readers. The formalities of chivalry are matter for Quixotic farce as King Pellinore and Sir Grummore Grummurson joust together; Art discerns the nature of fish by swimming in the castle moat as a perch and having an almost too daring interview with Mr M, the giant pike King of the Moat (‘...remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless; but his great jewel of an eye was that of a stricken deer, large, fearful, sensitive, and full of grief’). Such prose, often deriving from a close knowledge of whatever subject comes to hand, contrasts strangely with the book’s hilarious use of anachronism (‘Couldn’t send ’em to Eton, I suppose?’ inquires Sir Grummore during the eddication debate over a bottle of port) and this runs through both phrasings and events. Thus, Merlyn is living his life backwards so is found smoking a meerschaum pipe and owning ‘a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott’, while one of the book’s central adventures is a raid on Morgan le Fay’s Siege [ie. fortress] of Air and Darkness carried out in company with Robin Hood and Maid Marian. But far from alienating the reader these ploys serve to involve him within the fantasy, presenting, say, mewed hawks metaphorically as taking Formal Dinner in an Officers’ Mess, or touching a high pitch of pathos with the death of the hound Beaumont at the boar hunt.
The reader must beware though,
for The Sword in the Stone is not a stable text. It achieved instant success both in Britain and the USA when it was published in 1938 and that led White not only to devise three sequels (seen more as continuations for an adult rather than a child readership, and gathered together in 1958 under the title The Once and Future King) but also to rework the original story. At least three versions of this can be found with chunks and lesser details deleted or added. Thus, Morgan’s Siege becomes the Castle Chariot; she herself may be ‘a very beautiful lady wearing beach pajamas and smoked glasses’ or fat, dowdy and middle-aged ‘with black hair and a slight moustache’, or just not present at all, and the place may be guarded by a single griffin, or a troop of griffins and wyverns, or a collection of Anthropophagi. You don’t get much guidance in any one edition as to how it relates to the others, but for me anyway the first is pre-eminent for the joyous freshness of its wit and its storytelling.
Well – I’m sorry to say we must now have done.
The cover illustration by David Wyatt and other illustrations by Robert Shadbolt are taken from the 2008 Essential Modern Classics edition published by HarperCollins (978 0 00 726349 3, £6.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder o the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.