Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ana and Thea Accept My Dare!

When Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers dared me to read Ghost Story by Peter Straub, I decided to dare them right back. The natural choice was The Once and Future King by T. H. White. I knew it was a difficult read that becomes better and better the longer you read. Since it is a very thick book and is actually four books in one, I gave them an out: my dare would only involve them reading the first book, The Sword in the Stone.

I didn't expect my dare to be done in by Disney!

Disney made the first book into an animated movie in 1963. It is not one of their better films, although it does stick to the story. Disney re-releases their movies every once in a while, so new generations can see it, but they failed to release it during my childhood. Therefore, I read The Once and Future King in my 20s, untainted by outside influences. It led me to tackle the original Malory. 

Read on for how Disney affected Ana and Thea's reading experience.

First Impressions:

Ana: I have to admit I knew close to nothing about The Once and Future King. I had seen it listed by some bloggers as one of their favourite books and I knew it was about King Arthur. In my defense, I am Brazilian, grew up in Brazil and only recently moved to England, so did grow up knowing about this Classic as most English speaking people probably did. When Tia dared us to read it, I was happy to comply: and I opened the book hoping to read a sweeping tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Tale and then to my complete surprise the story begins with a child Arthur who by the way, is called merely as Wart, and his tutoring lessons from (a very loopy) Merlyn in what can only be described as a quirky storytelling, let’s put it that way. To say I was taken aback is to put it mildly. I did eventually get used to the narrative and was able to enjoy the book.

Thea: I have to plead ignorance, like Ana. I had heard of The Once and Future King, but had never read it. Oh, I’ve read many takes on the Arthurian legend in both classic and modern literature, but never T.H. White’s version. Considering how many people cherish this book, I was eager to give it a go. And again, like Ana, I was expecting a sweeping Arthurian epic – something very somber and adult. Well, color me surprised! When I started reading “The Sword and the Stone” I was struck by how similar it was to the Disney film of the same title that I used to love when I was a child. A little Google searching revealed that the Disney film was in fact based on the beloved version written by T.H. White – which, I think, is cool.
Once I managed to wrap my head around the fact that this was a playful, almost parody-like, take on the origins of the Arthur myth, I was able to settle in a bit and enjoy the story. (Though, I will say that Ana and I both agreed to stop after “The Sword in the Stone” – so as to save ourselves the heartache that follows reading the entirety of the Arthurian tragedy.)


Ana: Basically, “The Sword and The Stone”, the first book in this series deals with the childhood of orphaned boy Wart (“The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name”), growing up in his uncle’s stronghold, in ye olde England and his adventures and lessons when the magician Merlyn becomes his tutor.

Through a series of what we can call ‘magic-induced hands-on experiences’, Wart learns important lessons which will later (I am assuming) come in quite handy as Merlyn uses his magic to transform the kid, temporarily and subsequently, into a fish, an ant, a merlin, etc.  He even gets to meet Robin Hood and Maid Marian until the very end of the book when, we all know what happens.

The thing is, I was caught off guard by:
  1. The absence of any mention of King Arthur-y stuff like the fact that there was a sword in a stone somewhere waiting for the next King of England : the sword wasn’t mentioned until the last pages so  if it wasn’t for the title of the story I wouldn’t know that the story was building up to it. Because this is such a well known tale, I expected a more grandiose build-up. It surprised me that when eventually, the Wart picks up Excalibur it was not even a big deal;
  1. The narrative: the third person omniscient narrator who continuously interrupted the story to explain for example, the bucket loads of anachronisms in the story. Whereas part of me thought this actually really quirky and so unexpected and humorous as to make it fun, it also took me off the story completely.
I think there is clearly a case of reader’s expectation on my part that I am aware is not really fair to the book. I expected something but got another thing entirely – and it did not work for me. In all honesty, I was bored out of my mind with the bits where Wart was being some animal or another. Some of it was funny, some of it carried so much double meaning (did I notice a discourse about Communism, or is it just me???) that I thought the lesson was not only for the Wart but for the reader as well, and I really don’t like preaching.

Having said that: Merlyn was such a loopy character and I loved how he was getting younger instead of older as time went by. I also loved the adventure with Robin Hood and then, we have the Wart himself being all innocent and child-like and it was all very sweet. And if I am going to be completely honesty here, I did get some goosebumps at the end.

The real question though is this: am I going to read the rest of the books in the series? At this point in time….no. Firstly, it didn’t really grab me by the guts. Secondly: I don’t think I want to see that poor kid Wart going through all that (you know, incest, patricide, cheating wives, the works).

Thea: “The Sword in the Stone” was not at all what I was expecting – and I mean this in a generally good way. Young, innocent “Wart” (who is never called Arthur until the spine-tingling last line of the book) and his adventures make for a humorous, light-hearted read – and to be honest, this is something I always felt was missing with the dreary, depressing Aruthurian legend. We always read about Camelot, about the Round Table, about the incest, about the spiteful Mordred, about the betrayals of Guinevere and Lancelot, and about the sad demise of the King and his noble’s very heavy. It’s incredibly depressing.
At least, in “The Sword and the Stone”, we see Arthur’s whimsical youth before the weight of England is thrust upon his shoulders. That’s a very good thing, to see this respite granted the boy that would become legend.

I will agree with Ana, however, in that the way the story began and the nature of the narrative – with the numerous anachronisms and asides to the reader – completely threw me. Also jarring was the fact that I could not get the Disney cartoon out of my head whilst reading this book.

Arthur, Merlin and Archie 

Perhaps this is, as Ana says, a problem because I am reading this book perhaps too late in life – I’ve already been spoiled by numerous imaginings, tellings, and interpretations of King Arthur, so I found myself comparing “The Sword in the Stone” to what notions and biases already existed in my head...and this isn’t really fair to the book. Ultimately, this is what detracted from my reading experience the most.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book; there were certain parts that had me giggling gleefully. For example, I loved Wart’s adventures as a merlin in the hawk armoire with their songs and tests of worthiness. I also loved Wart’s time as an ant, with the strange, groupthink sort of mechanical hierarchy they had – even though the concepts of communism were jarringly dated (Ana dude, it wasn’t just you!). Similarly, Wart’s adventures with the jealous (but generally well-intentioned) Kay taking on Morgane le Fey with Robin ‘ood (Robin Wood/Hood) and Maid Marian were awesome.

But, ultimately, did I find myself won over and enamoured with this classic? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Maybe it’s because I’m older and jaded. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t stop reconciling the sad tale of Arthur in my head with the young, naive, carefree Wart. I just cannot bring myself to reading the next three books in the saga, knowing how it will all end...and that’s just my bias (and my loss) as a reader.

Final Thoughts recommendations and Rating:

Ana:  I suspect I read this book at a wrong moment in time – possibly at a wrong age too. Objectively speaking, I can see how this story is fascinating and creative. Even the narration of the story with its humorous asides is well done. It just….wasn’t for me.  And I think I can hear Tia’s readers wishing me to Book Hell right now.

Thea: I always said we were going to Hades, dear Ana.

I agree with you. I liked “The Sword in the Stone” and I found myself enjoying the story. I also understand this book is a Classic and beloved by many – but it’s hard to shake that gloomy raincloud looming on the horizon for young Wart. I’m afraid I’ll prefer to end my quest for Camelot here, with King Arthur’s coronation, before the heartache sets in.


Ana: 6 good. (I can’t really fault the book - this is clearly a case of “It’s not the book, it’s me”)
Thea: 6 Good, but again I agree with Ana – it’s so, totally me.

Thank you, Ana and Thea, for your brave attempts. The true magic of the book lies further within, but you do have to get by clunky language and occasional lecturing. It's been years since I read the story, and the lectures didn't stick with me. My favorite of the four books is The Ill-Made Knight, which is the third. White came out with a fifth book, The Book of Merlin, which is often sold as a separate book. I read it but I prefer the original ending, which takes place just before Arthur goes out and "faces his sins" in battle with Mordred.

They gave me an alternate book to read "one day," so I'll give them one too. For some reason, Silas Marner by George Eliot springs to mind. It is not a fantasy, but it's a magical little classic nevertheless. George Eliot was a woman who also wrote The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. It's not very accessable at first, but I was hooked once Silas has his bag of gold stolen, and then finds something else that is very previous in front of his hearth--a little girl.


Tia Nevitt said...

I actually agree with you. The first book is almost a prologue. When I first read the book, way back when I was 20 or so, I didn't get sucked in until I read those spine-tingling final pages of The Sword in the Stone. It was easy to continue. The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, introduces Morgause, her sons, who all become knights in Arthur's court, and King Arthur's early years.

The third book--my favorite--is about Lancelot. The musical Camelot--which is loosely based on this novel--takes the easy way out and casts a handsome actor as Lancelot, but in the book he is hideously ugly. Arthur is his hero. And the love story between him, Arthur and Guenever ("Jenny") is fantastic.

The final book, as might be expected if you at all know the story of King Arthur, is a bit of a downer. But I loved this novel and read it over ten times.

Jo said...

I actually really like the sound of this book! To be perfectly honest, I know pretty much nothing about the story of King Arthur. I only know what's in the Disney film, and what I've seen in the UK TV Program Merlin. Other than that.... nada. So maybe I am at the right stage to read this book and enjoy it. And I LOVE the Disney film, so already this book is sounding good! Great reviews girls! I'll be taking a look at this!

Tia Nevitt said...

Yikes! I forgot to include a link back to Ana and Thea's site! The post has since been updated.

Ana said...

Thanks for daring us, Tia.

And man. You had to go and use the ONE thing that would make me want to read the rest of the book didn't you? The "And the love story between him, Arthur and Guenever ("Jenny") is fantastic" romance card.

Damn it. *g*

And the George Elliot books sounds pretty cool. I have Middlemarch which *gasp* I never got around to read. But I think we may well do a joint of the one you suggest. Thanks!

Thea said...

Thanks Tia :)

Maybe one day I'll finish the book because I know I'm not giving it a fair shot...but I just don't think I can handle all the heartache right now. I'm a wuss.

And Lancelot & Guinevere's romance holds absolutely no appeal to me. (Sorry, Ana)

I hated CAMELOT. *ducks*

My favorite take on the Arthurian legend still remains MZB's MISTS OF AVALON ;)

And SILAS MARNER sounds pretty interesting! It's a date.

Thanks again, Tia!

Tia Nevitt said...

Ana, it is pretty much a love story between the three of them. "Lance" and Arthur are best friends and both love Guenever.

I too, have Middlemarch, and have not managed to read it. Silas Marner is MUCH shorter.

Thea, I hated Camelot also, so you don't have to duck anything. It just barely skims the surface of White's novel.

And Jo, I hope you enjoy it!

Angiegirl said...

Very interesting responses, guys. I'm glad you answered Tia's dare on this one. I'm a lifelong lover of all things Arthurian so it's a treat to hear about other people reading them. Tia's right. The love story in the other books is fantastic.

I highly recommend Mary Stewart's Arthur set starting with THE CRYSTAL CAVE. They're fabulous.

Also. You all need to read MIDDLEMARCH. Don't be deterred by the length. It's a winner.

Tia Nevitt said...

Ok, now I need to pull MIDDLEMARCH off the shelf and put it on my nightstand. I'll use it for "fill-in" reading between review. Maybe I'll finish it before Christmas.

Maria said...

I really enjoy these dares. I'm going to have to visit their site again and see how it all works. I've read a few of the reviews from the dares and they are some of my favorites!

Lauren said...

I grew up watching the Disney movie "Sword in the Stone" so was totally expecting the whole "Wart" thing. One of my high school English teachers was obsessed with the whole mythology and how it shaped much of English culture. I love reading different adaptations.

Dave said...

It's interesting to me how the style of a time period can determine how we like or do not like a story. It sounds like the style of this book is much different from what a contemporary author would use if they wanted to get the same basic story on the shelves today.

Raven said...

I think I read The Sword in the Stone as a kid (I know I saw the movie), but I didn't read the rest of the series. Also, I hated Camelot and Excalibur and Bruckheimer's King Arthur and pretty much every other film adaptation out there... although I have to say I'm enjoying the UK's Merlin. The Merlin/Arthur relationship in that series hooked me.

I tend to be a fan of retellings that try to capture 4th/5th-century reality instead of going for the whole knights and castles thing.

I second the recommendation of the Mary Stewart books. Don't miss the fourth book in the series, which humanizes Mordred. I think that's actually my favorite book of the four.

I also recommend Gillian Bradshaw's Arthurian trilogy, which starts with Hawk of May. It centers on a Gawain character, Gwalchmai. It's been ages since I read it, though. I should take another look and see if it's as good as I remember it being.

Raven said...

I just realized my comment above could be taken as implying that Merlin (the UK TV series) is a 4th/5th-century retelling, which it's not. Castles galore. Still a fun show. :)

Tia Nevitt said...

Raven, along with the list of movies you hated, I also would like to toss in First Knight, in which Richard Gere played Lancelot. I was given a used copy, and it was so awful that I didn't make it through the first thirty minutes.

I also enjoyed Steinbeck's modernization of the original Malory, a project which Steinbeck unfortunately never finished. It's called The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

And the original Malory, while quirky, is worth reading if you enjoy slogging through old English texts. I even had my husband reading it, and he got such a kick out of Pendragon becoming "wonderly wroth" that we actually started using the phrase around the house for a while.

That chilling scene at the end of The Sword in the Stone, where Sir Ector starts speaking in old English, comes straight from Malory.

Raven said...

I forgot about First Knight. Now that you've reminded me, I'm gagging. :) What a horrible movie. They just can't get Arthurian adaptations right.

I own a copy of Malory (somewhere), but I never read much of it. I read more of Geoffrey of Monmouth. But my real loves are the scholarly books that examine Arthurian legends in search of kernels of truth. At one point I read a ton of those and planned to pull all that research into my own Arthurian retelling. I doubt I ever will, though.

Tia Nevitt said...

Everyone is probably long gone, but how could I forget to mention Stephen Lawhead!? His Pendragon Cycle started out very strong, but, in my opinion, the first three books were much better than the last two. The end of the story is just too much of a bummer for most authors to handle well, I think.

Angiegirl said...

Isn't that interesting? Because I think you're right. It's so freaking hard to end it "well". And the lack of a single worthy film adaptation is disgusting. I keep hoping they'll manage it satisfactorily but, rather like most of the Robin Hood adaptations, it doesn't seem to be in the cards.

Raven, I have a copy of HAWK OF MAY on my shelves. Need to pull it down and give it a go.