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.
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:
- 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;
- 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.
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 kingdom...it’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.
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.