THE BLOG
05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Sword in the Stone: Better Than Narnia and Harry Potter, T.H. White's Classic is One of the Great Works of the 20th Century

It's hard to overstate the Disney effect on modern storytelling. Their princess retellings of classic fairy tales and children's literature, whether collected by oral folklorists like the Grimms or written by 19th century authors like Hans Christian Anderson or Robert Louis Stevenson, scrubbed most of the sex and violence and instead added a robust backbone of songs, dance, and happy endings. The movies are phenomenal, among the best films ever, but they're so pervasive that they often supplant the original text in the public consciousness. In the case of The Sword in the Stone, a novel about the boy who would grow up to be King Arthur, that's a shame -- it's one of the best children's books ever written.

Unlike his contemporaries and countrymen C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White was not a committed Christian. Both Tolkien and Lewis explored and retold Biblical stories in their work: the Ainulindale in Tolkien's Silmarillion (rating: 80) is a version of the first chapters of Genesis, and C.S. Lewis's Perelandra (rating: 65) is a riff on the temptation of Eve in Eden. Both Tolkien and Lewis appropriated Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folkloric themes that predated Christianity in England, but they used an intentionally Christian moral template. White's novel never bothers to appropriate the old stories for Christian purposes. (It's largely based on Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which was in part a retelling of Arthurian legend by a Christian author, but it isn't nearly as overtly Christian as Tolkien's or Lewis's works.) Instead, it exuberantly explores feudal England, a land of monsters and magic, quests and wizards, honor and beauty. It isn't as overtly fantastic a realm as Middle-Earth or Narnia, and the book exquisitely balances the magical and the mundane. Small wonder that J.K. Rowling has identified the book, and its main character, as a major influence on Harry Potter. (And on Neil Gaiman, as well: "I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White.")

The three main characters of the book are Wart -- until the end of the book, he is never addressed by his famous first name -- his tutor Merlyn, and his older half-brother Kay, with whom he constantly fights. As part of his education, Merlyn changes him into various animals so he can learn their personalities, and at various points he lives as a fish, a bird, a snake, and a badger. At one point, he and Kay wander into the woods and meet Maid Marian, Little John, and Robin Hood -- whose proper name, he is informed, is Robin Wood, his more famous name a simple mispronunciation. They wind up invited on a raid with the rest of the Merry Men to eliminate a band of mutant cannibal archers who live deeper in the forest. As befits the genre, in Robin Hood's company they're never in much true danger, despite the violence of their quarry, but they have a rollicking good time exterminating them.

The Sword in the Stone was the first part in a quartet of Arthur novels by White, collected as The Once and Future King (this is a reference, Wikipedia informs me, to the inscription on King Arthur's tombstone: "HIC IACET ARTHURUS REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS"). Like Harry Potter, which it inspired, and the Lord of the Rings (rating: 95), it's simply infectious, English magic at its finest. The Disney movie is a lot of fun, of course, but -- as is so often the case -- the book is much, much better.

Rating: 90

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.