Friday, 15 June 2012

The Sword in the Stone

Ah what a great meaty bone of a book I offer you today to sustain and nourish you through the weekend!
Last night I finished reading Bill 'The Sword in the Stone'; the first volume of T. H. White's masterful Arthurian retelling: 'The Once and Future King'. I'll confess I don't think I'd reread it since my own father read it to me and I'm very glad to have rectified that mistake. It is just wonderful prose.

I grabbed my copy from our bookshelf; a compendium volume that must once have been my fathers, without much thought. However it's only now having investigated further that I can see that there are apparently two versions of the book: The original 'adult' version and a rewritten version for children; more animal/adventure packed and less complex. Bill therefore got the more complex one to digest straight off; but certainly enjoyed it nevertheless. There were probably passages that floated over his head like hard poetry but even those (also like hard poetry) he appreciated catching the thread of and following through the word maze. More importantly there's also loads of good funny bits and this is a beaut of a book to read aloud.

It's the story of the Wart ('That's Arthur!' says Bill- no flies on him); boy of uncertain parentage resident in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage and younger companion to the superior and bossy heir to the estate; Kay. When the boys lose a valuable hawk in the forest Wart manages to lose himself too trying to recapture him. Finding his way he happens upon his own destiny in the form of the wizard Merlyn, who brings him home and becomes both boys' tutor.

'Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty finger-nails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair. The Wart was familiar with the nests of Spar-hark and Gos, the crazy conglomerations of sticks and oddments which had been taken over from squirrels or crows, and he knew how the twigs and tree foot were splashed with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This was the impression which he got from Merlyn. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him.'

Merlyn's sort of 'eddjication' involves turning Wart into a series of animals and enabling him to experience the world through their eyes. ('Cooler than school' says Bill) The Wart gets to explore the world as a fish, a hawk, an ant and a badger amongst others. There's a powerful anti-war message nestled within these experiences that must surely be expanded on in the succeeding volumes. Poignant given the 1939 publication date.
There's a lot of satisfying and funny knight action through the book too; including a wonderful set piece ponderous joust between my favourites; Sir Grummore and King Pellinore the latter taking a break from his otherwise interminable pursuit of his 'questing beast'. Lots of potential for doing good silly upper class, too-much-port-drunk, moustached voices for the reader.

A central section involves the boys meeting up with Robin Hood/Wood and Marian and rescuing some servants from Morgan Le Fey and her terrifying army of fairies where she has tied them to columns of pork  in a castle made entirely from meat and dairy products. If this sounds odd, well it is, but also curiously gripping. T.H.White is perfectly happy to mix all legends and time zones and history and inventions in the cause of story and meaning and it makes for a perfectly incoherently satisfying brew.

The final encounter with the titular sword as Wart, now Sir Kay's squire searches for a weapon to hand his new master concludes the book. It's lightly done and Wart's consternation as he realises the implications of his promotion ring true. The fun stuff is over for him and the serious business of being King awaits. Along with a lot of tricky romantic complications as I remember. Bill would be horrified at the amount of kissing to happen so our Arthurian adventure will conclude there for the present. I may read on though- I should have done so a long time back.

'"I know the sorrows before you, and the joys, and how there will never again be anybody who dares to call you by the friendly name of Wart. in future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title: so now I shall crave the privilege of being the very first of your subjects to address you with it-as my dear liege lord, King Arthur"'

So this is my copy and first page

and this is the edited version designed for children. As I haven't read it I can't compare- but I will acknowledge there were passages of the former which I skimmed over for Bill and probably the one below would have been even more appreciated by him. Would it have been better for me though? That's an important consideration after all.

'The Sword in the Stone', volume one of 'The Once and Future King' by T. H. White, above version pub. Harper Collins isbn 978-0007263493

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