The Sword in the Stone
This was the first iteration of the Arthurian legend I was exposed to; luckily it was not the version that got me interested in the legend. Overall, it has a good message for kids about education and that the best way to move up in the world and to be someone of importance is to have a solid foundation. Brains over brawn, and all that. But just like the source material, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I contest it’s characterization. (A tiny bit of background on me as I avoid delving into a rant…I have done some reading on Arthurian legend and my capstone project from college was on Morgan le Fae, where I read The Once and Future King, Le Morte d’Arthur, Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave sequence, and The Mists of Avalon among other interpretations and I am aware there are several ways of looking at the legend.)
Carrying on…Disney’s movie opens on a storybook, though added this time, singing! And glosses over a decent chunk of the legend…like Uther. Arthur’s father. Though, considering he committed adultery in order to beget Arthur…not the most child-friendly backstory. Disney sums it up as “the good king died.” The country descended into chaos, but lo, magically, a sword appeared in a stone in London town (historical note: not called London at that time). Inscribed upon the sword in gold letters: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.” Many tried and failed. The sword is eventually forgotten and England falls into the Dark Ages. (Further historical note: that is not how the Dark Ages happened).
We first meet an old man with a long white beard, blue robe and hat, complaining about the lack of electricity and plumbing; our first hint that he is not all he seems since even as kids we have figured out those didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. He’s preparing for “someone important” to drop by, as he tells his talking owl, Archimedes. Fate has willed that he will guide a young boy to his place in the world. We next meet said young, scrawny boy – Arthur, called Wart, and muscular Kay. Wart messes up Kay’s shot and rushes into the woods to retrieve the arrow. Demonstrating his lack of grace again, he falls into the old man’s home (landing on the carefully placed chair). The old man introduces himself as Merlin, a wizard who can see centuries into the future (and possibly time travel; in The Once and Future King, White writes that Merlin lives backwards in time). He has futuristic plans and models laying about his home, such as a locomotive and starts expounding that children need a good education. He agrees to accompany Wart back to the castle to begin. A memorable scene of nonsense words packs up his belongings, though Merlin cautions young Wart that magic won’t answer all problems.
Wart’s foster father, Sir Ector is against Merlin’s insistence on an education for Wart at first. His method for raising the klutz is a demerit system and assigning chores (not wholly a bad notion, it does teach responsibility, the excess is the problem). Pellinore brings word of a [jousting] tournament in London that will decide who will be King of England (question: was this not tried before?) Wart correctly explains that only men of proper birth can become knights (and thus, compete in the tournament); Wart being an orphan can only hope to train as a squire, an assistant to a knight. Merlin is tricky and wrangles an agreement for education from Ector. Merlin’s method of teaching involves transforming himself and Wart into different animals. Their first go-about is as fish where we are treated to a diddy teaching us about “for every to there is a fro, for every up there is a down,” and ultimately, brains beat brawn.
Merlin’s next lesson, after magically setting the dishes to wash themselves (not quite as disastrous as Mickey’s stunt with the mops) is to turn him and the boy into squirrels, whose lives are full of trouble. We learn alongside Wart about love (and how persistent female squirrels are about pursuing a mate). I felt a little bad with Wart at how broken-hearted the young girl squirrel was when she found out Wart was human. Next, Wart is turned into a bird and is briefly tutored by Archimedes. Unfortunately, they come across another house in the woods; this time, belonging to Mad Madam Mim. (Note: Mim does not appear in other versions of the Arthurian legend, though there are several other witches, including the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fae, and Queen Mab). She takes delight in gruesome and grim games and wishes to destroy Wart since he is friends with Merlin. Merlin shows up to save Wart and is challenged to a wizard’s duel (different from Harry Potter), where the opponents transform themselves into different animals to order to kill each other. Merlin wins in the end by becoming a germ (to her purple dragon; the music at that point reminded me of the music from Sleeping Beauty when Maleficent was a dragon).
Wart is given the news at the castle that he will accompany Ector and newly knighted Sir Kay to London for the tournament. Merlin is disappointed and a bit outraged that Wart still prefers to be a squire rather than continuing his education. He blows himself to Bermuda and the tournament arrives. Unfortunately, Wart has forgotten Kay’s sword back at the inn, which is now locked. He spies a sword in a churchyard, stuck in an anvil and pulls it out. Pellinore realizes that the sword young Wart handed Kay is the legendary Sword in the Stone. He and other knights urge Arthur to show them where he retrieved it and pull it out again. He does so and is crowned King of England. Merlin comes back when Arthur wishes for help ruling the country. The wizard’s parting words are about Arthur’s tale living on for centuries, even being made into “motion pictures.”
I’ll finish the Disney movies and circle back to other interpretations of Arthur (I loved BBC’s Merlin, despite its deviation from traditional legend). It’s a subject I’d love to do more research on; I’ve got some books, but a very long reading list. Until then, any questions? Comments? What’s your favorite legend or myth?
Up Next: Jungle Book