Time Reading Program: A Sword in the Stone

Sword in the Store

Cover illustration by Alan E. Cober

This copy of TRP’s The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White arrived in my mailbox just as I was starting to read H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It seemed serendipitous to say the least, as I did not know prior to ordering it that T. H. White was a character in Macdonald’s story. I thought it was the perfect follow-up and launched straight in…

But my reading was interrupted by a a job offer, house selling/buying, moving, resettling, and so on. I have finally finished it before the new year, though I confess my overall comprehension has undoubtedly suffered from the big break in middle.

When I read H is for Hawk, I had a darker impression of White the man than I would ever have guessed from reading the Sword in the Stone. The Sword, if you aren’t already familiar with it, is the story of the child King Arthur, long before he ever pulls the sword from the rock and proves he is its heir. In this book, he is known until the very end as the Wart and seems destined to grow up and serve as a squire for his childhood companion Kay, the son of Sir Ector. But Merlyn shows up and teaches the Wart a series of life lessons by transforming him into different animals — a hawk among them. It isn’t until the very end that the Wart’s true destiny and identity is revealed.

At first I was interested in the role of falconry in the story — and it is interesting, especially after reading Macdonald and her explanation that White had a rather classical idea of falconry. I began even more to be interested in the romantic Olde England that White creates,  falconry being just one part of the lore and myth. The story is populated with a variety of jolly, comic characters, both human and animal. I wonder if this is still widely read as a children’s book in England.

Despite the fun of the book and its youthful aim, it is full of little wisdoms:

“The best thing for being sad,” said Merlyn beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers by baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn–pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and thereocriticsm and geography and history and economics–why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversaries at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to plough.”

Alan E. Cober is credited with the cover, which is one of my favorites. Cober is thought of as a more expressive and symbolic illustrator, rather than a literal one. Unfortunately, this wonderfully illustrated cover is one of the more brittle that I own and it began to fall apart right away. I have taped it, but both front and back covers have cracked off and it won’t withstand even the most ginger rereading. Back to the shelf it goes.

personal copy
Copyright 1939 by T. H. White
Reprinted by arrangement with G. P. Putnam & Sons by Time Incorporated, 1964


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