Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Sword in the Stone (book and Disney movie)

A few months back I found a 1939 copy of The Sword in the Stone at our local used bookstore. I wanted to read it because it is a book that a Disney film is based on and before the Disney-fied version of The Sword in the Stone went back into the Disney vault, I wanted to see if this was a on-screen story that we'd be interested owning. (My answer at the end of the post.)

The Sword in the Stone (the book) seems to have a fairly interesting history. First published in 1938 it appears to have not only been expanded into a series (the final story being The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King - which was published after author T.H. White's death) but the original story was also revised a few times. Not having known this before I started the read, I'm very glad to have found a 1939 version which is the original story first published by White. (I'd have been disgruntled to discover I'd read a revision.)

The Once and Future King (published before White's death) was adapted into the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone as well as the Broadway musical, Camelot (which was then, of course, turned into a movie by the same name. White lived both to the see the Broadway adaptation as well as Disney's interpretation of his works.

If you've not read T.H. White before (as I had not prior to this book) I think you might be charmed by his writing style. He has a very P.G. Wodehouse feel about him. There are several passages that made me grin and snicker outloud. He is very engaging and witty and I thought also of Whitehouse and The Strictest School in the World series. (Bet you wondered how I was going to manage to mention that series again, eh?) I was highly entertained from the standpoint of humor.

The basic plot of the book is this:

There is a young boy who goes by the name of Wart who friends a magician by the name of Merlyn. Wart is being raised by a guardian, Sir Ector, who has a son by the name of Kay. Because Wart's blood is of no distinction, he has no hopes of being able to become a knight. Kay, on the other hand, will receive such honors and will become master of his father's estate. Sir Ector does feel the need to have both boys properly educated and finds himself in want of a tutor.

One day Kay decides to go out hawking and Wart comes along with him. Their hawk gets away from them and Wart goes off in search of the bird in the mysterious woods. He happens upon Merlyn, who is expecting him, because Merlyn lives backwards in time instead of forward, like the rest of humanity. Merlyn sets himself out as the boy's tutor and returns to Sir Ector's castle with young Wart. Merlyn's purpose, of course, is to educate Wart for eventual kingship, although this is not revealed until the very end of the book. Part of Wart's education comes from being magically turned into things such as a fish, a snake, and an owl. Each lesson supposedly teaches Wart something about himself and how to rule his future kingdom.

There is a great deal of magic in the book. Merlyn professes himself to be a practitioner of white magic and his abilities are compared in contrast to Madam Mim who practices black magic and who engages Merlyn in a wizard's duel at one point in the book. Merlyn himself is kind of an absent-minded fellow who can't tell if he is coming or going (since he lives backwards in time) and provides a great deal of comedic relief throughout the book.

I've mentioned in the past that I am working on formulating an opinion as to when I think magic is used well in books and when it is not. As for this read, I'm not going to comment on that or form an exact opinion. This book read as more of a historical comedy to me than anything else. It's feel was just very light hearted and so I never experienced any real cause for alarm, other than the wizard's duel against Madam Mim who was most definitely a creepy character. Her chapter was short-lived though for which I was grateful - and Merlyn was clearly the victor in their battle.

Personally, I can imagine my boys really enjoying this as a read-aloud when they are older. (I'm thinking 11 or 12.) It is very magical and very funny. Here were some of my favorite excerpts:

Wart is bored and comes to Merlyn asking to be changed into a hawk so as to have an adventure. Meryln hushes him, being busy knitting, and Wart takes a seat.

After several minutes he said, "Is one allowed to speak as a human being, or does the thing about being seen and not heard have to apply?"
"Everybody can speak."
"That's good, because I wanted to mention that you have been knitting your beard into that night-cap for three rows now."
"Well, I'll be fiddled."
"I should think the best thing would be to cut off the end of your beard. Shall I fetch some scissors?"
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I wanted to see what would happen."
"You run a grave risk, my boy," said Merlyn coldly, "of being turned into a piece of bread and toasted." (Chapter 8, page 109)

Kay and Wart were being sent on a quest into the Fairy Queen's castle where they were warned not to eat anything that they were offered, no matter how good it looked. White is rather fond of making up songs for his characters to sing throughout the book, but he tempts Kay and Wart with this chorus (and a spread of ice cream treats) as they wander into the Fairy Queen's domain:

"Way down inside the large intestine,
Far, far away.
That's where the ice cream cones are resting,
That's where the eclairs stay."
This book is just so oddly amusing and very unique. Definitely a boy's tale, I should think. (Although this girl enjoy it quite well herself.) White clearly had a worldview to espouse in this book and I did not agree with all of it. There is plenty of mention of the earth being millions of years old, for instance, and apparently he wrote The Once and Future King to explain his idea of an ideal society. He was definitely a political writer as well as a humorist, but the parts I did not agree with were easy enough for me to ignore.

As for the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone . . .

It wasn't quite as dark and scary as I have this vision of it being when I was younger. In fact, there is far less magic used in the movie than there is in the book. If you dislike the magic in the movie, you will absolutely not enjoy White's original work. My impression of the movie was that the magic used was no more disagreeable than what you would see in Beauty and the Beast (i.e., sugar bowls with personality, dishes being washed with the help of magic, household items being moved about under spells, animals talking, etc.)

That said, I greatly disliked Madam Mim - just as much as I disliked her in the book. She is a scary character and any child sensitive to characters who change themselves at whim into scary looking animals should not have this film inflicted upon them. Bookworm1 is particularly sensitive to "scary things" and there is no way I would show him this film. So no, we will NOT be adding this one to our Disney library. Although Disney tried to lessen her scary impact by making her the color pink (as well as making all of the animals she was turning herself into pink) her intent towards Merlyn was evil and that was very clear. When she turns her face into a pig's face it's quite grotesque and then, of course, ultimately she becomes a dragon which Disney has a way of making kinda scary when you are talking about the villain. No, we will not be watching it.

The movie version was also too short and, I thought, lacked in substance compared to the book. They lacked the time to truly dive into the story and give a deeper understanding of who Wart was and why his education was so amazing. For example, in the movie Wart introduces himself to Merlyn as "Arthur, but everyone calls me Wart." Disney had to cut to the chase and so lost the depth of White's original story and made the film kind of fall flat for me.

Sometimes I really like the Disney-fied versions better and think they are an excellent way for children to learn to engage with stories. (For example, we've recently been enjoying Disney's The Jungle Book and Bookworm1 even expressed an interest in reading the original stories - even thought it's a dreaded chapter book! In the case of The Sword in the Stone, if we indulge ourselves in this tale I would far rather my boys not be familiar with the movie and hold off on reading this book until their imaginations can capture the adventure and the magic of it as a stand-alone.

As for myself, I'm glad to have read the (1939) book and I'll stick it up on our bookshelves for later. As for the movie - it went right back to Netflix and I don't feel the need to see it again.


Amber said...

This was one of my favorite movies growing up, and now I am really anxious to read the book! Great review!

Janet said...

One of my favorite reads. I've read the whole series but this first book is my favorite. I loved Merlin's idea of education. :-) Glad you liked it!

The movie is a different animal, but my girls like it anyway. I think Bill Peet is one of the animators.

Gidget Girl Reading said...

I have never read the book or seen the movie. I'll have to keep this in mind for my nephews when they get older.

Annette W. said...

We do have the movie...never read the book.

Yes, the movie is a bit much for those like M who are sensitive to on-screen villains. The magic in the movie is fairly tame, as you said. We bought it not knowing for sure...

Barbara H. said...

I've wondered about this book and film but had never delved into either of them. I LOVED that old version of Camelot (I hear, sadly, they're making a new sexed-up version. Sigh!) I picked up The Once and Future King once, but it didn't look appealing just by glancing through it.

When my kids were small, I didn't allow any stories or movies with magic (didn't want to confuse the issue), but as they got older I came to the conclusion that wizards like Gandalf are not the same as wizards in real life, so fairy-tale magic may be okay. By the time we began to allow a little of that kind of thing, they were old enough to understand the difference.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read your review, Carrie. Peter is getting a Disney-themed Easter basket since we went to Disney World in January. I've been trying to decide which movies to get BEFORE THEY GO BACK IN THE VAULT! Don't you love how they threaten you with that? :-)

I finally decided on "Pinnochio" and "Tangled". "Tangled" is more for me than it is for him!

Taia said...

Ronan is enjoying The World of Pooh right now, which is a chapter book. Joshua might like it too. We don't normally read chapter books, this one just happens to fit us.

Unknown said...

Okay, that seals it. I am going to do a Strictest School read-aloud with Amanda. I told you she never really got into the first one, but she was younger. I think it will take this time! We both love MBS, and I've been wanting to do another read-aloud, so I'm going to start!!

Renee said...

My kids and I loved the Sword in the Stone movie. I didn't realize there was a book series behind it. My youngest son is at a perfect age for reading this and I know I'd enjoy it too.

Thanks for the heads up and great revew!

Renee said...

sorry - meant to type - review.

lawyers said...

I didn't look appealing just by glancing through it.

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