Wednesday, 7 March 2012

March 2012: T H White's "Sword in the Stone" and our April book

This month we've been reading The Sword in the Stone by Terence Hanbury (T H) White, published in 1938.  This whimsical children's story by the former Stowe schoolmaster - based on Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1485) - was an instant success when it first came out, with Walt Disney acquiring the film rights in 1939. White amended it to become the first volume in his more serious - and much less readable - Arthurian quartet, The Once and Future King (1958).  Lerner and Lowe purchased the latter three books to make the successful musical Camelot in 1960. This finally motivated Disney to make the cartoon version of The Sword in the Stone: it came out in 1964, one year before White died suddenly aged 57 in Piraeus, on board the ship on which he was returning from a lecture tour of the United States. He was buried in Athens.

One of us had read and loathed The Once and Future King leading to some reluctance to tackle The Sword in the Stone.  Luckily, these fears proved unfounded!

Our wide-ranging discussion touched on aspects of White's somewhat eccentric and melancholy life as well as the book's extensive sources and intertextual references.  Having persevered through the first chapter with its obscure falconry language - evidence of his own passionate enthusiasms - we all agreed that (rather like King Pellinore's Quest) it had been worth the struggle!  In fact, the shape of the book seemed to echo White's melancholia with its highs and its lows, personified by Pellinore and the Beast eventually coming to terms with their inter-dependency.

There were so many "highs" to talk about, despite some of the dated language.  The description of the interior of Merlyn's cottage, so like Remps' 1690 painting of a Dutch cabinet of curiosities that we felt White must have been describing it; the perfectly-behaved English weather when the white snow never turns to slush; the night in the mews; Wart's transfigurations into animals, birds or fish; the scenes with Robin and Maid Marian; the modern references (such as Merlyn appearing like Lord Baden-Powell in running shorts, or the cigarette cards of wildfowl paintings by Peter Scott); the trees' discussion about their various utilities; the Wind in the Willows-like scenes with Athene and the hedgehog and badger ... It was interesting too with White's interest in Catholicism to recognise the religious references - including salvation for the wicked bankers! 

The American Book-of-the-Month Club magazine wrote in 1939: "Mr. White is evidently a scholar. His knowledge of the codes, the customs, the courtesies of medieval England, is extraordinary ... This book is unique. You may not like it if you cannot take a mixed drink of phantasy and realism, edged with satire, and beautifully blended by a humorous imagination. But if you like it, you will not like it moderately."

We didn't all like The Sword in the Stone, but those of us who did, definitely did "not like it moderately". 

Our next book is Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin but we won't be meeting until Wednesday 2 May because of the Easter holidays.  It's going to be hard to wait that long!

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