The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938) 209 p.
This is the first novel in a larger work by T.H. White called The Once and Future King, a wonderful title. Most people are probably more familiar with it as a Disney film adaptation from the 1960s, even if they haven’t seen it; for some reason I also always confuse it with the Black Cauldron film/video game, which is apparently based on a different series of novels called The Chronicles of Prydain by one Lloyd Alexander, loosely based on Welsh mythology.
The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy, and The Sword in the Stone focuses on Arthur’s childhood as a boy nicknamed “the Wart,” growing up with his older brother Kay in a castle in England. Their father, Sir Ector, secures a tutor for them who happens to be the great wizard Merlin, and most of the book is a series of loosely connected little adventures, usually revolving around Merlin transforming the Wart into different animals so he can learn about how they live.
I’ve heard The Once and Future King described as one of the greatest fantasy series ever written, and I was surprised to find that The Sword in the Stone, at least, is extremely whimsical and not particularly serious. It’s not exactly a children’s book – I imagine a lot of the lengthier passages about bird calls and the finer points of jousting and hunting would bore most children, because they certainly bored me. But it sort of has the style of a children’s book; a whimsical fairytale set in Merry Old England, with White deliberately marking it as such:
In the Old England there was a great marvel still. The weather behaved itself.
In the spring, the little flowers came out of the meads, and the dew sparkled, and the birds sang. In the summer it was beautifully hot for no less than four months, and, if it did rain just enough for agricultural purposes, they managed to arrange it so that it rained while you were in bed. In the autumn the leaves flamed and rattled before the west winds, tempering their sad adieu with glory. And in the winter, which was confined by statute to two months, the snow lay evenly, three feet thick, but never turned to slush.
The novel is also full of anachronisms, usually expressed through wizard and time traveller Merlin, who constantly references people and inventions from the future which have no place in the Dark Ages. (Robin Hood also makes an appearance; my English mythology is a bit rusty but I’m pretty sure he’s not supposed to turn up until several centuries after King Arthur at least.) The Sword in the Stone is a funny little novel and not what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and from what I’ve heard it grows considerably darker and more serious later in the series.