Many people are not aware of the fact that T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone exists not only as an isolated and self-contained novel, but also as the opening volume in a quartet of novels about King Arthur collection known as The Once and Future King. In addition, those only familiar with Disney animated adaptation of The Sword in the Stone may be quite surprised to learn that the novel is a much richer narrative filled with exponentially more incidents and more than a few memorable and important players completely left out of the Disney cut.
Among the characters inexplicably left out of the Disney version is a fellow named Robin Wood who is not the esteemed film critic of the same name, but who shares a remarkable similarity to a forest-dwelling anti-hero bandit with nearly the same name who also happens to have a companion named Marian. What did manage to translate intact from the novel to the film is the humor and wit which is derived in large part from the reliance upon anachronism. One of the reasons that The Sword in the Stone has managed to remain one of the most popular versions of the Arthurian legend is the ease with which it can be read by contemporary audiences, especially those familiar with early 20th century British vernacular. In addition to dialogue that is distinctly out of time—although considering the manner in which Merlin the Magician ages, not out of place—references about to thing ranging from the Tower of London to the theatrical stylings of Punch and Judy which only came into existence some time after the setting of the events.
Another reason for the lasting popularity of the introductory section of The Once and Future King may be attributable to Arthur being a rather goofy little kid nicknamed Wart rather than the King of Britain with all manner of marital problems to deal with in addition to the even more serious considerations taken under the advisement of those invited to a seat at the Round Table. While T.H. White based his tale of the Arthurian legend directly upon Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, there is one enormously distinct divergence between the tone of that most famous recounting of the story of Arthur and this one. White allows access inside the heads of his characters to forge a relationship based on emotional context that is sorely missing from the just-the-facts prose of Malory. This is no truer than in the case of Arthur as a boy, about which almost no other author even bothers to consider aside from White. The king that Arthur becomes later comes very much alive in great part due to what we get to know of Wart the goofy child.
The whole point of The Sword in the Stone is not that Wart the overlooked is revealed to be the only soul in all of Britain capable of fulfilling the destiny promised within the lure of “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England” but that while qualities like sympathy and empathy may be an inherent aspect of a person’s genetic identity, wisdom is something that can must learned. More to the point: wisdom without inherent qualities like sympathy is pointless.
What The Sword in the Stone really brings to the legend of King Arthur that had been sorely missing is, somewhat paradoxically, the reality that greatness means nothing if it does not stem from the ordinary. By the time Arthur becomes King, he is already legendary and so there is no context for how he got there. Arthur is a great legend; Wart is utter, inescapably average. The Sword in the Stone provides the full perspective of how every legend originates in the commonplace.