Life After Harry Potter

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  1. The Once and Future King
Life After H P

Book Review


The Sword in the Stone The Sword in the Stone

by T. H. White


Description | Humor | Setting | Adventure | Versions | Adult Content | Conclusion | Edition | Errors | Magic

This review will cover the following areas:  descritpive imagery, humor, setting and adventure.  It will then be followed by a very brief description of the different versions.  Following this is a review of adult content, a conclusion and a short review of the edition I read.  Finally, a short discussion of the ”positive portrayal of magic“ in this story is provided for those who are concerned about such things.

The first point covered here, an important part of any excellent fantasy, is the author’s descriptive power.  In this area, White is one of the few authors that can be comfortable in a comparison with the master, Tolkien.  Tolkien’s descriptive imagery has the power of enabling readers to see things that they have never seen before.  White, on the other hand, has the knack of persuading a reader that he already has seen the things that he is describing.  With White, it is not as if you are there with the character while you are reading (as with Tolkien), but rather as if you were there when the events the author is describing happened.  White makes it seem as if the events in his story are actually part of your own memory, and this is no mean feat.

One area in which this author clearly exceeds Tolkien is humor.  Although the every-day, simple humor of The Hobbit is incredibly well-done, White does this one better with his hilariously surprising turns of events.  Here is one example, in which Merlyn is about to change “the Wart” into a bird:

“First you go small,” said Merlyn, pressing him on the top of the head until he was a bit smaller than a pigeon.  “Then you stand on the ball of your toes, bend at the knees, hold your elbows to your sides, lift your hands to the level of your shoulders, and press your first and second fingers together, as also your third and fourth.  Look, it is like this.”

With these words the aged magician stood upon tiptoe and did as he had explained.

The Wart copied him carefully and wondered what would happen next.  What did happen was that Merlyn, who had been saying the final spells under his breath, suddenly turned himself into a condor, leaving the Wart standing on tiptoe unchanged.

— T. H. White, The Once and Future King

When White writes “suddently”, he means it, and it takes the reader completely by surprise.  Again and again I found myself laughing out loud while reading this book, and this is by no means the first time that I have done so.  Additionally, nearly all of the characters are displayed in an absolutely hilarious light — just as you might expect a young boy to see them, without realizing himself just how ridiculous these adults really are.

And what about the story itself?  White sets this pre-Arthurian tale in an intentionally ambiguous time period.  By means of this device, the author introduces as integral parts of the story legendary and historical characters who, at best, must have lived centuries apart in time.  In addition, though clearly predating gunpowder, intentionally anachronistic, humorous references are often made to much more modern paraphernalia.  At the same time, the author does an absolutely wonderful job of giving the reader an authentic description life in the “Pre-appliance Age”, and I would say that it compares favorably with such excellent accounts as Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Added to this is a wholly likeable and endearing cast (with the notable exceptions of the vilesomely evil Madam Mim, the rapacious “Anthropophagi,” and the tyrannical giant Galapas).

Within this convincingly-authentic yet humorously unauthentic setting, White relates one of the most amazing adventures ever written.  “The Wart” is magically transformed into several different animals (allowing him to interact with his fellow creatures), and is also witness to the adventures of wizards, giants and knights.  Although too concerned with the day-to-day humorous events in the life of the young main character to permit anything like the traditional “Epic Quest” of fantasy, the author once again surprises us by showing, at the very end, that there was a goal toward which the story was straining all along.  The author also manages to avoid the “exploration of far lands” present in so many top-notch adventures.  Instead, what is explored here is the world around us.  This particular exploratory journey is very nearly as fantastic as traversing the lands of Middle Earth.

I would like to mention here that this is only one of three different versions I have read.  This portrays itself as the original edition, and the primary difference with other versions that I have read is with the chapter I will title “Kay’s Adventure”.  In this version, a battle is fought by “the Wart”, Kay and a group of forest warriors against the “Anthropohagi,” cannibals derived directly from medieval legends of actual peoples.  In the two other versions, the battle is fought against griffin(s) guarding a fairy castle.  In one case, the castle is guarded by a solitary griffin; in the other, by a whole army of griffins.  I must say that I find the fairy castle versions of the story much more entertaining.  For one, there is a much better reason for including two children in the battle, an involvement not really necessary in the attack on the “Anthropohagi.”  For another, the fairies are far more interesting than the “Anthropohagi,” who are portrayed with the derogatory characteristics found in the medieval legends describing them.  In contrast to the fantastic adventure of entering the fairy castle, this seems both somewhat depressing and, well, politically incorrect by comparison.

There is some adult content within this book.  In a very few instances, certain supporting characters use very mild adult language.  Those concerned can look here to see what words are used, and on how many occasions.  In my estimation, this is not nearly sufficient to demand concern for younger readers.  The usage is entirely for the sake of “authentically” portraying the characters who use it, and by no means is it gratuitous. 

I could gush for pages about this excellent book.  This is a classic work of fantasy, and this designation is well-deserved.  Devoted fans of detailed magic may be disappointed by the nearly total lack of such details in this book (though the wording of many spells is recorded), but the fantastic wizard’s duel more than makes up for this “lack.”  Personally, I can find no fault with this story whatsoever, except that it should have gone on and on for volumes, describing every one of “the Wart’s” adventures right up to the end of his education. This is my second-favorite fantasy, and once again I realize why:  it’s original, it’s adventurous, it’s superbly descriptive, and it simply could not be better done (as is witnessed by the poorly reworked version included in The Once and Future King).  Even those who, for some inexplicable reason, do not find The Hobbit enjoyable should enjoy this immensely.  It is much more humorous and much more “real world.”  The only conceivable lack in this story is the dearth of women.  It is clear that this was written as a boys’ adventure at a time when, for the most part, only boys were interested in adventure.  However, I cannot imagine any girl not relating to “the Wart’s” view of the world just as easily as any boy.  White can be used along with Tolkien as “the bar” by which all other fantasy is measured.

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Hard Cover
Book Cover
The Sword in the Stone


The 1993 Philomel Books edition was reviewed (ISBN:  0-399-22502-1).  This is a hard-cover (cardboard?) book with a glued (not stitched) binding.  For comparison, the cover appears both thicker and sturdier than that of A Wizard of Earthsea.  The illustrations, like most illustrations in descriptive works of fantasy, add nothing to the story.  However, they are of high quality, and certainly add to the beauty of this edition.  Here is an example.  I detected a total of twelve printing errors in this edition — not excessive for a book of 256 pages, but nothing about which to boast, either.  Overall, a very good edition at a slightly high price.

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List of Printing Errors

Page Line Error Correction Description
11 31 Hic, Hac, Hoc Hic, Haec, Hoc misspelling
23 16 hornrimmed horn-rimmed or horn rimmed hyphen (or space) omitted
26 29 his beastly horse this beastly horse omitted “t”
71 4 night it out night is out letter exchange
91 19 ’Non!” “Non!” incorrect quotation mark
98 35 shouldes shoulders misspelling
109 16 Supply and feasts Supply our feasts wrong word
109 17 And his feasts And his feats superfluous “s”
163 31 Tablot Talbot letter transposition
178 21 spears? spears. incorrect punctuation
189 21 asleep at night? asleep at night. (or !) incorrect punctuation
232 5 all’s fear and all’s fear in wrong word

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Positive Portrayal of Magic

There is a positive portrayal of magic in this story.  There is also a negative portrayal of magic.  The villainous witch in the story is plainly characterized as a worshipper of Satan and demons.  The heroic wizard, Merlyn, is less plainly but incontestably characterized as a servant of the Christian God.  First, he recounts a moral tale involving the prophet Elijah.  Second, he makes it plain that he is authorized to do only certain magic, and only for a certain individual (the main character).  It is clear to me, a bible-believing Christian, that this authorization comes from the Christian God, and cannot be mistaken as coming from any other power.  Finally, Merlyn attends Christian religious services along with every other regular character in the story.  Though Merlyn’s magic is something that he has learned to implement with study, his power is unquestionably only permitted in the service of God.  The only real concern might be the appearance of the classic Greek gods Poseidon and Athene.  Poseidon is summoned by Merlyn’s magic in one instance (demonstrating even that god’s subservience to a greater power), and the miserable Athene, goddes of wisdom, is visited (magically) in order that she may impart knowledge of natural history to the main character.  The suitability of these two pagan references in an otherwise wholly-Christian-seeming outlook on “white” magic is left for the reader to judge.

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