Lucy Coats was born in Hampshire, had a madly exciting time at Edinburgh University, then worked as a sober-ish London children's book editor for several years. After that she jumped the fence from publishing into the much greener writers' fields and had her first picture book published in 1991. She has since gone on to write many other children's books, including Greek Beasts and Heroes - her new 12-book series of myth retellings. Lucy lives in Northamptonshire among muddy watermeadows filled with sheep. She blogs at Scribble City Central about writing and all that stuff. In this post she discusses T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone.
Lucy Coats on The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White
I have ten thousand books in my house. It's probably too many - though can a writer ever have too many books? I doubt it. Sometimes, in one of those idle moments of procrastination which some of us are prone to when the writing is not going so well, I play a game. I ask myself which of those books I absolutely could not do without. I've never managed to get it down much below fifty, and I'd be more comfortable with a hundred. That's not so many, is it? After all, given the choice between bookshelves and art on the walls, I'd go for bookshelves every time. One of the books I would insist on having is T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone. On days beginning with W it might even be The One.
I first met King Arthur and his Knights in a lavish retelling with colour plates by Harry G. Theaker. It cost seventeen shillings and sixpence and I immediately wanted to read everything about Arthur and his Round Table gang I could get my bookwormy little hands on. The Sword in the Stone (the original version, not the revised one which was published in The Once and Future King) appeared on my ninth birthday, small, fat and compact, with a picture on the purple-bordered cover which bore no earthly resemblance to anything written within. It was the first book I ever read that showed me there are stories behind the stories. I think it's probably the book which made me into the writer I am today. It starts like this:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.
Back then, I didn't know what any of that meant (actually, I'm not sure about the Organon even now), but I remember savouring the richness and grandeur of the words at once. Being a lonely child, I felt an immediate kinship with the orphan Wart. As a bullied child I too knew how it felt to be on the outside of things, wistfully looking in. The detailed descriptions of the natural world fed my country-bred mind - I spent a lot of time up trees and in woods (mostly reading as it happens, but also just sitting very still and watching the busy lives of the birds and beasts and insects around me). The Castle of the Forest Sauvage and its environs was somewhere I recognized deep in my soul as a place I could have called home.
Of course the early appearance of Merlyn was what made the whole book sing for me.
He had a worried expression, as though he were trying to remember some name which began with Chol but which was pronounced in quite a different way, possibly Menzies or was it Dalziel.
With a Scot for a father, I got this at once, knowing the correct way to say John Mingies the Bookseller. The Merlin of Malory is a mysterious sort of deus ex machina figure. The Merlyn of White is entirely human, and it was those mad touches of humanity - the spider which lived on his hat, the bird's-nest hair, the owl dropping-streaked gown - which still make him the wizard of my mind's eye. Then there was Archimedes, the talking owl. Oh, how I wished for an Archimedes of my own to run up my arm and stand shyly by my ear! Once Merlyn had arrived in the Wart's life, anything could and did happen. The scenes where Wart changes into different creatures for his 'education' made a very deep impression on me - and when I came to write my own retelling of the Arthur legend for Coll the Storyteller's Tales of Enchantment, the part where Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone was influenced throughout by White's version. I also paid tribute to White in another book by using my own incarnation of King Pellinore's mythical Questing Beast in Hootcat Hill. I somehow felt as if the man himself was looking over my shoulder in an approving sort of way.
The Sword in the Stone broadened my education too. When I first read it, I was at the age where I was learning about medieval history - the system of villeinage, mottes, baileys and all that - but the book provided me with other things. The technical names of hawks, hounds and equipment; the language of hunting (I shuddered in delighted disgust at King Pellinore's insanitary habit of keeping the Beast Glatisant's fewmets in his wallet); the unchanging rhythms of the farming year; insights into the duties of a page and squire - all these added flesh to the bones of the syllabus and helped me get a flavour of how life might have been lived in those far-off times. White's historical inaccuracies didn't bother me at all; the idea that the mythical Arthur came from times even farther off than the medieval didn't even cross my mind then, and when Robin Hood (not to mention Maid Marian and Little John) turned up as a bit part player, it all seemed quite normal and natural that the two great British heroes should stand shoulder to shoulder on the same page.
Above all, though, I found The Sword in the Stone made me laugh. It's not a book with overt jokes in it, but it has sly, deft touches of humour which filled me with a kind of inner glee - very good for the soul. The daftness of Merlyn's epic shape-changing battle with Madam Mim (only present in the original version) was something I found endlessly amusing (though Madam Mim's casual fairytale threats to the Wart's eyeballs were hide-under-the-covers scary). Sir Ector's bluff and endearing honesty, the way White wrote his speech patterns, were (to me) poking a subversive finger at some of my dad's friends - those posh moustachioed army blokes who dropped the ends of their words too. It was my own private secret that I knew this and they didn't.
Later on, when I read Malory's Morte d’Arthur at university, studied courtlie love and the art of the troubadour, I understood where White had come from. When I was a child, I didn't need that understanding; White's story and the unquestioning pleasure it gave me then were enough to spark a lifelong quest for the tale behind the tale - to plant the endlessly fascinating writer's question of 'What if?' I can ask no more of a book than that.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]