For those of you who don’t want a complete plot summary in the synopsis avoid the below brightly coloured writing, I will say though that the plot and its inevitability is secondary to the whimsical nature of the story.
Probably only the magician, Merlyn, knew that his pupil, the Wart (to rhyme with “Art”) would one day be the great King Arthur.
For six years Merlyn was the boy’s tutor and the Wart learned all manner of useful things; such as what it is like to be a fish or a hawk or a badger.
Then the King Pendragon died without heirs. And King Pellinore arrived at the court with an extraordinary story of a sword stuck in an anvil, stuck to a stone outside a church in London. Written on the sword in gold letters with the words Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil is Rightwise King Born of All England.
The last person anybody expected to pull out the sword was the Wart but then he had had Merlyn as his tutor for six years…
Having grown up with the Disney film, I couldn’t leave this book resting unloved on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, I assumed a fun and magical tale which would provide some escapism and nothing more than an amusing diversion. It did more than that, it made me smile and introduced to me to some really big words as well.
What sets this story apart from other Children’s books is its denseness, by which I mean the number of interesting facts and the language, which add layers to the nature of its plot. It has all of these in abundance and is a book that adults will enjoy as much as children.
I say plot, it’s a less a singular story rather a selection of scenes which offer lessons about nature and life lessons to the character of The Wart (to rhyme with Art, of course). In fact the title is almost an afterthought but that makes sense as the understanding and attachment to Wart has to be built for the books that are to follow, this being book one in a series of five.
For children, there is am amiable story, which is a different take on the parentless boy coming of age being around magic theme and it is perhaps no surprise that J. K. Rowling cites this book as one of the inspirations for the ‘arry Potter series. The world is populated with comical and eccentric characters and religion, nature and time are all touched upon in the adventures, it is a book that will certainly intrigue the younger mind with the mysteries of the world and its philosophies..
For us adults, the book has dual appeal of allowing us to relive those days of carefree discovery as well as welcoming our experience of life. Apart from the obvious nods to Arthurian lore, including one joust scene that really should have been included in le Morte d’ Arthur, there are such time bending references made to, amongst other things Bolsheviks littered all over the place as well as liberal sprinklings of Gods, literature and myth that bring a depth to proceedings.
There is much typically English whimsy to be had but for me the stand out bit of the book is Merlyn, a character travelling backwards through time, who frequently gets charmingly confused about what has and hasn’t happened. The whole book seems out of time with itself but when I consider Merlyn as he lives backwards (yet each day forwards), I wonder does he create what will come to pass in the future which he has already lived and possibly already influenced? Yet can he influence something that has already happened in his past (the future) if he hasn’t lived his future (the past)? The whole thing seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy so does he create any of it?
A book for all ages then, something that can be reread and something new noticed each time. It’ s a wonderful jaunt with lots of humour and a peaceful feel but also an element of danger, the only minor niggle I had was that it felt a little stodgy in places and a bit more editing would have been nice.
Having said that, do check which edition of the book you are picking up. I usually research Children’s books that were written in shall we say less enlightened times and whilst I appreciate some edits are necessary, there seems to have been a fair amount cut out in regards to some of the descriptions and details, in modern versions. Also some stories appear in some, that are watered down in others. The version I have was published in 1971 (not the one pictured as that cover eluded me) and I would be inclined to think the older the copy the better (the original was printed in 1938).