“I can see that you spoke in ignorance, and I bitterly regret that I should have been so petty as to take offence where none was intended.”
― T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone
It is not uncommon, among a certain type of readers of a certain age, to proclaim this book as, if not a favorite read... a seminal influence.
It certainly was for me. I owned it as a young person. Initially, it was a stubbornly avoided book with what I considered to be... an uninspiring cover. As a consequence, I would not pick it up. But when, finally, I did--it's really not too much to say, "delight and wonder awaited."
The Sword in the Stone is, just as another enamored reader says, "an enchanted retelling of the childhood of King Arthur of England. The book's magical adventures, talking animals, and questing knights provide life lessons that foreshadow the rule of the most legendary king of all time." Yes. Enchanted--or enchanting--is definitely the word!
One of my friends gave them a copy for a very early birthday. I didn't like that cover either. But I did think... they would grown into reading it. It sat and waited on the shelf. And then, yes... my voracious readers gave it a try--and they set it down again. Nope.
It took me some time to understand exactly why.
The edition that I owned as a child was not a particularly good edition. Which is to say, it was not a particularly good version of the text. Seymourebel, in a nice blog post, gives a more well-researched overview than I can put together in this quick jaunt of a Tuesday morning post. There are at least three variant texts, owing to squeamishness on the part of White's publishers in the UK and in the United States, and White's own changing views on warfare subsequent to his experiences of WWII.
But there was one thing that my edition did have that many don't. And that was--T.H. White's personal illustrations of the text.
No one will ever claim that White was a master draftsman. But the drawings are less dispensable than the modern publisher must believe. Certainly there are drawings that are cute, and add to the book's tone (especially for a young reader). There are humorous sketches of King Pellinore, anthropomorphized dishes washing themselves in a bucket--as if at a public bathhouse--along with the various animals that the Wart (future King Arthur) and his tutor Merlyn encounter on their adventures. But the drawings also included political references (a brutal giant appears, adorned with a swastika and the soviet hammer and sickle), and, more importantly, in early chapters they are directly referenced in the text. Merlyn tries to teach his charge about the confusions of living with "second sight" by having the Wart draw on a piece of paper--while looking only in a mirror. There is a one way that these drawings can be laid out properly on a modern typeset page--and clearly the paperback edition of TSitS I am reading from (which follows the beloved 1938 version of the text) didn't bother to set it up that way. I had to crop together pictures from two pages to demonstrate how badly Wart manages it.
This is a book I have reached for through decades. In the 1990s, at least, the publishers honored White's inventive play. Perhaps King Pellinore and the playful dishes were gone, but the M (which should have been a W) and this delightful page were included, in which Merlyn attempts to conjure up his own pointed wizard's hat, and ends up shrieking, in an sulky passion, "This is an anachronism! That's what it is, a beastly anachronism!"
Modern publishers evidently know better, eliminating the intertextual illustrations (and the expense of producing them).
But what remains?
A book... which has been stripped not only of its humor, but of its capacity to be comprehended.
So--what this post is saying: I fear that The Sword in the Stone is lost to us as readers.
Reader-of-the-Future--it wasn't the same book.