The Sword in the Stone (novel)

The Sword in the Stone is a novel by British writer T. H. White, published in 1938, initially as a stand-alone work but now the first part of a tetralogy, The Once and Future King. The book ISBN is 0-399-22502-3. A fantasy of the boyhood of King Arthur, it is a sui generis work which combines elements of legend, history, fantasy and comedy. Walt Disney Productions adapted the story to an animated film, and the BBC adapted it to radio. Time included the novel in its list of the 100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time.[1]

The Once and Future King Book 1: The Sword in the Stone
First edition
AuthorT. H. White
Original titleStory of Arthur and The Sword in the Stone
IllustratorRobert Lawson
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesThe Once and Future King
GenreFantasy, Arthurian Legend
Published1938 Collins
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Followed byThe Queen of Air and Darkness 

Plot summary

The premise is that Arthur's youth, not dealt with in Malory, was a time when he was tutored by Merlyn to prepare him for the use of power and royal life. Merlyn magically turns Wart into various animals at times. He also has more human adventures, at one point meeting the outlaw Robin Hood (who is referred to in the novel as Robin Wood). The setting is loosely based on Medieval England, and in places it incorporates White's considerable knowledge of medieval culture (as in relation to hunting, falconry and jousting). However it makes no attempt at consistent historical accuracy, and incorporates some obvious anachronisms (aided by the concept that Merlyn lives backwards in time rather than forwards, unlike everyone else).


The English Collins first edition was partially rewritten for Putnam in America.

The version appearing in 1958 in the tetralogy was substantially revised, partly to incorporate events and themes that White had originally intended to cover in a fifth volume (which was finally published after his death, as The Book of Merlyn). To this end, the revised version includes several new episodes, including a pacifist passage in which Arthur is transformed into a wild goose that flies so high as to not be able to perceive national boundaries. It leaves out some of the episodes that had appeared in the original (notably Merlyn's battle with Madam Mim which appeared in the Disney film). Some critics considered the revised version to be inferior to the original.[2] Publishers have tended to carry on using the original versions when they were published independently of the tetralogy; the original, American, and "Once and Future King" versions are still in print.

The reasons White made the last revisions are open to speculation. The Sword in the Stone, although it includes some serious themes, is to some extent a rather whimsical fantasy of Merry England. Its connection with the classical Arthurian legend was actually rather limited, although what it did take from the Arthurian legend was accurate. It was awkward to treat this as the first part of a more serious treatment of the Arthurian legend. It is also possible that White felt in a darker mood after the Second World War. It has also been said that due to wartime censorship, the publishers did not want to print some of White's more strident anti-War sentiments (which are very prevalent in The Book of Merlyn).



Walt Disney made an animated movie adaptation of The Sword in the Stone, first released on 25 December 1963 by Buena Vista Distribution. Like most Disney films, it is based on the general plot of the original story, but much of the substance of the story is considerably changed.

Radio dramatization

The BBC broadcast a six-part radio dramatisation in 1939, with incidental music by Benjamin Britten. It was revived in 1952, following re-discovery of Britten's score after it had been thought lost.[3] A further BBC radio adaptation in 1982 starred Michael Hordern as Merlyn. Hordern had already starred as another great literary wizard, Tolkien's Gandalf, in the BBC's 1981 radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.


In 2014, The Sword in the Stone was awarded the Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novel for 1939.[4]


  1. "100 Best Young-Adult Books". Time. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  2. Keenan, Hugh T. British Children's Writers, 1914–1960
  3. Britten Pears Foundation, Britten Thematic Catalogue
  4. 1939 Retro-Hugo Awards at Retrieved 10 April 2015
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