In 1977 or 78, in my second year at Sheffield University, I decided early one evening to cook chilli con carne for my flatmate and myself. (This was when I was a carnivore and an inexperienced cook.) The kidney beans I used were dried and needed soaking and perhaps lengthy cooking too. In my haste and ignorance I didn't soak or cook them long enough (or at least, in the light of subsequent events, I assume I didn't). Nevertheless the meal seemed palatable, and having eaten we caught the bus to the Crucible Theatre where we had tickets to see Gogol's The Government Inspector.
Most of the first half passed unremarkably; I can't remember anything about the play. But as the interval loomed I began to realise that all was not well, not on the stage but in my stomach. I started to feel not exactly ill, but rather strange. In the interval I had a drink, hoping this would settle things down, but had to resort to going outside where perhaps the fresh air would restore me.
On the contrary, things rapidly went from bad to worse, and suddenly I was being horribly sick in a concrete flower bed. (I might add that, while I'm thankfully very rarely sick, I find being so not at all easy, as most people seem to, but extremely difficult and painful, as if my viscera are attempting to hack their way free.) That was only the start. Suffice to say that it was very nasty.
I had no idea what most of the things mentioned in the first sentence meant, but it didn't seem to matter; they sounded romantically exotic. At once we are transported to a beguiling vision of the Middle Ages, with castles and estates and knights, but with hints of the games that White will later play with his readers. He entertains us by introducing anachronisms, such as the picnic, and slapstick humour, for example the unfortunate governess's scar. (The last sentence of the paragraph is perhaps a portent of the cruelty that surfaces in the book every now and then.)
White creates a delightful and charming world, whimsical and serious by turns, inhabited by vivid characters, full of high adventure and low comedy (as well as the more sophisticated kind - it's a very funny book), inspired by the later Middle Ages with what sound like accurate details of falconry, hunting and other aspects of life, but with magical embellishments, all of which are treated as if they're everyday and unremarkable. So for example, quite early on in the book, when the tone is still being established, we're told that 'There were even a few dragons, though they were rather small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.' The book also has one foot, or at least a toe or two, in 1938 (when the book was published), and, perhaps even more so, in the world of the late Victorian and Edwardian country house, with its reassuring hierarchies and routines. I think this is one of the reasons why I love it so much, despite the fact that the fantasy genre as a whole leaves me cold. It is in some ways grounded in realism, despite the strong element of fantasy, and seduces you into wanting to live in Sir Ector's castle (or a large country house at the turn of the 20th century) and join in with the hay-making, however unjust and tough you know such a life must have been. Surely even the sternest republican can't read the end of the penultimate chapter, where the Wart, having just become King of England, is knelt to by Sir Ector and Kay, without a lump in their throat?
The book was a big success both in Britain and the US. He continued the story of Arthur in The Witch in the Wood
* (1939) and The Ill-Made Knight
(1940). Presumably he also wrote The Candle in the Wind
soon after, though it wasn't published until 1958 when all four books appeared together as The Once and Future King
. The fifth book, The Book of Merlyn
, was written in 1941 but not published until 1977, after White's death.
White substantially revised The Sword in the Stone
for the omnibus version; it was clear to him that The Book of Merlyn
wasn't going to be published, so he took two of the key episodes from it and transplanted them into the first book of the tetralogy. This has been common knowledge since the publication of the last book of the pentalogy (as we have to call it in this context). I've compared the two versions** (not word by word or even page by page, but closely enough to pick up the major differences and a representative sample of the minor) and I was surprised to find how many other changes White made.
Some of them are apparently intended to make the 1958 version slightly more formal in tone, so some contractions used in 1938, such as 'he's' and 'wasn't', become 'he is' and 'was not'. In '38 when King Neptune makes a brief appearance he has a 'tummy', which by '58 has become a 'stomach'. In '38 King Pellinore says 'deah, deah', the idiomatic spelling emphasising his comical upper class accent, while in '58 he merely says 'oh, dear'. All these changes seem to me to diminish the playful child-like charm of the book.
Some other changes hardly seem to have been worth making at all. Compare, for example, in '38: 'the unfortunate brachet trailing and howling behind him at the other end of the string', with '58: 'the unfortunate brachet trailing behind him at the other end of the cord'. The removal of 'howling' lightens the tone, but why bother changing 'string' to 'cord'? There are numerous little alterations like this.
In the first chapter, while the reader is still assessing the nature of the book, White mentions Eton and drinking port; in '38 it's left to the intelligence of the reader to smile at the anachronisms, but in '58 White feels it necessary to give a ponderous and po-faced explanation, which spoils the joke a little and changes the nature of the compact between author and audience. In '38 he gives us the tiniest of nudges and the briefest of winks and takes us into his confidence, but in '58 he stands behind his lectern and lectures us.
The first major change occurs in chapter 6. In '58 the chapter ends very feebly after a mere couple of pages with the statement 'It was a witch.' In the original version, however, a further 19 pages follow, containing the exciting and funny (and a bit gruesome) episode of Merlyn's shapeshifting battle with Madame Mim. I can't see why White would have wanted to cut this episode, and it's a grievous loss to the omnibus edition.
The next major change come in chapter 10. In '38 there's an archery contest between Robin Wood and Little John (cut completely in '58), and then they go off to ambush the Anthropophagi. In '58 the enemy becomes Morgan le Fay, and the two versions of chapter 11 are different, except Robin's speech and the journey to the enemy are substantially the same. At the end of chapter 11 in '38 the Wart shoots a Sciopod; in '58 he shoots a griffin at the beginning of chapter 12 instead. According to Professor Wikipedia, White admitted to feeling 'uncomfortable' about the Anthropophagi, and I share his misgivings. The Anthropophagi are described as cannibals; they've captured, sacrificed and eaten humans. Yet they're not human, or at best are semi-human; they're drawn from medieval bestiaries, strange beings conjured up from goodness knows what dark corners of the mind (not all of which seem to be cannibals outside White's pages). The Sciopdes, for example, 'had only one foot, but this was so huge that they could use it as a sunshade to protect themselves when they were sleeping.' The episode in which they are attacked by Robin's men is grotesque rather than simply fantastical, and sits rather unhappily in the book.
'58's Morgan le Fay episode has a touch of the grotesque too, ('Morgan le Fay herself lay stretched upon her bed of glorious lard. She was a fat, dowdy middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache, but she was made of human flesh'), but a little is required to create a sense of peril, and there are redeeming touches of humour.
Both versions have a cruel or even sadistic streak. In '38 the Wart shoots an arrow at a Sciopod: 'He had often longed to hear the noise that these gay, true, clean and deadly missiles of the air would make in solid flesh. He heard it.' In '58 the target is a griffin rather than a semi-human, which makes it a little less murderous, and the writing is toned down slightly: 'He had often longed to hear the noise that these clean and deadly missiles would make in solid flesh. He heard it.' Either way, it's hard to square this with the pacifist message of the sequence as a whole.
In '38 the Wart becomes a snake in chapter 13 and hears a story about the evolution of reptiles (and the ferociousness of mankind, which is to become a major theme of the sequence), while in '58 the ant episode from The Book of Merlyn
is inserted. The ant episode is powerful and brilliant, an acute analysis of totalitarianism, yet it's too darkly political to fit comfortably into The Sword in the Stone
The original version has in chapter 18 the Wart becoming an owl and meeting the goddess Athene. He talks to the trees and sees a vision of the history of the universe. This ends: 'In the ultimate twinkling of an eye, far tinier in time than the last millimetre on a six-foot rule, there came a man. He split up the one pebble which remained of all that mountain with blows; then made an arrowhead of it, and slew his brother.'
In chapter 19 Merlyn and the Wart visit the cruel giant Galapas. 'Rubber truncheons' and 'concentration camps' are mentioned; for once White uses anachronisms for serious rather than comic purposes, reminding us that cruelty exists in the modern age as well as in the fantasy past of the book.
In the omnibus version chapters 18 and 19 are replaced by a slightly shorter version of the geese episode from The Book of Merlyn
. This is a fine piece of writing, but it's a shame to lose Athene and Galapas.
The '58 version of chapter 21 has an extra page at the end in which the Wart and the badger discuss man and war; this sounds as if it's from The Book of Merlyn
, but as far as I can see it's not.
Another small addition in '58 appears at the end of the first paragraph of the last chapter: 'the people of England . . . were sick of the anarchy which had been their portion under Uther Pendragon; sick of overlords and feudal giants, of knights who did what they pleased, of racial discrimination, and of the rule of Might as Right.' White is obviously looking back at the Second World War, and inviting us to read the sequence as to some extent an allegory.
Some modern editions of The Once and Future King
include all five books, which renders redundant most of the revisions White made to The Sword in the Stone
(as he made them in the belief that the last book wouldn't be published). All the omnibus editions I've looked at, however, have the '58 version rather than the original, which makes no sense. It means that the ant and geese episodes are included twice, in the first and last books, and the Madame Mim, snake, owl and Galapas episodes are cut, along with many other minor changes, most of which seem to me to be detrimental. So, if you're going to read the sequence (and I thoroughly recommend that you do), read the first volume in its first version (as far as I know all standalone editions reprint the first edition).
And if at all possible, read it in the first edition, published by Collins. A first edition, first impression in dust jacket will cost you more than a thousand pounds, but jacketless subsequent impressions can be found on Abebooks for less than a tenner. The advantage of the original publication is that it's illustrated by White himself, and these cartoony sketches don't ever seem to have been reprinted in any later edition. Every chapter has a headpiece, and most have a tailpiece too, so that amounts to over forty drawings. I've included scans of a few, and as you can see they're idiosyncratic and rather cute.
* Revised and called The Queen of Air and Darkness
for the omnibus edition, but I've not read the earlier version.
** White also revised the book for publication in the US, cutting the chapters about the Anthropophagi and substituting chapters about griffins and wyverns; I assume they're the same as or at least similar to chapters 10 and 11 in the 1958 omnibus version. However, I've not read the US version.