Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #12: The Sword in the Stone


Once again memory is playing tricks on me. I’m fairly certain that the Disney film version came first.

Which I don’t think I will ever be able to watch in its entirety again.

This is fairly ridiculous. I don’t think it was a film that Dad watched with us an awful lot, and I’d never associated it with him until the last few years.One could make the argument that the wise, kindly old mentor who teaches the young boy, takes him on marvellous adventures and wants so much so badly for him, only for their relationship to be lost and ended (thankfully momentarily) in a moment of anger, hurt and misunderstanding, might just possibly be relevant…

…but I hold more to the fact that this is the shitty, cheating, sly, conniving bloody thing about grief. When does it ever make sense?

Also, there’s that bit with the little squirrel girl.

Squirrel girl
If the utter heartbreak of the little squirrel girl doesn’t make you cry helplessly (or at least feel incredibly down and sick at the bitter cruelty of life) you are a barefaced liar, and you can meet me with guns at dawn.

We watched this film very frequently when we were tiddlers. I was terrified of the wolf that chases Arthur and tries to eat him, no matter how silly he becomes later on as he’s beaten up by a squirrel. We danced along to Merlin’s various songs. We hid behind the sofa when the horrendous pike appeared. We bawled when the little squirrel girl realised her love could never be, and retreated to her nest to sob her sorry heart out. We dashed around the room in excitement during the wizard’s duel between Merlin and the Marvelous Mad Madame Mim –

purple dragon.PNG
“Did I say no purple dragons? Did I?!?”

We cried again when Merlin, outraged, takes off for Bermuda. Of course we cheered when Arthur pulled the titular sword from the titular stone.

‘Archimedes, the highly educated owl’  became a catchphrase between my sister and I.

With Dad’s help, we read the book.

As per usual he got us hooked through soundbites. And in my case, with food. On a sunny day we were sitting in the dining room (which was so rarely used for dining, and far more for storing all the books Dad couldn’t fit into his study) as he read me this delectable menu:

The Wart saw that the most perfect breakfast was laid out neatly for two, on the table before the window. There were peaches. There were also melons, strawberries and cream, rusks, brown trout piping hot, grilled perch which were much nicer, chicken devilled enough to burn one’s mouth out, kidneys and mushrooms on toast, fricassee, curry, and a choice of boiling coffee or best chocolate made with cream in large cups.

“Have some mustard,” said Merlyn, when they had got to the kidneys.

The mustard pot got up and waked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.

“Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Where ever did you get it?”

At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit; but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a teaspoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.

“It’s not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it does give itself airs.” (p37-38)

On the very next page, Merlyn is trying desperately to conjure a piece of paper and pencil in order to explain how he ages backwards. It starts with him receiving an un-sharpened pencil and a copy of the morning post, and it just gets better from there.

Dad read Merlyn’s fits of temper and sulkiness in such a brilliant high, creaky door voice.

I think Dad and I might just have tested out for ourselves how possible it to join up five dots into a W, while looking only in a mirror. Maybe.

There’s a distinct possibility that Madame Mim’s defeat in the film led Dad to help us discover what happened to her in the book (akin to Homer Simpson shattering his daughter’s beliefs about a certain key moment in American history):

In the film, the climax of the wizard’s duel results in Madame Mim getting infected by Merlin in the form of malignalitaloptereosis, which causes her to get immensely sick and have to spend a few weeks in bed, grumbling like mad.

In the book? First of all, Hecate, the goddess of magic, is also there as an umpire. Sitting on top of a step-ladder in the middle of the battleground. As you do. Or rather as umpires do.

Second of all, Mim turns into a dragon right at the start, and at the climax turns into an aullay, a horse type creature ‘as much bigger than an elephant as an elephant is larger than a sheep’ but with an elephant’s trunk and a shriek like a railway engine.

Third of all, weeeeeeell…

[Mim] rushed upon the man before it with another piercing scream. Merlyn vanished again just as the thrashing trunk descended, and all stood still a moment, looking about them, wondering where he would step out next.

“One,” began Hecate again, but even as she proceeded with her counting, strange things began to happen. The aullay got hiccoughs, turned red, swelled visibly, began whooping, came out on spots, staggered three times, rolled its eyes, fell rumbling to the ground. It groaned, kicked and said Farewell. The Wart cheered, Archimedes hooted till he cried, the gore-crow fell down dead and Hecate, on the top of her ladder, clapped so much that she nearly tumbled off. It was a master stroke.

The ingenious magician had turned himself successively into the microbes, not yet discovered, of hiccoughs scarlet fever, mumps, whooping cough, measles and heat spots and from a complication of all these complaints the infamous Madame Mim had immediately expired. (p82)

Dad was often fond of quoting Louis Pasteur: ‘Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word.’ No surprise why he ‘enjoyed’ this punchline.

The most vivid memory I have of Dad and The Sword in the Stone is when he got onto the subject of falconry, and then proceeded to read me a section from the book that didn’t make it into the film. For some odd reason.

By request, Merlyn turns the Wart into a merlin falcon and lets him stay in the mews over night to listen to the conversations of the falcons, hawks and other raptors. (According to Merlyn, they mostly talk about ‘tactics, small arms, maintenance, betting, famous hunts, wine, women and song’ and ‘the best restaurants where they used to go, and how they had champagne and caviare and gypsy music’.) (p108)

The Wart gets rather more than he bargained for. Assuming he’s a new recruit, the birds swear him into their ranks with various questions on hunting – I can remember Dad’s voice speaking the Wart’s various answers, by turn panicked when the boy makes a mistake (turns out the answer is always ‘feet’) and warily confident. Finally, as an ordeal they send him over to stand by the unhooded Colonel Cully,  who is completely insane and quotes an inordinate amount of Shakespeare, with a dash of John Webster.

Dad gave Cully a gurgling choking growl of a voice, and I shrank into myself and listened with dread:

“Never fear, sir. They have only to ring three times.”

At this all the knights lowered their raised legs and gave them a solid shake. The first sweet persuasive tinkling filled the room.

“Madam, Madam!” cried the Colonel in torture. “Have pity, have pity on a damned man of blood. I can’t hold off much longer.”

“Be brave, sir,” said the Wart softly.

“Be brave, sir! Why, but two nights since, one met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man upon his shoulder: and he howled fearfully.”

“It’s nothing,” said the Wart.

“Nothing! Said he was a wolf, only the difference was a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside, his on the inside. Rip up my flesh and try. Ah, for quietus, with a bare bodkin!”

The bells rang for the second time.

The Wart’s heart was thumping heavily and pleading for the third release, but now the Colonel was sidling towards him along the perch. Stamp, stamp, he went, striking the wood he trod on with a convulsive grip at every pace. His poor, mad, brooding eyes glared in the moonlight, shone against the persecuted darkness of his scowling brow. There was nothing cruel about him, no ignoble passion. He was terrified of the Wart, not triumphing, and he must slay.

“If it were done when ’tis done,” whispered the Colonel, “then ’twere well, it were done quickly. Who would have thought the young man had so much blood in him?”

“Colonel!” said the Wart, but held himself there.

“Boy!” cried the Colonel. “Speak, stop me, mercy!”

“There is a cat behind you,” said the Wart calmly, “or a pine-marten. Look.”

The Colonel turned, swift as a wasp’s sting, and menaced into the gloom. There was nothing. He swung his wild eyes again upon the Wart, guessing at the trick. Then, in the cold voice of an adder, “The bell invites me, ” he hissed for the last time. “hear it not, Merlin, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or hell.” (p118-119)

Talk to me about unsettling scenes you read in your childhood. I raise you my father reading me a scene where an insane hawk quotes some of the creepiest parts of The Duchess of Malfi, Hamlet and Macbeth, and creeps towards the protagonist, unable to control or stop himself and preparing for the kill.

Of course just then the bells ring for the third time, the Wart escapes from the strike of the mad Colonel, and the chapter ends with a jolly sing song. Really.

Going back through the book now, twenty years and more later, I’m realising just how much of it I didn’t read when I was younger; instead sifting through it for the scenes I recognised from the film. For instance, there’s a moment where the Wart remembers a man with no nose called Wat who was tormented by village children, until he caught one of them, bit his nose off and then ran off into the woods. ‘They threw stones at the child with no nose, now, but Wat was supposed to be in the forest still, running on all fours and dressed in skins.’ (p19) I certainly don’t remember that tidbit from childhood.

There’s subplots that I missed out on, with Robin Hood and cannibals and fairies, and Scythians and a fight with Morgan la Fey. There’s a boar hunt. There’s a visit to an anthill.  There’s the bit where Wat and the boy whose nose he bit off make up and become friends, and elect not to keep noses of pig skin that Merlyn makes for them. (They actually pull them off. Delightful.) There’s a point where Wart is turned into a bird again, and is taken under the wing of both Archimedes and Lyo-lyok, a migrating goose. I realise now that I really skipped most of the second half of the book whenever I read it, and that’s a shame.

I still haven’t read the remaining books in the tetralogy of The Once and Future King, and that’s a bigger shame, but it can be easily solved. I do believe I might have spotted a copy during a trip to Dad’s study.

What else? I think, on Father’s Day 2018, coming back to this blog and Dad’s hoard after a year and more away, I’ll end by going back to the Disney film:

Merlin wart 1
“Ah, you know, lad, that love business is a powerful thing.”
Merlin wart 2
“Greater than gravity?”
Merlin wart 3
“Well, yes, boy. In its way, I’d, uh… Yes, I’d say it’s the greatest force on earth.”
Squirrel girl 1

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