I pulled the sword from the stone and all I got for it was a funny story

by Mr. Sheehy

While making plans for a sub a couple weeks ago I found myself leafing through the literature text in search of a story. For this particular class (English 10) I admit I am fairly unfamiliar with the textbook. We have so many things to cover that do not come out of the book–like four formal speeches, Shakespeare, and the research paper–that I have not bothered to explore it. To my pleasant surprise, I found hidden in the back a selection from T.H. White’s Once and Future King. The selection is the famous sword in the stone episode and I figured my students would get a kick out of it, if only because it reminded them of the Disney movie.

My own interest was more selfish, however. At the time Elder had been obsessed with turning our living room into a castle. Every night I’d disassemble the grounds and return the raw materials to their sources, but each day when I’d return home from school the old yellow sheet would be draped across the sofa to form a new castle and beneath it I could roughly identify a few pieces of recruited furniture.

Learning, I am convinced, is most relevant when the learner is legitimately curious. If I as a teacher want to make my content relevant to my students, I should probably spend less time trying to reason with them about why it’s useful (when has that approach ever actually worked?) and more time trying to spark some sincere curiosity. How one accomplishes such a task with over-entertained teenagers, I don’t presume to know too well, but I do know how to follow my own curiosities, and when I see my daughter curious about something, I’m not going to sit on the sidelines. She was curious about castles, and here, in my textbook, was King Arthur.

That night, then, I re-told the sword and the stone story to Elder and Middle at dinner (Mommy was sacrificing for the family that night and shopping at Wal*Mart). They completely entered mythical England with me, and when Elder asked for more King Arthur stories, I had to admit, sheepishly, that I didn’t know any. I simply don’t know my King Arthur mythology, and though there’s a story behind why, I’ll just say that when my teacher assigned the material in high school, I was not invested in the unit. Elder and I were therefore forced to make up a tale about King Arthur and Lancelot facing a massive enemy army, and as the army charged, Merlyn turned Arthur’s knights into chickens and rabbits. The enemy charged over the crest of the hill only to end up mingling in confusion with the various barnyard animals. In their confusion, they relaxed their guard, and at that opportune moment Merlyn transformed Arthur’s men back into knights . . . and they slew the enemy!

I obviously needed help, and I ran to the used book store for a copy of Once and Future King. I couldn’t find it all, but I did find the first book, The Sword in the Stone, and I began reading it immediately.

My main motive in reading it, of course, was to grab some material for story-telling, and it definitely gave me that. What I didn’t realize was how amazingly funny some of it would be. The chapters in here that involve King Pellinore are brilliantly funny, and as I read them late at night I feared I might wake my wife by laughing so much.

Aside from those chapters, however, the book doesn’t really hold together as a story. The central conflict to the narrative is lacking, since we know before we pick it up that the Wart is going to be King Arthur (and White intends for us to know this), so there is little to be resolved through the course of the book that is of compelling interest. The book could best be described as a series of short stories about King Arthur’s childhood, some episodes more intriguing than others.

To general audiences, then, I do not recommend this entire book. I would like, however, to pass along the chapters that I think folks might most enjoy if they were looking for a bit of medieval and mythological fun. It’s the kind of chapter guide I wished I’d been given when I read Les Miserables–a guide that lets you skip through the parts that are honestly worth skipping.

  • Read chapters 1-2, they’re hysterical.
  • Read chapter 6–it’s the famous Madame Mimm episode.
  • Read chapter 7, it’s the funniest depiction of knights and jousting I can imagine.
  • If you’re enjoying it, consider reading chapter 15, which depicts a boar hunt. I enjoyed it.
  • Read chapter 19 as Merlyn and the Wart tangle with a giant.
  • And if you’re enjoying the story, finish it off by beginning in chapter 20.

What I have read in The Sword in the Stone, including the parts I recommend skipping, will supply me with enough King Arthur tales to last a couple years–I think. I am sort of safe for now, as Elder has strayed away from her castle obsession, but whether she’s obsessed with castles or not, I know for sure that she and Middle are always obsessed with stories, and one thing I like is to have a ready supply of ideas for when the time comes to “Tell me a story.”

Thanks for reading.