The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone, by T.H. White, is the story of Arthur’s childhood.  White envisioned the book as a preface to Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which did not detail this period.

Since Malory only mentions Arthur’s childhood in passing, White invented this period in Arthur’s life based on those scant references which informed White that: (i) Arthur had been raised away from his parents, as the ward of a nobleman; (ii) Arthur had no knowledge that he was Uther’s son and heir; and (iii) after Uther’s death, Arthur proved his legitimate claim to the throne by pulling the Sword from the Stone (Hanks, 109).

In The Sword in the Stone, Merlyn works as a tutor to Arthur and his foster-brother Kay.  The lessons involve sending Arthur on magical adventures.  However, it is important to note that there are three very different versions of this book, and the magical adventures differ in each version.

Although it is not clear to Arthur until much later, Merlyn’s lessons were intended to teach Arthur how to be a great king.  In all three versions, the book ends with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and being crowned king.

Illustration by T.H. White for the 1938 Edition

Version 1: 1938

Cover of the 1938 First Edition Released in England

The Sword in the Stone was originally published by Collins in England in 1938.  In the original version’s magical lessons, Arthur is turned into a fish in the moat to learn the danger of a might-makes-right society and he is turned into both a hawk and an owl.

In the 1938 edition, Chapter 6 involved a confrontation reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, where the evil witch Madame Mim tricked Wart and his foster-brother Kay into coming into her cottage, and then trapped them, intending to cook and eat them, but Wart and Kay were saved by Merlin, who defeated Madame Mim in a sorcerer’s duel (White (1938) 74-100).  In the scene, Madame Mim locked Wart in a cage, stripped him naked, and then pinched him to see if he was fat (White (1938) 90).  Wart saved himself and Kay by convincing Madame Mim’s goat to find Merlyn.  Merlyn then defeated Madame Mim in a sorcerer’s duel.

In the 1938 edition, Chapter 12 involved a great battle between Wart and Kay, their new friends Robin Wood and his band, and an army of grotesque anthropophagi guarding Morgan le Fey’s castle (White (1938) 169-193).

White also did the illustrations for the original English edition.  Below is an illustration of the badger that Arthur meets during one of his magical adventures.

Version 2: 1939

Cover of the U.S. First Edition

The Sword in the Stone was accepted for publication in the U.S. by G.P. Putnam & Sons, on the condition that several fairly significant changes were made.  As required by Putnam, Chapter 6, where Arthur and Kay were trapped by Madame Mim was substantially edited.  According to Elisabeth Brewer, Putnam might have required this change because they feared the material was too risqué for a young audience (33).

In the 1939 American edition, the great battle outside Morgan Le Fey’s castle was also substantially toned down.  Instead of the battle against  many anthropophagi and griffin, in the 1939 American version, only a single griffin guarded the castle (White (1939) 167-177).  Brewer suggests that Putnam mighthave also required this change because it “was probably thought to have been too recondite, too medieval, and too violate for the American reader” (36).  Unfortunately, White’s correspondence with Putnam was not preserved, and White’s letters only stated that the revisions were required, but did not explain the reasoning behind them.

The book was then released in the U.S. in January 1939.

Version 3: 1958

Cover of the First Edition of The Once and Future King

During World War II, White became increasingly anti-war.  White decided not only did he wish to revise The Sword in the Stone to make it more overly anti-war, but by doing so he would actually be following Malory’s vision.  He wrote that he had “suddenly discovered that the central them of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote for war” (Lupack 105).

White not only revised The Sword in the Stone, but also the second and third books in the series.  In November, 1941, White submitted the three revised (but previously published) books along with the then-unpublished books four and five to Collins with instructions that the five books be published together in one volume.  Collins’ response on November 26, 1941, was less than enthusiastic about the proposition.  He suggested that the long book might be unfeasible due to the paper shortage and that he should just publish book four (Warner 186).  White refused to permit Collins to publish book four, and a protracted battle ensued.  It was not completely resolved until 1958, when White and Collins agreed that Collins would publish revised books 1-4, and would not publish White’s intended finale, The Book of Merlyn.  As the fifth book carried the strongest anti-war message, White further revised The Sword in the Stone to include some of the most prominent anti-war scenes from The Book of Merlyn.

White deleted the battle with Madam Mim in Chapter 6, and instead the chapter simply ended with Wart and Kay losing their arrows while practicing archery (White (1958) 49-51).  In the 1938 and 1939 editions, the search for the lost arrows led them to Madame Mim’s cottage, and White made no attempt to replace the lost material with anything, and instead simply opted for a three-page chapter (White (1958) 49-51).

White also deleted Chapter 13, in which Merlyn had turned Wart into a grass snake.  Instead, Merlyn turned Wart into an ant.  The ant colony was a fascist community in which a sign said “Everything not forbidden is compulsory and antennae broadcast constant speeches by Ant the Father and slogans about the master ant race (White (1958) 122-130).

White also deleted Chapters 18 and 19 of the prior editions.  In the 1938 and 1939 editions, in Chapter 18, Arthur received a lesson on the lives of trees and rocks, and in Chapter 19, Arthur and Merlyn visited the castle of the giant Galapas.  These chapters were deleted and replaced with a scene from The Book of Merlyn, in which Arthur was turned into a gander and joined a migration of geese.  He learned that geese did not have boundaries and therefore were without war (White (1958) 162-184).


It is important to note that although The Sword in the Stone is still in print as a standalone, the version sold is the same as the one in The Once and Future King.  Therefore, if you wish to read the other magical adventures, you must purchase an edition that was printed before the release of The Once and Future King in 1958.

For those who have seen the classic animated film The Sword in the Stone (Disney, 1963), this includes the wizard’s duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim.  To find the source material for this scene, you must read an early edition (released prior to 1958).  There are many reasonably priced copies of old editions.  Nice reading copies (not in mint condition) start at about $50.00 or so.  (You can also obtain a mint condition copy for several thousand.)  You can contact your local used bookstore or check out Abe Books:

3 Responses to The Sword in the Stone

  1. Philip Reynolds says:

    I don’t wish to complicate matters, but I have an edition of The Sword in the Stone published in the Collins Modern Authors series in 1964 (my copy is the fourth impression, 1970); and the text is of the 1938 version.

    • patsfan16 says:

      Interesting! Have you checked it against a 1st edition UK version? My understanding is that all copies printed since TOAFK use that version, but maybe Collins did another printing of the original text. I’ve never seen a later copy with the 1st edition text (I have a UK 1st ed. and a US 1st ed. as well as a 1st ed. of TOAFK). It would be pretty cool if they’ve reprinted the original because it is quite different from the later version.

  2. The current unabridged audiobook of the Once and Future King uses mainly the 1938 text (although Morgan’s castle is the later one-griffin version). It does not include the ants or the geese. I do not (yet) know if it includes the Book of Merlyn.

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