The Once and Future King: The Sword in the Stone

“I realize it’s hard to believe, but the great dream you and Lancelot once shared won’t ever die. One day, like the phoenix, it will rise again.”
      — Merlyn

A little more than a week ago I wrote about the first episode of Brian Sibley’s adapation of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King for BBC Radio 4. Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the second episode, “The Sword in the Stone.”

To recap on the story thus far, on the night before the Battle of Camlann, Merlyn visits Arthur one last time. Then they begin a conversation that spans Arthur’s life, from his first meeting with Merlyn as a child to his awkward wooing of Guinever as a young man. Throughout, Arthur’s concerns for the day to come — his imprisoned wife, his estranged ally, and his rebellious son — lurk in the background.

The Once and Future KingThe second episode is largely focused on Arthur’s childhood, and anyone who knows the Disney film will find much that’s familiar — Wart as a fish, Pellinore and Ector’s conversation about the tournament to determine the king after Uther, Kay’s training, the tournament itself, the pulling of the sword. These stories are imbued with more context and meaning here, however; Wart as a fish isn’t just an episode in the story, it’s a lesson that Merlyn teaches the young Arthur about the nature of power. (As an aside, I was struck by Shaun Mason’s performance as the Pike, the ruler of the moat; he sounds as though he’s doing a Benedict Cumberbatch impression.)

There are new lessons in Wart’s education as well — Merlyn sends Wart to talk with the Badger (the wisest creature in the forest after Archimedes, according to Merlyn) to learn why humans aren’t special, and Merlyn introduces Arthur to King Pellinore in the midst of his quest for the Questing Beast to show him the folly and absurdity of chivalry and knighthood. The meeting with Pellinore and the joust with Sir Grummore Grummursum is simply wonderful — Sam Dale’s Pellinore is a doddering and adled old man, and it’s impossible not to love him immediately and completely. We also have a reminiscence about Arthur and Lancelot where the former attempts to sell the latter on the idea that there’s something more to being a knight than doing knightly deeds.

These lessons all come together when, in a church courtyard, Wart finds a sword through a stone and, needing a sword for his brother Kay, he decides that he must take it.

Oh, and if you’re expecting the wizard’s duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim, it’s not here.

Among my favorite scenes are the ones between the aged Arthur and Merlyn. There is great affection between the two men in these scenes; one of my favorite exchanges comes at the beginning of the episode:

ARTHUR
Tell me something helpful. Is Lancelot going to come to our aid? He won’t fail me again, will he?

MERLYN
I might argue that you failed each other. Which was worse: him falling in love with your queen, or you refusing to see what was happening?

ARTHUR
It was difficult. Lance was the only one who really understood about might for right.

MERLYN
It wasn’t the easiest concept for medieval minds.

ARTHUR
You managed to drum it into me.

MERLYN
I tried.

ARTHUR
Of course, you do realize that most of the time I had absolutely no idea what you were talking about.

MERLYN
I suspected.

ARTHUR
I didn’t care. I simply liked hearing you talk. I never liked grown-ups who talked down to me, but you just went on talking in your usual way, leaving me to try and follow along in your wake, clutching at one or two known words, jumping at meanings.

MERLYN
With all the glee of a young perch learning to swim.

There’s genuine warmth and affection here between the two men, and Paul Ready (as Arthur) and David Warner (as Merlyn) sell their relationship. These two men feel like they have a bond that lasted a lifetime, and when Arthur expresses joys and regrets about life, they feel true.

The episode is serious, hilarious, profound, and touching, sometimes all four within the span of a single minute. Arthur’s wish to become “the Black Knight” is unintentionally funny; I thought both of Arthur dismembering the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Arthur dismembering the Black Knight in the medieval romance Perlesvaus. The genuine humor in the episode, though, comes through the script and the performances. And the scenes between Arthur and Merlyn, in the camp the night before Camlann, are deep and often moving.

Near the beginning of “The Coming of Merlyn,” Merlyn says, almost as an aside, that he has come to Arthur to complete his training. Just as the lessons Merlyn taught the young Wart as a child prepared him to pull the sword from the anvil, one begins to suspect that life itself was a lesson for Arthur and Merlyn has come to prepare the aged and frightened Arthur to confront the end with all the surety and confidence that he had as a young boy, in a courtyard, facing a sword in a stone.

Sibley’s The Once and Future King deftly brings the Arthurian world as imagined by White to life. It remains a keeper.

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