Summary and Analysis: <i>The Sword and the Stone</i>
The Wart and Kay practice their archery by playing a game called Rovers. Kay kills his first rabbit; after the boys skin and gut it, the Wart shoots an arrow into the air, which is snatched in mid-flight by a crow. Kay contends that the crow was really a witch.
On a day toward the end of the summer, as the Wart sits near the tilting-yard and watches Kay practice his skills, the Wart confides to Merlyn his desire to be a knight, as Kay will surely become. Merlyn agrees to let the Wart see some real battle on a tilting field, and casts a spell that transports him and the Wart to the Forest Sauvage, where they watch King Pellinore and Sir Grummore Grummursum joust. Eventually, the two combatants are knocked unconscious when they each charge at the other, miss, and then ram their heads into the trunks of trees. Merlyn then casts another spell that transports him and the Wart back to the tilting ground.
Kay's description of the arrow-stealing crow as a "witch" is somewhat accurate. In Chapter 11, the boys will see the crow sitting on top of the castle of The Oldest Ones of All, allowing the reader to infer that the crow is actually an animal-spirit, that serves the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, who is keeping watch over the Wart and Kay. Later in the novel, they will encounter her face-to-face during their adventures with Robin Wood.
More important in these two chapters is the joust between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore, which reveals different attitudes toward jousting (and proving one's heroism through it). White begins Chapter 7 by offering his reader an extensive survey of jousting traditions, equipment, and practices. After treating such topics as how a lance should be held, the proper length of a lance, and where an enemy should be hit with one, the narrator concludes, "It would take too long to go into all the interesting details of proper tilting which the boys had to learn, for in those days, you had to be a master of your craft from the bottom upward." In this light, tilting is a noble sport that requires great discipline, courage, and expertise.
This attitude is shared by the Wart with regard to the "craft" of tilting, because, as he views it, the sport is connected to knighthood and he desperately wants to be a knight. When asked by Merlyn why he is "grieving" while watching Kay practice his tilting, the Wart almost breaks out in tears and explains, "I shall not be a knight because I am not a proper son of Sir Ector's. They shall knight Kay, and I shall be his squire." When asked, by Merlyn, to elaborate on this complaint, .the Wart says that if he was born with a "proper father and mother," he would have become a "knight-errant" with a "splendid suit of armor and dozens of spears and a black horse standing eighteen hands." He also remarks that he would have called himself "The Black Knight," challenged random knights in a wood for the right to pass him, and only begrudgingly married — because he would need a "lady-love" who would allow him to wear her favor in his helm as he did "deeds in her honor." Clearly, the Wart has been hypnotized by legends and lore; his ideas about knights and chivalry are worn and cliched. Again, White stresses the Wart's naiveté and boyishness; his yearning for knighthood is reminiscent of the young Mark Twain's desire to become a riverboat captain
White uses Merlyn to offer the reader the reader an attitude about knighthood that directly opposes the Wart's. At the very beginning of Chapter 7, Merlyn complains that "people seemed to think you were an educated man if you could knock a man off a horse." He gives Sir Ector, an "old tilting blue," rheumatism to keep him from bragging about his days of glory on the tilting field; later, he describes knights as "brainless unicorns swaggering about" and "calling themselves educated because they can push each other off a horse with a bit of stick." To Merlyn, tilting is only a game (and a silly one, at that), adopted by the English because of the "games-mad" Norman aristocracy. The degree to which Merlyn values education is established earlier in the novel, and White employs the magician here to dispel some of the clichés believed by the Wart and, possibly, by some readers of the novel.
However, a reader may ask why Merlyn, after his disparaging remarks about jousts, would then transport the Wart to the scene of one. The answer becomes obvious when the reader meets the two combatants: Sir Grummore, the tippling knight who banters with Sir Ector in Chapter 1, and King Pellinore, the bumbling hunter of the Questing Beast met in Chapter 2. Merlyn wants the Wart to see a joust in its most full, ridiculous splendor. By seeing two knights whose practice of jousting falls far short of the Wart's grandiose ideals, Merlyn will (he hopes) be able to continue the Wart's education and teach him about the difference between boyish fantasy and adult realities.
Throughout the joust, the participants repeatedly attempt to follow a scripted formula that is as cliched as the Wart's ideas about himself as "The Black Knight." Both men want to appear graceful and meet the universally accepted standards for chivalric behavior found in legend, but their inadequacies continually undermine their attempts. One method used by White to suggest the men's shortcomings is his stressing the physical clumsiness of the match. For example, when donning his armor, Pellinore is not graceful (like those knights seen in films) but clumsy: He had "set on the wrong thread when getting up in a hurry that morning" and, as a result, requires "quite a feat of engineering" to get his armor ready for battle. Later, the reader learns that the knights' movements are "so hampered by his burden of iron" that they appear to be fighting in "slow motion"; the notion of the swashbuckling hero falls flat in light of this description. When they first make contact, Pellinore and Grummore are compared to "a motor omnibus in collision with a smithy"; after they fall, "it took them so long to get up" that "every stage of the contest could be marked and pondered." During the second stage, Grummore "stumped off" to one end of the field, while Pellinore "plodded off" to the other, because "even walking was complicated." When they clash for the second time, the noise is compared to a "shipwreck and great bells tolling." Pellinore then gets up but cannot find Sir Grummore; when he eventually does, Pellinore pushes Sir Grummore down, instead of smiting him with a perfect blow. During their final encounter, they charge each other and miss their targets, but "the momentum of their armor was too great for them to stop until they had passed each other handsomely" and they eventually have to resort to "waving their arms like windmills" in an effort to stop. The final moment of physical comedy occurs when both men run headfirst into trees and, with "a last melodious clang," fall "prostrate on the fatal sward." Clearly, Pellinore and Grummore resemble second-rate acrobats and clowns more than the majestic fighters that the Wart expects all such men to be. Pellinore's complaint to Grummore, "Oh, come on . . . You know you have to yield when your helm is off," suggests the degree to which the men wholeheartedly accept the conventions of storybook chivalry.
Another way that White satirizes the Wart's naive view of combat is his making the fighters linguistically clumsy as well: The language used by the combatants is an attempt to seem serious and earnest but sounds melodramatic and silly. For example, Merlyn immediately begins mocking the entire scene by saying "Hail" to King Pellinore three different times; each time, Pellinore responds with his own "Hail" because he is anxious to "make a good impression." After Sir Grummore's refusal to tell Pellinore his name (which Pellinore obviously knows yet asks about because doing so is part of the formula), Pellinore states that "no knight ne dreadeth for to speak his name openly, but for some reason of shame." Grummore's reply is similar in style: "Be that as it may, I choose that thou shalt not know my name as at this time, for no askin'." Both men are attempting to sound "regal" through the use of words such as "dreadeth" and "thou," and, of course, their highly artificial speech sounds phony (and funny) to the reader. The obviousness of their charade is highlighted when, during the same exchange, Grummore corrects one of Pellinore's lines from "You must stay and joust with me" to "Thou shalt stay and joust with me." This kind of talk continues throughout the match, with phrases such as "Defend thee" and Yield thee, recreant" contrasting the physical buffoonery of their speakers. Eventually, even Pellinore and Grummore "forget their lines" when they begin childishly bickering over whether Pellinore said, "Pax": Their repetitions of "Yes, you did" and "No, you didn't" highlights the reader's understanding of just how wide the gulf is between the knights' high ideals and actual behavior.
To the Wart, however, Pellinore and Grummore are nothing less than glorious: When the match finally begins, the Wart yells, "They're off" and is described as "holding his breath with excitement." As the two begin fighting, he asks Merlyn if he thinks they will "kill each other," to which the wizard replies, "Dangerous sport." This pattern of an earnest remark by the Wart, followed by an ironic understatement from Merlyn, continues throughout the joust and, as with the Wart's meeting Pellinore in Chapter 2, serves to illustrate the Wart's completely boyish attitude toward what is obviously (to both Merlyn and the reader) a ridiculous spectacle. At one point, the Wart covers his eyes and asks Merlyn if it is "safe to look"; he replies, "Quite safe," because "It will take them some time to get back in position." The Wart, however, never senses the irony of Merlyn's responses, and continues to reveal his childlike attitude toward the contest. For example, after Pellinore is hit by Grummore, the Wart calls him, "Poor King," and says, "I wish he would not hit him so"; when Pellinore pushes his opponent after saying "Pax," the Wart exclaims, "What a cheat! I would not have thought it of him." After the fighters' final "clang," the Wart asks Merlyn if they should help them, to which the wizard remarks, "We could pour water on their heads . . . But I don't suppose they would thank us for making their armour rusty." Merlyn sees the folly of thinking that one's skill at tilting is indicative of one's worth and is indirectly trying to make the Wart see it, too. However, when the match is over, the Wart asks Merlyn if Pellinore will be able to sleep in one of Grummore's feather beds and says that doing so would be "nice" for the King, "even if he was stunned." The boy's devotion to the theory of knighthood — rather than its practice — is both charming and sentimental, but if he is ever to face real, practical matters of leadership, such youthful ideals will need to be readjusted.
hummocks low, rounded hills.
coney a rabbit.
portent a supernatural warning or hint of danger.
quintain an object supported by a crosspiece on a post, used by knights as a target in tilting.
saracen an Arab or Muslim of the time of the Crusades.
Norman pertaining to the victors of the Norman Invasion of England (1066); the British kings from William the Conqueror (ruled 1066-1087) to Stephen (ruled 1135-1154) were Norman kings.
a knight errant a knight who wanders in search of adventure.
panoply a complete suit of armor.
from crupper to poll from the horse's rear to its head.
twenty-two stone 308 pounds (a British "stone" equals 14 pounds).
sward grass-covered soil.
nob the head.
Pax a "kiss of peace" in which the combatant surrenders to his opponent.