Summary and Analysis: The Sword and the Stone
Near the end of August, the Wart finds himself an outcast from his own castle: Ector, Kay, the Nurse, Hob, the sergeant, and even the Dog Boy all complain of having no time for him. Dejected, he visits Merlyn, who is knitting a nightcap. After the Wart pleads with him, Merlyn agrees to turn the Wart into a hawk. Merlyn carries the Wart (as a hawk) to the mews; during the night, the Wart learns of the hawks' military-like life and passes a test of his courage, which earns his acceptance in their company.
As in previous conversations, the one between Merlyn and the Wart at the beginning of the chapter reveals Merlyn's plans for the Wart's education. Merlyn explains that he will eventually turn the Wart into "everything in the world" for the sake of his education. In the same conversation, Merlyn states that "the way to learn" is "by listening to the experts." The wizard's allowing the Wart to become a hawk, therefore, is more than an act of kindness: Understanding the hawks will become another factor in the boy's expanding awareness of different ways of life.
Merlyn compares the mews to a "kind of Spartan military mess" and this description is proved true in a number of ways. The hawks place great emphasis on ancestry (the Wart is asked to name the "branch" of merlins from which he hails); decorum (Cully is routinely reprimanded for talking out of turn and using the word "damned"); and rank (the peregrine must be addressed as "Madam," Balan tells her that the Wart's family must be descended from a "cadet branch," and Cully suffers from the "constant strain" of having to live up to "his ladyship's standard"). The hawks are also compared to knights, standing "gravely in their plumed helmets, spurred and armed." Merlyn's reason for wanting the Wart to learn about this way of life lies in his desire for the Wart to see real honor and discipline, as opposed to the parody of these qualities witnessed in the tilting match between Pellinore and Grummore in Chapter 7. Exposure to such a strident yet noble way of life cannot but help to make the Wart an honorable King when he is called to be.
However, the Wart, like any other cadet, must prove his worth to the assembly of soldiers. First, he must, in a very strict fashion, pass a test of his knowledge of the catechism, which he does (with the aid of Balan); his score of "ninety per cent" suggests that the Wart is in a unique type of classroom where more "eddication" is taking place. The entire catechism test is reminiscent of a soldier's having to know proper military procedures and rules. Next, he must be "sworn in" by a padre, much like all members of any military, including knights, take oaths to uphold their codes of behavior. The Wart's greatest test, in keeping with the military air of the mews, is one of physical courage: He must stand next to Cully (who threatens to attack him) for three rings of a bell. This frightens the Wart, but he decides that he must go "through with this ordeal to earn his education." Merlyn's plan to imbue the Wart with a sense of courage works in this case, because the Wart is more brave at this point than he has yet shown himself to be in the novel thus far. His passing the hawks' tests is celebrated in the singing of "patriotic" songs that reveal the values of those who uphold the code of the mews: The first song states, "Shame to the slothful and woe to the weak one," while the second praises the boy's bravery: "His birds and beasts / Supply our feasts, / And his feats our glorious chorus!"
Although the Wart is not viewed as "glorious" by the members of Ector's household, he has found true honor in the mews. As Balan remarks, "We shall have a regular king in that young candidate;" later in the Wart's coming-of-age, these words will prove more true than anyone — except Merlyn and the reader — expects.
mews cages for hawks.
protista kingdom of organisms including bacteria and protozoa.
nigromant a magician.
Spartan military mess Sparta was a city in ancient Greece, famous for the strict discipline of its soldiers. A "mess" is a mess hall, where soldiers eat.
regulars common soldiers.
subaltern in the British military, holding an army commission below that of captain.
catechism a handbook of questions and answers for teaching the principles of a religion.
dree enduring, suffering.
Timor Mortis Conturbant Me Latin, "The fear of death disturbs me."
Timor Mortis Exultat Me Latin, "The fear of death overjoys me."