Summary and Analysis: <i>The Sword and the Stone</i>
On an afternoon in the early spring, Merlyn announces to the Wart that he needs "another dose of education." The Wart asks to be transformed into a bird, but not a hawk, because he wants to learn to fly (as a hawk, he was confined to the mews). The Wart, Merlyn, and Archimedes begin discussing the language of birds and each of their favorites: The Wart votes for the rook, Archimedes for the pigeon, and Merlyn for the chaffinch. Merlyn offers his theory on the origin of birds' language, claiming that birds have grown to imitate their prey and the sounds of their surroundings. Kay, who enters after having killed a thrush with his crossbow, interrupts their discussion.
That night, Archimedes comes to the Wart and tells him to eat a mouse — which, oddly, the Wart does without any "nasty" feelings. The boy is then transformed into an owl and is taught to fly by Archimedes, who also lectures him on the gracefulness of the plover (another different breed of bird). Archimedes informs the Wart that Merlyn wants him to become a wild goose; the Wart then finds himself flying in the "enormous flatness" of the air. As one of approximately four hundred geese, the Wart learns of their music, traditions, and migratory rituals. Lyo-lyok, a female goose, befriends the Wart and becomes his temporary mentor. Eventually, the Wart and the other geese migrate across the North Sea. The Wart is then awakened, in his own bed, by Kay, who claims that the Wart was snoring "like a goose" all night.
The discussion between the Wart, Merlyn, and Archimedes of their favorite birds is White's satirical look at social class and the relations between the sexes. While the Wart loves the rooks, Archimedes "loftily" reiterates the Wart's description of them as "mobs" — to the owl; rooks are lower-station birds who should be dismissed for the very frivolity that the Wart finds so appealing. Archimedes' love of the pigeon reveals his own values: He praises the "philosophical" nature of the bird and its complete sobriety. Merlyn's vote is more humorous, because he selects the chaffinch because they "have the sense to separate during the winter, so that all the males are in one flock and all the females in the other." Because of this separation, Merlyn explains that in "the winter months, at any rate there is perfect peace." White's linking different species of birds to different types of people is a suggestion from him that the reader do so himself with all of the other animals in the book (if he has not yet started doing so already). The explicit link between animals and humans is again reiterated near the end of Chapter 19, when the Wart flies over the town of birds, complete with crowded slums. Kay's clumsy entrance (bearing a dead thrush) reveals his complete ignorance of birds' more "human-like" qualities.
Archimedes proves himself to be another in the Wart's long list of teachers. Although his methods can be harsh (he reprimands the Wart for his flying method and calls him an "idiot"), he does achieve his desired results. As when the Wart was literally able to see the world differently as a perch in Chapter 5, the same phenomenon occurs here as an owl, when the Wart is able to see one ray beyond the visible spectrum. An even greater change of perception occurs when the Wart finds himself suddenly transformed into a wild goose. White's description of the air relies almost wholly on abstract language in order to convey the Wart's new and inexplicable sensation of flight. The Wart is described as feeling like "a point in geometry, existing mysteriously on the shortest distance between two points" and the sky is depicted as "a pulseless world-stream steady in limbo." These moments of new perception are literal examples of what is metaphorically occurring every time the Wart becomes a new animal and receives a new lesson.
While all of the animals into which the Wart is transformed throughout the novel are, to some degree, human, the geese are, without question, the most humane. Their beauty and camaraderie is so great that the Wart is moved to sing; their joie de vivre" is such that the Wart cannot but help become entranced by his new surroundings. Lyo-lyok, as another teacher, is patient and good-humored, helping the Wart with his duties as sentry; however, her amusement over the Wart's human nature turns to horror when he asks her about the sentries and if they are currently "at war." Her initial inability to understand the Wart's question — followed by her distaste at what he means by "at war" — suggests a compassion and basic decency in the geese that humans are supposed to possess but too often do not. Her question, "But what creature could be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?" is supposed to be hypothetical, but does, of course, have a ready answer: man. The geese are the complete opposite of the warlike ants that the Wart encountered in Chapter 8: They have no use for war because, in the air, there are no boundaries and, therefore, no causes for battle. They have no Kings, no laws, and their only private properties are their nests. Despite what the reader understands at this point, however, the Wart is still ignorant of Lyo-lyok's teaching, calling fighting "knightly." Her explanation of his attitude ("you're a baby") suggests the degree to which the Wart still must change before he becomes King.
Before ending the episode, White inserts an anecdote concerning the inherent dignity and natural leadership abilities of geese. This story (which White says "ought to make people think") suggests the link between the Wart's future as King and his present situation as a wild goose: Knowing what he does about animals (everything), Merlyn would, undoubtedly, want his pupil to learn of real leadership and how it works. While the Wart does not hear the anecdote about the farmer and his henhouse directly, the principle behind it — that leaders take charge when a leader is needed — is embodied in the geese that the Wart meets on his migration across the North Sea. The ants' leaders exist merely to begin wars, but the admirals of the geese lead their flocks above and beyond the boundaries that cause so much conflict.
Gilbert White a minister and observer of nature (1720-1793).
Quaker a member of the Society of Friends, a Christian movement noted for plain dress and simple living.
chaffinch a small European finch that has a white patch on each shoulder.
Linnaeus Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist.
kestrel a small, reddish-gray European falcon.
shrikes predatory, shrill-voiced passerine birds with hooked beaks, gray, black, and white plumage, and long tails.
Proserpine the mythical daughter of Zeus, abducted by Pluto to be the Queen of Hades, but allowed to return to the earth for part of the year. She is sometimes used as a personification of Spring.
Alderbaran, Betelgeuse, and Sirius three stars.
Orion a constellation named after a mythical hunter.
atomy a tiny being.
the lower strata the lower layer of the atmosphere.
purgatory a place of limbo, traditionally believed to be located between Heaven and Hell.
joie de vivre French for "joy of living."
maritime of or relating to sea navigation.
heather a type of heath-grass with small purple flowers.
widgeon a freshwater duck.
curlew a large, brownish shorebird.
redshanks and dunlin types of European sandpipers.
tussocks thick tufts or clumps of grass.
peregrines falcons used for hawking.
blue-stocking a learned, bookish, or pedantic woman.
guillemot a shorebird.
kittiwake a small gull.
W. H. Hudson English naturalist and writer (1841-1922).