The Sword in the Stone (1963)
My second post for Debbie’s Winter in July Blogathon is on Disney’s animation “The Sword in the Stone” (1963), and, like my previous post, take note of spoilers! This animation is based on a book (1938) by T.H. White and has a distinction to be the last one produced under Walt Disney himself. In “The Sword in the Stone”, we have merry old England and an innocent enough plot. Wart (aka Arthur) is a young helper to an aspiring knight Kay, before Merlin, a great wizard, comes into the scene and spots Arthur as having great potential and future. After Merlin and Arthur’s initial encounter, Merlin takes the young boy under his wing and teaches him by experience the power of love, knowledge and bravery The snowy scenes come very late into this film, when it is Christmas and the knights’ tournament is held in London. Sir Kay participates with Arthur being his squire. The tournament takes place near the place where the legendary sword in the stone stands. The legend has it that whoever draws the sword from the stone is the true heir to the English throne. When Sir Kay’s own sword goes missing, young Arthur has no choice but to consider taking the sword residing in the stone.
Consideration of the Plot, Characters and Visuals
It is clear while watching this film that the story has little to do with any swords until the very end of the animation. Rather, most of the story is about Arthur taking lessons from Merlin. These lessons involve both Merlin and Arthur being transformed into a fish, a squirrel and a bird. Through these transformations, Arthur is supposed to learn the importance of imagination and the maxim of the victory of brains over mere power. Therefore, the plot can be considered episodic in nature, rather than strictly linear. There is nothing wrong with it per se and the lessons are very entertaining to watch, but it does mean that it is a bit difficult to clearly mentally link the sword in the stone to the lessons and their importance.
Merlin’s magic and his powers of prediction will be interesting to see for children. There are lovely scenes of Merlin making dishes wash themselves and Merlin waiting for Arthur to arrive at his house, predicting the exact spot where the boy will enter through the roof. Less fortunate is the scene involving the pursuit of a girl squirrel of Arthur who is transformed into a boy squirrel. This is because the girl squirrel ends up with a broken heart and it is disconcerting to watch.
It is a pity, however, that Arthur, a mere boy of twelve, does not distinguish himself more in this story. He is a Cinderella-type of a good boy who does chores for his household that resides in the castle. But, frankly, he is almost boring as a main character and it does not help that he expresses his lack of confidence and ignorance every ten minutes or so, being awed by Merlin and all the magic. To describe him as an inspiration hero will be all wrong since he often simply takes an observer seat, for example, during the battle between Merlin and Madam Mim.
The other unfortunate aspect of “The Sword in the Stone” is that there are no great adversaries in the story, apart from nature monsters, like an alligator, that cannot help but prey on smaller creatures, and, of course, Madam Mim. Now, Madam Mim is a real character and one of the most – if not the most memorable character in the film. Madam Mim is a witch, representing dark magic, while Merlin represents good. However, apart from her evil intentions, Madam Mim also provides comic relief, and her scenes with Merlin during their duel can be considered the best, so entertaining and well-presented they are.
Regarding the visuals, “The Sword in the Stone” is done “in bright Technicolor”, but one of the ways the visuals could really be described is “lazy”. The main characters are drawn the best, but the background visuals are not up there to the standard of many other Disney classics. Moreover, maybe, more time and attention should have been paid to creating the appearance of some secondary characters. Archimedes, Merlin’s pet owl, makes his grumpy character known and is amusing at times, but his visual presentation is cartoonish and not sufficiently elaborate.
Parallels with J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” – the Boy who Drew the Sword from the Stone vs. the Boy who Lived
Here, I mean the book (well, legend) vs. book situation, and Rowling helping herself freely to the British legend and the book to produce her world’s best-seller. Perhaps, magic wands, cloaks, tournaments, wizards’ duels, human-to-animal transformations and prophecies are essential parts of the British folklore, but there are many more much detailed similarities between the legend/book and Harry Potter. Like Arthur, Harry Potter is an orphan who lives with his foster parents (well, his uncle and aunt in this case) and their son (Kay and Dudley respectively). Arthur and Harry both experience bullying from their families in their stories, and both do household chores for their foster families, such as dishwashing and cooking. Also, in both stories, Arthur and Harry are just destined for great things – to be an inspiration for millions of people in their respective kingdoms. Moreover, even though still young, both lack confidence and even feel they are undeserving of all the attention (Harry Potter in the first book in particular).
Clearly, Rowling must have based Dumbledore, at least partly, on eccentric Merlin. They look almost identical and both are powerful wizards who take under their wings an orphan boy who does not feel as though he is anybody much, but who has a great potential. Both Dumbledore and Merlin, at some point, teach that boy – Harry/Arthur, to use his hidden abilities wisely. In fact, both Dumbledore and Merlin have “special” lessons with their respective boys, during which they want to impart to them “special knowledge” through lessons, whereby the emphasis is on first-hand experience. For example, Dumbledore gives private lessons to Harry in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” where both immerse themselves into the memories of others. The ending is also similar – both boys are indeed special, destined for greatness and they prove it.
The tale of “the Sword in the Stone” has deeper roots than T.H. White’s book. Robert de Boron, a French writer, touched upon the story in his poem “Merlin” in the 12th century. He may have presented the story as an explanation for Arthur possessing the sword Excalibur, which Arthur drew from the stone, becoming the true King. Robert de Boron probably reworked the already existing story of Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote in Latin on Merlin, histories and legends circa 1120.
Some believe that the tale of “the Sword in the Stone” was inspired by a former 12th century Italian knight by the name of Galgano Guidotti who, after religious visions, placed a sword into the ground, representing a cross, and it is hardened so much immediately that it was impossible to remove. Guidotti was later made a saint and the area around his sword formed part of the land of the Roman Catholic Church (see the link sources here and here). Nowadays, you can visit “the sword in the stone” at a former Abbey of San Galgano a Montesiepi (now there is a tomb to the saint) in Chiusdino, Tuscany, Italy.
It is also possible to visit some locations in France associated with Merlin and the Arthurian legends. For example, in Brittany, France’s north-western region, there is Forest Paimpont which is said to be the equivalent of the legendary enchanted Forest Brocéliande, featured in many legends, many of which connected to King Arthur and Merlin. This is the site of the Comper Castle and its lake, where the fairy Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, supposedly resided. The Castle now is the host to the Arthurian Centre, dedicated to keeping the Arthurian legends alive. Further afield from the castle, one can find Merlin’s Tomb and the supposed Fountain of Youth. Viviane, Merlin’s beautiful pupil, allegedly entrapped Merlin in a tree or under a stone after he revealed all the secrets to her.
“The Sword in the Stone” is a slightly better than average animation because it is still based on a fascinating legend and it sends out important messages, such as the supremacy of intelligence over power and the importance of education. The animation’s plot may not be as eventful as desired, its visuals are uneven in quality and sometimes barely passable, and the hero is uninspiring, but its side characters, especially Madam Mim and Archimedes, are entertaining, and the film is relaxing and enjoyable overall. 6/10
*Once more thanks to Debbie for hosting such amazing blogathon, and also check out other great entries here.