This is one of those nominal “classics” that Disney enjoys trotting out every once in a while as a demonstration of their long tradition of animated features. It premiered in 1963 and is adapted from the first book of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King series. Retelling episodes from the childhood of the legendary King Arthur (a part of the king’s life that isn’t detailed in anything by Sir Thomas Mallory, who codified the modern understanding of the Arthur legend in his romance Le Morte D’Arthur), this movie explores the early relationship between Merlin and Arthur as mentor and protege.
As far as adaptations go, I have to admit that I’m in unfamiliar territory, because The Sword in the Stone is an adaptation of a book that I’ve never read, which was based on a text that I have read (at least in part; Thomas Mallory’s writing, being so archaic, is really hard to get through), which in turn is based on legend, folktales, and a thoroughly ahistorical history by Geoffrey of Monmouth (which is actually quite entertaining as a bit of fiction) that I have modest familiarity with (Arthur is originally a Welsh figure, if I’m remembering correctly; it was Mallory who modernized him into a king of all England). It all adds up to tons of layers of translation, where a British warlord from around the 6th century CE has, by degrees, been turned into an orphan boy of twelve who miraculously becomes king in the heart of medieval London (London was definitely not a major urban center in Britain during the 6th century).
The long and short is that I’m not a huge Arthur nerd, but I do have more than a passing interest in the history of pre-medieval Britain, so watching this movie left me oscillating between rolling my eyes at anachronisms in relation to the movie’s visual aesthetics (the fashion and architecture is more evocative of Mallory’s medieval Arthur rather than the rough, gritty post-Roman Britain that I imagine) and reminding myself that this is Disney we’re talking about, so of course it’s going to more resemble a sanitized fairy tale than anything even remotely historically accurate.
Setting all that aside, let’s get into the actual story of Sword in the Stone. Merlin (who indulges in time travel and prophecy freely) foresees the appearance of a highly talented lad who’s destined for something great. When Arthur falls through Merlin’s roof, things get set in motion, and Arthur finds himself being tutored by a cranky old man who has a real chip on his shoulder about feudal social structure (Merlin constantly implores Arthur to focus on his studies instead of wasting his time with jousting and other chivalric endeavors). There’s a series of episodes where Merlin turns Arthur into various animals so he can learn about different modern concepts, and then the tale concludes with Arthur discovering his destiny after he pulls the eponymous sword from its anvil at the New Year’s Day tournament in London.
It’s probably an understatement to say that the plot is very loose.
That’s not really a complaint; older Disney productions (like Dumbo, even though that movie pre-dates this one by twenty years) seem to have a more episodic nature than more contemporary offerings. Accepting that that’s a common approach in the older works helps adjust expectations. There is no grand sweeping story or epic overarching plot here; Arthur just kind of stumbles from one lesson to the next with a vague connection between episodes thanks to Merlin’s constant antagonism of Sir Ector, Arthur’s foster father. Honestly, I think this movie’s best treated as a series of related shorts rather than a unified story.
One major complaint I have, and this is probably not entirely fair because I’m looking at this film fifty years after its production, is that it’s so unrelentingly privileged in its thinking (and Merlin is the biggest offender). Merlin is a weird character because he’s a walking anachronism; he’s not bound by time, so he’s full of ideas and notions that are entirely out of place in a medieval setting. This most clearly expresses itself in his insistence that Arthur shouldn’t concern himself with being a squire, because he’s meant for better things. For someone so smart, Merlin seems awfully ignorant of the realities of feudal hierarchy; yes, he’s a wizard and he can do pretty much what he likes, but that doesn’t mean everyone has the same capability. Arthur’s complaint that being a squire is the best he can ever hope for as an orphan is a legitimate one, but Merlin doesn’t want to hear any of that. I think he’s too caught up in the myth of the American Dream (I told you this movie’s full of anachronisms).
The privilege of the movie expresses itself in one other major way that’s infuriating. All the female characters are awful. I know, it’s kind of shocking to realize that there are female characters in this sausage fest of a story, but they’re there in the periphery. You have the scullery woman who’s frightened by the self-washing dishes (granted, that scene is a little chaotic, but all it leaves me wondering is how there can be so many dirty dishes when the inhabitants of the castle seem to consist solely of Ector, Kay, Arthur, and the scullery woman, with occasional visits from Pelinore for dinner), the female squirrels who are lovestruck and rather dumb (saying they’re animals doesn’t give the writers a pass here, because the young female squirrel who pursues Arthur definitely doesn’t react in an animal fashion when she discovers that he’s really human; that episode concludes with her heartbrokenly pining for her lost love), and Madam Mim’s pretty much the embodiment of the crazy old witch archetype.
I could probably go on at length about the problems inherent in the witch narrative, but I’ll save that for the next time I feel like watching a really bad movie like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (my only regret is that I didn’t write up a blog post for that movie when I watched it a couple months ago, because that might have offset the damage my brain suffered in the viewing). Suffice to say that Mim is a character who suffers from being a lot like Merlin, except where he gets a pass because he’s the wise old mentor, she’s supposed to be reviled because she’s a woman (and ‘evil’). Now, I’m not trying to write an apology for a villainous character; Mim’s most definitely dangerous, and Arthur is in legitimate peril when he stumbles into her home; I just don’t think that she’s portrayed as villainous for the right reasons.
Mim’s character is built around the idea that she’s insane and contrary to what sensible people would like. She takes pride in her ugliness, hates pleasant things like sunshine and flowers, and likes to make up rules just so that she can break them. Honestly, she’s more a mischief maker than anything, and even that’s not a very apt description because she seems to just hang out in her cottage leaving the rest of the world alone. It’s Arthur’s accidental intrusion that prompts her to try to eat him.
But what’s irritating about Mim is that she displays many of the same traits that Merlin does earlier in the film, and in her character they’re supposed to be viewed negatively. She’s old, and her age is supposed to magnify her grotesqueness where Merlin’s is intended to highlight his wisdom and experience. She’s a creative thinker who ignores rules that don’t suit her, and this is seen as bad because it’s in the context of a game. Merlin does the same thing with Arthur multiple times, suggesting that he doesn’t have to follow the rules of his society because he’s better than them, and in those instances he’s a visionary who knows better. Mim is content with her world, obviously taking great joy in showing off to Arthur what she can do, regardless of how he might receive things (for the moment, just ignore the whole bit where she tries to eat him; that’s legitimately bad). Merlin’s not above using his magic to show off to the boy either, but this is just him being playful. Mim and Merlin are very similar characters in a lot of ways, but we’re supposed to react to them in drastically different ways.
I can’t help thinking that the reason for this is because Merlin wears blue and Mim wears pink.
Anyhow, I need a break from these older Disney movies for a bit. Next time I’ll see about pulling something special.