Friday, August 31, 2012


I have always wanted to include King Arthur in this collection. My first plan was to take all the stories of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Guenevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Uther, Merlin, and so on and write them up as a multi-installment, all-inclusive “fairy tale-style” retelling.

It is mind-boggling to me how long it took me to give up that stupid idea.

There is just waaaaay too much material on Arthur! Too many stories, too many versions, and too many other writers who have done a far better job than I could ever do. If you want to be an Arthurian Scholar, this story ain’t gonna help. But, if you want to read a neat little fantasy about a boy who becomes king with the help of a kindly wizard? This should do just fine. I may write up some more of Arthur's adventures in the future. But for now, I'm satisfied with his first adventure.

It was a time of great turmoil in England. The good king, Uther Pendragon, had passed away and left no heir to his throne. With no king, the country fell to internal strife and every remotely rich lord or baron who could raise an army started attacking his neighbors left and right. This is what political scientists refer to as “annarchy” but which the rest of us refer to as “just being kind of a jerk.” Basically, England was wartorn and the common folk were the ones suffering for it.

Then a man came forth with a solution. Seeing his beloved country crumbling all around him, this wise and learned man did what struck him as the only logical thing: He locked himself in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London, fell to his knees and prayed fiercely for two weeks. He asked God for a miracle and, lo and behold, one was forthcoming!

When he left the cathedral and stepped out into the churchyard, he saw the miracle for which he had prayed. There, in the middle of the yard, was a great stone. Embedded in the stone was a cast iron anvil, such as a blacksmith or coyote might use. And sticking out of the anvil was a magnificent sword. The finest sword ever made, as though it came from Heaven’s own forge. And inscribed on the sword, just below the hilt, were these words:

Whosoever pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil
Is rightwise king, born of England

Of course, when word of this miraculous sword spread, every knight and nobleman in the country came to London to try to pull the sword from the stone. But though the biggest, strongest and most powerful men in the land tried, after a full week, not one had been able to successfully remove the sword. So it seemed the miracle had failed…which doesn’t really sound to me like something miracles do, but what do I know?

In any case, all the wealthy, powerful men were all in London, having each failed to budge the sword even one lousy, crummy inch, so they got together and came up with another idea: A jousting tournament! You see, it is the instinctive nature of big, strong, tough men to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem with violence rather than, say, debate or perhaps a game of chess. So it was decided that on the following New Year’s Day (that is, one year from the day they all gave up on the sword), they would hold a great big jousting tournament in London and whoever won would be crowned King of All England.

Little did they know that someone else had made other plans…

Our story now changes quite abruptly to the castle of Sir Ector who lived with his son, Kay, a big, strong, tough guy such as was described just recently, and his…his sort of…well, I guess you’d call him his ward. That is, he sort of informally adopted the boy when a mysterious stranger had left him on the doorstep twelve years ago. His name was Arthur, according to the information given by the stranger, but Kay soon took to calling him “Wart,” which was partly a misunderstanding of the word “ward” but mostly just a mean insult. The name stuck and for most of his life, Wart was more of a serving boy than a member of the family. He very much wanted to be Kay’s brother and Ector’s son, but he spent most of his time in the kitchen, scrubbing pots, or tending to Kay’s horse or doing all manner of chores for Ector and Kay, who were, of course, of “noble blood” which, in those days, meant they were just plain better than normal people.

So for twelve years, Wart served Sir Ector and Kay. Then, a rumor reached Sir Ector’s ears about some kind of sword which would make somebody king and he and Kay left to try their hands at it, leaving Wart alone in the castle…which it was his job to clean…by himself…he’s twelve. And it was while getting a particularly nasty cobweb out of a particularly hard-to-reach place that Wart heard a pounding on the castle’s mighty wooden doors. He went at once to answer it.

“Good morning, young man,” said the figure at the door. He was perhaps the strangest man Wart had ever seen. Older, wrinkled, with long silver-gray hair and beard that reached halfway down his body. He wore long, flowing blue robes with a tall, pointed hat to match. Wart felt at once as though he had never seen this man before, and yet, at the same time, as though he’d known him all his life.

“My name,” the stranger continued, “is Merlin. And I have come to be your tutor.”

“Tutor?” said Wart, incredulously. You see, things like education, being able to read and write, these were reserved for the rich and noble (I hope you’ve been paying attention to the whole class struggle thing we got going on here) and poor orphans like Wart never had tutors.

“Indeed. You have a lot to learn, Arthur.”

“Arthur?” It had been so long since he’d heard his real name, he’d almost forgotten it.

When Ector and Kay returned (in failure) they were surprised and more than a little irritated to see Merlin. But when Merlin insisted that he would work for free, he was immediatley hired as Wart’s tutor. So any time that he could spare between chores was dedicated to his lessons with Merlin who, the old man told his young pupil, was more than just a teacher. He was, in fact, a wizard! And he used his powers to teach Wart the most unusual lessons.

One day he cast a spell on Wart which turned the boy into a fish! He swam through the castle moat and saw how the big fish ate the little fish and how the bigger fish ate the big fish. He saw how much living creatures depend on each other, even if they don’t fully understand why. Another day, Wart and Merlin became squirrels and Wart was amazed at the great strength and skill of so small and insignificant a creature. Merlin even turned Wart into a bird, allowing him to fly over the whole country and see things from a whole different perspective. Wart learned a lot from these lessons, though he didn’t quite know it at the time.

After spending a year teaching Wart, Merlin announced that he was leaving. “I have taught you all I can,” he said, as he packed his few posessions. “The rest is up to you.” And despite the sad protests of Wart, Merlin left the castle. But, Wart didn’t have time to miss Merlin now, he was busier than ever helping Kay. It was almost New Year’s Day and the great tournament was at hand. Of course, Sir Ector was too old to compete, but Kay, being young and strong, was determined to win and become King of England. Wart was given the “honor” of serving as Kay’s squire and accompanying him to London.

It was a fantastic tournament. The greatest warriors in the land coming together to beat the ever-loving crud out of each other in the hopes of being crowned king. It was in the midst of the excitement that Wart realized he had left Kay’s sword at the inn! He ran back to town but found the inn locked. The innkeeper had gone to watch the tournament. Wart was very worried, for without a sword, Kay would be unable to compete. Just then, he saw something: It was a sword! And a nice one, too. The only odd thing was that it was sticking out of a stone and anvil in a churchyard. But, Kay needed a sword, so Wart went over, grabbed the sword and pulled with all his might. The sword slid out as though the anvil were made of butter and, clutching it tight, Wart ran back to the tournament.

“I’m sorry, Kay,” he said when he arrived. “Your sword is locked in the inn. But I found this one you could use instead.”

Kay looked at it a moment. He was cross with Wart for forgetting his sword, but this new one looked much nicer. In fact, it…wait…suddenly Kay spied the writing on the sword. He showed it to Sir Ector who showed it around to all the other kinghts and noblemen.  None of them could believe it.

“Wart,” said Sir Ector, “tell the truth now: Where did you get this sword?”

“It was sticking out of an anvil on a stone in a churchyard.” It was the truth, but now that he said it out loud, Wart had to admit it sounded a little strange. Several of the knights laughed when they heard it, but Wart insisted that it was true and led them to the churchyard. “There, see? That’s where I got it.”

Sir Ector took the sword and put it back into the stone and anvil. Then Kay stepped forward and tried to pull it out, assuming that it would be easier now that it had been pulled out once. But, such was not the case and Kay, Ector and about a dozen other knights made enormous fools of themselves trying before a voice in the crowd said, “Let the boy try!” Soon several of the assembled crowd were saying the same thing. So, nervously, Wart stepped up to the sword for the second time that day, grabbed a hold of the hilt and pulled it out easily.

“It’s a miracle!”

“It’s incredible!”

“He’s our king!”

The men fell to their knees in reverence. To Wart’s great surprise, even Sir Ecor and Kay knelt. “Hail, King Arthur,” they said. And soon the entire town of London was saying “Hail, King Arthur! Long Live King Arthur!”

As the boy, Arthur, waited in his newly-appointed chambers for the coronation to begin, he was worried, and even thought about running away. How could I be the king? he kept asking himself. I’m nobody. I’m not even a noble. I’m just…Wart.

“Oh, you are so much more than that,” came a familiar voice. Arthur spun around and saw his old friend, Merlin, standing before him, beaming proudly at his former pupil. “You see, Arthur, your father was the great king, Uther Pendragon. And when he heard that there was a plan to kill you, he asked me to make sure you were well hidden. I left you with Sir Ector because his home was far enough away from London that you would not be found. Then, when the time was right, I came to you as a tutor so that I could teach you the ways of the world which those who are born rich and powerful can never understand, in the hopes that it would make you a better man and, therefore, a better king. All that has happened has been according to my plan and today is the first day of a new golden age of England. The age of King Arthur!”

And so it was. The reign of King Arthur is known even today as perhaps the greatest of any king of England before or since. He reigned for many years and there are many, many stories of this great king. Maybe I’ll tell you about them…some day!


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory (1470) The first real book published to chronicle the history of King Arthur and still the closest thing to a “definitive” work that exists.
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White (1958) White’s interpretation is considered lighter, more accessible, with more wit and emotion than its predecesor. The first book in this volume details Arthur’s youth and education at the hands of Merlin leading up to his acquisition of Excalibur, the Sword in the Stone.
  • The Sword in the Stone (1963) Walt Disney’s animated adaptation of White’s book is noted for being the first Disney animatd feature to have songs written by the Sherman Brothers. Though considered one of Disney’s best, Arthurian purists have shunned it for its portrayal of Merlin as a comic bungler (purportedly inspired by Walt himself) rather than the austere wiseman he is more commonly seen as.
  • Camelot (Broadway/Movie) Actually, the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe originally wanted this musical to tell the story of “The Sword in the Stone,” but when the rights proved hard to secure, they instead wrote this slightly more grownup story which, nevertheless, does chronicle the events of “The Sword in the Stone” briefly as a kind of back story.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) Graham Chapman plays the pompous and mathematically-impaired king in this satirical version of Arthurian Legend which is, sadly, where most people nowadays get their information about these stories. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the ten funniest movies ever made, but it’s funnier if you know who Arthur really is…well, I say really, but it’s not like he…well, never mind.
  • King Arthur (2004) Clive Owen and Keira Knightley star in this big screen adventure depicting Arthur as a war chief who fought just before the fall of the Roman Empire, which, while it does have more physical evidence backing it up, is less magical than the story we all know.
  • Merlin (TV) This acclaimed BBC drama depicts Merlin as a serving boy to Arthur, who lives in Camelot under the rule of his magic-hating father, Uther. Though not exactly reliable to the source material, it is, nevertheless, an exciting and enchanting series for those who love swords and sorcery. I have often described this show as “Arthurian ‘Smallville’.”

NEXT WEEK: "The True Bride"

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