I’m on a little bit of a King Arthur obsession right now, reading Le Morte D’Arthur and The Once and Future King, of which The Sword in the Stone is the first book [initially published separately]. I wasn’t thrilled upon first read, because I didn’t expect a children’s novel [for what we would now consider very highly educated children], but in retrospect, it has vastly grown in my estimation. It covers Arthur’s childhood as he is educated by Merlin, being younger adopted brother to a bigger and stronger boy, and being turned into various animals for a short while so he can learn life lessons. All of this is to prepare him for being king—and not just any king—and the novel gains an incredible resonance as we know that this boy will turn out to be King Arthur, while he himself has no idea.
This is a Disney animation from 1963, in that weird period that looks like aimlessness after their early classics, when they were just pumping out undistinguished movies that are kind of fine but nothing special. The background animation approaches Hanna-Barbera blandness [but holds a nostalgic charm] and the foreground animation consistently seems to be on a different plane. Still, it’s all from the early 60s and has the decency and charm of that era, as well as a charming moral that “Knowledge and wisdom is the real power.” The characters, the rhythm, the voices… if you have a memory of this kind of thing from your childhood [I had a filmstrip and accompanying 45 record from this movie] it can be like a big mug of hot chocolate.
While the novel is gorgeous and wistful, slow and with a quiet beauty, this has been modified with the 60s Disney comedic touches, like bumbling old men, talking animals that bump into things, stuff like that. And retrograde gender stereotypes, like women that fall desperately in love with men and are destroyed when they depart. This is an added touch—not in the novel—when Arthur and Merlin become squirrels for the day, and each have female squirrels fall in love with them. We are told that female squirrels choose their mates and mate for life, which makes it poignant [and simultaneously cruel and offensively sexist] when Arthur changes back into a human, leaving his squirrel mate stricken with anguish, whereupon she retreats to the top of a withered, dried-up tree to gaze longingly after Arthur… and toward her life as a barren spinster, apparently. The shift from the colorful lush forest to the cold, blue, withered tree of loneliness is striking, and the message seems to be that part of a boy’s growing up is leaving a trail of destroyed, lovelorn women behind.
Also notable [and also not in the novel] are the scenes of peril as Arthur, in the guise of various animals, is chased and nearly killed by larger animals. It’s just surprising, looking back from this age, to have a child in such mortal danger in a film, and placed there by an adult who only offers so much help to aid his survival. But overall, the moral is on the value and importance of getting an education, full stop, whereas the novel is about giving Arthur an education directly related to war and governing. The novel is also about a time of innocence, when Arthur is just a boy ignorant of who he will become, while the film is just a lively child’s adventure. Very much what people mean when they say something has been “Disneyfied.” It’s a cute and charming cartoon that replicates the general structure of the novel without attempting to recreate any of its art or power.