The books that shape us: E.L. Doctorow
The books that shape us: Francis Spufford, Lev Grossman & Lucy Mangan

The books that shape us: Ursula K. Le Guin

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

In her essay "The Beast in the Book," Ursula K. Le Guin discusses her childhood love of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone -- and, in particular, for the vivid collection of animals running through its pages:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from "The Beast in the Book," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."

Comments

Everything about this post is a delight--the words and images, the insights and sentiments, the humor and hope--what a joy to read. Thanks for the uplifting start to the day.

Terri, thanks so much for reminding us of Wart's life-shaping spiritual transformations and the essential role of those myraid Animal Helpers. You've launched my day with renewed insight and wonder, two potions which are in short supply these dark days.

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