Discuss a book, movie, or TV show that made a strong, almost “magical,” impression on you at a young age. Explain its impact.
“The Sword in the Stone” from Le Morte D’Arthur
by Sir Thomas Malory, retold by Keith Baines
During the years that followed the death of King Uther, while Arthur was still a child, the ambitious barons fought one another for the throne, and the whole of Britain stood in jeopardy. Finally the day came when the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the advice of Merlin, summoned the nobility to London for Christmas morning. In his message the archbishop promised that the true succession to the British throne would be miraculously revealed. Many of the nobles purified themselves during their journey, in the hope that it would be to them that the succession would fall.
The archbishop held his service in the city’s greatest church (St. Paul’s), and when matins were done, the congregation filed out to the yard. They were confronted by a marble block into which had been thrust a beautiful sword. The block was four feet square, and the sword passed through a steel anvil which had been struck in the stone and which projected a foot from it. The anvil had been inscribed with letters of gold:
WHOSO PULLETH OUTE THIS SWERD OF THIS STONE AND ANVYLD IS RIGHTWYS KYNGE BORNE OF ALL BRYTAYGNE
The congregation was awed by this miraculous sight, but the archbishop forbade anyone to touch the sword before Mass had been heard. After Mass, many of the nobles tried to pull the sword out of the stone, but none was able to, so a watch of ten knights was set over the sword, and a tournament proclaimed for New Year’s Day, to provide men of noble blood with the opportunity of proving their right to the succession.
Sir Ector, who had been living on an estate near London, rode to the tournament with Arthur and his own son Sir Kay, who had been recently knighted. When they arrived at the tournament, Sir Kay found to his annoyance that his sword was missing from its sheath, so he begged Arthur to ride back and fetch it from their lodging.
Arthur found the door of the lodging locked and bolted, the landlord and his wife having left for the tournament. In order not to disappoint his brother, he rode on to St. Paul’s, determined to get for him the sword which was lodged in the stone. The yard was empty, the guard also having slipped off to see the tournament, so Arthur strode up to the sword and, without troubling to read the inscription, tugged it free. He then rode straight back to Sir Kay and presented him with it.
Sir Kay recognized the sword and, taking it to Sir Ector, said, “Father, the succession falls to me, for I have here the sword that was lodged in the stone.” But Sir Ector insisted that they should all ride to the churchyard, and once there, bound Sir Kay by oath to tell how he had come by the sword. Sir Kay then admitted that Arthur had given it to him. Sir Ector turned to Arthur and said, “Was the sword not guarded?”
“It was not,” Arthur replied.
“Would you please thrust it into the stone again?” said Sir Ector. Arthur did so, and first Sir Ector and then Sir Kay tried to remove it, but both were unable to. Then Arthur, for the second time, pulled it out. Sir Ector and Sir Kay both knelt before him.
“Why,” said Arthur, “do you both kneel before me?”
“My lord,” Sir Ector replied, “there is only one man living who can draw the sword from the stone, and he is the true-born king of Britain.” Sir Ector then told Arthur the story of his birth and upbringing.
“My dear father,” said Arthur, “for so I shall always think of you—if, as you say, I am to be king, please know that any request you have to make is already granted.”
Sir Ector asked that Sir Kay should be made royal seneschal,2 and Arthur declared that while they both lived it should be so. Then the three of them visited the archbishop and told him what had taken place.
All those dukes and barons with ambitions to rule were present at the tournament on New Year’s Day. But when all of them had failed, and Arthur alone had succeeded in drawing the sword from the stone, they protested against one so young, and of ignoble blood, succeeding to the throne.
The secret of Arthur’s birth was known to only a few of the nobles surviving from the days of King Uther. The archbishop urged them to make Arthur’s cause their own; but their support proved ineffective. The tournament was repeated at Candlemas3 and at Easter, with the same outcome as before.
Finally, at Pentecost, when once more Arthur alone had been able to remove the sword, the commoners arose with a tumultuous cry and demanded that Arthur should at once be made king. The nobles, knowing in their hearts that the commoners were right, all knelt before Arthur and begged forgiveness for having delayed his succession for so long. Arthur forgave them and then, offering his sword at the high altar, was dubbed first knight of the realm. The coronation took place a few days later, when Arthur swore to rule justly, and the nobles swore him their allegiance.
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preAP English 9: Unit 1—“The Sword in the Stone”
1A. If you were illustrating this part of Arthur’s story, what scene would be your focus? Explain your reasoning.
1B. What details from the scene would be most important to include? Explain your reasoning.
2. According to the critic Northrop Frye, “The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended.” What elements of magic appear in this tale that move it out of the realm of the ordinary?
3A. In the typical romance, the hero’s origins are mysterious. He is frequently raised in obscurity before taking his rightful place as leader. How does the story of Arthur reflect this pattern?
3B. Why do you think people so enjoy these stories of the supposed underdog being the real hero?
4. In what other ways does Arthur, even as a young boy, resemble the typical romance hero? How does Sir Kay, his foster brother, show signs that he is definitely not heroic material?
5. What heroic values does this story teach? Which of these values seem important today?