“… Now now wait just a moment don’t you start thinking that magic will solve all your problems!”
I have now watched The Sword in the Stone five times in 48 hours. It’d be hard to explain myself to people who don’t have kids. Parents of very young children will know that kids tend to get hooked on movies and they just want to watch them over and over again. I had some downtime recently with my own children while my wife spent time in the hospital visiting her dad, so Sword in the Stone was the movie of choice.
It’s been one of my favorite Disney films since I was a boy, my 2nd favorite Disney film of all time to be exact, so I didn’t mind. This is one Disney classic which I wouldn’t mind seeing regurgitated in the Happiest Place on Earth’s current fetish for uncreative live-action remakes! I love this old era of animation in the Disney canon, the stuff from the ’50s and ’60s. I love the organic pencil lines, the voice actors, the occasionally episodic over traditional storytelling. However, and this is likely due to having watched it so many times in just a couple of days, I feel like I finally know what Sword in the Stone is about!
Yes, of course it’s about a young Arthur (known as a youth as Wart) who learns a bit more about the world from the prognosticator Merlin. The boy eventually pulls the legendary sword from the stone and is crowned rightwise king, born of England.
Aside from the setup at the beginning about the miracle of the sword and its appearance again at the end of the movie, the actual sword in the stone barely features in the animated movie that bears its name. The story plays out in segmented episodes where the magic of Merlin attempts to intervene in Wart’s rather horrible existence and teach him a few things. It’s seemingly a case of the film being about nothing, thematically, as the conclusion just sort of happens and the film’s major scenes seem nearly random.
However, what ties The Sword in the Stone together is learning to cope with bullies. Think about it: in almost every scene in the film there’s a bully that confronts or tries to harm young Arthur. Kay (later Sir Kay), the wolf in the woods, Arthur’s foster-father, the bullfrog and the barracuda in the moat during the fish scene, the bird of prey when Arthur becomes a sparrow, Mad Madam Mim, of course. Merlin has to face down the witch, his own bully, in the film’s best scene: the wizard’s duel. Even Merlin’s owl, the lovably cranky Archimedes, bullies Wart at one point when trying to teach the boy his alphabet.
Merlin’s goals with Arthur seem to be in prepping him for his future kingship but I never really stopped to wonder why it seemed like Merlin wasn’t teaching him anything. Truth is, he was giving Wart the opportunity to stand up against bullies and to face real trouble, from a variety of viewpoints (that’s of course considering that Wart’s life already had its troubles). What could a king learn better than to know as a leader who bullies are and how to navigate them in order to protect his kingdom? Further, any king could become a righteous one by learning not to become a bully themselves!
The only major scene that doesn’t fit into this lens of interpretation is the squirrel scene where Arthur (and Merlin, too, hilariously) are persecuted by lovey-dovey female squirrels. Arthur is forced to learn about the all-encompassing and sometimes blind power of love in that scene, yet another lesson but not necessarily one about bullies.
“That love business is a powerful thing. Greater than gravity? Well, yes. In its way, yes, I’d say it’s the greatest force on Earth.” Good wisdom Arthur needs to understand.
The theme of bullying culminates in one of the more confusing scenes (at least I always found it to be confusing). Toward the end of the film, Wart becomes Sir Kay’s squire but when he announces this to Merlin, the grumpy old man loses his temper yet again and magically blows himself to Bermuda. Mages are apt to do that, just so you know.
This is the tried and true “removal of the mentor” trope you can find in entertainment from Gandalf the Grey to Obi-Wan Kenobi; the protagonist cannot truly blossom and become their own person until they’ve been removed from under the shadow of their mentor, just as in real life when we grow from children to independent adults.
But it was the realization that Merlin too had become a kind of bully for young Arthur in that moment which really set this theme in stone for me. Wart argues with the wizard. He stands up to him. He’s learned independence. He’s outgrown his mentor. All that’s left is to remove the mentor from a narrative standpoint so that Arthur alone can embrace his destiny and ascend to the throne. It’s only after Arthur’s coronation that the soothsayer returns to become one of Arthur’s companions, no longer his sole protector and guide.
Ultimately, it was the miracle from heaven that chose humble Wart to become King Arthur. That’s the loudest and clearest death knell for bullies in the movie. The miracle chose the smallest, the weakest, the humblest, and the purest in all of England to become king, just as David had been so crowned so many centuries before Arthur. Humility is not the most paraded virtue in our culture today, but it is nonetheless one which displays a power of restraint that’s quite unlike anything else in this world. Humility is not letting other people walk all over you (recall that Arthur stood up for himself against his wizard), but it does mean caring for the needs and wants of others and not being selfish, the difference between being Arthur and being “Sir” Kay…
So then, how do you deal with bullies?
According to Sword in the Stone, there are several choice methods. Sometimes you’ll need to face them (Madam Mim). Sometimes you’ll need to pick your battles (the bird of prey). Sometimes you’ll have to suck it up and deal with it (the foster-father); enduring criticism can be a positive thing. Sometimes you’ll need to say your piece and be done with it, let people know where you stand (Merlin himself). Sometimes ultimate justice will deal with vindication for you (the Sword).
I do like one piece of advice in the film: “No sense going around insulting bullfrogs.” Some people are bullfrogs. No sense in giving them the power to dominate your feeds and private messages with your complaints and grievances about them. Don’t give them the power to consume your thoughts and your life. Forget ’em. You’ve got a better destiny than that.
-The Well-Red Mage
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