Do you remember VHS tapes? Disney always had distinctive containers that encased their films. They were these white, plastic, folding contraptions as opposed to the run-of-the-mill thin cardboard sleeves. Opening them always came with the creak of flexing synthetics, but signaled the magic therein. My family had two of these treasures, one for me and one for my sister. My sibling’s was the 1951 classic Alice in Wonderland. Mine was the slightly lesser known The Sword in the Stone (1963). Though there is nothing truly historical about the tale, it appealed to the budding historian in me being set in England’s mythical past, with knights and jousting and dragons.
If you are keeping score of the various Arthurian legends that are out there, The Sword in the Stone and some of its story aspects are on your scoreboard. I am no expert on such things, and what I do know tells me that Arthur, or “Wart” (voiced by Rickie Sorensen) in this cartoon version, found his famous Excalibur sword in a lake and not an anvil, but what can I say but Disney? Yet that is where the blade rests, and the film introduces it as being the prize that must be wrested from its metallic grip if anyone aspires to be king of England. The trick is that the sword will only come free to somebody who is pure of heart and character. This is when we meet Wart, though at first sight the boy does not strike one as being royal material. He is a servant in the castle of Lord Ector (voiced by Sebastian Cabot), his harsh foster father. He is out helping his older step-brother, Sir Kay (voiced by Norman Alden), while the young man hunts. When an arrow meant for a young buck goes awry, Wart volunteers to go find it. This quest lands him in the cottage of Merlin (voiced by Karl Swenson), the famous wizard (and also part of Arthurian lore, so a point to Disney there). Merlin had been expecting him because he knows that the boy is destined for greatness, and the old conjurer takes it upon himself to teach Wart. Though Lord Ector is initially apprehensive to allow Merlin to educate Wart, he soon relents. What follows are a series of lessons where Merlin changes Wart into different animals that are meant to teach the boy to use his head instead of his braun. Merlin hopes that Wart will become more of a thinking-man, whereas all Wart can think about is becoming a knight. When he finally gets his chance to prove himself by being named Sir Kay’s page for a tournament to be held in London, he is excited and immediately tells the wizard the news. Merlin is less than thrilled, and decides to be “blasted to Bermuda” instead of watching his pupil, in his view, throw his life away. Wart is not left alone, having Merlin’s talking owl Archimedes (voiced by Junius Matthews) to accompany him. In his eagerness to serve, Wart forgot to bring Sir Kay’s sword with him. He must scramble to find a blade, and that is when he stumbles upon Excalibur in its resting place. While he checks up at the heavenly rays that appear when he first touches the hilt, Wart nonetheless forges ahead and runs back to the tournament. Sir Kay immediately notices that this is not his sword, and then others see the inscription on the blade proclaiming it to be the legendary weapon. No one believes that it was Wart that drew it, and so they go back to its anvil, replace it in its slot, and tell the boy to repeat the maneuver. Before he can get a chance he is shoved aside by a host of others who believe that if Wart can do it, anyone can. All their mighty struggles come to naught. Instead, it is the diminutive Arthur who is destined to wield the blade and become king of England, and that is what happens. Merlin shows up at the end, bedecked in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, but is ready to congratulate the boy. The rest is . . . history?
When I was a kid and watched The Sword in the Stone until I wore out the tape, I did not truly understand my Catholic Faith despite attending a Catholic school until the fourth grade. If I had a better grounding in it, I would probably have seen differently the way the positive messages in the film are conveyed. Then again, I was eight. As an adult, I think the overall message of the film is humility. The Mass readings just today speak to this virtue. In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us how his position as an Apostle might be such that it could inflate somebody’s ego. But he undercuts himself by putting all his brothers ahead of himself, and describing taking on the mantle of an Apostle as happening to one born “abnormally.” Merlin sees greatness for Arthur, but, as the old saying goes about how power corrupts, he desires to show the boy the benefits of being a well-rounded person. The first lesson, for example, involves Arthur becoming a fish. This, of course, speaks to how, as so aptly put by Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), there is always a bigger fish. To beat a bigger fish, it cannot be done by becoming as big as the other fish, but instead using your head to take advantage of what its braun might lead it to miss. Great lesson. I just wish it was not brought home through the use of magic.
Even though magic is used in The Sword in the Stone, I still feel it is a fine movie for the whole family to watch. Bear in mind that it is not meant to be taken seriously, and Arthur is never taught to wield magic. I go back to it every once in a while for nostalgic purposes, which is made possible by my subscription to Disney +. No creaking plastic cases for me anymore. I also watched it again recently because I had an upcoming trip to Disney, and I report from there now. I welcome it as a nice change of pace given all the events of the past six months.