The Sword in the Stone is a book about an adopted child named Wart.
He is of royal blood and does not know this. One day when Wart is in the
forest, he finds a magician named Merlin. Merlin comes home with Wart and
agrees with Sir Ector, Wart’s guardian, to become Wart’s tutor. Merlin
goes about educating Wart by transforming him into different animals.
Through each transformation Wart experiences different forms of power, each
being a part of how he should rule as king.
The first transformation plunges Wart and Merlin into the castle’s
moat as fish. They proceed to meet the largest fish in the moat, who is
the ruler. This fish takes what he wants because of his size. In a speech
about power, he tells Wart that, “Might is right,” and might of the body is
greater than might of the mind. Because of the way the fish-king rules, his
subjects obey him out of fear for their lives. Wart experiences this
firsthand when the fish-king tells him to leave. He has grown bored of
Wart, and if Wart does not leave he will eat him. The king uses his size
as his claim to power, therefore his subjects follow him out of fear.
In Wart’s next transformation into a hawk, he soars into the castle’s
mews. All the birds in the mews have a military rank. Their leader is an
old falcon, who Sir Ector keeps for show. The birds who rank below the
falcon, hold her in highest regard because of her age. She applies her
power over the other birds with no concern for their lives. In one
instance, Wart is ordered to stand next to the cage of a crazy hawk who
almost kills him. On the other hand, her seasoned age brings respect,
since she had not been released once she outlived her usefulness as a
huntress. This allows her to maintain a powerful grip over all the birds
she rules through fear and respect.
Next, Wart is transformed into an ant and posted within an ant colony.
There is a single leader of the ants, and she is the only thinking
individual in the whole nest. All the ants are manipulated and overseen by
her. Each ant has a specific task, which it completes repeatedly. The
absolute power exerted by the leader destroys all individualism, leaving
the ants with no creativity. Instead, they use trial and error to complete
tasks that should take only a small amount of thought. Wart sees this
occur when an ant tries with difficulty to organize three cadavers in a
small burial chamber, when a small amount of reasoning would have solved
the problem quickly. The ants are of a collective mind, so that what one
thinks, they all think. They go about their daily lives oblivious to the
control the leader has over them.
Wart’s fourth transformation places him in a flock of geese. These
geese are a peace loving race that never kill. There is one leader to a
group who is called The Admiral. He guides them on their flight south for
the winter. The Admiral receives his position because of his knowledge of
the southern migration route. He is only elected if all the geese in the
migration group agree he is capable of doing the job. During the flight
the geese obey his choices, since he is their elected leader. But his
power ends once they are back on the ground, where he is only looked upon
as a respected elder.
In the final transformation Wart visits the badger. The badger is a
great philosopher who enjoys giving scholarly commentaries. While Wart is
visiting him, he explains a story he has written on the creation of the
animal kingdom’s hierarchy. In his commentary he explains how man answered
God’s riddle and is awarded control over the animal kingdom. He lives a
life of solitude because many other animals do not think at his level. They
listen because he is old and experienced, and with this comes respect.
Through each of the transformations, Wart sees different uses of
power. Wart must choose how he will eventually govern his kingdom. The
leaders he visits, govern in their own way, each retaining their power
through different methods. When these are combined, the following picture
of how a leader should or should not rule emerges: A leader should not
attempt to rule his or her people through might and fear, as does the
fisk-king. Unlike the falcon, a ruler should not retain power only because
of age, and should rule with the subjects well-being in mind. One should
not exert total control over one’s subjects, because they lose creativity
and individualism as shown by the ants. A democratically elected leader,
whom subjects have faith in his or her ability to get a job done, and who
has the required skills will complete the task at hand, as do the geese.
Leaders must give great thought to making decisions related to their use of
power, and use their experience, like the Badger. Also like the Badger,
these decisions should be made without the help of others, and therefore
may lead to solitude. T. H. White is therefore similar to Merlin in trying
to teach us about leadership.