My fourth self-published print, this one in partnership with artist J.H. Williams III, has King Arthur as its subject. Why King Arthur? It’s a personal choice involving three favorite books I’ll describe here. I’ve enjoyed the stories and legends of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table since my childhood, sparked by the above book, given to me by my mother, probably around age ten. It was given to her in her own childhood by her 6th grade class in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I think on the occasion of her leaving that school to come to New Jersey. The book was first published in 1927, but Mom probably got it in 1936, give or take a year, when she was around ten. The book’s subtitle is “Based on Morte d’ Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory.” It doesn’t say who did the adaptation, but it’s likely the woman who wrote the introduction, Elizabeth Lodor Merchant, listed as “Head of Department of English, William Penn High School, Philadelphia, Penna.” The publisher, Winston, was headquartered in Philadelphia, and no doubt turned to a local for the job. Ms. Merchant did some similar adaptations of other works for Winston, but seems to be otherwise unpublished.
The illustrator is Frank Godwin, whose fine paintings and line drawings appeared in several other children’s books for Winston, but he’s best known for his comic strips: Connie (1927-44) and Rusty Riley (1948-59), which he was working on at his death that year. I didn’t know any of that when I got the book, but I loved the pictures. There are four interior paintings on tipped-in plates, and a fifth pasted on the cover, showing Arthur drawing the sword from the stone, plus many fine line drawings like the one above, the first in the book. The model for the Winston classics series was a similar one by Scribners illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. I think Godwin did an equally fine job. (To add a comics connection, Godwin also did some drawing on Wonder Woman for DC, apparently.)
Having since read some (but not all) of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, the entire text of which can be found online here and here, I believe the story illustrated above, about a battle between two dragons, is not from Malory, but from an earlier source, which I’ll talk about in my next post. Stories about knights appealed to me, but those about dragons even moreso, and I always remembered it. It involves a young Merlin, a cruel king: Vortigern, and a prophecy. Like many of the stories involving Arthur and Merlin, it’s a tangled combination of early British or Saxon elements with Celtic ones. Vortigern was probably a real warlord in 5th century England, Merlin’s stories probably begin in Celtic Wales around the same time. Most of Merchant’s book does come from Malory though, including a chapter on his pulling the sword from the stone, a sword that an inscription stated would make him King of England. That’s the story forming the basis for my print. Many familiar elements of the Arthurian legend are told, from the gathering of the Knights of the Round Table to the search for the Holy Grail, to Guinevere and Lancelot to the final battle of Arthur and Mordred, but all rewritten for children in an appealing, if somewhat tame style. I read and reread the book, one of the first I owned.
This next book I first read by age 12. I’m sure because it shows up on the booklist I made then, in 1963. The book on the list wasn’t the hardcover edition shown above, I found that years later, but a cheap paperback edition from the Arrow Book Club, bought through my school. It’s a wonderfully-written tale of a boy, Hugh, who is taken in by the monks of a mediaeval monastery in southwest England, the Abbey of Glastonbury. Hugh is given work in the library there, and with his friend Dickon, pieces together clues from written fragments and documents leading them toward the possible discovery of the Holy Grail. The same Holy Grail that figured prominently in the previous book, sought by the Knights of the Round Table. Legends said the Grail was used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, and brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, who founded the Abbey at Glastonbury. The Abbey was a real place, its ruins still exist, and can be visited. Here’s how part of it looked when I was there in 1979:
I won’t tell you too much about the story, in case you want to read it yourself (link at the end of this post), but I loved everything about it, and it added to my interest in Arthurian lore. Incidentally, I enjoyed the writing of Eleanor M. Jewett so much that I eventually found and bought many more books by her. All are good reads, but none had the impact on me that this one did.
One chapter from the book tells a story that seems to be supported by history, in which monks at the abbey uncover what they believe to be the grave of Arthur and Guinevere. At least, that’s what the monks thought at the time. Malory says, at the end of his book, that Arthur’s mortally wounded body was taken away on a barge to the “vale of Avilion,” where it would be healed, and he would someday return. Glastonbury was originally an island of high ground known as Avalon, surrounded by marshes, and was long associated with Arthur as well as the Holy Grail. A high conical hill nearby is known as Arthur’s Tor, and has long been rumored as the resting place of Arthur. The connection seems very believable! Jewett’s book brought mediaeval times alive for me, even more than the King Arthur legends, as her characters are real boys, trying to solve an incredible mystery. By the way, the artist, Frederick T. Chapman, was prolific as a children’s book illustrator, though I can’t find a biography of him. The New York Times reported his death at age 96 in 1983.
The third book, the one that cemented Arthur’s story as one of my favorites, was this one, first published in 1938. It’s also based on the Malory book, but writer T.H. White took the bare bones of the early chapters of Malory and created a wonderful new novel from it. I’m not sure when I first read it, but I know it had to be before 1963 also, because that year Disney released an animated feature based on it, and I know I’d read the book before seeing the movie. In fact, while I liked some things in the film, I was also somewhat shocked at how they’d “Disneyed” it up! That comical wolf near the beginning, for instance. And I knew even then that the book was much better.
Like Jewett’s book, The Sword in the Stone is a well-researched tale of life in mediaeval England, specifically at the castle of Sir Ector. Ector’s older son, Kay, is in training to become a knight like his father. The younger son, known as Wart, aspires to become Kay’s faithful page. One day when Kay and Wart are out hunting with a trained hawk, the hawk, Cully, flies off into the deep and dangerous forest surrounding the castle environs. Kay, in a fit of temper, decides to leave it and go home, but Wart goes into the forest, trying to retrieve the valuable hunting bird. There he meets an odd old man, a magician named Merlyn, who helps him catch the hawk, and comes back to the castle with Wart to become his and Kay’s tutor. Much of Merlyn’s tutoring involves turning young Wart into various animals so he can learn more about the natural world (and by inference the human world) around him. The book ends with the episode from Malory where the boy pulls the fateful sword from the stone, but in this book that event is now imbued with much more emotion and meaning, since we know Wart, or Arthur, so much better, and understand the unlooked-for miracle of the event for him, and how drastically it will change his life. Again, I’ll put a link to this fine book at the end of this post, if you’d like to read it yourself.
Incidentally, White later wrote two more stand-alone volumes of his Malory adaptation, The Witch in the Wood (1939) and The Ill-Made Knight (1940). White came back to Malory in the 1950s, writing the last section, The Candle in the Wind, but rather than publish it separately, he combined all four of his Malory books into one volume and published it as The Once and Future King in 1958. That book condenses the story some, leaving out parts of the three earlier volumes, and adding other bits. One new chapter of The Sword in the Stone is added, the one about the ants, but others are omitted. I prefer the stand-alone book, which is the only one that has remained in print separately. The Once and Future King was used as the basis for the Broadway musical and film Camelot by Lerner and Lowe, though not much of White’s text made it into the show. A fifth volume, The Book of Merlyn, was written but never published in White’s lifetime, only seeing print in 1977. It takes place before Arthur’s death, and continues Merlyn’s education of the now adult Arthur.
I don’t think I ever saw The Sword In The Stone’s original dust jacket by American artist Robert Lawson, with it’s well-crafted sword, anvil and stone. The hardcover copy I found for my own library had none, just this simple line drawing by the author on the cover board. White’s own similar drawings are throughout the book, at the beginning and end of each chapter, and while he may not have had much artistic talent, they convey the spirit of the text well, as author’s drawings usually do.
Robert Lawson also did detailed endpapers for the edition I have, part of which is above. I knew and loved Lawson’s own books, which he wrote and illustrated, but never cared for this drawing, much preferring White’s work.
Three books that drew me into Arthur’s world, but all of them largely based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, first published in 1485. And Malory’s work was, itself, drawn from many earlier writings on the tangled web of British history and legend known as The Matter of Britain. I’ll talk about that next time, and get into the actual text for my print, too.