Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Comparing and Contrasting Sword in the Stone's Merlin with Monmouth's Merlin

Wolfgang Reitherman's Sword in the Stone (1963) (based on the first novel in T.H. White's Once and Future King trilogy) is a remarkably detailed and accomplished work for its time.  Early Disney animated features are notorious for both their storytelling and production quality, and "Sword in the Stone" holds up in regards to both.  Having viewed the film several times as a young man, I felt the need to revisit it with new knowledge of Arthurian legend that I've gained as a 22 year old person.

Disney's Sword in the Stone mostly focuses on the relationship between Merlin and a young Arthur, who prefers to be called "Wart" for a reason that is never explained (and probably shouldn't be.) We learn from a storybook opening sequence that King Uther has passed away, and that the next king of England will be the boy or man who pulls the mighty sword Excalibur from the stone where it resides. After a pipe-smoking session, Merlin foresees Wart pulling the sword from the stone, and decides to take it upon himself to teach the future king character lessons by turning him into various cutesy animals like...  
a bird

a squirrel

and a fish

Monmouth never wrote about the events in this film, but it's not out of line with the timeline he established.  In the movie, Wart is twelve years old, and Monmouth claims that Arthur was fifteen when he became king.  It's not unimaginable that Arthur could have spent time with Merlin before he was crowned, but it's a little unlikely considering Merlin was probably busy running weird errands and putting up Stonehenge.  But, I digress.  

Where Sword in the Stone most impressed me was in its characterization of Merlin. Merlin is portrayed in the film as an all-knowing and all-seeing wizard, which isn't too far off from Monmouth's prophetic and supremely intelligent Merlin in "History of the Kings of Britain." Both versions of Merlin are two steps ahead of their contemporaries, but Reitherman's Merlin is more forthright about his knowledge of the universe.  

Merlin seen wearing contemporary undergarments, which is something Monmouth neglected to mention.

One of the running jokes of the film is Merlin referencing events and technology that haven't been invented yet, including helicopters, television, and motion pictures. Every time someone questions what he's referencing, he usually responds with some kind of variation on "Oh, that'll happen later." Reitherman's Merlin even has a globe that foresees the discovery of the New World with the date in which it'll be discovered.

Complete with little bumps representing the mountain ranges of North and South America

The differences in Merlin's characterization between Sword in the Stone and Kings of Britain can mostly be attributed to genre, seeing as how Sword in the Stone was intended to be seen by children.  Monmouth never wrote Merlin as less than completely cool and all-knowing, whereas the Merlin in Stone is a goofy old goofball who can't seem to not get covered in various liquids and objects like...

well water 
rain water

and lake water

It's not out of the question that Merlin could have been a bit more doofy than Monmouth told us he was, but Reitherman's Merlin is almost too goofy to function.  He gets his beard caught in stuff more than once and acts like he can't do anything about it, even though he's a wizard who can shapeshift into literally anything.  Does it make sense? No, but Reitherman probably thought that kids would rather watch a kooky old wizard use magic to clean dishes than a young wizard telling the people of England that the Ram of the Castle of Venus will breathe fog from its nostrils to make the women of England become more arrogant and snake-like.
A contemporary English woman

Ultimately, Reitherman's film isn't intended to be a history lesson, and it never claimed to be.  The structure of the film is predicated on Arthur being an orphan that no one sees greatness in (which was never the case), and Arthur and Merlin spend more time doing things as animals than as people. Monmouth's book was never intended to be read by children, which is why there are no sing along musical numbers and most people mentioned are usually dead by the next page. Different audiences expect different things.

Reitherman's Merlin honors the legacy that Monmouth laid out while simultaneously making him a palatable figure for younger viewers, which is totally fine.  Merlin may not have actually look or behave like the way he's portrayed in most media, but he doesn't have to.  Merlin can be whatever we want him to be, because we don't even know if he existed or not.  Or maybe Merlin actually existed and is living in secret at Hong Kong Disneyland.  Truly, we will never know.  

"I am not actually Merlin." - Merlin


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