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Reading with my ears, December 2010

Does this ever happen to you? I read about a book (or an author) and then place a hold and weeks later when it appears, I go huh? There’s more of a “huh?” in the case of Interlibrary Loan, because I don’t see the book title every time I scan my holds list. At some point in the last couple months, I read someone’s blog saying that T.H. White’s version of the Arthur legends are the best. I found an audiobook of The Sword in the Stone using World Cat, did the voodoo and forgot about it. Then, it appears…like magic! Of course, when an ILL (I always like seeing where the books come from, don’t you? Thank you Douglas County Library System!) arrives, everything on the listening list gets moved down one because these aren’t renewable.

(And even though I enjoyed this, I’m really not a big enough Arthur fan to commit to another 24 hours to wrap up the five-novel saga.)

Young Arthur, parentage unknown (to him), is being raised in the castle of the noble knight Sir Ector and is friend and companion to his son, Kay. Arthur, who is called the Wart by all in the castle, will likely become Kay’s squire when Kay becomes a knight himself. Wart is a sweet-natured boy (unlike Kay), and when Kay proposes that they take the young falcon, Cully and put him through his paces, Wart obligingly agrees. Of course, neither boy can control the bird, who flies away. Kay—unwilling to take responsibility—stomps back to the castle, while Wart soldiers on into the Forest Sauvage trying to re-capture him. Lost and frightened, he stumbles across the cottage of an old man, who introduces himself as Merlyn.

Merlyn announces that he will become Wart’s tutor. He and Wart travel back to the castle and embark on his education. Merlyn is a magician (pointy hat and all) and can transform Wart into various living creatures—transformations designed to instill leadership qualities into the boy and to broaden his experiences. Because Merlyn is living life in reverse and he knows what’s going to happen: That Wart will come upon the sword in the stone, pull it out, and by doing so he will prove that he is the man to rule England.

This novel is full of hilarious anachronisms—mostly courtesy of Merlyn’s knowledge of the future—but occasionally they are just, ridiculously, there. (The heading of this post is the sign outside the cottage of a local she-witch, Madame Mim, which goes on to say: “No hawkers, circulars or income tax. Beware of the dragon.”) There’s also a fair amount of rollicking fun with Merlyn’s battle to the death with the aforementioned Madame Mim, a tilt between two hapless knights, a dash of Robin Wood (whose name has evidently been misunderstood as Hood for centuries), and an exciting rescue from a giant’s lair. White includes a fair amount of what we would call environmental activism and the occasional jab at modern (1930s) politics.

I thought this was going to be “litrachure;” it’s really just a romp.

A new-to-me narrator, Neville Jason, reads the novel. (Scroll down and listen to this podcast of him chatting about his work. I always enjoy these peeks into the audiobook production process.) As you can hear, he has a lovely speaking voice—those rounded British vowels, of course; but he understands and perfectly delivers the dry humor in the story.

There are lots of characters for Jason to portray and he skillfully brings out the qualities in each one—the professorial Merlyn (modeled, as he says in the podcast, on the British politician Tony Benn), the slightly dim Sir Ector, the really dim King Pellinore, petulant Kay, and the curious and impressionable Wart. There’s a fair amount of animal life given voice in the novel, but I find that Jason’s slightly less successful here—although I did enjoy the subtle baa’s as he voices a sad little goat, many of the creatures that Wart encounters in his transformations all had the same soft, whispery quality that made these episodes blend together a bit in my head.

I’m trying to figure out what it is about Arthur that I can’t get into his mythology. While I very much enjoyed Philip Reeve’s recent riff on the subject, Here Lies Arthur, I think it must be Franco Nero lip-synching “C’est Moi” as Lancelot in the movie version of Camelot. Oh, the horror! Clearly I should stick with Arthur’s youth—I’ve always been curious about Kevin Crossley-Holland’s trilogy…which is available through World Cat…stop me! Stop me!

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