I think my favorite Disney movie has terrible structure, but I love it for being a unique artifact.
Disney movies lean heavily into the monomyth of the hero’s journey. With very few exceptions, we follow a protagonist (often a princess) who finds a call to action, leaves home, faces trials and an abyss, grows to overcome these things, and finds their way home, permanently changed. Cinderella with her ball, Ariel with her legs and the affection of the man she fell in love with, Flynn and the truth ENCOM buried… They’re all brought on a magical journey to attain the unattainable, to overcome the impossible, and to seek their heart’s reward.
And then… There’s Wart.
As heroes go, Arthur from The Sword in the Stone is… Tough. He barely fits the model. This has much to do with the source material… Sword in the Stone is based on T. H. White’s Once and Future King, which tells the rest of Arthur’s tale in the rest of the book. But The Sword in the Stone chronicles only the tale from Arthur meeting Merlin to Arthur becoming king as a result of pulling an inextricable sword from the stone and anvil in London.
Arthur’s path through the story has parts of a hero’s journey. There’s a call to action, sort of (he meets Merlin, who tells him Arthur’s now his student). He leaves the threshold by, uh, going home with a wizard in tow. He does undergo several trials (chased around by a fish, chased around by a squirrel, chased around by a hawk). And he stands up to his father-figure in Sir Ector, which costs him his squirehood… For a time, until fate intervenes to take out Hobbes off-screen (a character we never meet). He faces the abyss by… doing the thing he was training to do, which is become a squire. This so infuriates Merlin that Merlin leaves, whereupon Arthur goes to London, accidentally finds a magic sword, and becomes king. He never wanted to be king, so he begs his mentor to return, and Merlin does, in a blast of magic and Bermuda shorts. And we close there, with Arthur now the once and future king and Merlin his mentor.
It’s a weird story because Arthur spends most of it along for the ride. He transitions from student to squire to king without seeking any of these… The world is happening to him. He’s fated to be who he will be, and nothing he wants can stop it. He’s the protagonist, but he’s not really the hero of the story. In fact, he’s more of a McGuffin if anything. He’s not even the first character we see in the tale. In fact, the first character is…
Merlin… Merlin does want things. We establish what he wants in the first scene, where he wrestles a well for gravitational supremacy. He wants a world better than the one he’s living in. And he knows it’s possible, because he has foreseen it. Merlin is “a soothsayer… A prognosticator.” He has the gift of foreknowledge of (and apparently, we eventually learn, access to) the future past the medieval world he’s living in, where everything is “complicated” and the strong prey upon the weak. In many versions of the tale of Arthur, Merlin’s foreknowledge is a curse, not a blessing, and we seem to play it as such here… He is forever grumpy and dissatisfied, knowing of a world that is not and could be, if only people weren’t so… Medieval.
And Merlin is also burdened with a purpose. He knows Arthur is coming his way, and he is to guide the boy to “his rightful place in the world” (put a pin in that; we’ll return to it). Whereas Arthur’s variant of the hero’s journey starts with him going home, Merlin accepts the call to action by packing his whole home into a suitcase and moving into a drafty, leaky tower to do his work.
We have trials, where Merlin faces not whether his power is sufficient to protect his ward, but whether he’s imparted enough knowledge for Wart to save himself. Except when young Arthur becomes faced with a threat he can’t face himself, a sorceress of equal power to Merlin. At which point, Merlin blows in as a literal force of nature to stand between the boy and mortal peril (Hero, from the Greek ἥρως. Meaning “protector,” “defender”). He puts his life on the line to save this kid from certain doom, and does so in a way that still teaches a lesson, for teaching is his role in this boy’s life.
After these adventures and trials, Merlin faces the abyss by… His student becoming a squire.
Donning the “fine monkey suit for polishing boots.” Embracing the identity imposed upon him by the medieval world. Merlin challenges his decision, and Wart’s response… “I’m lucky to be Kay’s squire. I’m nobody.”
After all that work. All that tutelage. Fighting the most dangerous sorceress in the kingdom.
Merlin doesn’t take it well.
… and here the movie breaks down, even in this interpretation. We never find out what happens to Merlin in Bermuda. Something convinces him to come back. Somehow, he decides (even sitting in Bermuda, in the twentieth century!) that medieval London is where he’ll be needed. So after Arthur accidentally kings himself, Merlin comes back.
He takes up a position advising Arthur, roll credits.
So it’s still not a great movie, structurally. It’s a fun movie. The animation is glorious, the characters were well-voiced and well-animated, the action is iconic. I loved it so much as a kid I burned a hole through a tape at the wizard’s duel. But I love it for being a unique artifact.
Arthur… Is a fixed point in time. Nothing Merlin does actually pushes him towards this “rightful place in the world;” had Merlin not intervened, Arthur would have been Kay’s squire, likely would have screwed up bringing Kay’s sword, and gone to the churchyard for the sword in the stone anyway. Fate is making him king… Will make him king. Unavoidably. Inexorably. Once and future.
I think Merlin knows this. Merlin can do nothing to change this. Merlin can’t change whether he’s king. What Merlin can do, the only thing he can do, is shape him into King Arthur. Prepare him. Make this boy, so ill-equipped to lead a nation, into a King Arthur. Raise a wise man from a child. Share a vision of a slightly brighter tomorrow, so that his choices and his leadership might guide his people towards it, even stumblingly, imperfectly, partially. He might not bring them indoor plumbing or electricity, but perhaps it’s in the power of a King Arthur to create a kingdom where the strong do not prey upon the weak. Better than the kingdom he was raised in.
Imagine you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that some random kid would become President. You had no control over this aspect of fate; that is a fixed point, unchanging. What would you do? You’d help him become the best damn kid he could be, that he may become the best President he can be.
Among the people cared for by teachers now, someone will be the next President. Someone will become CEO of every corporation that will exist. Someone will become a Supreme Court Justice. A general. A priest shepherding thousands or tens of thousands. The mayor of a city where millions live. This is guaranteed. As long as we have humanity, we will demand leaders; as long as we have this society, we will have these kinds of leaders. We can’t stop this. But what we can do is our best to ensure that all of these will become the best human beings we can possibly help them be.
I love The Sword in the Stone because the hero is the teacher. I want more of those stories.