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Absolute monarchies have carried a negative connotation throughout history and have been the source of many rebellions and wars. However, if an absolute monarch learns to be just and execute his power rationally, then his or her reign can be pleasant and the nation can be at peace. In T.H. White’s the Sword in the Stone, a novel set in medieval England, a great wizard named Merlin sets out to educate Wart, the unknowing future king of England. In a series of adventures and various transformations into various creatures, Wart gains experience and learns lessons that Merlin hopes will guide him towards being a successful king. A king is truly successful when the people he serves are satisfied with his service, especially in this feudal period, when a king’s power was virtually unlimited. The most valuable lesson that Wart learns throughout his adventures comes from his very first transformation into a fish, in which he observes Merlin set the precedent for treatment towards those less fortunate, views the effects of absolute monarchy on both the ruler and the ruled, and learns how to pick his battles.
Merlin sets the precedent for Wart, displaying how he should treat someone with a lesser fortune and lower status. When the poor, stammering roach approaches Merlin and Wart, he begs on behalf of his sick mother for medical help, and Merlin comforts him, asking him to lead the way. In contrast to what the normal treatment of the poor during this period of time, wherein they were commonly ignored and left alone, Merlin’s act of kindness is unusual for a man of power and status. Wart expresses this in his view of Merlin. “He like[s] [Merlin] to talk. He [does] not like the grown-ups who [talk] down to him… but the ones who just [go] on talking… leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing…” (p.50) This shows the importance of Merlin sending Wart on these adventures, as well as setting a good example for him through his daily actions. To Wart, Merlin is an admirable adult and a strong role model. Through aiding the underprivileged despite their low status, Merlin presents to Wart a way to conduct his relationship with the people he will rule.
Wart is able to view the effects of absolute power on both the ruler and the ruled through his next encounter with the King fish, which contrasts significantly with the poor fish. In this encounter, Merlin introduces Wart to the tyrant fish, a giant pike, who is corrupt, both internally and physically, through the way he abuses his absolute power. The visit results in the King fish attempting to eat Wart, a near-death experience that actually proves to help Wart as much as it could have harmed him. The physical descriptions of this fish’s appearance, using words like “ravaged by… cruelty… pride, selfishness” (p. 59), all are clear symbols of corruption and greed. Almost being eaten by the King fish symbolizes Wart’s potential to become corrupt in the face of absolute power, and Merlin saves him from this fate in both a metaphorical and literal sense. The poor fish stood serves as a parallel to the King fish, showing that although the ruler and the ruled live opposite lives, they are both heading in the same ill-fated direction.
Wart learns how to pick his battles in the final moment when the King fish’s jaw nearly comes to a close and he chooses to flee rather than fighting him. “It was only at the very last second that he was able to regain his own will, to pull himself together, recollect his instructions and to escape” (p. 61). It is important for Wart to know that his fleeing is not from a lack of courage and that sometimes it takes more strength and wit to back down that to continue fighting. Rather than using his magic to save Wart right when the King fish is about to attack, Merlin allows him time to make his own careful yet quick decisions and rely on himself first. Learning to make decisions concerning battle was especially important during this time because kings often waged wars that they knew they were unprepared to fight and lost vast numbers of men, all because they felt that they needed to protect their pride and dignity. Wart knows that he cannot win the battle with the King Fish, and rather than exerting his energy to try and beat the Fish and fail, he uses all his strength to give the “heartiest jackknife within him” (p. 61). This tactic ensured Wart’s safety, which is an important lesson because safety of the ruler and his people should always comes before his pride.
Wart’s transformation into a fish proves to be his most valuable lesson because it’s his very first transformation, as well as his only transformation with Merlin, making it the most memorable part of his journey. Wart learns to choose his priorities, help those in need, and find the lesson in every event, whether good or bad. With these essentials to success as well as many other transformations to come, Wart learns what it means to be a successful king and how to serve his people.
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