The Sword in the Stone is a book about an adopted child named Wart. He is of royal blood and does not know this. One day when Wart is in the forest, he finds a magician named Merlin. Merlin comes home with Wart and agrees with Sir Ector, Wart’s guardian, to become Wart’s tutor. Merlin goes about educating Wart by transforming him into different animals. Through each transformation Wart experiences different forms of power, each being a part of how he should rule as king.
The first transformation plunges Wart and Merlin into the castle’s moat as fish. They proceed to meet the largest fish in the moat, who is the ruler. This fish takes what he wants because of his size. In a speech about power, he tells Wart that, “Might is right,” and might of the body is greater than might of the mind. Because of the way the fish-king rules, his subjects obey him out of fear for their lives. Wart experiences this firsthand when the fish-king tells him to leave. He has grown bored of Wart, and if Wart does not leave he will eat him. The king uses his size as his claim to power, therefore his subjects follow him out of fear.
In Wart’s next transformation into a hawk, he soars into the castle’s mews. All the birds in the mews have a military rank. Their leader is an old falcon, who Sir Ector keeps for show. The birds who rank below the falcon, hold her in highest regard because of her age. She applies her power over the other birds with no concern for their lives. In one instance, Wart is ordered to stand next to the cage of a crazy hawk who almost kills him. On the other hand, her seasoned age brings respect, since she had not been released once she outlived her usefulness as a huntress. This allows her to maintain a powerful grip over all the birds she rules through fear and respect.
Next, Wart is transformed into an ant and posted within an ant colony. There is a single leader of the ants, and she is the only thinking individual in the whole nest. All the ants are manipulated and overseen by her. Each ant has a specific task, which it completes repeatedly. The absolute power exerted by the leader destroys all individualism, leaving the ants with no creativity. Instead, they use trial and error to complete tasks that should take only a small amount of thought. Wart sees this occur when an ant tries with difficulty to organize three cadavers in a small burial chamber, when a small amount of reasoning would have solved the problem quickly. The ants are of a collective mind, so that what one thinks, they all think. They go about their daily lives oblivious to the control the leader has over them.
Wart’s fourth transformation places him in a flock of geese. These geese are a peace loving race that never kill. There is one leader to a group who is called The Admiral. He guides them on their flight south for the winter. The Admiral receives his position because of his knowledge of the southern migration route. He is only elected if all the geese in the migration group agree he is capable of doing the job. During the flight the geese obey his choices, since he is their elected leader. But his power ends once they are back on the ground, where he is only looked upon as a respected elder.
In the final transformation Wart visits the badger. The badger is a great philosopher who enjoys giving scholarly commentaries. While Wart is visiting him, he explains a story he has written on the creation of the animal kingdom’s hierarchy. In his commentary he explains how man answered God’s riddle and is awarded control over the animal kingdom. He lives a life of solitude because many other animals do not think at his level. They listen because he is old and experienced, and with this comes respect.
Through each of the transformations, Wart sees different uses of power. Wart must choose how he will eventually govern his kingdom. The leaders he visits, govern in their own way, each retaining their power through different methods. When these are combined, the following picture of how a leader should or should not rule emerges: A leader should not attempt to rule his or her people through might and fear, as does the fisk-king. Unlike the falcon, a ruler should not retain power only because of age, and should rule with the subjects well-being in mind. One should not exert total control over one’s subjects, because they lose creativity and individualism as shown by the ants. A democratically elected leader, whom subjects have faith in his or her ability to get a job done, and who has the required skills will complete the task at hand, as do the geese. Leaders must give great thought to making decisions related to their use of power, and use their experience, like the Badger. Also like the Badger, these decisions should be made without the help of others, and therefore may lead to solitude. T. H. White is therefore similar to Merlin in trying to teach us about leadership.