There are many famous stories about king Arthur of Britain. There stories about how he fought to right the wrong and how the wrong quite often won. There are stories about round tables and holy grails. There are stories of the perils and adventures that befell his knights in close encounters with dragons, witches, maidens and enchanters.
The first tale of all tells how Arthur became king, long before the deeds were even thought of. This is the tale of the sword in the stone.
It all began, so to speak, when Uther, King of Britain, fell in love. He was pacing up and down the battlements of Tintagel, staring moodily into the night, when a bright star burst into the shape of a blazing dragon in the sky.
'Good gracious me!' said Uther. 'Is that what love is all about?'
'Something of the sort,' said Merlin the magician. 'I was half expecting this.'
'What's it about?' the king asked.
'It's a sign,' said Merlin.
'I can see that, you old fool,' said Uther. 'Is it good or bad? Is it love or war? Do I win the lady I love or not?'
'You win her,' Merlin said, 'and have a child.'
'Bravo!' the king cried out. 'But how? The lady that I love is the lady Ygerne, wife to the Duke of Cornwall, who has safely shut her up in the strongest tower he has. Or had you forgotten that?'
'Things can always be arranged,' said Merlin, 'if you know a little magic.'
'We can hardly have a child if we never even see each other,' grumbled Uther.
'I'll change your shape so that you look like the Duke of Cornwall,' Merlin said. 'You can visit her whenever you like.'
'Not a very nice disguise,' said Uther, 'but if it is the best that you can do, then that is it.'
'First you must make a promise,' Merlin said.
'Yes, yes. I knew there would be something,' Uther sighed.
'When Ygerne has the child, I want it,' Merlin said.
'That's a bit hard!' Uther cried.
'It's not that bad,' said Merlin. 'That dragon in the sky, you see, foretells a great king will be born. Great kings need a good upbringing, and your style of life is not quite what it ought to be!'
'Oh, very well,' sighed Uther. 'Have it your own way.'
The blazing dragon faded from the sky. From that night on, King Uther called himself Uther Pendragon, although for a lot of the time he was quietly disguised as the Duke of Cornwall and thoroughly enjoyed himself with Ygerne.
She never knew that he was not her husband, until at last the Duke of Cornwall died. Uther took her to Tintagel and told her how much he had adored her all this time.
'We are going to have a most important son,' he said. Ygerne looked at him with perfect admiration.
'More important than you, my lord?' she laughed.
'Well, yes, I rather think so,' Uther said, beaming with pride, 'but it is very kind of you to doubt it, all the same, my dear. Unfortunately I have made a rather awkward promise. We have to give the baby to Merlin the magician.'
'Oh!' said Ygerne quietly and bit her lip.
Uther saw tears in her eyes. He put his hand in hers.
'It's all for the best, my dear,' he said. 'Merlin seems to think that the boy shall be something rather special.'
'All right,' Ygerne said. 'All right. Oh dear. All right.'
The baby was born and taken secretly to a small door in the castle wall. The cloaked figure of Merlin took the bundle carefully in his arms and rode with his precious burden to the home Sir Hector, an honest and loyal knight, whose castle lay deep in the vales of old England.
'I was half expecting you,' said Hector.
'The first half is up to you,' said Merlin. 'Treat him like a son. Teach him to be a true knight. He must learn to be simple and straight before he is noble and great.'
'Never fear,' Sir Hector said. 'I hold him dearer than my heart. This is the future of England in my arms. I shall remember that.'
Arthur grew up as if he was Sir Hector's son, his second son, for there was already Kay in the family. Kay and Arthur thought that they were brothers, and no one else but Merlin and Sir Hector knew the secret.
Quite often Merlin visited Sir Hector, as an old friend might visit an old friend.
'How is he getting on?' asked Merlin.
'The boys quarrel,' Hector said.
'Good, good,' said Merlin, nodding his head and laughing. 'Boys should quarrel now and then. Do they laugh as well?'
'Oh, they laugh,' said Hector quietly, so that no one else could hear.
'Not yet awhile,' said Merlin. 'Not yet.'
Kay bullied Arthur quite a bit because the boy was younger. But Arthur learnt to stand his ground and laugh at Kay and tease him. Kay became a knight when he was old enough.
'Treat me with a little more respect,' said Sir Kay.
'How can I?' Arthur laughed. 'Stop tripping on your spurs.'
Kay proudly practiced walking and riding in his new armour. Arthur acted as his squire and rode behind him.
Then the king, Uther Pendragon, died in distant Tintagel. There were rumours that he once had had a son who disappeared. There were no other rightful heirs to the throne of Britain. Barons and knights quarreled with each other. Some died one man should be king. Each spoke out for himself. There was fighting and unhappiness up and down the land.
Merlin watched the troubles grow. He rode to London to talk to the Archbishop.
'Christmas comes,' he said. 'Call all the nights and barons to your cathedral. Let them bury their quarrels and sing carols for a day or two.'
The Archbishop sent out a summons. The knights and barons came to the cathedral. They grumbled and complained and shoved each other in the aisles to make sure that they sat in the very best seats. But they sang their Christmas carols with good cheer and they jostled out into the crisp December air.
There, in the center of the courtyard, stood a stone.
'A fir tree was here before!' they cried. 'What's up? Who has stolen it? Who wants a lump of stone for Christmas!'
There was the handle of a sword in the heart of the stone. The blade was driven deep within. Letters of gold were written round the rock:
'He who draws this sword
Is Britain's rightful lord.'
'Here, let me have a go!' cried the barons.
'Move over, let me try!' shouted the nights.
'Shove off!' 'My turn!' 'Get lost!' they called, and tugged and heaved and struggled at the sword.
'It's no good,' they cried. 'It's probably an early April fool!'
They soon got bored and bustled off to fix a tournament to let off steam. They galloped up and down the field and ding, dong, merrily matched their might with mace and mallet. They knocked each other to the ground with lance and sword. They fought for ladies' favours and were glad that it was Christmas time and all was fun and fame.
Knights from castles all about came to the tournament. Sir Hector came and Kay and Arthur. It was Kay's first Christmas as a knight, full-fledged.
'What will you fight with, lance or sword?' asked Arthur eagerly.
'I came with lance,' said Kay, 'but now I see that the strongest men are swiping at each other with their swords. It wood be good to have a go at that.'
'No trouble,' Arthur said. 'I'll go and get your sword.'
He turned his horse about and galloped off. But as he passed the courtyard where the stone was set, he saw the sword. He did not read the writing.
'That could save me quite a ride,' he thought.
He took it from the stone and galloped back. Kay took the sword. He looked at it with surprise and showed the sword to Hector.
'Look, Father!' he cried. 'This is the sword from the stone! Does this mean I am Britain's rightful lord?'
'What's he on about?' asked Arthur.
'You come with me,' said Hector, 'both you lads.'
They rode back to the courtyard. They put the sword back in the stone.
'Now pull it out,' said Hector.
Kay pulled but it would not come out.
Arthur pulled and it came out.
'So what?' said Arthur. 'It's a knack, that's all.'
'Read the writing on the rock,' said Hector.
'He who draws this sword Is Britain's rightful lord.'
'Oh, no,' said Arthur, 'please, no, no! Must I do all those deeds and right those wrongs?'
'You must,' Sir Hector said, from bended knee, 'for you are King of Britain now.'