The Sword in the Stone (1963)

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The Sword in the Stone (1963)


An animated Disney classic about King Arthur's (Wart's) childhood and the lessons he learns from Merlin the wizard.


Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone was released on December 25, 1963 and was Walt Disney’s final animated film released before his death in 1966. It was directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, an Oscar-winning Disney animator who eventually helmed The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1969) (D23). Additionally, Robert and Richard Sherman composed music for the film; they also wrote the songs for Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964).  Disney’s The Sword in the Stone is based on T.H White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938), which in turn is based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Bruce A. Beatie, a literary critic, hails White for staying true to Malory’s characters (Beatie 67). Disney’s The Sword in the Stone is a coming of-age-story where Merlin teaches Arthur, called Wart in the film, life lessons on thinking, relating to others, and how to fight battles fairly. This all comes to play when Arthur, at a tournament, forgets Sir Kay’s sword and then finds and takes the sword from the stone making him the new king of England. The Sword in the Stone showcases the division of social classes, a good indicator of which being Sir Kay’s pompous attitude towards Wart. Additionally, Sir Ector’s unease with Merlin shows his fear of magic. Lastly, the lessons Wart learns from Merlin shows that education is truly the way the poor and lowly can achieve greatness. 

Social division and status are displayed in this film with Sir Kay’s pompous and pretentious nature; he feels it is beneath him to speak to Wart, to acknowledge Wart, and even has the dismissive attitude towards others in the castle. He has no interest in Wart and only his own activities, which for most of the movie consist of hunting and eating with the hope to become England’s king. Sir Ector is more caring for Wart worrying when Wart is missing, but he is hard on Wart making sure he keeps up with his household duties.  Meanwhile, Wart’s ambitions are smaller as he wants to become a squire and is eager to join Kay and assist his household in anyway if it means he can join Sir Ector and Sir Kay on their trip to London, where a big tournament is being held. Wart is doubtful of his abilities. For example, when Merlin asks him, “Do you want to be all muscle and no brain?” to which Wart replies, “I don’t have any muscle.” Merlin then questions Wart and asks him how he moves about, which Wart then realizes he has some muscle. It is the first time Wart feels confident. Merlin then stresses the importance of an education and then questions Wart on how he plans on obtaining an education, which Merlin himself takes over. 

Merlin and Sir Ector’s unease with each other is a minor plot point in the film, but can provide some insight into the medieval fear of magic. This leads to a challenge with the head of the house Sir Ector, who believes he is in charge of his home and house and does not wish to take orders from Merlin, a “magician” he has just met. When Merlin challenges Sir Ector by disappearing and asking Ector if he will ever know if he is gone, Ector agrees for him to stay. It is Merlin’s powers that tramples Ector, but Ector has one power left, his social status and home, which allows him to give Merlin the worst room in the entire castle: a leaky, worn down tower that looks as if it will tumble down at any moment. Their antagonism subsides after this as Merlin gets what he wants but it showcases how the power of magic could overcome the power of the lord – a genuine concern in some medieval communities. 

Lastly, education serves as empowerment for Wart in The Sword in the Stone. The education Merlin gives Wart begins with Merlin turning Wart into a fish. The point of this lesson is to use brains over brawn; when Wart is turned into a small goldfish, he must maneuver around much bigger fish in the moat. The message here is that Wart’s lowly social status will not prevent him from rising above it.  The lesson: brains can defeat brawn. The next lesson is on the nature of love, and how powerful it can be. This is one of the few instances in the movie where a female character is shown, when Wart is turned into a squirrel and a female squirrel becomes infatuated with him. The last lesson is shown when Merlin defeats Madame Mim, who constantly cheats. Merlin defeats her by becoming a bacterium. The lesson here is that knowledge and wisdom are the real powers, echoing the previous lessons. Madame Mim, being a female sorceress, is equal to Merlin because of the powers she holds. After that lesson, Wart is promoted to squire. But the real ascent from low to high status occurs at the tournament, when Wart becomes King Arthur, which truly shows the lessons he learned from Merlin. It is because of the wisdom imparted by Merlin to Wart that allows him to rise in social status and become king of England. 

Critics claimed that Disney’s adaptation did not stay true to White’s book (Goosedge 115). When it was released, it was only about a month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The public mood, in addition to Jacqueline Kennedy’s Life magazine interview describing the Kennedy White House as Camelot, likely felt contrary to the mood in Disney’s upbeat telling of T.H White’s The Sword in the Stone; the film did not do well at the box office and its critical ratings were not great compared to other Arthurian films (Goosedge 119-121).  However, the film has aged well as it has been introduced to new generations of children and it is still considered by some to be a classic; it currently holds a 73% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes. 


Wolfgang Reitherman


Gossedge, Rob. "The Sword in the Stone: American Translation and Disney's Antimedivalism." In The Disney Middle Ages, edited by Tison Pugh and Susan Aronstein, 115-31. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2012.

Beatie, Bruce A. "Arthurian Films and Arthurian Texts: Problems of Reception and Comprehension." Arthurian Interpretations 2, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 65-78. Accessed March 7, 2018.

"Disney Legends: Wolfgang Reitherman." D23. Accessed March 07, 2018.

The Sword in the Stone (1963) - Rotten Tomatoes. January 08, 2018. Accessed March 07, 2018. 


Walt Disney Pictures


December 25, 1963


Christopher Mangine


Walt Disney Pictures


Feature Film, 79 Minutes






Based on the The Sword in the Stone (1938) by T.H White


Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)
15th Century

Collection Items

This excerpt is from Le Morte D’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory in the late fifteenth century. Walt Disney’s The Sword and the Stone, released in 1963, is based on T.H. White’s 1938 story The Sword in the Stone, which is a children’s tale about…

Battle between Arthur and Mordred (15th Century), manuscript image from St. Alban's Chronicle at Lambeth Palace Library
This manuscript image relates to The Sword in the Stone because it showcases a joust. Preparing for the joust is what Sir Kay and Arthur are working on at the beginning of the tournament. There is a scene in the movie where Sir Kay is preparing for…

Coronation of Arthur (15th Century), manuscript image from St. Alban's Chronicle, Lambeth Palace Library
This manuscript image depicts Arthur’s coronation, a scene which occurs at the end of The Sword in the Stone. This image shows the barons crowning Arthur and Merlin is nowhere in sight, whereas in The Sword in the Stone Merlin is the one that crowns…

The Sword in the Stone (1963)
An animated Disney classic about King Arthur's (Wart's) childhood and the lessons he learns from Merlin the wizard.
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