One in a series of posts dedicated to pop-culture depictions of owls — as stand-ins for educated, highbrow humans — from 1924–1983. The series derives its title from Owl’s home in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
Merlin: Blow me to Bermuda! [Merlin suddenly blasts off like a rocket]
Wart: Where… W-where did he go?
Archimedes: To Bermuda, I suppose.
Wart: Where’s that?
Archimedes: Oh, an island way off somewhere that hasn’t been discovered yet.
Wart: Will he ever come back?
Archimedes: Who knows? Who knows anything?Dialogue from the 1963 Disney movie The Sword in the Stone
T.H. White’s Arthurian fantasy adventure The Sword in the Stone (1938) is a terrific story.
When the Wart, a young squire-in-training living under the protection of Sir Ector, in early 13th-century Britain, encounters the eccentric, time-traveling (and time-confused) wizard Merlin, little does he suspect what kind of tutoring that he will receive. Transformed into an ant, he learns a thing or two about totalitarianism and conforming to expectations; transformed into a fish in the castle’s moat, he experience an unjust world where might makes absolute right; transformed into a goose, he experiences a mutually supportive, egalitarian social order. Merlin’s familiar, the crochety but good-hearted owl Archimedes, oversees these excursions in the animal world — rather like what we’d these days call a “psychedelics coach.”
Unlike other pop culture owls we’ve encountered, White’s Archimedes is far from illiterate. In fact he’s highly educated. He engages in Socratic dialogues, of a sort, with Merlyn… and generally seeks to prevent the wizard from acting the fool.
However! Voiced by Junius Matthews, who was the original voice of Rabbit in the Winnie the Pooh franchise, in Disney’s 1963 animated movie adaptation — which is inferior in every possible respect to the book — Archimedes is a figure of fun, a highbrow type who (although no buffoon, no poseur) is constantly wrong-footed and made to look foolish and inept.