Friday, February 22, 2008

Elizabeth Goudge

The Little White Horse
by Elizabeth Goudge
Recommended Age: 12+

Like many of us, I had never heard of this vintage-1946 book until J.K. Rowling stated she “absolutely adored” it. Now that I have read it, I can see why a growing girl, destined herself to write tales of magic and wonder, would cherish this book. Even a no-longer growing boy like me can still enjoy this haunting, beautiful, fairy tale-like story.

Set in the 1840s, The Little White Horse is the story of Maria Merryweather, a somewhat spoiled orphan girl, sent to live with her governess and her dog in the castle-like home of her distant cousin, Sir Benjamin. Soon Maria learns that she has a part in a magical drama that has played itself out every generation since the 1600s. Ancient injustices need to be set right. Peace must be made with the evil men of the dark woods. And a new generation of lovers with opposite temperaments must remain united, to heal a schism that has brought centuries of sadness to the peaceful valley of Silverydew.

Maria is aided by a fiddle-playing priest, a group of unnaturally intelligent animals (plus one endearingly ordinary dog), and a lad named Robin who is the very ideal of all-natural boyishness. So many things in the valley of Silverydew are so nearly ideal that the story could almost become boring...but the romance, the mystery, the magic, and the threatening evil of the men from the dark woods manage to prevent that. And when Maria provokes Robin’s jealousy – my favorite scene in the book – you find it quite a relief to know that he isn’t a perfect boy after all!

This is a lovely book. I don’t quite want to call it a classic, mainly for two reasons – first, because I had never heard of it until JKR etc. etc.; and second, because if I said it was a “classic,” you might not want to read it! So no, it isn’t a classic. It’s a very enjoyable book. I can see some ways this book may have influenced Rowling’s approach to magical storytelling, though I think Rowling improves on it. This book did lead me to reflect on the importance of building imperfections into your characters, and building conflict into your storylines, if you want them to be interesting. And what this book ends up being all about is the way people with mutually contradictory character flaws can belong together – can need each other – in a way that makes the whole world sigh with yearning. That’s what real-life romance is all about; and to think that a book-length fairy tale recognizes it!

Lastly, I want to tell you about the little white horse of the title. It isn’t a major character in the story, at least not in terms of the number of pages on which it appears. But the book owes much to that little horse for the sense of mystery and of bittersweet longing that makes its final page a thing to savor.

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