Thursday 6 August 2020

Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse by Paul May

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge won the Carnegie Medal in 1946, the year of its publication, and it is just as much of a wartime book as We Couldn’t Leave Dinah and Visitors from London. It was written in the heart of the Devon countryside that forms its setting and Elizabeth Goudge wrote that ‘those were the war years and it was good to escape sometimes from the fearful realities of that time into a world where a unicorn cantered behind the trees.’


This is a pastoral novel. The action takes place in the bucolic semi-paradise of Moonacre, a country estate hemmed in by hills and the sea, entirely separate from the rest of the world, in the year 1842. As I read it, I was reminded of many other stories. The unicorn theme suggested Alan Garner's Elidor, a book that didn't win the Carnegie, apparently because the judges, astonishingly, didn't like the Charles Keeping illustrations. Then that pastoral quality made me think both of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale and of the Ahlbergs' Each Peach Pear Plum.

The Winter's Tale element includes a shepherd for the heroine, Maria, to fall in love with and marry. Humbling her pride to marry a common shepherd is one of the things she has to do to redeem the sins of her ancestors. Except that this shepherd is not a prince in disguise like Florizel, but possibly a god or a hero from the past. He's called Robin, but he also has echoes of the god, Pan, as he makes his first physical appearance: 'Maria . . . was aware of a slim brown figure bounding towards her, of a curly head lowered like that of a butting goat, and then over went the Black Man flat on his back . . .'

The Black Men are not black-skinned, but like Tolkien's Black Riders or the Arthurian Black Knight are dressed in black and carry black cockerels on their shoulders. Their blackness is a symbolic absence of colour which is contrasted with the heightened colour of everything else in Moonacre—this really is a very colourful book. And it's not just the colours; all the senses are enhanced, and feelings too. People take one look in each others eyes and love each other instantly. There is magic in the air. 

At first, because everything in Moonacre seems so lovely and so perfect, I found myself thinking of Ursula LeGuin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. That story concerns a city where everyone lives in unimaginable happiness, but at a cost. In a windowless room somewhere in the city a small child is imprisoned in misery. ‘If the child were brought up out of that vile place . . .all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.’ All the residents of Omelas know about the child. They are shown the child at a certain point in their adolescence and told of the bargain: the happiness of thousands depends upon the misery of one. And some of them, having been shown, walk away.


Illustration by C. Walter Hodges

Well, The Little White Horse isn’t that kind of a story, it turns out, but the darkness is there all the same. Moonacre is a genuine paradise, rather like the Garden of Eden, into which people have brought their own trouble. This trouble takes a variety of forms – greed, cruelty, deceit, envy, curiosity (strange one that) vanity, and being aggravating. The task of the heroine, Maria Merryweather, is to purge the evil from Moonacre through courage and self-sacrifice. I think that Elizabeth Goudge was probably influenced in her plotting by Shakespeare’s comedies, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of marrying goes on at the end.


This is, like LeGuin's, a moral story. It appears in places to be explicitly didactic, although it is the characters rather than the author who make such statements as this: ‘That’s our family motto, my dear . . .It is also, perhaps, a device for linking together those four qualities that go to make up perfection – courage, purity, love and joy.’ But the high moral tone is usually slightly undermined in some way, in this case thus: ‘Sir Benjamin paused a moment and then with intense relief suddenly bellowed, “Sausages!!!” For a moment Maria thought that Sausage was another thing that one must have to attain perfection . . .’

That mention of 'purity' is important. There are several references in the book to the Virgin Mary, and Maria's name is no coincidence. The myth is that only a virgin can tame the unicorn, and this must have been in the author's mind, but in the end, having sown all the seeds (and this is a very plotty book) she seems to have decided not to go down this route, the route which Alan Garner did take in his novel.


On another occasion, Loveday Minette warns Maria, 'Don’t make my mistakes, Maria, whatever you do.'

    'What were your mistakes?' asked Maria

    'Too many to tell you,' said Loveday, 'but they all grew out of being aggravating and losing my temper.' 


     'I’m like Lady Letitia, Loveday,' Maria says, a few pages later,  'I don’t like pink either.'

     ‘What?’ cried Loveday. ‘You ride there beside me, Maria, and dare to tell me that you don’t like pink?’ And Loveday drew herself up, and her eyes flashed cold fire and she seemed to be freezing all over.’


I think it’s this kind of thing that makes the moralising acceptable. Even the vicar, who delivers damning moral judgements on his parishioners, is not above reproach. All the characters, including our heroine, have their flaws and contradictions, and in this self-contained world the bad people are bad for understandable reasons and are willing, in the right circumstances, to be reformed. Marcus Crouch says ‘The Little White Horse is a ‘moral tale’, an allegory, in which an acceptable lesson is carried through the medium of an enchanting story. Children, who in any case are less averse to a moral than their elders, have shown no wish to complain that this story, with its excitement, its vividly realised setting and its many colourful characters, is concerned with the nature of good and evil and with the importance of self-discipline.’


I think that’s right. Reviews on Amazon and Good Reads are a real mixture of praise from modern children and from adults who loved the book when they were young and still reread it today. There's very little  'I bought this for my granddaughter and she seems to love it'. And a whole new audience has come to the book after J K Rowling said it was one of her favourites as a child, and acknowledged its influence on Harry Potter, chiefly through its extravagant descriptions of food.


Elizabeth Goudge

I have a feeling that this book might also have influenced Joan Aiken in her creation of the alternative England of James III, the setting for the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. Can anyone suggest a sensible reason why Joan Aiken never won the Carnegie? She was shortlisted once in 1968 for The Whispering Mountain, but that's all.

And, come to think of it, Loveday Minette's bit of relationship counselling is really quite sound and I will try to take it to heart. 'Don't be aggravating and keep your temper.'

Paul May's website


Susan Price said...

Elidor didn't win because the judges didn't like Charles Keeping's illustrations?

They didn't like Charles Keeping's illustrations?

Paul May said...

I know! If only I could remember where I read that. I'm going to spend hours searching now!

Paul May said...

Found it! The reference is in Ruth Allen's excellent 'Winning Books' where she says: 'I have been told that Charles Keeping's illustrations counted against Elidor during the judging.'

Anne Booth said...

That was so interesting. Thank you. I am shocked about Elidor too and wonderful Charles Keeping - and now I want to re-read Elizabeth Goudge.

catdownunder said...

This was one of my favourite books in childhood. It was so very comforting to know that, because she worked at it, things did come right in the end.

James Franklin said...

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Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Paul. I loved that book as a child and, funnily enough, only yesterday I was wondering whether MB was old enough for me to read it to her yet. I'd like to read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase, too, but she's scared of wolves coming in at night, so maybe not yet! Am going to order some Ursula le Guin stories, too, now...

Paul May said...

Hi Anne. I think this book would be a great joy to read aloud. It is beautifully written and never dull but who knows what any child will love or hate??

Barbara said...

I adored this book as a child, I found it in a small cupboard the served as a library in my primary school classroom. I always remembered it and searched for it as an adult. I found a boxed edition that I've read many times, it never fails to take me back to the firt time I read it.