The Little White Horse

little-white-horse-elizabeth-goudge-paperback-cover-art

WINNER OF THE CARNEGIE MEDAL – 1946

The Little White Horse

by Elizabeth Goudge

University of London Press: 1946

238 pages – 12 chapters

Age: 7 (read to); 9 (independent reading)

Interests: magic, mystery, animals, castles, princesses, England, aristocracy, religion, family history, romance

NB: This book was adapted into a 1994 BBC series entitled Moonacre and a 2009 movie The Secret of Moonacre.

Next: The Secret Garden or A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Also by this author: Island Magic

Newly orphaned thirteen-year-old Maria Merryweather travels with her devoted governess and dog to live with her uncle in the West Country of England. She is delighted to discover that her new home is a castle, and an otherworldly one at that. There are plenty of mysteries to unravel regarding her family history and the animals of the household play a wise and crucial role in the adventure. Maria delves into the past to learn what she must do to bring peace and happiness to Moonacre Castle and the village of Silverydew. While out-and-out magic remains on the periphery, she is aided by the very remarkable animals of the manor and several saintly, benevolent grownups. There is a knightly ghost of an ancestor, a best friend who visits her in her dreams, a lovably eccentric old Parson, a lady living under a hill, a lost pearl necklace, the poaching and thieving Men of the Dark Pines, the ruins of a monastery, and glimpses of an elusive white horse.

This is an elaborately decorative story, full of pink geraniums, intricate embroidery, miraculously appearing pastries, protective pets, family quarrels, long-separated lovers, breathtaking countryside views, smiling villagers, and sunbeams through stained glass windows. On one level it is adamantly old-fashioned, with a firm adherence to christian lessons and virtues, and a dedication to the traditional role of the aristocracy: benevolently superior to the scraping villagers who adore them. For me Maria’s plush life in the castle – waited upon hand and foot by devoted servants – was a little annoying. It’s unusual to have your plucky heroine not undergo the slightest bit of hardship. Through every scary moment or encounter she actually has a lion by her side to protect her, for heaven’s sake!*

But still… the effect of it all is rather enchanting. I know that many little girls love this kind of story precisely because of all the descriptions of rich clothes, delightful tower bedrooms, glorious gardens and delicious meals. This is wish fulfillment fiction at its most florid. What could be more appealing than to be unexpectedly installed in a castle as the Moon Princess, complete with devoted servants, animals and caregivers? (And your very own pony!) In the midst of all this luxury, Maria does take it upon herself to unravel the mysteries, reunite the lovers, reform the bad men, redress past wrongs, and win the ghost of the Merryweather patriarch eternal peace. The lessons Maria herself takes away from the adventure are those of piety and good manners: she mustn’t be too vain, or too curious, and mustn’t ever quarrel. The first two of these lessons are extremely odd – she mustn’t be vain about her appearance, yet the book goes into a lot of detail regarding every outfit she puts on and every ribbon that goes into her hair. And she must rein in her curiosity… though she is in the middle of solving a whole assortment of mysteries. It’s almost as if the old-fashioned female values are in direct conflict with the necessary personality traits of a modern, active heroine. (Remember this was written in the 1940s, a time of great change in women’s roles.)

Besides all the magic and history, there is also a fair amount of chaste romance as well – the happy ending (besides peace in the valley) involves every reunited couple marrying, including the 14-ish year old Maria and her dashing shepherd-boy Robin.

Be aware: the “white horse” of the title plays only the tiniest, albeit pivotal, role in the plot and is only rarely glimpsed. It is unfortunate that the cover art for this book inevitably pictures the horse predominantly, also giving away the fact that it’s actually a unicorn.

In conclusion: This book is a dense read, with quite a complicated plot for a children’s book. It is resolutely old-fashioned in its values and manners, with a strong (but not heavyhanded) religious theme running throughout. It is also a richly descriptive piece for anyone who loves fine clothes, gardens and food. The heroine is clever and good, and always ably assisted by watchful adults and animals. Magical and enthralling, with only the briefest episodes of fear and danger. Odd in many ways, but packs a punch.

*One weak story point that just didn’t fly with me was the fact that Maria goes through most of the story thinking Wrolf is a large, strange dog, before finally realizing he’s a lion. Now how likely is that, really?

(Available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.