by Kate Seredy
Interests: mythology, war, history, folktales, magic, pagan religion
The Viking Press: 1937
95 pp. – 4 chapters
also by this author: The Good Master, The Singing Tree, Lazy Tinka
Next: The Trumpeter of Krakow
A mythical story of four generations of early Hungarian tribal rulers, from Nimrod the Mighty Hunter to the Red Eagle Attila. With the mystical guidance of a mysterious white stag, the Huns and Magyars migrate from Asia to Europe over many decades before finding their own Promised Land.
Biblical in language, epic in scope. And you know that any book in which Attila the Hun is a good guy is going to be interesting, at the very least. This is a dreamy, poetic version of a folktale the author heard as a child. It’s more of a tone poem than actual history, however, as Seredy herself admits in the Foreword:
Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.
There’s a lot of ritual, prophecies, and visions in the sky commanding the people to invade and pillage:
“…there was to be no more peace for their people until they reached the land of their destiny.”
‘Destiny’ is a pretty convenient thing when you want to justify bloodshed and make it seem unavoidable. But all that slaughtering changes the Huns, making “fierce wild warriors of the once care-free hunters”. An unfortunate side effect of killing everyone you meet.
Which brings us to the heroic Attila (see last illustration below). He is still portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, raised without warmth or love by his bitter father, but his ultimate goal is to find a homeland for his people, so how bad can he really be? Attila and all his ruling ancestors are fearless and muscular, superhuman in physical ability, and only occasionally doubtful of the path ahead. They’re too icy and distant to empathize with or root for, but they fulfill their mythic function perfectly.
While The White Stag is skilfully written and beautifully illustrated, the fact that it was written just as the Nazis were consolidating their power in Germany sours me on the whole book – the aesthetics of it are resoundingly similar to Leni Riefenstahl movies and the muscular Aryan mythos Hitler liked to peddle. The gorgeous, sleekly stylized figures of art nouveau turn grotesque when put to the service of racial superiority and the cult of physical strength and power. (Perhaps Seredy was just trying to out-bombast the Nazis.)
For readers interested in early history, in myths and a classic warrior’s journey, this book is more valuable for its style and illustrations than as actual history. One educational use might be to contrast this book with other accounts of the Huns, seen from the other side, as in The Trumpeter of Krakow. It might lead to a discussion about the two sides in any struggle, different perspectives on history, and how nations cloak their warlike tendencies in the garb of patriotism and national myth.