Review: Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse”

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In  “The Child Next Door,” one of the poems that I read and reread when I was young, a girl describes her neighbor, a little sophisticate who, despite having a wreath on her hat and a bouffant afternoon frock, is only to be pitied: “But doesn’t it seem very sad to you, / to think that she never her whole life through / Has seen a fairy?”

It seemed terribly sad to me indeed. I was quite sure that I had seen a fairy once and, besides that sighting, I had a whole store of evidence for the existence of the little people. I am blessed with parents who encouraged my imagination and even my own neighbor who, on discovering a “Gnome Home” that I had constructed under the hedge, knit a tiny mitten from pearl cotton and left it there for me to find. Learning, several years later, that the accessory was made by a human dampened my faith in the wee folk no more than the facts of childbirth shook my belief that babies come from heaven, trailing clouds of glory. Wonder runs deeper than gaps in our knowledge.

Mine was a plain childhood—hours spent outside, usually up in trees, or at their roots, constructing miniature worlds. I remember being particularly proud of a tiny store front, the base of a glass bottle repurposed as its display window. Early Sunday mornings were for exploring the stream that ran down the valley behind our home and evenings for stalking deer or badgers. On Saturday afternoons, I’d escape my younger siblings by hauling a book and a pocketful of candy up to my favorite tree branch for a long, undisturbed read. Plain, and yet enchanted. My parents take a healthily dim view of pop culture, so it was not Disney’s nipped-waisted princesses who illuminated my world, but the stories and illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker, the poetry of Rose Fyleman and Walter de la Mare, and the novels of Mary Pope Osborne, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, and, most importantly, Elizabeth Goudge. Thanks to the family tradition of reading out loud, in the evening and at breakfast (the Nazgûl almost made us late for school several times), and to the fact that my eldest brother is five years my senior, I probably first heard Goudge’s The Little White Horse before I could really understand it. Perhaps this is why rereading it now feels like an act of Platonic recollection. There might, of course, be another reason.

The Little White Horse is sometimes classed as a fairy tale. It begins, however, not with “Once upon a time,” but in a carriage, as the newly orphaned Maria Merryweather travels from London to Moonacre, the Cornwall estate of her cousin and guardian, Sir Benjamin. The opening employs the tropes of a gothic novel: a distant country estate, an orphaned girl, a disconcerting landscape. But to its first young readers in 1946—British children for whom displacement, evacuation, and, in many cases, losing a parent, would have been all too real—the very strangeness may have seemed depressingly familiar. Yet there is something mysterious—even to jaded little Britons—about this world. As the carriage traverses the estate parkland, Maria thinks she sees a little white horse. Later she is not so sure: perhaps it was nothing more than a stray moonbeam.

As Maria is introduced to her cousin, as well as a whole cast of animals and the people of the idyllic estate village, Silverydew, she discovers a dark shadow of generational feuds. The village and her uncle’s estate are under assault by the Men from the Dark Woods, who steal the villagers’ livestock and poach from her uncle’s land. Maria must unravel the history that shaped this state of affairs, and step into her own destiny of restoring peace to the valley, to succeed where others have failed.

There’s plenty of adventure. There are wild chases through the pine woods, ancestral ghosts, ancient tunnels, and hidden pearls. But when I think back on The Little White Horse, and the way it shaped my imagination, I don’t remember the plot as much as I remember the setting that Goudge creates in intricate detail. My favorite description is of Maria’s room:

It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. It had three windows, two narrow lancet windows and one large one with a window-seat in the thickness of the wall. The curtains had not been drawn across the windows, and through them she could see the stars. In each of the windows stood beautiful silver branched candlesticks with three lighted candles burning in each of them…. The ceiling was vaulted, and delicate ribbings of stone curved over Maria’s head like the branches of a tree, meeting at the highest point of the ceiling in a carved representation of a sickle moon surrounded by stars… [T]he fireplace was  the tiniest she had ever seen… big enough for the fire of pine-cones and apple wood that burned in it, filling the room with fragrance.

And that’s only a brief excerpt from the three pages that Goudge dedicates to the room, which also features a curtained four-poster bed, a child-sized door, and a plate of sugared biscuits. Her descriptions are vivid, inviting, and delicious—sometimes almost literally. Goudge indulges in several descriptions of lavish teas, as if pitching Marmaduke Scarlet, Moonacre’s pint-sized chef, against Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty in a fictional bake-off: “There was home-made crusty bread, hot onion soup, delicious rabbit stew, baked apples in a silver dish, honey, butter the colour of marigolds, a big blue jug of warmed claret, and hot roasted chestnuts folded in a napkin.” Despite the valley’s lurking dangers, it is a place of comforting delight; there is always a safe home to repair to, a good meal and a sweet sleep before a foray into the next adventure. Goudge’s descriptions are always as concrete as stage directions, so much so that it’s hard to understand how The Secret of Moonacre, a 2008 film adaptation, managed to botch the setting so egregiously with Tim Burtonesque costuming and sloppy CGI. That approach missed the point: there is nothing fake, nothing exaggerated, about Moonacre.

People speak of escaping into a fantasy world, but it would be more true to say that fairies and goblins, unicorns, and noble dogs that might be lions escaped from the pages of the books I read into my world. When I look back and try to sort it out, it seems that the wall between these two worlds is too porous and delicate to hold up. The winding paths through the nearby woods—the paths I actually walked, the landscape of my own childhood—promised all sorts of possibilities. There seemed to be no particular reason why one wouldn’t find a box of pearls in an old wall, and if one only had sharp enough eyes, surely one could spot the white horses at the crest of a breaking ocean wave. The corners of my life glittered with what might be. Though I was not displaced like Maria and the children of Goudge’s time, I, too, found the novel’s setting familiar. Perhaps it was so easy to recognize the world of Moonacre because I grew up in rural England, near the village of Robertsbridge, in East Sussex. Across the valley was a manor house and, a few miles beyond that, a real castle. An hour’s drive away were seaside cliffs riddled with forbidden caves that had once sheltered smuggler gangs. Sunken lanes, worn into the countryside by centuries of traffic, were lined with tangled roots and badger setts. Goudge’s description of Moonacre in moonlight as “silvery” (probably the book’s most common adjective) is an apt description of the English landscape that I knew, when the light from the full moon glanced off the heavy dew.

Britain’s history has deep roots, often inextricably entangled with legend and myth. These roots, as I experienced them, ranged from the great national tales of Queen Boudicca and King Arthur, to local curios that my brothers and sisters and I encountered, like the Salehurst church baptismal font, allegedly given to the monks of Salehurst Abbey by Richard the Lionheart after he returned from the Third Crusade, a token of appreciation to the wealthy abbot who had ransomed him from Tyrolean kidnappers. And then there was the revenant Red Monk who, perhaps still upset over the dissolution of the monasteries, is said to haunt the Seven Stars Inn.  In her picture of Moonacre as a place permeated by its own half-legendary past, Goudge described my world, or perhaps a cleaner, brighter version of it, for Moonacre valley has no ugly council housing, no graffitied WWII bunkers, no rubbish tips, and no drunks haunting the Seven Stars porch.

Although The Little White Horse does not begin with “Once upon a time,” it ends with a triumphant “happily ever after”: young lovers wed and go on to have ten children, old lovers forget their quarrels and reunite, and all evils—even Miss Heliotrope’s indigestion—are banished from Moonacre. But the ending is also tinged with sadness. After one final glimpse, Maria will never see the little white horse again. Humans, it seems, need the help of gracious magical beings to right wrongs of the past, but once the world has been restored, the magic disappears.

This echoes a common theme in children’s literature—Gandalf bids the Shire farewell, Mary Poppins squares her shoulders, pops her umbrella open, and floats away. Coinciding with the disappearance of magic is the end of childhood. Maria is thirteen, on the brink between childhood and young adulthood, and the novel is, in some ways, a coming of age story.  As she leaves her childhood behind, the world flattens out, becomes more prosaic and less enchanted. She is granted fewer glimpses of what was so immediate before.

Does enchantment belong only to the child, and are fairies and unicorns to be packed away with other childish things? Another of Goudge’s novels, The Dean’s Watch, seems to suggest otherwise. Also set in the nineteenth century, it takes place in a cathedral town whose dean, nearing death, becomes involved in the lives of several of the townspeople—a crippled watch-maker, a pair of orphans, and a spoilt toddler. These encounters give him his first experience of real affection, but they open his eyes to something else as well:

Until now life for him had meant the aridity of earthly duty and the dews of God. Now he was aware of something else, a world that was neither earth nor heaven, a heart-breaking, fabulous, lovely world where the conies take refuge in the rainbowed hills and in the deep valleys of the unicorns the songs are sung that men hear in dreams, the world that the poets know and the men who make music…. The autumn song of the robin could let you in, or a shower of rain or a hobby-horse lying on a green lawn.

Goudge’s fairyland, like that of the Irish and Manx folklore with which she grew up, is a world alongside our own: a world invisible to humans except in the rare moments when the veil lifts to reveal it. Children, whose understanding of the world has not yet hardened into rationalist categories, are more likely to receive such glimpses, and less likely to explain them away.  What’s more, we are “let in”  to this world by little details that are all too easy to overlook. We see the enchanted, not when our vision is clouded, but when it is utterly clear—something granted only to the pure in heart. The dean is prompted, by an honest friendship and a particular ray of sun, to recall what he already knew, that the created world, although fallen, is already imbued with holiness, with holiness and beauty that hints of what it will one day truly be.

The epigraph to The Little White Horse is a poem by the same title, written, perhaps in Maria’s voice, or perhaps in Goudge’s own:

It was under the white moon that I saw him, / The little white horse, with neck arched high in pride…. / No past for you, little white horse, no regret, / No future of fear in this silver forest— / Only the perfect now in the white moon-dappled ride.

In Medieval literature, unicorns were a symbol of otherworldly purity. Here, sighting a unicorn is one of those brief moments that, in their beauty, seem to be little intimations of eternity.

All is hushed; gone in a sigh, that perfection, / Leaving the sharp knife-edge turning slowly in the breast. / The raised hoof, the proud poised head, the flowing mane, / The supreme moment of stillness before the flight, / The moment of farewell, of wordless pleading / For remembrance of things lost to earthly sight—

Such moments leave the mortal viewer with the sharp pain of longing, what the Romantics called Sehnsucht, and C. S. Lewis called joy. Goudge is sometimes accused of being nostalgic, but she is nostalgic in the truest sense of the word, writing of “the pain of the journey home.” For Maria knows that she will see the little white horse one more time: “He would come towards her and she would run towards him, and he would carry her upon his back away and away, she did not quite know where, but to a good place, a place where she wanted to be.”

Such exalted moments are few in the novel. There are hints of transcendence and occasional glimpses of unicorns, but goodness is, for the most part, warm and domestic. Goudge’s fiction is salted with good advice, and the occasional sermon: “never be aggravating, Maria, and never get in a rage.” Humble virtues such as loyalty, kindness, and self-restraint are the key to good triumphing over wickedness. Worthy lessons for any child to come away with. But Goudge’s deepest lessons lie, not in admonition, but in description. As the elderly Dean discovered, we often ignore a world full of meaning, and we ignore the details that hint at what the original world was, and what the new world will be. Look! Goudge seems to be saying with her careful details. Look at the moonlit hills, look at the exquisite detailing on this cabinet. Taste and see—sugared biscuits and an applewood fire—that the Lord is good. Beauty is not created by blurring the edges of things, à la Thomas Kinkade, but by painting them cleanly, and in fine detail. (In this, her prose is analogous to the illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker, whose series of flowers and their fairies are drawn with scientific precision.)

The England depicted by Goudge was familiar to me because I could see, with a child’s eyes, what was good and true about England. Even if fairies do not exist (I’m still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but have no considered opinion on the matter), it’s good for children to believe in them: this belief is, perhaps, a placeholder for something truer; it gets at our correct perception that there is a world alongside, within, and above, our own—one which, in undeserved moments of grace, breaks in on our lives. Rubbish tips, graffiti, and the obscenities shouted by the Seven Stars drunks may steal our attention, but they are not the final truth. “As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous, and materialistic,” Goudge once wrote, “it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.”

The truth in which these stories are rooted includes lessons about kindness and honesty and courage, but these spring from the deeper truth that animates the arc of fairy stories. Goudge seems to be counselling her young readers not to dismiss the longings and impressions of childhood as childish things to be outgrown, but to cherish them as intimations of a truer world, as keys that may one day unlock a vital reality. It will be, Goudge seems to imply, a reality that links the transcendent and the material, a reality as supernatural as the resurrection, and as homely as broken bread. As Christians, we must affirm that there is nothing truer than a happy ending.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Veery Huleatt

Veery Huleatt is editor at Plough Publishing House. A member of the Bruderhof, she graduated from Siena College in 2016, and spent a year as junior fellow at First Things.