Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

When Maria Merryweather's father dies and leaves her with no means of supporting herself, she and her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope, along with the family dog, Wiggins, move in with Sir Benjamin, Maria's great uncle, at Moonacre Manor. Almost immediately, Maria realizes there are many unusual things about the manor: animals with higher than average intelligence, mysterious beings who cook food and deliver clothes, and a dark history involving the Black Men, who have taken over part of the valley and threaten the safety of Maria and others at the manor. As she begins to uncover the secrets of the manor's past, Maria also discovers that she may be the moon princess who is destined to help break the curse that lies over the manor and free the Merryweather property from the Black Men.

The Little White Horse was not really on my radar until I started considering what I wanted to read for this project, and my husband mentioned it to me. I was skeptical, since the cover suggests high fantasy of the highest order, but wanting to fill my list with a wide range of titles, I decided to add it into the mix. This, as it turns out, was a smart move, because I really love this story.

I love the way it begins with a very real-life situation - a young girl losing her money and having to move in with the only relative who would take her - but that there is a sense of other-worldliness about the narrative from the start. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's books, where regular people stumble upon these supernatural and spiritual mysteries and come to discern their own roles within them. Whereas L'Engle seems to fumble through these types of stories in many cases, however, Goudge sets a standard and presents a world so carefully constructed it is impossible not to buy into it 100 percent. The concept of a moon princess who will restore harmony to Moonacre Manor and its environs sounds ridiculous in the abstract, but in this book, because of the author's slow and careful revelation of each detail, it becomes wholly believable and emotionally resonant.

Another thing I love about this book is the religious imagery. This is clearly a religious book, with a firm knowledge that there is a Creator, and also many echoes of Christian beliefs. A major plot line involves returning a portion of land to God in order to make amends for wrongs committed by the Merryweathers, and there is also an Old Parson who is heavily involved in helping Maria understand that she may be the moon princess, and many of whose lines of dialogue read as symbolic comments on religious belief in general. As a mom raising Catholic daughters, I am pleased to know this book now so that I don't miss having them read it when they reach the appropriate ages.

Finally, I just really love that this book is a fairy tale with a hard-won happy ending. Maria is in grave danger through much of the story, and though she is very positive, there are moments where it looks as though she and the other characters on her side will never triumph. Of course, because this is a fairy tale, the reader is always pretty sure things will be okay, but the way in which they become okay is just beautifully written and wonderfully satisfying. I am not one for Pollyanna-type endings, but you'd have to be the Grinch not to feel elated when everything comes full circle in this book.

I made the terrible mistake of watching the 2008 film based on this book (The Secret of Moonacre), and I really wanted to tear my hair out. All of the religious elements are removed, including the character of the Old Parson, and the young boy, Robin, whom Maria befriends, is rewritten to be the son of one of the villainous Black Men, thus ruining one of my favorite elements of the book - the fact that Robin visited Maria in his dreams as a younger child. The movie is visually striking, but horrendously insulting to the book, and probably the worst film adaptation of a children's book I've ever seen. No matter how you are tempted, if you love this book, avoid the movie. And if you don't yet know this book, read it, so you can love it, too.

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