After my first baby died, I read a book which gave me great comfort. A few years later, I searched back through my journal, trying to find the name and author of this book, but to my surprise I hadn’t recorded it. Years went by, and I continued to search for the book, occasionally sending out enquiries, asking bookstore employees and librarians if they could help me. No one had heard of it. I began to wonder if I had dreamed the whole thing. The only thing I could remember about the story is that there was a little girl who walked through the forest with a large dog, who kept her safe and turned out to be a lion. Well, last week, I decided to put out some feelers for the book once again, this time on Facebook with one of my author groups. To my amazement, on the first day, I got a response – and they suggested the book might be The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge. I ordered it, read it – and Yes! I had found my long lost book.
Maria Merryweather is 13 years old when her father dies, and she is sent to the countryside in western England to live with her uncle, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, at Moonacre Manor. She is accompanied by her governess, Miss Heliotrope, and a self-centered dog named Wiggins. Maria is enchanted by the beauty she finds there and soon makes friends with Sir Benjamin and the other colorful citizens of the area. She even finds Robin, her ‘imaginary’ childhood friend there, and the two have wonderful adventures together. She sees a glowing white horse (with a horn on its forehead), and she is guarded by Wrolf, the “dog” who, yes, is really a lion. (Sir Benjamin calls him a dog so others won’t be afraid of him.)
Maria soon discovers a sadness beneath the beauty – there is a generations-old curse on the valley, brought down on them by her vain, greedy ancestor, the first Sir Merryweather. Maria decides that she will be the one to break the curse and bring true love, happiness, and healing to the family and all the inhabitants of the valley.
Published in 1946, The Little White Horse won a Carnegie medal for that year. I think this children’s fantasy would have a hard time getting published today. It is chock full of description, it has a religious theme mixed with magic, the plot is very simple, and the happy ending is inevitable. And yet, after reading it again all these years later, I understand why it is a great book and why it had such a profound impact on me. There is so much more to the story than you think at first glance.
The writing style reminds me of The Secret Garden. The vivid description puts you right there in the 19th century English countryside — smelling and seeing the gorgeous flowers, tasting the bread and cream, and feeling the wind on your face. I loved Maria’s room at the top of the tower. I think every little girl dreams of having a room just like Maria’s, to have their very own pony to ride, and to have such stalwart friends as the wise, strong Wrolf (the lion), who protects her from harm yet goes with her on adventures.
I loved the names of the characters, which reveal something about them – Maria Merryweather is optimistic, good-hearted, curious, and a steadfast friend to everyone. Then there are the supporting characters — Miss Heliotrope, the governess, a strict but kind woman with an unfortunately large nose and a heart which guards a secret longing. Then we have Sir Benjamin, the large and merry (if sometimes sad) lord of the manor; Marmaduke Scarlet, the cook and housekeeper with the enormous vocabulary; Digweed, the gardener; Loveday Minette, who is beautiful and loving; Robin, Maria’s steadfast friend who has a bit of the fey Robin Goodfellow in him; Old Parson, who can preach a sermon, play a fiddle, or understand the needs of children; and finally, the sinister Monsieur Coque de Noir. The animals play a major part in the story too, with Wrolf the courageous “dog,” Zachariah the cat who communicates through pictographs, Serena the wise hare, Perriwinkle the pony, and the lazy but beloved Wiggins.
I loved the themes of faith, goodness, and courage that ran through the story. World War II had just ended, and I think that Elizabeth Goudge yearned for a world where enmity could be resolved and people could live in peace and beauty. The symbols of the lion and the unicorn (England and Scotland) are there. The two animals haven’t been seen for many years, but now that a new heroine has come, they appear once more to aid her in her quest. The lion is her protector, the solid, dependable and trustworthy guardian. The unicorn is beautiful, lovely imagination, who gives Maria hope and enjoyment. Sun and Moon — we need both in our lives. The animals Maria grows to love all get along together, eating their suppers side by side in front of the fire – another symbol of peace.
Elizabeth Goudge could have focused on the adventure and danger which are in the plot, or on Maria’s tragic circumstances, but instead, she tells the story through the viewpoint of a girl who yearns to do something good with her life. Maria finds joy in the beauty of nature. She believes in unicorns and lions. She sees in others the ability to love and be loved, and she responds to them, bringing out their best qualities. Maria sees what needs to be done, and she sets about doing it. That takes faith, courage, sacrifice, and determination, no matter your age.
There is a theme of homecoming that runs through the story. Maria comes to the land of her ancestors and feels a sense of rightness, of having come home. She wants to solve the curse and have everyone live in happiness. We yearn for a place to call our home, a permanent place where loved ones live together in harmony and the beauty of nature surrounds us. We long for a happy ending.
As Elizabeth Goudge said, “As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic 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.”
I am so glad to be reunited with my old friend, The Little White Horse. If Elizabeth Goudge were alive today, I would send her a lovely thank you letter. I recommend this book to everyone.