The Little White Horse (by Elizabeth Goudge)

Over the years I’ve read many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books. While I wouldn’t class her as one of my favourite authors, I keep coming back to her books, and finding more in them. I’m currently - slowly - re-reading them, and my recent selection fell on the children’s book ‘The Little White Horse’, the one for which she is perhaps best-known.

I was given this book for a birthday present when I was about eleven or twelve, and remember finding it a bit dull at first; it took a while to get into it. However I eventually read and enjoyed it. It’s historical fiction, set in 1842, but is also of the genre known as ‘low fantasy’ - in other words, set in the real world, with real people (if caricatured at times) with some uncanny or unusual mystical features pervading reality.

The heroine of this story is thirteen-year-old Maria Merryweather. Recently orphaned, she and her beloved governess Miss Heliotrope are travelling to the West Country to live with Maria’s only living relative, Sir Benjamin, who lives in a manor house with some rather unusual and highly intelligent animals.

Maria soon learns that the countryside around her guardian’s manor house is under siege by some evil men who trap rabbits and steal food from the ordinary folk. Gradually she learns about her history, and something of Sir Benjamin’s past, and realises that she has an important and dangerous mission…

The story is a classic triumph of good over evil, but - unusually - set in the 19th century. Elizabeth Goudge has an excellent grasp of language; her descriptions are perhaps a tad long-winded in places, but quite evocative. The scene is nicely set, and Maria is a delightfully confident - and sometimes argumentative - protagonist, who quickly wins the hearts of Sir Benjamin, the local Parson, and the unusual people (perhaps gnomes) who work as servants in the manor house.

The nature of the intelligent animals - such Zachariah the cat, who draws pictures in the dust to communicate, and Wrolf the large ‘dog’ who knows exactly what to do - seems quite realistic in context, and contrasts nicely with Maria’s own dog, the beautiful but not very bright Wiggins. The mystical white horse of the title is seen only rarely, but has a part to play in Maria’s eventual resolution of the problem.

Modern readers might balk at the political incorrectness of the bad guys, who live in the forest and dress only in black, so are given the unfortunate appellation of ‘Black Men’. However it’s clear what’s meant; and even the wickedest of them turns out to have some good traits.

It’s a children’s book, intended for confident readers of about ten and upwards, so inevitably things are going to be resolved in the end; perhaps things are too tidily organised, including one remarkable coincidence that Maria discovers fairly early in the book. But it makes pleasant reading, and I’m glad I delved into it again.

Apparently this book was one of JK Rowling's childhood favourites. I'm not surprised; she was inspired by many great classics. While I read it, Maria's sightings of the 'Little White Horse' reminded me forcibly of the stag patronus of the Harry Potter books.

First printed in 1963, this is still in print, both in paperback and Kindle form as well as being widely available second-hand. Recommended for anyone over the age of about eight or nine who likes low fantasy or historical fiction.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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