I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. The very idea of fairies (or vampires, or whatever) hanging out in some sort of London underworld makes me begin groaning (if alone) or grimacing (if not alone). The only explanation that I can come up with is something to do with the atmosphere—I don’t typically enjoy urban fiction anyway, and adding supernatural creatures to the cement environments I hate adds an additional annoyance factor. So perhaps it isn’t terribly surprising that I do like stories that bridge the gap between fantasy and historical fiction.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is one such book. It is seems set in the 19th century England (although that isn’t entirely clear) and centers around a story of medieval family conflict. The heroine, Maria Merryweather, has to find a way to right the wrongs of her ancestor, Sir Wrolf, in order for peace to come to her family manor. Some of the story’s elements are realistic, if a little idealized. Others are possible by stretching reality, while a few are simply fantastic.
C. S. Lewis observed that one of the distinguishers of pure Story, as opposed to the novel, is a focus on atmosphere that envelops both the plot and characters, rather than the other way around. And The Little White Horse has a very strong atmosphere. In fact, coming away from the story, one of the main things I remember is the color—silver and black (and, well, pink).
My main criticism of the book is, in fact, that the atmosphere may be too strong—that the story would be more like a fairy tale if its fairy tale qualities weren’t so carefully protected. Most fairy tales are much less fairy tale-ish than might be expected. Often they are more realistic than we would prefer—the versions we are more familiar with have often been divested of some of their more jarring elements so they can be told to children. That isn’t to say that good fairy tales are jarring, but that there is a delicate balance between “faery” elements and realistic elements. The Little White Horse gives a bit too much dominance to the faery.
The Perilous Gard (written by another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Marie Pope) is a story similar in that it bridges a gap between history and fantasy. Also like The Little White Horse, it includes a love story of sorts. Granted, it is, I think, intended for slightly older readers; but I’m also inclined to think that it better succeeds in balancing the faery and realistic elements.
Of course, it helps the story is partially an explanation of where English fairy legends came from in the first place. But its atmosphere is at least as strong as that of The Little White Horse, although different—more caves and candles than sunlight and moonlight. Still, it isn’t every author who can create a story about violent elf-like pagans hiding in the backwoods of medieval England.
I suppose The Little White Horse rather shows why J.R.R. Tolkien so hated allegory. To protect the atmosphere, the story invokes so much symbolism that it likely produces groans in some readers.
I didn’t groan. And if it isn’t every story that can make violent elf-like pagans come alive, it also isn’t every story that can make an eccentric dwarf seem quite realistic. Or that can pass off a lion as a dog. Or that can come up with a credible ending without killing someone. The Little White Horse has its faults. I would not call it great. But it was very, very good.