Wednesday, February 28, 2007

King of the Wind

King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian, written by Marguerite Henry, and illustrated by Wesley Dennis.

Reading this brought back so many memories that it's hard to review it objectively, though I don't remember it as a particular favorite amongst my collection of Marguerite Henry's books. The story is perfectly (and inextricably) linked with Dennis's illustrations in my mind, and I suspect this is true for many readers -- how many of you read Misty of Chincoteague and now see the pony on the cover in your head?

Dennis and Henry collaborated on over a dozen books over the twenty years that they were friends, and it's clear they really worked together closely. Supposedly, Dennis suggested the story of King of the Wind to Henry after he was commissioned to draw a portrait of the Godolphin Arabian.

Anyway, King of the Wind is many things. First and probably most importantly, it's the story of a boy and his horse, loyal and caring companions for decades. It's a story of fate, symbolized by the omens seen in Sham the horse's markings: the white spot, the symbol of speed, and the wheat ear, a whorl of hair that foretells misfortune. It's a rich look at some exotic cultures (in England as well as Morocco!) and different social classes in the mid-1700's. King of the Wind was the first time I read anything about (or indeed, even heard of) Islam - the story starts out with the fast of Ramadan, and it was amazing how familiar the opening lines of the book were, though it's been over thirty years since I read them:
In the northwestern slice of Africa known as Morocco, a horseboy stood, with broom in hand, in the vast courtyard of the royal stables of the Sultan. He was waiting for dusk to fall.

All day long he had eaten nothing. He had not even tasted the jujubes tucked in his turban nor the enormous purple grapes that spilled over the palace wall into the stable yard. He had tried not to sniff the rich, warm fragrance of ripening pomegranates. For this was the sacred month of Ramadan when, day after day, all faithful Mohammedans neither eat nor drink from the dawn before sunrise until the moment after sunset.
Fasting all day for a month! Royal stables! Jujubes! Obviously this made a lasting impression on me.

The story of Agba (the groom) and Sham (the Godolphin Arabian) ranges from the royal stables of an all-powerful Sultan, to pre-revolutionary France and the streets of Paris, to the English countryside, from London's Newgate jail to the lonely fens near the estate of an English earl - the Earl of Godolphin, who ends up providing a home for Agba & Sham. KotW also touches on the many races won by Sham's offspring, with a prologue that starts with Man-o-War at his final race (Seabiscuit is also a descendant, by the way).

A bit of googling reveals that Grimalkin the cat actually existed, but how much of the rest of Henry's story is true is debatable. There may or may not have been a faithful groom that accompanied Sham to France, and many question whether Sham actually served as a carthorse in Paris before being brought to England. There are a lot of legends about the Godolphin Arabian, however, and I think Henry's book capitalizes on this brilliantly.

I think Henry's story of loyalty and redemption really holds up well sixty years after it was written. But I'm a sucker for good horse and dog stories. I suspect my daughter will enjoy this book in a few years (she already is begging for riding lessons), and I will definitely be getting the hardcover with Dennis's original cover - I was aghast to see other covers out there. My son, who is just the right age for KotW, is sadly uninterested, but I may see if I can tweak his interest by reading him a few passages.


Sandy D. said...

Some Arabian horse sites say that Sham actually came from Yemen to Tunis, and then France to England. He was a gift to the King of France, and was purchased by an Englishman before ending up at Gog Magog (the Earl of Godolphin's estate). Is this book full of cool names and places or what?

Melissa said...

I've never read this one. I guess I need to.

Shelly said...

This truely is a great book for all ages!