Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The White Stag

The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, won the Newbery in 1938. I really can't figure out why, unless the Committee was just bowled over by her illustrations (like this one from page 47), which I have to admit are gorgeous.

Maybe the legend of the white stag was just more popular back then - a little Googling shows that it was a symbol of the Scouting Movement. The Boy Scouts of America were becoming very popular in the 30's, and the 4th World Jamboree of Scouts was held in Hungary in 1933, with the white stag as its symbol. Different versions of the legend of a white stag are historically important through Europe, especially in Hungary, where Seredy says she took the inspiration for this book.

Anyway. I liked Seredy's Foreword a lot:
Not so long ago I was leafing through a very modern book on Hungarian history. It was a typical twentieth-century book, its pages an unending chain of FACTS, FACTS, FACTS as irrefutable, logical, and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them.

Turning the pages I felt as if I were walking in a typical twentieth-century city, a city laid out in measured blocks, glaring with the merciless white light of knowledge, its streets smooth, hard concrete facts. One could not stumble on streets like that, nor could one ever get lost; every corner is so plainly marked with dates.

...Well, I closed the book and I closed my eyes. And then I saw an old garden, the great, neglected park of old Hun-Magyar legends, with moss creeping over the shadowy paths, paths which twisted and turned, which led into hidden nooks where fantastic flowers grew around crumbling monuments of pagan gods.

...Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.
Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed in the thread of the story in The White Stag. I didn't think it was fragile so much as overly militaristic, impersonal, and boring. Maybe the thread is just old and rotten, and ready to break? It's not that I don't like old books, either - I liked The Story of Mankind (1922), The Dark Frigate (1924), and Caddie Woodlawn (1936) a lot more than this, and they were all earlier winners.

Also, I like swashbuckling and legendary tales quite a lot. A couple childhood favorites were Raphael Sabatini's Captain Blood and collections of Greek legends. So I don't think that Seredy's account of 4th and 5th century warriors (including Attila the Hun) seeking a homeland in eastern Europe should have turned me off quite so much.

But I didn't like any of the main players in The White Stag. As Melissa noted in the comments here, except for Attila (whose childhood was summed up pretty bleakly in a couple of sentences), the characters are all adults. They're mostly tribal leaders, with a couple mystical passive maidens and a slave girl who happily accepts a warlord for her husband (and then dies in childbirth) thrown in for good measure.

There was a very Old Testament feel to the four linked stories, starting with Nimrod sacrificing his horse "faithful friend and companion of many great hunts" (p. 13) so that the god Hadur will reveal his people's destiny - the stag and eagles and blazing swords, and the next few generations of noble warriors who will lead them to the promised land. But by the time I was in the fourth part, I didn't care if the Huns ever got to Hungary, "where the song of whispering breeze and gurgling brooks had the magic power to banish memories of bloodshed" (p. 89). I was just happy that the story was over.


Sandy D. said...

I complained about the modern cover here at my own blog. The 70's and 80's were not good decades for children's book covers. There's a link to more info. on the author, too (who was Hungarian).

Sandy D. said...

Another bit of trivia: one of the Newbery Honors books (runners-up) for this year was "On the Banks of Plum Creek". I'm not a huge Ingalls Wilder fan, but I think that would have been a better choice than "The White Stag".

atleast said...

I haven't read "The White Stag" yet, but I recently finished Seredy's "The Good Master" which won a Newbery Honor Medal in 1936. It was a very warm book with accessible characters and bits of Hungarian folklore threaded throughout. "The White Stag" sounds very different.