The White Deer by James Thurber is a treat to read. There’s something about his simple ridiculousness that frees the soul to enjoy any strange thing he has to offer. I love it.
As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I grew up on another of Thurber’s books. That book informed my future in ways I’m not even sure I know the full extent of. I discovered this book, which was written five years before The 13 Clocks, much later. I was seventeen and about to go to college. I quickly ran about the house, wondering why this book hadn’t taken it’s rightful place alongside The 13 Clocks. In response, I got a resounding, “Meh.”
It was then that I confiscated this book from the unworthy library that housed it and put it in my library, where it would be appreciated.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate The White Deer for long before I went to college where the options were to let the book gather dust in my bookshelves where it would be isolated or let it gather dust in the family bookshelves where it would be under-appreciated, but visible. It occurs to me now that I could have taken it with me to college and no one would have missed it, but I felt bad about completely stealing the book from my family (even if they didn’t really want it).
Soon after arriving at college, I discovered two things: Amazon.com has out-0f-print books for sale and I missed a certain three books (The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman being one and the two Thurbers being the others) far more than I cared to admit. So I hopped on Amazon and bought my own copy of each book. Since then, I have refused to move anywhere without those three books, plus The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (and many’s the time they’ve come on vacation, too). They are my lifelines to reality.
So what does this have to do with reviewing the book? I suppose I wanted to share a bit of it’s power–after all, I was an “adult” when I realized I couldn’t live without it. The White Deer, for all it’s quixotic silliness, is a book that I find I appreciate more as an adult than I ever could have as a child, or even as I did as a young(er) adult just going to college.
The title for this blog comes from the very last line. The full quote (no spoilers, promise) is this:
I find no cause to doubt the [scroll’s account], for it is signed and sealed, and witnessed, and attested.
Considering that the Royal Scribe ran around the entire book claiming the magic that made the princess a deer couldn’t exist because a record of it didn’t exist, this little nod to the pedants of triplicate seems the perfect ending to this fractured faerie tale. After all, could we really believe the account of some magic that was never properly recorded if the effects of it weren’t at least appropriately witnessed (in triplicate)?
I mentioned in my mid-book review of Saturday (posted yesterday due to an ID-10T error), this book has a vague Arthurian connection. The witch who cast the spell is named Nagrom Yaf. Spelled backwards, this is Fay Morgan. Once I figured that out, which took an embarrassing amount of times, it intrigued me that Thurber used the witch from Arthurian tales. I’ve never taken the time to really sit and think how this tale related or whether this was the one reference in the entire book. So, that was my goal this time around.
What I found:
- The tales of the brothers’ quests (Thag, Jorn, and Gallow) are set up in the middle of The White Deer very much like the knight’s quests are set up in Le Morte D’Arthur by Malory. This is awesome!
- The magical characters that inhibit these quests are men, rather than women, following the backwards (or opposite, if you like) pattern set up by Thurber with Nagrom Yaf.
- King Clode (the father) has a round table of sons and servants, and–excepting his son, Jorn–they are inept bumblers. It was quite the opposite with the knights: Arthur’s knights well trained and good men, his (illegitimate) son was the epitome of ineptitude.
- Addressing the romancing of Guenivere (here the deer/princess), the danger was in the relationship for Arthur. In The White Deer, the danger lay in NOT making the relationship happen.
- The court magician is one of paltry tricks, not a sage advisor. The sage advisor is a dwarf named Quondo (Italian for “when,” which proves to be particularly apt), who is neither purposeful in his advice, nor is he asked for it. Also, he doesn’t disappear mid-story. A very anti-Merlin.
- There is a distinct separation of kingdoms with almost a friendly enmity to it–none of this unite or suffer the consequences stuff.
- All the quests were for objects that were supposed to have value, but turned out to be falsely elevated. I suppose the easiest way to put it is: the quests’ objectives were obtainable.
I’m sure there are more, but these are what occurred to me while reading this time around. It seems to me that Thurber was trying to write a “what if Arthur hadn’t been so noble after all” tale. Frankly, things turned out astonishingly well for this Anti-Arthur. Maybe the hero should have left well enough alone. It’s a thought.
I also mentioned in my mid-book review that the prose of Thurber was another reason I was so attracted to the book. Once again, the rhythm of it is so incredibly melodious that it seems to jump off the page and whirl around you. Since I’ve already introduced you to the book with the end, it seems only fitting that I should end with the beginning:
If you should walk and wind and wander far enough on one of those afternoons in April when smoke goes down instead of up, and nearby things sound far away and far things near, you are more than likely to come at last to the enchanted forest that lies between the Moonstone Mines and Centaurs Mountain. You’ll know the woods when you are still a long way off by virtue of a fragrance you can never quite forget and never quite remember. And there’ll be a distant bell that causes boys to run and laugh and girls to stand and tremble. If you pluck one of the ten thousand toadstools that grow in the emerald grass at the edge of the wonderful woods, it will feel as heavy as a hammer in your hand, but if you let it go it will sail away over the trees like a tiny parachute, trailing black and purple stars.
There’s even a tale, first told by minstrels in the medieval time, that rabbits here can tip their heads as men now tip their hats, removing them with their paws and putting them back again.
I fully confess to looking for smoke that goes down every April. Oh how I hope one day to find that enchanted forest somewhere. Somewhere.
Reasons this is challenging for me:
- There are so many little clues about characters that I’m still discovering (ex: It was only this time around that I connected Quondo the character with the meaning of his name).
- The book requires multiple looks and a not a few reviews of my studies to understand it’s frame as an Anti-Arthur tale (and I’m sure I haven’t found them all).