Friday, January 09, 2009

Elizabeth Goudge's "The Well of the Star"

One of my favorite things to do during the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany seasons is to read short stories and legends from seasonal collections. We have several wonderful collections that we either own or check out of the library almost annually.

One collection I like is titled Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old. Published by Plough Publishing House in 2002, it contains a number of excellent stories from writers as diverse as Pearl Buck, Ruth Sawyer, Henry Van Dyke, and Katherine Paterson. One reason I like it is the number of good women writers represented.

One of the stories that I read for the first time this year was "The Well of the Star" by Elizabeth Goudge, perhaps best known for her children's fantasy novel The Little White Horse. That book has had a renaissance in recent years, partly because J.K. Rowling has spoken of it with such fondness. My reprint copy contains a blurb where she mentions how much she "adored" the book as a child.

Reading Goudge's beautiful Christmas tale, which follows the fortunes of a poor, ragged boy named David who comes across the wise men journeying from the east on the night of Christ's birth, was a pleasure on several levels. But I'm always interested in noticing literary echoes, or seeing literary antecedents, and it struck me that this might well be another Goudge story with which Rowling is familiar.

That's because the image of the title, "The Well of the Star," will look very familiar to readers of Harry Potter. When David, shivering, cold, and hungry, is wishing for a miracle to save his desperate family (his sick father is out of work, and the family is starving) he thinks of a legendary wishing well "far down below on the road to Bethlehem."

"It was a well of clear sparkling water and it was said that those who stood by it at midnight, and prayed to the Lord God Jehovah from a pure heart, were given their heart's desire. The difficulty, of course, was to be pure in heart. They said that if you were, and your prayer had been accepted, you saw your heart's desire mirrored in the water of the well -- the face of someone you loved, maybe, or the gold that would save your home from ruin, or even, so it was whispered, the face of God Himself."

A mirror that gives one their heart's desire...and the need to be pure in heart. Hmm. Where have I heard these themes before?

Goudge's beautiful story is worth reading for its own sake. The well first reveals the star (which the wise men have momentarily lost) to Gaspar, after David tells them how the well works. David finishes the journey with them and is so moved by the baby King that he gives him the only thing he possesses, a small shepherd's pipe. He ends up going home with the shepherds (his old friends) who have also been to pay the baby homage. Once the wonder of the stable begins to wear off, David realizes that he is still poor, needy and desperate, and now seemingly has even less than when he started out that evening...he no longer even has his pipe to comfort his family with music. He cries bitterly and then finally stumbles back to the wishing well one more time.

"He did not pray to be a rich man, he did not look into it for his heart's desire, he simply went to it to wash himself..."

And in that moment comes blessing, joy, and a true answer to his prayers. The King to whom he gave everything does not leave him empty-handed. He never does.


Erin said...

Would you believe that I've never read anything by either Elizabeth Goudge or Dorothy Sayers? I really need to fix that! This sounds like a wonderful story, and you know I'm always looking for great Christmas stories! (I actually read a bunch this year that I never got around the reviewing, including a really nice picture book version of The Gift of the Magi...)

Beth said...

I think you would LOVE *The Little White Horse.* It's really a beautiful book. Until I read this short story, that was the only Goudge I'd ever read, though I'm thinking I should remedy that and read some more.

Who did the picture book version of *The Gift of the Magi* that you liked? I tried that story for this first time this year with Sarah, in a retelling for children, but wasn't impressed at all at the particular version we had. It didn't hold her attention either.

Erin said...

I'm pretty sure the text in this version is the same as the original, and it's illustrated by P. J. Lynch, who I previously knew as the illustrator of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.

I'm definitely overdue to read The Little White Horse!