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The magic of moor and hill

Elizabeth Goudge: A Sense of Otherness

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I'm embarrassed to confess that it's only this year that I've finally read the English author Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984), whose Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians are now two of my favorite children's books of all time. (Oh, how I wish I'd read them as a child!)

I'm still making my way through her long list of books for adults, having paused between The White Witch and The Rosemary Tree to read her charming autobiography, The Joy of Snow. A number of her novels are set in Devon, so I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that she'd lived not far from here for a time -- in Marldon, on the other side of the moor. Close by Compton Castle, the inspiration for Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse.

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In her autobiography, Goudge describes Devon in the 1940s as "an unearthly place. The round green hills where the sheep grazed, the wooded valleys and the lanes full of wildflowers, the farms and apple orchards were all full of magic, and the birds sang in that long-ago Devon as I have never heard them singing anywhere else in the world; in the spring we used to say it sounded as though the earth itself was singing.

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"The villages folded in the hills still had their white witches with their ancient wisdom," she recalls, "and even black witches were not unknown. I have never had dealings with a witch either black or white, though Francis, our village chimney-sweep, a most gentle and courteous man, was I think half-way to being a white warlock. He was skillful at protecting his pigs from being overlooked. He placed pails of water on the kitchen floor to drown the Evil Eye and nothing ever went wrong with his pigs before their inevitable and intended end.

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"Black magic is a thing to vile to speak of, but many of the white witches and warlocks were wonderful people, dedicated to their work of healing. I knew the daughter of a Dartmoor white witch and she told how her mother never failed to answer a call for help. Fortified by prayer and a dram of whiskey she would go out on the coldest winter night, carrying her lantern, and tramp for miles across the moor to bring help to someone ill at a lonely farm. And she brought real help. She must have had the true charismatic gift, and perhaps too knowledge of the healing herbs.

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"The father of one of my friends had a white witch in his parish in the valley of the Dart. She was growing old and she came to him one evening and asked if she might teach him her spells before she died. They must always, she said, be handed on secretly from woman to man, or from man to woman, never to a member of the witch's or warlock's own sex. 'And you, sir,' she told him, 'are the best man I know. It is to you I want to give my knowledge.' 

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"Patiently he tried to explain why it is best that an Anglican priest should not also be a warlock, but it was hard for her to understand. 'But they are good spells,' she kept telling him. 'I know they are,' he said, 'but I cannot use them.' She was convinced at last but she went away weeping."

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In her lovely essay "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal," Kari Sperring notes:

"The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves.

"Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people -- I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness -- the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves."

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The Joys of Snow by Elizabeth GoudgeThe passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). The passage by Kari Sperring is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal" (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors or their estate. A related post (discussing white or healing magic): In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians.

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