The Snow Goose
by Paul Gallico,
illustrations by Peter Scott.
Michael Joseph 1946 (1941)
This classic novella is so well known but I have to confess I’ve never got round to it until now. Yet it was worth the wait to enjoy this little offering of bittersweetness, a story with one foot in fable and the other in fact, to relish the natural world it celebrates and the poetic language it’s couched in.
Published eight decades ago in 1941, amidst the dark days of war and threatened invasion, The Snow Goose is set in a specified time and place but also retains a universal appeal, talking as it does about local suspicions and latent love, about conflicts and about kindness.
It also has the ring of authenticity in being inspired by real places and people and events, and while clearly highly fictionalised there is a kind of truth about it that becomes almost mythic.
Philip Rhayader is an artist largely shunned because of his visible deformities. He has retreated to a fictional lighthouse on the Essex coast where, since 1930, he has painted birds and landscapes and tended the wildfowl he has rescued from the guns of hunters. One day this artist, despised of men, is visited by a 12-year-old girl whose name means peace: she carries in her arms a wounded white bird because she knows that this “ogre who lived in the lighthouse had magic that could heal injured things”.
Thus begins a strange relationship between ragged girl and dark artist, brought about by a white bird. The snow goose, blown to Britain from Canada by storms, is tended till it recovers; when it joins the other geese flying to their summer pastures in Greenland or Spitzbergen the girl disappears, and that summer
out of his memory, he painted a picture of a slender, grime-covered child, her fair hair blown by a November storm, who bore in her arms a wounded white bird.
When the goose returns each autumn she too returns, a pattern that repeats even as the drums of war beat louder. Then comes 1940, and Rhayader sails in his sixteen-footer to help rescue a British army on a foreign shore, leaving behind peace in the form of a “marsh faery” but accompanied by the snow goose. Too late the young woman that Frith now is realises that her initial fear of the bearded stranger has turned into something else.
Sentimental the story may be but it evokes the right kinds of sentiment—kindness, gentleness, love, yearning. It’s sensitive too in its verbal painting of the damp world at the margin of the North Sea:
Greys and blues and soft greens are the colours, for when the skies are dark in the long winters, the many waters of the beaches and marshes reflect the cold and sombre colour. But sometimes, with sunrise and sunset, sky and land are aflame with red and golden fire.
Gallico burrows deep into myth and legend and literature in what may at first seem the slightest of stories. There are hints of Beowulf‘s Grendel in his mere, of the fairy folk and of Norse names; memories of the Ancient Mariner’s albatross in Coleridge’s Rime and of the Angel of Mons in Arthur Machen’s short story; and echoes of East Anglian speech and superstitions along with officer class anecdotes in the part of the story dealing with Operation Dynamo and the Dunkirk evacuation.
There is also the true story behind the fictional tale which adds extra depth and truth to the voluntary exile’s novella. Gallico is, in a sense, the snow goose blown across the Atlantic from his North American homeland; his friend Peter Scott, son of the Antarctic explorer and an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who was also a naturalist and painter and had taken over a lighthouse on a Norfolk estuary, will have inspired some aspects of the painter with the Welsh name; and future author Elizabeth Jane Howard (who was then Scott’s wife) was the model for Scott’s painting of the girl Frith for the illustrated 1946 edition of the novella.
So, a profound little fable about exile, love, fortitude and bravery, a piece which shares much with Hans Christian Anderson’s melancholy fairy tales while somehow remaining uplifting—The Snow Goose retains a power to affect the receptive reader whether enjoyed in good times or in bad.
2/21 TBR Books in 2021