The ogre, the fairy, and the bird

The lighthouse, by Peter Scott (1946)

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.

The snow goose and Fritha, posed by Scott’s then wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard

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.

1950s child’s globe, Chad Valley Co. Ltd. © C A Lovegrove

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.

Peter Scott, Elizabeth Jane Howard and friends at the Norfolk lighthouse (http://www.ludhamarchive.org.uk/bdmcsnow.htm)

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

14 thoughts on “The ogre, the fairy, and the bird

    1. I’m no early teen but, being on the autistic spectrum, I identify with both Rhayader and Fritha because, in different ways, they’re both outsiders; and the combination of artistic nature, compassion, appreciation of liminality and sense of being different appeals to me most definitely.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Lovely review, Chris. I agree about the similarities to Andersen’s fairy tales. We had a couple of copies in the school library, one with illustrations by Angela Barrett and it’s interesting to look at the different interpretations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’ve just looked out those Angela Barrett illustrations online and they’re gorgeous, and so atmospheric and true to the story. And her Rhayader is just as Gallico describes him; I wonder why Scott never portrays him close up — too personal?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. The Peter Scott edition we’ve got is a fourth impression from 1948, but I see earlier editions are selling at a fair old price online, even without a dust jacket (ours is missing that). But the Barrett version is more recent, isn’t it, early noughties I think.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating post, and so much I didn’t know. I must admit that I’ve only read a little Gallico and besides knowing the name of this book I had no information about it. And it seems it’s a very complex and multilayered work. Fascinating background material too – thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen, this was my first Gallico (though I think I may have read something or other by him in my mother’s Reader’s Digest in my teens).

      I think that’s the strength of a good narrative, that it works at more than one level—and of course the more one reads and the more life experiences one has the more those levels reveal themselves even if they weren’t all intended by the author. The background info is a sort of bonus though not integral to the story, I just like lifting the covers on a story!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know, Simon: I’m aware of a food and travel writer who’s made an equally good fist at critiquing classic literary fiction from a legal perspective!

      I’m not at all into sport, let alone sports writing, but I do like reading pieces by writers who aren’t one-trick ponies—there’s a sense of breadth and width available to appreciate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Enjoyed your review–makes me want to pick this one up soon. I’ve only read one Gallico–one of the cat ones Thomasina which I enjoyed a lot but haven’t gotten down to picking up any others yet. But this one is going on the list!

    Liked by 1 person

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