The White Stag, by Kate Seredy (1938)
I adored Kate Seredy’s The Good Master and its sequel The Singing Tree. Her illustrations enhanced the wonderful stories about her native Hungary just before and during World War I. I recall checking out her other books, including The White Stag. It’s also about Hungary but set many, many, many centuries earlier. When I reread it I realized that I did remember the story of the Huns and the Magyars, the nomadic tribes who migrated north from the Caucasus to settle in what is now Hungary.
Seredy retells the legend of the founding of Hungary. She begins with the great Nimrod, his sons Hunor and Magyar, and his grandson Bendeguz. The Magyars were peace-loving and wanted to settle. The Huns were opportunistic warriors who conquered other tribes and took slaves. The kindred tribes migrated alongside one another and eventually crossed the high mountains. Bendeguz married a beautiful slave girl, Alleeta. She died in childbirth. The son lived: Attila.
Seredy’s lithograph illustrations are magnificently heroic and show a strong Art Deco influence. The people are long-legged, the horses are well-muscled. The wings on the men’s helmets swoop up and away. The swords are long and sharp. Sharp shadowing foretells extremes (great victories or great defeats).
There is a foreword by the author to put some of the story in context. She explains why she omits historical and anthropological details. “Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”
Superheroes aren’t just in comic books. They’re the stuff of civilization!
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“It happened many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were still great in numbers and fierce of heart. But even today the people of Hikueru sing this story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires. It is the story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid.”
Mafatu has feared the sea because he was with his mother when she drowned in a tropical storm. His fear disappoints his father and makes him the object of ridicule from the other boys on the island. He determines to conquer his fear by sailing out on his own, accompanied by his faithful dog. His canoe goes off course in a storm and he lands on an island. There he puts all his skills to use: building a shelter, harvesting food, making a fire from two sticks, pounding mulberry pith to make cloth. He makes a knife from whalebone. He kills a wild boar and takes makes a necklace out of the tusks and teeth as his trophy. He cuts down a tree and makes a dugout canoe for his return trip. Just as he is about to embark for home a tribe of savage cannibals (who hold ceremonies on the island) find him and begin to chase him. He manages to out-paddle them. Eventually he returns to Hikueru to a hero’s welcome. No longer will he be the Boy Who Was Afraid – he has earned the name of Stout Heart.
Sperry’s pen-and-ink drawing are very evocative. They’re printed in dark turquoise (teal) ink in the library copy I have. (I’m sure modern paperbacks just use black.) There are several marginal illustrations as well.
Some inconsistencies in the text were obvious to me. Why were some Polynesian words italicized while others were not? The word “millrace” was used twice. The basalt cone of the island volcano is “as soft in hue as an amethyst.” Would Mafatu have known what a millrace or an amethyst was? (Would an American fourth-grader recognize millrace?) He uses the Southern Cross as a compass, writes the author. Since the story was set before the traders, why not call it by its Polynesian name? (I looked it up. It’s Hanai-a-ka-malama.)
I note yet again the lack of notes – nothing about the author and how he learned the legend, no suggestions for further reading. Of course, thanks to Wikipedia and Google, I can find out a lot. (He trained as an artist. He traveled around the South Pacific fin 1920-21 and in 1924-25, visiting various islands.) But think of the generations of kids who read the book before Google. Background information would provide context and prompts for reflection.
(P.S. His brother invented the Sperry Top-Sider.)