Perspective: ‘Charlotte’s Web’ as a Medieval Novel
I opened this year’s book review column with C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, a discussion of the medieval novel. I’ve read other books this year that attempted to replicate that ancient style (Laurus, The Book of the Dun Cow) while re-reading Kristin Lavransdatter for a year-long writing project, Project Redux. And it occurred to me that my favorite book of all — Charlotte’s Web — has a perspective that’s more than a little medieval.
It has rats and pigs and manure. It opens with Papa and his axe, about to kill a runty pig. In the midst of E.B. White’s lovely prose is a lot of earthiness.
Take this paragraph, from the final chapter. It’s a description of fall moving into winter. Any sentimental writer can cover squashes and pumpkins and leaves turning, but White’s fall is littered with wildness — a wildness with gnawing in the night.
The autumn days grew shorter, Lurvy brought the squashes and pumpkins in from the garden and piled them on the barn floor, where they wouldn’t get nipped on frosty nights. The maples and birches turned bright colors and the wind shook them and they dropped their leaves one by one to the ground. Under the wild apple trees in the pasture, the red little apples lay thick on the ground, and the sheep gnawed them and the geese gnawed them and the foxes came in the night and sniffed them.” — from the last chapter, XXII, “A Warm Wind”
The story is not set in the Middle Ages, but in mid-century Maine. But like medieval stories, the line between this world and all the other words is very thin.
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