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the white stag

15 february 2019

The White Stag is a pretty trippy book to find prominently on the children's shelves of your public library. Kate Seredy won the 1938 Newbery Medal for her chapter book about Hungarian origin legends, and the Medal, as I often note, is like an open time capsule: it preserves to perpetuity the critical tastes of past generations.

Though you gotta wonder about the tastes of the jury that selected The White Stag. It's a handsome book, for sure. Seredy, a highly-celebrated illustrator, accompanied her text with impressive pictures in the manner of Rockwell Kent. She writes in austere sentences with a hefty helping of gravitas. But I am not sure what message The White Stag is supposed to send, to its own generation or any subsequent one.

Seredy tells how the Hungarian people are descended from Nimrod, the original Tower-of-Babel Nimrod who escaped from the Middle East, surfing a westward wave of manifest destiny. Leading his people, following the supernatural title quadruped, Nimrod slashes his way across Eurasia, sacrificing horses to his bloodthirsty god Hadur as he goes.

Eventually Nimrod has to buy the farm, but this must take a few millennia, as he dies in the comfort of a prophecy that his great-grandson Attila will lead his tribe to glory, and as we know (checks Wikipedia surreptitiously), Attila the Hun flourished circa AD 434–453. Nimrod leaves behind two sons, Hunor and Magyar, who are best buds but who lead increasingly restive eponymous subtribes, a state of affairs that produces some Game-of-Thronesy intrigue as the centuries wear on. The Magyars become a supine bunch who would be just as happy to chill out wherever life takes them, but the Huns are more prone to pillaging.

As the chapters go by … things become steadily harder to follow, but basically … Hunor begets the prince Bendeguz upon a faery Moonmaiden, and Bendeguz in turn takes to wife Alleeta, princess of the servile Cimmerians. The son of these latter two difficult-to-pronounce individuals is our man Attila. The Romans are ravaged. Dacia is decimated. Thrace is thrashed. Attila crosses the river Pyretus. Attila crosses the river Pathissus. The Huns ride "through forests rich in game, across rivers alive with fish … The few small tribes who inhabited this land showed no ill-will" (89), which makes me think that those few small tribes were not consulted in the research for this book.

And eventually we get modern Hungary, though Seredy's story stops several centuries short of this juncture. In 1937, modern Hungary was sliding toward fascism, cozying up to Mussolini and Hitler, and dreaming about avenging the Treaty of Trianon – and a group of children's librarians in the United States thought this would be a great moment to award their top gong to a fiercely nationalistic, militaristic tale of the mythical origins of the Hungarian nation. The mind boggles.

Seredy, Kate. The White Stag. 1937. New York: Viking, 1965.

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