Elizabeth Goudge, The Valley of Song (1951)
Many classic children’s fantasies involve finding a hidden country through a secret door, a theme that is connected with the mysterious land we enter during sleep, before birth and after death. From Wonderland to the country at the back of the North Wind to Oz to Narnia, these realms have captured readers’ hearts and imaginations in our modern, secularized age. They provide a method of transcending the barriers of formalized religion by exploring archetypal and mythic experiences in a fresh and individual way.
In The Valley of Song, the discovery and exploration of such a country is almost the sole subject of the book. Ten-year-old Tabitha, one of Goudge’s characteristically naughty but loveable child characters, has found the way into a wonderful land she calls the Valley of Song. When she brings some of her favorite adults in as well, she learns more about its nature and purpose, as the “Workshop” of the earthly kingdom and the gateway to the heavenly kingdom beyond.
Although there’s a thin thread of plot to carry the narrative — a quest to build “the most beautiful ship ever made,” using materials from the magical Valley — there’s little tension or conflict, and certainly no tremendous battles against the externalized forces of evil. Tabitha experiences some mild discomfort and one struggle to conquer her own self-interest, but mainly she journeys from wonder to wonder, rejoicing along with the creatures of the Valley at the beauty and goodness that flow from their Creator, and feeling the blessing of the Great Ones who watch over human lives.
|The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks|
If this makes it sound like a religious book, it is — but without being the least bit narrow or dogmatic. It bears a strong resemblance to the works of George MacDonald, which come out of a similar impulse to express the inexpressible through numinous images. Goudge’s writing in this particular book is not strong enough to reach the poetic quality of her great predecessor; too many things are merely labeled as “beautiful” or “lovely” or “wonderful,” weak adjectives that take away from our sense of actually beholding what she’s trying to describe. As an adult reader I also found some passages almost too whimsical, though Goudge is guiltless of the twee insincerity that makes such writing truly unbearable.
Instead, her gift of touching fictional people and places with reality serves to make us care about the little shipbuilding town from a bygone day, and the myriad characters, young and old, human and animal, who inhabit it. There are also passages of grandeur and true beauty, and suffusing the whole book is the power of love, love for the earth and for all that dwell therein, and for the Lord of Life, whose work we participate in when we ourselves are creative.
In her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, Goudge herself identified this as one of the three of her own books that she truly loved, and having read it I now understand why. Into it she poured all the longings of her heart — for redemption, harmony, and participation in that joyful song that underlies all being. Readers of any age who share this longing will find delight in visiting the Valley of Song.
I’m counting The Valley of Song for the Fantasy category of the Once Upon a Time Challenge, Quest the Second.