Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The White Horse

The White Horse of Uffington appears to be about 3000 years old, and is part of a complex of ancient sites in the Vale of the White Horse. The horse itself was probably constructed by digging trenches and then re-filling the trenches with chalk blocks; it needs to be cleaned regularly to remain visible. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, a remarkably similar location exists:

There were odd carvings in the chalk, too, which the shepherds sometimes weeded when they were out on the downs with the flocks and there was not a lot to do. The chalk was only a few inches under the turf. Hoofprints could last a season, but the carvings had lasted for thousands of years. They were pictures of horses and giants, but the strange thing was that you couldn't see them properly from anywhere on the ground. They looked as if they'd been made for views in the sky. (The Wee Free Men, 119)

The image appears on pre-Roman British coinage, and while there has been some debate as to whether it is really mean to be a horse, it has certainly been referred to as such since at least the 11th century. In A Hat Full of Sky, the sequel to The Wee Free Men, Tiffany reports that Granny Aching said, “Taint what a horse looks like, it's what a horse be." While there don't appear to be other carvings of similar age still extant [edited to add: in England; my brother reminds me of others in Peru] (the Cerne Abbas giant, for example, seems to date back only to the 17th century) , this may be because other carvings were not maintained as the Uffington White Horse has been.

Near the White Horse is the site of Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort. Also nearby is the “Dragon Hill,” reported to be the place where St. George slew the dragon. In The Wee Free Men, Tiffany walks to the top of “Arken Hill”:

There was a flat place at the top where nothing ever grew, and Tiffany knew there was a story that a hero had once fought a dragon up there and its blood had burned the ground where it fell. There was another story that said there was a heap of treasure under the hill, defended by the dragon, and another story that said a king was buried there in armor of solid gold. There were lots of stories about the hill; it was surprising it hadn't sunk under the weight of them. (52)

I took my class to the White Horse during the last week of classes. It was a warm, sunny, day and the wind blew along the ridge as we walked up the hill towards the carving. Then we sat up above and looked down at the flat-topped hill and thought about the people who lived on this land, and carved the horse, and buried their dead. Sheep graze on the hillside now and tourists come and walk among them.

1 comment:

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