Beatrice Groves – The Silver Doe at Christmas

To follow on from two Christmas posts in Bathilda’s Notebook, Mugglenet: Christmas in the Forest of Dean: The Silver Doe Part 1 and Part 2, Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: Tracing the imagery and symbolism of the Silver Doe via one of J. K. Rowling’s favourite authors. If you haven’t yet read the Bathilda’s Notebook posts, please do. Then, on Christmas Eve (in the western tradition), enjoy this wonderful and timely article…

The Silver Doe at Christmas and Rowling’s favourite children’s book

On JK Rowling’s new website for her younger fans – ‘J.K. Rowling’s Stories’ – a vintage postcard of ‘Speech House. Forest of Dean’ is pinned immediately above the welcome message on the noticeboard.

The postcard is there to remind us of Rowling’s own childhood. She grew up close to the Forest of Dean and its influence on her imagination is shown by her using it for one of the most evocative scenes in the whole of Harry Potter: the snow-bound sighting of the Silver Doe at Christmas in Deathly Hallows. Rowling, however, has not just chosen a generic postcard of the Forest of Dean, but has specifically chosen an image of Speech House – a place that it interesting, in and of itself.

Originally built as a hunting lodge for Charles II in 1669, it became the Verderers court where a swanimote for the protection of vert and venison was held – a confusing sentence to those of use not versed in the legal language of the Forest, suggesting that the verbal, as well as the physical, landscape of the Forest of Dean may have influenced the young Joanne! For Rowling is avowedly passionate about the sound of English – ‘nobbily, and textured, and I love it’ – and in Harry Potter she mined many archaic and unusual words as name sources (dumbledore, mundungus and widdershins, to suggest just a few). To grow up, therefore, surrounded by the archaic legal language of the Forest – a place of Verderers, vert and swanimotes – may well have been a formative delight. For those of us who did not, incidentally, a Verderer is ‘a judicial officer of the King’s forest’ (a word that only survives into modern usage in the New, Epping, and Dean Forests); Vert is ‘vegetation growing in a wood or forest and capable of serving as cover for deer’ and a ‘swanimote’ (originally a meeting of swineherds) is ‘a forest assembly held three times a year in accordance with the Forest Charter of 1217’ with the aim of removing cattle and sheep from the Forest while the deer were fawning.

As all these words all make clear the legal life of the Forest of Dean revolved around deer, for it was once an important royal hunting ground. Charles II used Speech House as a hunting lodge while, farther back in history and myth, The Mabinogion tells us that King Arthur hunted here too. The animal that Arthur hunted in the Forest of Dean was a white stag; a magical animal which returns as the silver-white doe that Harry sees in the same forest many centuries later. But I also think that Harry sees the white doe at Christmas – a doe who is the counterpoint to his white stag Patronus and linked to it through bonds of love – because the white stag is a Christian symbol. This Christic animal, although it is not nearly as well-known to modern readers as, for example, unicorns or phoenixes, lies at the centre of a novel by Rowling’s favourite childhood author.

When Rowling was nine years old her mother gave her a book she has named as her favourite childhood book: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. This enthusiasm is manifest in the fact that she has chosen it as one of the few books that feature on both her new website’s ‘bookcase,’ and that of her original website (for further discussion of these bookcases, see: Easter Eggs). Rowling has also – startlingly – marked out Little White Horse as ‘the one book’ she acknowledges has ‘very much influenced’ her own: ‘And I suppose the one book that very much influenced Harry Potter was Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.’ (Italics mine)

In one interview she noted that the beginning of the novel had made a deep impression on her – ‘the opening paragraphs of The Little White Horse have stayed with me all my life.’ Only a few pages into the story, in Maria’s first glance at her new magical world, the silver-moonlit woodland might well recall the silver-white doe in the Forest of Dean:

But there was life among the trees, though it was life that did not move. Maria saw a silver owl sitting on a silver branch, and a silver rabbit sitting up on its haunches beside the road blinking at the lantern light, and a beautiful group of silver deer . . . And for a fleeting instant, at the far end of a glade, she thought she saw a little white horse with flowing mane and tail, head raised, poised, halted in mid-flight, as though it had seen her and was glad.

Throughout the novel Goudge calls this animal a ‘little white horse’ – but it is in reality nothing more nor less than a unicorn; one of the most important symbolic animals in the history of Christianity, and certainly intended by Goudge to be read in this way.

The way in which Goudge toys with the idea that her fantastical unicorn might simply be an ordinary animal – a little white horse – is part of the playful tone of the novel (which opens with an equivocal description tricking the reader into thinking that a dog is rather objectionable man). This tone is something which Rowling has explicitly praised – ‘the tone is perfect; a seamless mix of the fairy-tale and the real’ – and this blending of the real and the fantastical is something that Goudge continues into her novels for adults. And one these novels is symbolically governed by a single animal – a white deer – just as importantly, and alchemically, as the little white horse governs Rowling’s beloved children’s book.

The White Stag in The Herb of Grace

It seems likely, given Rowling’s childhood passion for The Little White Horse, that she would have sought out Goudge’s novels for older readers (as I have suggested previously). Just like Rowling, Goudge shifts in her adult books from the magical land her children’s books, but Goudge’s depiction of the real world keeps faith with her fairy tales. For Goudge, the sacred magic of spiritual mystery remains in the workaday world. As John has written brilliantly in the relation between Harry Potter and The Little White Horse, Goudge is a deeply alchemical writer. And her belief in an alchemical, transformative truth to be found in the real world (as much as the magical) is perhaps never clearer than in The Herb of Grace (1948). This is a novel which, suitably enough for this discussion, ends at Christmas. The transformation in the life of the character Annie-Laurie is expressed by her transformation into a joyous incarnation of a Christmas tree in the Christmas play, with ‘a wreath of Christmas roses on her hair’ (for the symbolism of Christmas roses in Harry Potter see Carols in Harry Potter and the Myth of the Christmas Rose).

In The Herb of Grace the central theme of Goudge’s works – the sacred truths present in and behind quotidian reality – is given a specific analogy: the discovery of a glorious medieval fresco of St Eustace beneath the paint of one room. The Eliot family have moved into a medieval house called the Herb of Grace, which is an old Pilgrim Inn. Carved into a niche of the house is a medieval stone deer, which is the tutelary saint, or lares, of both the house and the book. Slowly comes the recognition that this is no ordinary deer, but the cruciferous (crucifix-bearing) stag of St Eustace – and as the characters experience grace in their lives they have their own sightings of this deer.

St Eustace was converted by his hunting of this cruciferous stag – a story told by the great Anglo-Saxon writer and hagiographer Ælfric (c.996-7) in an account that spells out the latent metaphor of the story: the reversal of the hunter and the hunted, the seeker and the sought.

Woodcut of St Eustace, from Les Livres du roy Modus (1486)

Placidas loved to hunt with his soldiers, and one day as they followed a herd of stags Placidas remarked an animal greater and more beautiful than the rest. Pursuing this creature who separated itself from the herd, Placidas became separated from his’ companions. Alone and over difficult ground Placidas hastened after his quarry, until all at once the stag leaped up on a rocky ledge. The chase suspended, Placidas stopping long to admire the greatness of the stag, the quarry began to speak: (in accents reminiscent of those heard by Paul on the road to Damascus) ‘Placidas why do you pursue me ? I am Jesus Christ whom you worship unknowingly.’ Placidas fell to the earth; restored to his senses at length he was told to be baptised together with his wife and sons, and to return to the place… Truly, between the stag’s horns shone the likeness of Christ’s holy cross, brighter than the radiance of the sun, and the image of our Lord, Christ the Savior. And He sent the speech of men into the stag and called to Placidas, saying, ‘Ah, Placidas, why do you persecute me? Indeed, for your sake I have come now, so that through this animal I might reveal myself to you. I am the Christ that you unknowingly worship. The alms you give to the poor are before me. And I came so that I might reveal myself through this stag, and in his place, hunt and capture you instead, with the nets of my mercy.’[1]

Eustace’s legend lies behind the importance of the quest for the White Stag in Arthurian stories and is probably the ultimate source for the Christic image of the deer in those texts. It has also influenced (either directly or in) the white deer Patronuses of Harry Potter; and, if Rowling is aware of the stag of St Eustace, it may well be Goudge’s Herb of Grace that introduced it to her.

‘It was a pity you neglected to conduct Ben round the National Gallery. If you had, you might have noticed him. But then again, you might not:’ Influence of Goudge on C.S. Lewis?

Last week I visited The National Gallery in London for the first time since reading The Herb of Grace – and wandering through the Sainsbury Wing I was struck by a painting I had never noticed before, but now knew instantly: Pisanello’s The Vision of St. Eustace (c. 1438-42). In The Herb of Grace, as they uncover a fresco of St Eustace on the walls of their ancient home, the painter John Adair (who is staying with the Eliot family) explains that it is modelled on a painting in the National Gallery – a painting he calls Pisanello’s Placidus. And this is the painting he means.

Adair tells the story of Placidus’s conversion but insists on calling St Eustace by his pre-conversion name of Placidus, because he dislikes the name Eustace so much. This deriding of the name ‘Eustace’ will no doubt be familiar to some Hogwarts Professor readers, but C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) was in fact published four years after Goudge’s Herb of Grace. Lewis’s book famously opens with the line ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’ (It seems quite possible Lewis was aware of Goudge, though he never mentioned her, as they were close contemporaries in Oxford for many years, and Goudge was more popular in her lifetime than she is now.) But whether Lewis was influenced by Goudge’s retelling of St Eustace’s history or not, however, it is clear that Lewis’s Eustace is named after the saint, for – just like his namesake – he meets Christ in animal form and is converted. In the myth of St Eustace ‘the revelation of the cruciferous stag provides a vision of Christ both divine and mortal’[2] and Lewis’s choice of animal symbolism for Christ, works the same way.

In the vision of the stag in Ælfric’s Passion of St Eustace the deer glows with a light ‘brighter than the radiance of the sun.’ In the night-time scene in which Eustace meets Aslan in Dawn Treader the lion emits moonlight: ‘there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was… I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went.’ Moonlight is likewise central to Goudge’s telling of the white deer (something that links it to the unicorn in Little White Horse, written two years before) and when Ben paints it, the white deer appears ‘like a fallen moonbeam; indeed, the light in the picture came from him rather than the moon.’

When Harry sees the white stag Patronus in Azkaban Rowling’s subconscious mind appears to recall Goudge’s Little White Horse for it is as ‘bright as a unicorn’ (Chap 20) and ‘a blinding, dazzling, silver animal… It looked like a horse… It wasn’t a horse. It wasn’t a unicorn, either. It was a stag’ (Chap 21). Harry’s Patronus also – just like Ben’s deer – glows like the moon: ‘It was shining brightly as the moon above’ (Chap 21). And when Harry sees the white doe Patronus on Boxing Day in Deathly Hallows it is likewise glowing and moon-bright: ‘then the source of the light stepped out from behind an oak. It was a silver-white doe, moon-bright and dazzling, picking her way over the ground, still silent, and leaving no hoof prints in the fine powdering of snow’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 19).

Harry sees this white deer deep in the Forest of Dean, a wood close to his author’s heart. In Goudge’s Herb of Grace there is a wood next to house and St Eustace’s stag metaphorically marks the place in the wood that means the most to each person: ‘the heart of the wood, the place of vision and dedication, the white deer and the crucifix.’ A place marked, likewise, by ‘a dazzle of light.’ Metaphorically in The Herb of Grace, as literally in Deathly Hallows, this dazzling white deer leads the characters on to find their destiny: ‘a deer turning his head to look at you and then disappearing through the trees – they lure you on and on; you want to go always a little father – to something – some clearing in the wood.’

I mentioned earlier my own unexpected sighting of St Eustace’s deer in the National Gallery last week; but slightly to my surprise, there was another. The walls were plastered with posters advertising a new Dürer exhibition: Dürer’s Journeys. These posters centre on a beautiful hillside, studded with houses and trees. But this image is, in fact, just a close up – and I suddenly realised that in the bottom right of the posters was the head of St Eustace’s cruciferous stag. The exhibition was being advertised with a cropped image taken from Dürer’s own St. Eustace – a startling appearance of this stag where I had not expected to see it.

I think St Eustace’s stag has been following Rowling around too – and perhaps, given that Goudge was such a beloved author of hers in childhood, it is a story she knows from The Herb of Grace. Either way, among the many symbolic backgrounds of Harry’s stag Patronus – and the doe Patronus he sees on Boxing Day – lies this story. The stag of St Eustace is a crucial source for Christic deer imagery. The deer Patronuses in Harry Potter are some of the novels’ most important, and evocative, animal imagery and a sense of their importance is underlined by the Silver Doe appearing at Christmas. St Eustace’s story is a beautiful example, just like that doe Patronus, of something that you seek which is in fact seeking you: ‘he knew, he would have staked his life on it, that she had come for him, and him alone’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 19).

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas.

[1] Aelfric’s Passion of St Eustace, translated in: Marcelle Thiébaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca, New York : Cornell University Press, 2014), 61-63.

[2] Marcelle Thiébaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2014), 65


  1. Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful insights! Rowling writes so many deliberate references to other written works, including poetry, and song lyrics. I often wonder whether she references works of art as well. You’ve inspired me to search out Herb of Grace.

  2. Thank you very much Kathleen! Apologies that it jhas taken a year to respond (I’ve only seen this on reposting a link to this for this Xmas!) – but I very much hope you found and enjoyed Herb of Grace – it is a perfect Christmas novel 🙂

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