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king of the wind

12 may 2010

(I've written this before, but) when I was a boy, I read dog books, not horse books. Strict gender stereotypes prevail here; girls read about horses in my day, and largely still do; boys read about, well, almost anything but horses.

Marguerite Henry was familiar as one of the princesses of horse literature, but I never read any of her books till last weekend, when I found a paperback copy of King of the Wind for 25 cents at a church sale. The Newbery Medal printed on the cover drew my attention. I am a Newbery aficionado, but if I had been told that Henry had won a Medal, I would have figured it was for Misty of Chincoteague, a title that rattles around in memory just on account of its euphony. But no; come to find that Misty was an Honor book (called "runners-up" in the day). Henry won the big gong for a historical tale of a great sire of Thoroughbreds.

King of the Wind is part Black Beauty and part Black Stallion, with a dose of Orientalist atmosphere. Our hero is Agba, mute stable boy in the service of the terrifying, inscrutable, but somewhat buffoonish Emperor of Morocco. Agba's lifelong charge is to care for the horse he calls Sham, "the Arabic word for sun" (32). Lowly Sham, who undergoes some extremely hard knocks in the course of the novel, is renamed the Godolphin Arabian and figures in the pedigree of nearly every modern racehorse.

It's true – at least the siring part. Super Saver, the horse that just won the Kentucky Derby, is a great-great-great-great grandson of Native Dancer. Native Dancer was a great-great-great grandson of a British thoroughbred named Polymelus, in turn a five-greats-grandson of the fabled Eclipse, who was the great-grandson of the Godolphin Arabian (via his dam's line). That makes . . . oh, 15 or 16 greats, I've lost count . . . between the near-legendary "Sham" and today's star Thoroughbreds.

(In fact, the latter-day Sham, Secretariat's great rival, was also a descendant of Eclipse and therefore of the Godolphin Arabian – indicating nothing except that whoever named him was presumably a Marguerite Henry fan. I had always figured Sham was named in a sort of reverse-jinx way after the English word for "false pretense"; it turns out his name is much more illustrious.)

In a typical ugly-ducking horse book, like Come On, Seabiscuit, the horse-hero emerges from obscurity to win a big race. Not so in King of the Wind. Sham is fast enough as a colt, but by the time he gets to England and the pastures of the Earl of Godolphin, his racing days are over. Instead, the big climax of the book is sexual, not athletic. Sham sees a comely mare and fends off her boyfriend in combat. Then his main talent is revealed:

With a rush he sought Lady Roxana. He leaped about her, prancing lightly as if his legs were set on springs. He arched his magnificent neck. He plumed his tail. His eyes were bold, his body wet and shining. . . . Suddenly they were together, touching each other with their noses, talking in excited little nickers. (141)
I don't mean to give the impression that there's a Newbery Medalist that deals in softcore equine erotica, but well, you can read it for yourself. And it's harmless enough in a horsey sort of way. The real interest of King of the Wind is in its treatment of bloodlines. Class tells, and in the world of the stud farm, class is a matter of princely blood.

Yet though English thoroughbred pedigrees go back well into the seventeenth century, the Godolphin Arabian, born in 1724, has no pedigree at all. It seems to me that we learn two different and slightly contradictory lessons from this tale. One is that any kid off the street can become king of the hill wind. The other is that "king of the wind" is defined as having descendants without number who go on to inhabit the right side of the tracks. By giving the Godolphin Arabian antecedents in a royal stable, Henry seeks to make such blood-will-out ideologies into those of temporary eclipse rather than true meritocracy. In America (I know the story doesn't even get near America, but it's American literature), we learn, anyone can grow up to be the father of Presidents – provided he's the lost scion of royalty to begin with.

Henry, Marguerite. King of the Wind. Illustrated by Wesley Dennis. 1948. New York: Aladdin, 1991.