The trouble with Philip Rhayader

Once one starts this stat-porn lark, it begins to oppress and obsess — which is why Malcolm promises to give it up forthwith.

But not before what ensues.

A search-engine brings a casual visitor here, directed from:

what does rhayader mean when he says for once-for once i can be a man and play my part

And so said casual visitor apparently arrives at Malcolm’s post from last August:

To and from the lighthouse

Let us assume we have an ardent scholar in desperate search of guidance for a school project, essay or book report. The book, of course, is Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, which seems, in its later years, to have mislaid the rest of its original UK title: A Story of Dunkirk.

Gallico knocked it out as a piece of war-time propaganda, sold it as a short-story to the Saturday Evening Post, where it appeared in the edition for 9th November, 1940, expanded it a trifle and it re-appeared as a novella the following year. The book has remained in print ever since. Perhaps the one to have is the original 1941 Michael Joseph UK edition Top, right): that was a war-time “economy” publication, and few have survived in anything like “good” condition. Failing that, there’s the 1946 edition with illustrations by Peter Scott.

Malcolm explored the Scott connection in that earlier post, and how the East Lighthouse on the River Nene migrated from the Fens to the fictional “Aelder” on the Essex Marshes.

 As Malcolm said previously, once upon a none-too-distant time The Snow Goose was an essential for every secondary-school English stock-cupboard and school library. It was a “Blyton breaker” — in today’s terms it would be prescribed for weaning young readers off  R.L.Stine & co. Then there was a period when the book fell foul of “political correctness”. That was largely because of the references to Rhayader as a “cripple” and a “hunchback”. Equally there is a fear, a false fear, of anything that smacks, however distantly, of militarism and triumphalism: ever since Vietnam war has been unmentionable hell.

Anyway, let’s address the precise concern of that ardent (or, perhaps, slightly desperate) student. Let’s even assume said ardent student has actually heard of the Second World War (which, to the surprise of many Americans, didn’t start on 7th December 1941).

Malcolm suggests it’s all made clear in the climactic passage. Frith, the girl, is growing up, and sensing that Rhayader’s emotions are tormented:

 Frith was suddenly conscious of the fact that she was frightened, and the things that frightened her were in Rhayader’s eyes —the longing and the loneliness and the deep, welling, unspoken things that lay in and behind them as he turned them upon her.

… The delicate tendrils of her instincts reached to him and carried to her the message of the things he could not speak because of what he felt himself to be, misshapen and grotesque. And where his voice might have soothed her, her fright grew greater at his silence and the power of the unspoken things between them. The woman in her bade her take flight from something that she was not yet capable of understanding.

Three weeks pass — historically one of the most chaotic, traumatic, legendary and mutating three weeks in British history, before Frith goes back to Rhayader’s lighthouse:

… May was at its end, and the day, too, in a long golden twilight that was giving way to the silver of the moon already hanging in the eastern sky.

She told herself, as her steps took her thither, that she must know whether the snow goose had really stayed, as Rhayader said it would. Perhaps it had flown away, after all. But her firm tread on the sea wall was full of eagerness, and sometimes unconsciously she found herself hurrying.

Frith saw the yellow light of Rhayader’s lantern down by his little wharf, and she found him there. His sailboat was rocking gently on a flooding tide and he was loading supplies into her—water and food and bottles of brandy, gear and a spare sail. When he turned to the sound of her coming, she saw that he was pale, but that his dark eyes, usually so kind and placid, were glowing with excitement, and he was breathing heavily from his exertions.

Sudden alarm seized Frith. The snow goose was forgotten. “Philip! Ye be goin’ away?”

Rhayader paused in his work to greet her, and there was something in his face, a glow and a look, that she had never seen there before.

“Frith! I am glad you came. Yes, I must go away. A little trip. I will come back.” His usually kindly voice was hoarse with what was suppressed inside him.

Frith asked: “Where must ye go?”

Words came tumbling from Rhayader now. He must go to Dunkirk. A hundred miles across the North Sea. A British army was trapped there on the sands, awaiting destruction at the hands of the advancing Germans. The port was in flames, the position hopeless. He had heard it in the village when he had gone for supplies. Men were putting out from Chelmbury in answer to the government’s call, every tug and fishing boat or power launch that could propel itself was heading across the sea to haul the men off the beaches to the transports and destroyers that could not reach the shallows, to rescue as many as possible from the Germans’ fire.

Frith listened and felt her heart dying within her. He was saying that he would cross the sea in his little boat. It could take six men at a time; in a pinch, seven. He could make many trips from the beaches to the transports.

 The girl was young, primitive, inarticulate. She did not understand war, or what had happened in France, or the meaning of the trapped army, but the blood within her told her that here was danger.

“Philip! Must ‘ee go? You’ll not come back. Why must it be ‘ee?”

The fever seemed to have gone from Rhayader’s soul with the first rush of words, and he explained it to her in terms that she could understand.

He said: “Men are huddled on the beaches like hunted birds, Frith, like the wounded and hunted birds we used to find and bring to sanctuary. Over them fly the steel peregrines, hawks and gyrfalcons, and they have no shelter from these iron birds of prey. They are lost and storm-driven and harried, like the Princesse Perdue you found and brought to me out of the marshes many years ago, and we healed her. They need help, my dear, as our wild creatures have needed help, and that is why I must go. It is something that I can do. Yes, I can. For once —for once I can be a man and play my part.”

Frith stared at Rhayader. He had changed so. For the first time she saw that he was no longer ugly or mis-shapen or grotesque, but very beautiful. Things were turmoiling in her own soul, crying to be said, and she did not know how to say them.

“I’ll come with ‘ee, Philip.”

Rhayader shook his head. “Your place in the boat would cause a soldier to be left behind, and another and another. I must go alone.”

If that’s too taxing for our ardent student, try the line John Wayne never quite said:

A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.


1 Comment

Filed under Boris Johnson, Britain, education, fiction, films, History, Literature, Norfolk, Paul Gallico, Quotations, World War 2

One response to “The trouble with Philip Rhayader

  1. Pingback: Blasts from the past | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

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