King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian by Marguerite Henry
Before there were million part series books about horses like Pony Pals and Horse Diaries and Canterwood Crest, there was Marguerite Henry. Most famous for Misty of Chincoteague, Henry wrote numerous books about horses, all intended to please even the most fanatical horse lover.
Written in the late 1940s, King of the Wind opens with a bit about Man o’ War, one of the most famous racehorses of the twentieth century. His line can be traced to the Godolphin Arabian. Perhaps it was Man o’ War’s passing in the late forties that inspired Henry to pen this and this fictionalized account of his legendary ancestor.
There is no end to the horse vocabulary here. It’s all withers and crest. For the horse-mad, it will be simple to comprehend, for the uninitiated, it will require more work, but will come more quickly towards the end since much of it is repeated.
The story begins in Morocco (although it’s unlikely Morocco is the actual origin of the Godolphin Arabian – note fictionalized account) before the famed horse is even born. He is tended by a mute horseboy and who accompanies him for his entire life. Due to the era of the writing, Henry uses the term Mohammedans instead of Muslims. So given the era of this book and the setting, is Henry’s writing racist? Does she indulge in stereotypes of Arabs? It’s hard for me to tell. I’m not as well-versed about what to look for, nor am I as familiar with the culture. I can’t say if the clothes depicted are accurate. But I can say that when the music of the Moroccans is called “wild” and “discordant” it’s easy to read a bit of western bias against that type of music. And there are some characterizations of the Muslims in Morocco as bloodthirsty, although, there are some in Morocco who are also kind, so it’s not a unilateral portrayal of all Muslims in that way. In England, the Earl of Godolphin guesses Agba’s name correctly (Agba is mute, so cannot tell him) because he once read a book with some Muslim names and Agba was the shortest one in the book. I don’t know if that reads as racist or just cheesy. Despite this, it is clear that Henry loves Agba, the stable boy who follows Sham throughout his travels. The boy himself, does face racism periodically throughout the story: A french duke refers to them as “sand sifters” . He’s called a varmint in a hood and a woman says he gives her the creeps. The boy and the horse are described as being all of one color. The boy is called a hooded turtle. I’d be curious to hear from others if I’m going to easy on Henry or if there really is no grievous harm done.
So, was it exciting? Honestly, I was into it. I really, really didn’t think I would be and I approached it with trepidation, because a 60 year old Newbury winner about horses did absolutely nothing for me in theory. But once I started reading, I just wanted to keep going. The story moves from place to place quickly and its this constant movement that propels the story of Sham and Agba forward. They are almost never in one place long enough for you to get bored. I would say the one drawback is that it does slow in pace a bit towards the end, but hopefully readers will be well invested by that point.
The horse vocabulary isn’t the only tough vocabulary, King of the Wind is jam-packed with interesting words and evocative word choices. Henry is not afraid of metaphor or simile either. I would say this would be a good challenge for grades 4 and up, but if readers report boredom, I would suspect it is still a bit difficult for them. There’s a lot of context that will be harder for them to understand – the boy king of France, the historical setting, Agba…the more well-read and worldly the reader, the smoother this will go.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – A mare is pregnant and then has her foal. There’s a reasonable amount of talk of siring horses or breeding horses. There’s some horse flirting and talk of a horse meeting his mate.
Profanity – “dolt,”
Death, Violence and Gore – A boy is hit in the head. A man carries a saber. The mare dies. A man predicts the foal will die too. The ruler is bloodthirsty. He would think nothing of testing the edge of a saber by cutting off a thousand heads or testing a musket by wiping out an entire village. When Agba cannot speak to the Sultan, the Sultan fingers a knife (called a stiletto). Guards carry spears. Sometimes horses are whipped. A horse is beaten. A horse bites a man. A horse is mistreated, badly whipped and forced to carry loads it cannot. A man is a widower. There’s a threat to kill a cat. A horse is nearly starved to death. Two stallions fight each other. A groom tells Agba that he doesn’t care if he drowns. A man threatens to beat Agba.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Champagne is poured in a trophy cup. The king anticipates receiving claret. A man takes snuff.
Frightening or Intense Things – A stable boy is a slave. Agba knows that no horseboys who have been summoned to the palace ever returned, this frightens him. On a sea voyage both the horseboys and the horses are nearly starved to death. A child is imprisoned.