Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Kate Seredy explains in the foreword to The White Stag that she wrote the novel because she had felt dissatisfied with a book on Hungarian history that presented a dry “unending chain of facts, facts, facts” and argued that the Magyar (Hungarian) race was not descended from Attila the Hun. Her book, therefore, fictionalizes and romanticizes the westward drive of the Huns and Magyars and the life of Attila the Hun, using the rhythms and rhetoric of folklore as it establishes Attila as the founder of Hungary. Seredy’s black-and-white illustrations depict chiefly the warriors, who, like comic book superheroes, appear noble, mighty-thewed, and glorious. These drawings also hint at a slant to the eyes to reveal the Huns as an Asiatic race.
The book traces four generations of Huns. Nimrod, a great hunter, is the leader of a tribe suffering from hunger and illness. His two sons, Hunor and Magyar, have been gone for months, following a miraculous white stag. Nimrod asks their god, Hadur, for a sign that their fortunes will improve. Hadur sends first an eagle, which plunges into his sacrificial pyre; then two more, which depart northward and westward; then a fourth; and then a great red eagle, which flies away to the west. Nimrod interprets these signs: He is the first eagle, who is soon to die, while his two sons will lead their tribe nearer to their destined home. After they are gone, there will be another leader, and it will be his son, greatest...
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The story begins somewhere east of the Ural Mountains of Central Asia in the dawn of prehistory, when the game deserts the ancestral hunting grounds of the Hun-Magyar tribes. The tribes are forced to migrate westward in search of better hunting grounds. The people leave the headlands and snow-capped mountains of the Altain-Ula and slowly wend their way westward, following the mythical White Stag to the promised land foretold to them by their god Hadur.
For fifteen years the tribe camps alongside a beautiful mountain lake, until the game disappears and a drought forces them to move once again. The people's wanderings take them steadily away from Asu (Asia), the Land of the Rising Sun, and into Ereb (Europe), the Land of the Setting Sun. They constantly wage war with other tribes that stand in their way, as they sweep across the plains of Scythia, into the land between the Rivers Tanais (Don) and Rha (Volga). Eventually they reach the boundaries of Europe. Led by Attila, the Huns press through Sarmatia and into eastern Dacia, crossing the rivers Tyras (Dniester) and Pyretrus (Prut).
Winter descends upon them, and their way is blocked by the massive Carpathian Mountains, which they must traverse to reach the Danube Plains. Again the mythical White Stag comes to their aid, and the tribe finds its way through the mountain passes. When spring returns, they have reached the land promised to them by Hadur, the fertile plains between two rivers, the...
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The White Stag is based on two early epic stories of the origin of the Magyars, The Miraculous Stag and The Lay of the White Steed. The Miraculous Stag recalls that the stag was the totem animal of the Magyars, while The Lay of the White Steed tells of the Magyars' conquest of their homeland. There is some question, however, whether in fact the Magyar people are to be identified with Attila and the Huns. Most scholars believe that the Magyars entered Hungary not in the fifth century, but in the ninth century, following the paths taken earlier by the Huns.
Traditionally, Prince Geza and his son Vajk, who later converted to Christianity and became St. Stephen, first king of Hungary, are considered the founders of the modern Hungarian nation. Seredy's portrayal of Attila the Hun as the founder of Hungary, then, must be considered more as fantasy than fact.
Her narrative presentation is skillfully unified by the three dominant symbols of The White Stag, the eagles, and the flaming sword, respectively representing fidelity to an ideal, trust in the god Hadur, and conquest. Her art nouveau illustrations may well represent her finest work as a children's illustrator. Seredy wrote afterwards that perhaps "tribal memory asserted itself" as she was writing this book, and she frankly acknowledges in her foreword that her intention was "to pay homage to a race of brave men whose faith in their own destiny had led them to...
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Seredy's story of The White Stag clearly appeals to Hungarian patriotism and may well have been conceived in response to her longing for her homeland after she immigrated to America. Seredy takes obvious pride in her heritage and weaves several myths and legends together into a heroic romance celebrating the vision that led the early Hungarian tribes to found a new home in the Danube basin. This epic journey, however, is not accomplished without considerable violence and bloodshed. In many ways, this epic can be seen as glorifying war and nationalism, as much as heroism and patriotism. In Seredy's account, the gentle Magyar is forgotten, and the focus instead is on the brutal Bendeguz and his son Attila. Although Seredy's themes revolve around violent conquest, her treatment of the subject matter is discreet and not inappropriate for children.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Old Nimrod feel so weary and discouraged as the story opens? Where have his sons gone? To whom does Nimrod turn for support?
2. Why does Nimrod have to sacrifice his favorite horse to the god Hadur? How does the god appear? What signs does he send to the Huns?
3. How do the brothers Hunor and Magyar capture the moon maidens? What does their marriage to the moon maidens represent? How is the marriage foretold in Damos's dream?
4. Why does Bendeguz fall in love with the captured slave girl Alleeta? After his marriage to Alleeta, why does Bendeguz have difficulty maintaining peace among his warriors?
5. Why does the old prophet Damos so strongly chastise Bendeguz?
6. Why do all pity, tenderness, and love die in the heart of Bendeguz after the loss of Alleeta?
7. How does Bendeguz raise his son Attila? How does he shape the boy into the "Scourge of God"?
8. Does The White Stag overly glorify militarism and nationalism?
9. How do the Huns find their way through the mountain passes of the Carpathians in the dead of winter? Why can't their enemies follow them?
10. Is Seredy able to reconcile the pagan and Christian elements in her book? Is her story finally more pagan than Christian?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Find information in an encyclopedia or history text about the Magyar people and the founding of Hungary. How does Seredy's account differ from other sources? What are the differences between the Huns and the Magyars?
2. In a world atlas or a map of Asia, try to find the original ancestral home of the Huns and Magyars and then retrace their route westward.
3. Research the biography of Attila the Hun. When did he live? Where did he come from? What did he conquer? Did he threaten the Roman Empire? How were the Huns finally stopped?
4. How did the early Hungarians live? What was their culture like? Why do you think they would have chosen a white stag as a totem animal? What is a totem animal?
5. How well do you think that Seredy's illustrations complement her text? What do you think of their style? How would you characterize it? How is it different from illustrations in young adult literature today?
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The White Stag is one of several of Seredy's stories for young adults that involve characters, themes, and settings from her native Hungary. The Good Master, perhaps her finest book, tells the story of Kate, a spoiled city girl from Budapest who is transformed by the wholesomeness of farm life when she goes to visit her uncle Marton Nagy, the good master, and his family on the Hungarian plains. The Singing Tree continues the story of the Nagy family during World War I, when Uncle Marton is drafted into the army and his son Sandor must learn how to run the farm in his father's absence.
Seredy has also written some books with American settings, but they lack the strongly conceived characters and themes of the books about her homeland. In two of her later works, Philomena and Lazy Tinka, Seredy again returns to Old World settings for her stories.
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For Further Reference
Bingham, Jane M., ed. Writers for Children. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988. Includes an excellent critical and biographical source. Good survey and treatment of Seredy's major works.
Cech, John, ed. American Writers for Children, 1900-1960. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. A fine introductory article on Seredy's life and career includes summaries of her major works.
Kassen, Aileen M. "Kate Seredy: A Person Worth Knowing." Elementary English 45 (March 1968): 303-315. This article provides useful background information about the author for teachers and students.
Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. Contains a short biographical sketch and bibliographical list of Seredy's works.
Kunitz, Stanley, and Howard Haycraft, eds. The Junior Book of Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1951. The entry on Seredy provides excerpts from an interview with the author in which she talks about how she came to America and began as a children's writer.
Senick, Gerard J., and Melissa R. Hug, eds. Children's Literature Review. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Features a long article with condensed reviews and critical commentary on each of her books.
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