Friday, February 26, 2010

What if he's not so big...?

People love the underdog, or in this case, the underpig. Maybe that’s why Charlotte’s Web —a really strange story—is also a beloved one.
If you haven’t read it, or seen the movie versions, (my favorite is the animated musical made in the 1970’s), I’ll give you a brief synopsis: A farm girl, Fern, begs her father not to kill the runt the sow’s litter and is granted her request. Though she loves little Wilbur, she quickly realizes he can’t be a house pet especially when her father sells him to her uncle who is named Zuckerman. The story was written when tough love was the only love.

At Zuckerman’s farm, Wilbur learns he can talk and makes friends with an uncommonly smart spider named Charlotte. This friendship immediately eclipses Wilbur’s relationship with Fern, maybe because this spider speaks pig and Fern doesn’t. Not sure but Fern's fading from the story has always bothered me.

Because he has learned to talk, Wilbur overhears the awful fact that Zuckerman is going to slaughter him for bacon and pork chops. He has hysterics and faints. This is because Wilbur is sensitve and he loves life. Charlotte devises a plan to save Wilbur. At night, into her web she weaves the words beginning with the proclamation: Some Pig.

Some spider
Everyone who reads it believes the message! My favorite line is when visitors come to read the message in the spider web are raving about how special Wilbur is, Mrs. Zuckerman comments, that maybe the spider is the special one. Oddly this idea is never discussed further or mentioned again by the humans.
So we have a story about the friendship between a spider who writes and a pig who faints. That’s weird. Another important character is Templeton the gluttonous rat.
These three animals are not the kind to which people feel a sentimental attraction.  Lots of brave people dislike or even fear spiders. And for good reason, they creep and bite; their family includes black widows and the brown recluse. Anyone who has walked, face first, into a spider web has a certain mixture within them of revulsion and respect.

Pigs have questionable appeal also. They’ve been known to roll in the mud and they make that unpleasant grunting sound. I once had a neighbor who decorated her entire kitchen in pig décor. I found it a wee bit claustrophobic.  And rats? Even though the rat in the story is not a "good guy" he's still there being pretty ratty.
These children once loved Charlotte's Web

In the animated musical, the songs are bad, but so catchy! My children watched the movie probably a million times and now my grandchildren like it. My husband has been singing the song that celebrates the moment when Wilbur learns to talk, “Isn’t it great that I articulate? Isn’t it grand that you can understand?” The song stuck like a spider web in his brain until the Oympic theme song drove it out. All the songs are that way, once in your head, in forever.

If I write, “There must be something more to us than…” the tune will pop into your mind.

The book includes original poetry. Charlotte —the all purpose spider— sings a lullabye to the anxious Wilbur,”Rest from care, my one and only, deep in the dung and the dark.” Okay, I guess singing about dung would comfort a pig, but that just reinforces my point that this is all a little weird.

Getting back to the story we find that every time the enthusiasm about Wilbur’s special qualities ebbs, Charlotte weaves a new word into her web and when Wilbur stands under it, this quality is attributed to him. This ends up saving his life, but costing Charlotte hers.

Now these children love Charlotte's Web.

That’s right. The special, smart spider dies in the end. Not only that, but Wilbur, hysterical, whining and dare I say it? selfish to the end, begs her to accompany him to the county fair so she can write one more convincing news flash about the worthwhile quality of his life. And she goes—even though she has to make an egg sack and lay 411 eggs! She finishes her work, weaves a final message claiming that Wilbur is Humble because he’s unassuming and “close to the earth,” and dies.

How can this sad, weird, clumsy story be so loved?

1. It’s loved because it tells the truth. Though the characters take on the animal cloaks of the fable form, it speaks to us about ourselves. The story demonstrates something we all know—people want to live; however clumsy and selfish and unworthy they are, they love life just as passionately as they hate death. But living life teaches that all eventually die. It's a story about truth because that sadness, that inevitabilty is the antagonist against whom all the characters strive with their particular strengths. Fern, Wilbur and Charlotte walk us through a spectrum of human feelings about this beautiful, desirable life ending in death.

2. The story’s weirdness elevates it from a trite regurgitation to an original comment on a familiar problem. Wilbur is common, “low to the ground” as Charlotte notes, typical in his selfish lust for life, sympathetic because he was destined to die and saved from it. The fear and repulsion people might naturally feel about spiders makes Charlotte’s heroism and her weird affection for a pig intriguing. Who can explain friendship anyway? Who can say why we love those we love? Who can say what hidden talents might fill another’s life with joy? This story shows that in its characters.

Books on a library shelf... joy!

3. I heard a sermon when I was 28 that suggested the things you say about people who trust you, the qualities you ascribe to people, influence what they become. This can work both ways. But in Wilbur’s case he seems to absorb the qualities Charlotte proclaims are his own in the banners she weaves for him. Charlotte sees, in the unexplainable power of her friendship, the potential, the beauty in Wilbur. If he had been the most noble, the strongest, her vision and ability to see that hidden gold would not have been as meaningful. Seeing past the humble shell of people's faults to their radiant qualities is a mysterious and wonderful part of friendship and love.

 My favorite song in the animated film is sung when a marching band celebrates Wilbur’s greatness, using Charlotte’s creative descriptions from him This comes, ironically, after he’s proclaimed to be humble. They sing, “Zuckerman’s famous pig... fine swine wish he were mine… What if he’s not so big? He’s some terrific, radiant, humble...pig!” This idea reminds us of Wilbur’s humble, hopeless beginning. We love the ones that have no chance. That’s because some of us find that we are that way, too.

4. The final truth the book shows us is that people believe what they read. Charlotte's role in the life she loves is to proclaim the truth though she stays unseen in the shadows. There's something real and beautiful and touching about this role in life, I think. Everyone, including me, loves the last line of the book: “It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” The story is beloved because in its quirky, original way, it celebrates two wonderful things in the life we love and know will eventually end— the mysterious workings of friendship and the creative description of it.

Write and tell me what you think…


  1. oh, loris, I love this post down to my very core. If I wrote all what I thought and felt about this story it would take days... I think this is a tale that God is quite pleased with, as it mirrors much of our relationship with him. and I always love when there is a female "Christ figure" in a story. I love all the ways it points to truth in life as well, just as you described here. and I hope my epitaph can read as Charlottes does. what a beautiful line. thank you for giving me a few moments to reflect on this beloved, magically strange tale that has enchanted me since my youth. my mother often recalls how I was limited to "only two" viewings of the cartoon version when I was a girl. to this day, debbie reynolds voice has a soothing maternal tone to my ear. I have no doubt that this story will bring comfort to many children to come--to know that there is Someone who can see the beauty in us so that we can see the beauty in others.

  2. I think that "children are wet cement". We have a lot of power in what we speak about them. We can give them confidence, a sense of security and best of all a vision of what they could be in the future. That's why it's imperative to keep praying for God's vision for a child. So we can "speak that vision into being."