Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 1 – “A White Horse Escapes”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 1 – “A White Horse Escapes”)

Onwards to the first chapter of “Winter’s Tale” – but, first, a brief comment about the movie adaptation that came out earlier this year.  If you’re coming to the book after having seen it, please forget about everything you saw.  There is very little in common between book and film.

There is a movie that’s a lot closer in spirit to the book, a 1948 film called “Portrait of Jennie”.  I’d highly recommend it for its own sake, but I think it’s a wonderful match to “Winter’s Tale.”  Honestly, I would be shocked if Mark Helprin had not seen it, because there are a lot of elements in the film – both larger thematic and philosophical points, and specific images and dialogue – that show up in the book.  Starting with a slow journey through the clouds, accompanied by a voiceover which informs us that:

Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death? Through a hundred civilizations, philosophers and scientists have come together with answers, but the bewilderment remains… Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever. Out of the shadows of knowledge, and out of a painting that hung on a museum wall, comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screen but in your hearts.

Keep those words in mind as you read the book, and see if you don’t agree that they apply here, too.  And with that, here we go…

We open with Part 1 of the novel, titled “The City” and chapter one, “A White Horse Escapes.”  And we open directly with the horse, who is nameless for now (that will change in a couple of chapters).  He has escaped from his master’s stable, and he’s roaming the streets of Manhattan, having crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn.  Bridges are a matter of great importance, and in Helprin’s world, even the horse knows why:

And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle, Manhattan; had put the city’s hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water but dreams and time.

This may sound like nothing more than flowery language, but it’s not.  Helprin means every word literally, especially the part about spanning dreams and time.  Remember this passage as the story progresses.

The horse continues on, and we get some very nice imagery, setting us firmly in 1910’s New York.  As he trots along the just-awakening streets, the horse catches sight of the incredible colors of New York Harbor:

At the end of this polar rainbow, on the horizon, was a mass of white – the foil into which the entire city had been set – that was beginning to turn gold with the rising sun.

Remember how Helprin talked about color in the prologue?  We see it again here, and particularly take note of gold.  The golden light enraptures the horse, and he determines to get to it.  But his way is blocked by a heavy iron gate.  And no matter which way he goes, he finds his way similarly blocked.  He cannot get to the golden light, to the other world that is so close at hand and yet impossibly far away.  Again, remember this for later; it will come up again.

The horse finds one final gate, also locked, and as his hope of reaching that other world fades, he becomes aware of something else, and we’re about to meet our first human character.  The horse spies a lone man running through the snow, pursued by a dozen armed men who are trying to kill him.  The man makes it to the gate shortly ahead of his would-be assassins, jams the lock and then proceeds to slip and fall, right in front of the horse.

Had it not been for the horse peering at him from behind the woodshed, the downed man might have stayed down.  His name was Peter Lake, and he said to himself out loud, “You’re in bad shape when a horse takes pity on you, you stupid bastard.”

The horse does take pity on him, and bends down to allow Peter to mount him.  Once atop the horse, Peter laughs and rides off, leaving his pursuers – now named as the Short Tail Gang, firing their pistols futilely at him and cursing as he leaves them behind; and that’s where the chapter ends.

Peter Lake is one of our main characters, and we don’t learn much about him here, other than that a gang called the Short Tails wants to kill him; and that he establishes a strong and instant bond with the horse.  But we do have two of the major themes of the book – or, really, two aspects of the same theme – laid out very clearly.

The desire – need – to return to another, better world (perhaps to gain readmittance to Heaven?), is on full display here.  We see it in the discussion of bridges and their ability to connect not only two geographic points, but two different worlds (dreams and reality, if those even are two different things, which is debatable in Helptin’s world), and different times as well.

And we see it in the way the horse cannot find his way past the iron gates to get to the golden light.  Every street is blocked; there is no route he can travel to get where he wants – needs – to go.  Or, at least, there is no physical, corporeal, tangible route.  No route that can be seen with mundane eyes.  But that isn’t cause for despair, because there may be other routes, which can be seen if only you look at things the right way.  Helprin will return to this again and again over the course of the novel, in a variety of ways, as we’ll see.

That’s my take on this short opening chapter; please feel free to share your thoughts!


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2 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 1 – “A White Horse Escapes”)”

  1. I’ll be at a disadvantage throughout the book compared to anybody who’s re-reading it, the joys of which I’m familiar, particularly in the early chapters. Is there any significance in the Battery other than it being an area of south Manhattan?

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