E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, published in 1970, is usually cast as a story about being different. Set amid an almost-mystical natural world, the book illuminates the trials of a child (albeit one of the animal variety) with a handicap—a swan who cannot sing—who is nevertheless able to grow up and find true love. Its themes are moving, but conventional; they are feel-good themes, but not the deepest themes.
Or so I thought. When I recently re-read the book as a (yes, alas) middle-aged mom, the story of the young swan prompted entirely different questions about what it means to be human. This short, half-forgotten classic is in fact a meditation on the relationship of parents to their imperfect children and a reflection on a son’s noble drive to recover his father’s sacrificed honor.
As in White’s two earlier classic fables—Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little—readers are introduced to animals with human abilities and emotions whose stories teach us how to grapple with the disappointments and challenges that beset all of us on the path from youth to maturity.
Louis, a young Trumpeter swan, is born without the ability to make noise. Being mute is a serious handicap for a Trumpeter swan since it is only with their voices that they find mates. The only thing worse would be for a swan to be born without wings.
Louis’ father helps his son by finding him a real brass trumpet. A bird that can play a trumpet would be little more than a short children’s picture book in another writer’s hands, but White has Louis play the trumpet like Louis B. Armstrong. The mute becomes a musical magician. The problem is that his father stole the instrument. This act of paternal love is also an ethical lapse. And herein lies the drama of the book.
When White was writing in the late 1960s, helicopter parents weren’t swarming the suburban skies or managing their children’s extracurricular activities with the ruthlessness of hedge fund managers monitoring billion-dollar portfolios. Louis’s father starts off like so many other parents—devoted, proud, and loving. But a few weeks after his son’s birth, he is shocked to discover that his child might have a “defect.” Louis’s father—known, like other adult male trumpet swans, as a cob—is incensed. But then we watch him move from shock to anger to optimism and finally to avenging action.
The swan father believes his children should be healthy and fully functioning; fatherhood should be a fulfilling pursuit that reflects well on him:
“Do you wish me to believe that I have a son who is defective in any way? Such a revelation would distress me greatly. I want everything to go smoothly in my family life. . . . Fatherhood is quite a burden, at best. I do not want the added strain of having a defective child, a child that has something the matter with him. . . . Why this is terrible. . . . This is distressing beyond words. This is a very serious matter.”
The father tests his son—again, and again, and again—to be certain that the problem is not one of poor education or lack of will. He finally ascertains—and accepts—that Louis simply has no voice, and he witnesses the sadness that descends on Louis alongside the realization that “fate is cruel.” It is only when the father comes to see Louis’ condition through the eyes of his son instead of through his own feelings of frustration that he becomes what a father is supposed to become. He realizes he must instill hope in Louis:
“Remember that the world is full of youngsters who have some sort of handicap that they must overcome. You apparently have a speech defect. I am sure you will overcome it, in time. There may even be some slight advantage, at your age, in not being able to say anything. It compels you to be a good listener. The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens . . . therefore my son be of good cheer!”
Louis’s father, seeing how this handicap could cause his son to be judged unworthy by a potential mate, will not let nature’s slight stand. “I am Louis’s father, and I’m not going to take this situation lying down,” he says. “And if I have to go to the ends of the earth to find a trumpet for our young son, I shall find it at last and bring it home to Louis.”
As the father heads to a music store in Billings, Montana, to find a trumpet, the urgency of his mission builds to a mighty crescendo, his resolution now promoted to a “noble” cause:
“Now is my moment for risking everything on one bold move, however shocking it may be to my sensibilities, however it may be to the laws that govern the lives of men. Here I go! May good luck go with me.” With that the old cob set his wings for a dive. He aimed straight at the big window. He held his neck straight and stiff, waiting for the crash. He dove swiftly and hit the window going full speed. The glass broke. The noise was terrific. The whole store shook.
Afterwards the father momentarily reflects on “the pain of having committed a crime” and of the loss of character and high ideals that comes with it, but atonement is replaced with certainty that his mission was necessary to secure his child’s future. The cob has taken on the garb of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean. The trumpet is not bread for a hungry child but it is something the father sees as an equivalent—a needful thing that a responsible father must provide for his son. The father repackages his crime as honorable lawlessness, a kind of paternal fidelity that turns the theft into a “gift” that he bestows upon his son with “all my love and my blessing.”
In a beautiful, climactic moment, Louis unexpectedly runs into the female swan he has loved from afar, to whom he was never able to call out to until the trumpet gave him his voice. He declares his intentions and plays “Beautiful Dreamer.” As his father predicted, his new voice speaks to her with love and joy, and Louis finds himself swimming in the deep rapture of hope and love returned. “In almost everyone’s life,” White tells the reader, “there is one event that changes the whole course of his existence.” For Louis, this event is undoubtedly his father’s crime, which puts a stolen trumpet in his hand. But the father’s redemption of the son (giving him a voice) must be paid back by the son, who in the end redeems his father’s honor.
Louis realizes he has a responsibility to atone for these ill-gotten gains—to repay his father’s debts. Louis finds work playing for admiring human fans, ultimately saving $4,691 to pay for the trumpet and the damage to the store.
But White doesn’t make the repayment of this debt easy, even though he is writing for children. Heading toward the store with Louis’ money in hand, the cob is shot by the fearful storeowner. Honor has a price.
White had faith in children and he believed children to be a worthy audience:
Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. . . . Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words and they backhand them across the net.
John Updike, reviewing the book in the New York Times, said White’s story “most persuasively offers itself to children as a parable of growing.” Growing up means learning the hard lessons of life, including the realization that even the fathers and mothers that love us—indeed, sometimes because they love us so much—are sometimes in need of redemption. And that not every story has a perfectly happy ending.