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The Load of Unicorn

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Interesting historical story around the changeover to printing. A hotheaded young man learns to control himself. Generosity of several individuals when helping others without reward.

Cover of The Load of Unicorn

Published in: 1959

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: 15th C

Genres:  AdventureHistorical


Characters:

  • Bendy is the son of his father’s second marriage, much younger than his adult brothers. His chief fault is his hotheadedness which he makes some effort to overcome after it comes close to causing a fatal accident. He loves his father and is ashamed when he has to deceive him, however slightly.
  • John Goodrich has handed his scrivener’s business over to his adult sons and now offers his services as a scribe in St Paul’s. He still demands respect from his sons but is wise enough to leave the business to them.
  • William Caxton is a successful mercer who has set up a printing press in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. He generously accepts Bendy as his apprentice and gives him the opportunity to pursue a quest of his own.

Synopsis:

Young Benedict “Bendy” Goodrich lives with his adult brothers who run their retired father's scrivener business in Paternoster lane, but his ambition is to work with William Caxton who's pioneering the newly prosperous craft of printing in his workshop by Westminster Abbey. Bendy becomes aware of some shady dealing by his brothers who pay to have deliveries of paper held upriver. This is to disrupt Caxton's business which they see as a threat to their own. When his hot temper gets the better of him once too often in dealing with his brothers' young apprentice, Bendy is sent to work with Caxton and arranges with his boatboy friend Peterkin to have some of the stolen paper delivered after all. Caxton is fired up by stories of chivalry and sends Bendy on a special mission to Warwickshire to retrieve the text of Sir Thomas Malory's stories of the life of King Arthur. Bendy is waylaid by robbers but he manages to escape back to London where he, his father and Caxton confront the older Goodrich sons with their actions in having Caxton's paper stolen and in sending robbers to take the Malory text by violence.

Notes:

See The Historical Stories of Cynthia Harnett

The dynamic of this story is a familiar one: stubborn reactionaries failing to see the inevitability of the change which new technology will bring about. The older Goodrich sons, Matthew & Cornelius, are shortsighted, weak and grasping. They demand long hours of arduous work from their scriveners, knowing that these elderly men would have little chance of finding work elsewhere. They react angrily and underhandedly to what they perceive as the threat of the new printing presses. But they are shown to be the tools both of their own weak-minded vice and of the devious and double-dealing peddler Tom Twist, who takes their money to hide shipments of paper while taking Caxton's money to deliver it. Their eventual change of heart, such as it is, comes about not through any sense of justice but through fear of being implicated in a plot against the King — the smugglers they pay to disrupt paper deliveries are involved in a plot to install Henry Tudor on the throne — and their anger against Tom Twist for his double-dealing.

Bendy's character is brighter throughout than his brothers’ but is not without its small complexities and growth. Some time before, he was persuaded by a schoolmate to visit an inn and to indulge in some drink and dice. He ended up with part of the text of Malory's life of Arthur. Since he believes it was won at dice he conceals it and its origin from his father. His love and reverence for his father is evident throughout although it sometimes reveals itself only after a moment of regret for some hotheaded action. Later, when Bendy learns of Caxton's enthusiasm for the Malory text, he reveals its origins but convinces Caxton not to tell his father. Of more importance, though, is Bendy's hot temper particularly with respect to Humphrey his brothers' apprentice. Humphrey delights in needling Bendy and the story opens with Bendy rubbing Humphrey's face in the dirt after the apprentice has spilled the rosary beads which the blind woman opposite is making on her doorstep. The tension between them grows until the last straw comes when Bendy finds Humphrey rummaging through his belongings and in his rage he hits him, causing him to stumble and fall down the loft ladder.

And this brings us to Master John Goodrich, who built the scrivener’s business up before leaving it to his older sons to run, recognising that they must be left free to run it along their own lines. He remonstrates mildly with them over their attitude towards the emerging printing businesses, but wisely knows that there can be only one master of the firm. He reminds them very firmly, though, that he is still their father and Bendy's and that they owe him that much respect. In particular, when Bendy knocks Humphrey down the ladder, he is summoned in a hurry and in the belief that Humphrey might die. (In fact he is no more than a little bruised). Seeing the way things are, Master Goodrich tells Matthew & Cornelius that he is having Bendy apprenticed to Caxton — which Bendy knows to be a measure taken to avoid any more such incidents.

Alone with his son, Bendy's father makes it clear to the boy that he should guard his anger and that he has gained his desired apprenticeship to Caxton by ill means. He encourages Bendy to go to Confession not merely to be forgiven for his wrongdoings but to gain grace and strength to overcome his weakness. He also makes no bones about what would have happened if Humphrey had indeed died as a result of his fall: Bendy would have been hanged for murder and his father heartbroken. Bendy is good enough to recognise his fault and his eyes are opened wide enough to realise that his father is also in a difficult position. Fortunately Goodrich senior has already made plans to move into the Charterhouse as a paying lodger and to continue his work as a charitable scribe in St Paul's.

One particular theme which recurs throughout this story is the generosity of many of the characters. They go out of their way to help others with or without hope of reward. We first meet John Goodrich, Bendy’s father, at his scribe’s table in St Paul’s. He’s copying out a document for a widow and refuses to take payment, asking only for her prayers. Later Bendy, learning of Caxton’s need for paper, arranges with his boatboy friend Peterkin to have some taken out of hiding. True, he’s getting himself in Caxton’s good books which will do him no harm, but he gains nothing from it directly. Later again, we see comparative strangers offering shelter and help to Bendy and his fellow apprentice when they are sent on a long journey. Lastly, when Bendy is attacked and left for dead, a couple of travelling Religious take him to a nearby monastery to recover and see him on his way to London. (This stay, incidentally, sees Bendy reflecting on the Providence which has seen him through his difficulties and brought him here to safety).

Of course the book is full of the historical colour which characterises Harnett’s stories. As usual there is an epilogue which tells which of the characters and circumstances are entirely factual, which inferred from events, and which completely fictitious. The author’s skill is to keep the story and characterisations simple enough for even younger children to read and enjoy while still fleshing out the characters beyond the simple Ladybird Book level. As in most of her books, she uses characters well known to any child with a slender knowledge of history (Caxton was the first in England to capitalise on the printing press; Thomas Malory wrote the Morte D’Arthur) and fleshes out those characters with the result of background research while having the story itself weave around some minor characters, invented for the purpose but realistic and true to their time.

Monday 7th November 2011