Charlotte’s Web: Radiant, Terrific, Some Book

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

Charlotte’s Web is a great book, in the pantheon with George Eliot’s Middlemarch, books that make me feel kinship with my fellow men. Humble, Some Pig, Radiant, Terrific are not bad epitaphs for anyone. Read this book, and learn how to live.

In addition to being a terrific, humble fantasy about friendship among barnyard animals, Charlotte’s Web is a hero myth. (Why, yes, I’ve been dabbling recently in Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and Freud. How can you tell?)

The hero is Wilbur. The Innocent. He encounters A Challenge. The challenge is mortality, and not being made into bacon.

Wilbur, like every other hero in myth needs help, and who comes to help him? It’s like Charlotte’s Web is an Arthurian legend in the sheepfold, people. The farm girl, Fern, The Maiden, comes to Wilbur’s aid, just like the Lady of The Lake comes to Arthur’s.

Charlotte is an avatar of Anansi, the spider, the trickster, The Magician. She can bend time and space and bring back the living from the dead. See also: Merlin.

Templeton, the rat, like all rats, is Freudian.

Don’t tell my therapist, but I love Templeton. He is the Id. He’s a self-centered, sneering, semi-malevolent force living only for the thrill of the State Fair’s leftover vittles, and, as a result, he gets all the best lines just like Milton’s Satan.

But is that all there is of Templeton? Here, E.B. White is genius. Wilbur is always good. Charlotte always clever. Archetypes remain archetypes. But Templeton? He’s the only character in the book who roams beyond the barnyard into what myths frequently call The Wilderness, with free will, with the capacity to change, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

Templeton is, after all, the one who brings back news from the other world, in the form of a scrap of laundry detergent packaging. On it the word: Radiant. I think that makes him human.