A guest post by Karen Swallow Prior
In Charlotte’s Web, the first hint Wilbur the pig receives about the odd spider’s true character comes when she tells him her name, Charlotte A. Cavatica. What an oddly beautiful name for a creature usually associated with ugliness, fear, and death. Upon hearing her name, Wilbur tells Charlotte, “I think you’re beautiful.” And Charlotte, naturally, agrees.
Names are powerful words. We don’t think about names quite the same way people of old did, and this is our great error. In ancient times, a person’s name often signified an event, a personal quality, or a family relation. In this way, a name offered not only a label for oneself, but even more importantly, a connection to the world one was born into and a part of. The acts of naming and being named were momentous events laden with significance—just as it is significant that the first work God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden was naming the animals. To name something or someone is a gesture that is both creative and powerful. In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White bestowed a spider with the name of Charlotte A. Cavatica. And he gave a little girl—one a lot like me—the name of Fern Arable, a name resonant with the pastoral qualities that permeate the pages of the book.
As for me, my mother chose my middle name, Irene, first because it is my grandmother’s name, and then she picked a first name suitable to accompany it. For most of my life, I thought of Irene as an old, ugly name. But now that I am older, and my grandmother is much more so, and I can better appreciate who she is and the life she has lived, I think it is a pure, strong name. Its origin is Greek; it means peace. I’m thankful for this name, not only because I think it is beautiful in both sound and sense, but even more because it came from my mother, and my grandmother, and it connects me to the world I was born into and became a part of.
All words are names, for all words signify something.
The power of naming is a subset of the power of all language. God spoke the universe into existence and, in giving us the gift of language He gave us a lesser, but still magnificent, creative power in the ability to name: the power to communicate, to make order out of chaos, to tell stories, and to shape our own lives and the lives of others.
The Book of Proverbs says that death and life are in the power of words. To choose a good word, to assign the right name, to arrange proper words in the best order: these are no easy tasks. Such work requires the creative power, the brooding, the birth pangs of a mother. Names, words, and language: they shape and create our souls the way a mother’s body shapes and creates our bodies. We describe the country of our origin as our fatherland, but our language we call our mother tongue. Indeed the words that often wield the greatest power in and over our lives are those spoken by our mothers, from our names, to words of encouragement, to words that define and shape our character, words of truth spoken in love. This power of words is akin to the creative, nurturing role a mother plays in our lives.
The getting of meaning, like the getting of a child, is an act of nature and grace. Yet, it’s an act so every day, so commonplace that we easily overlook its magnitude. Until we see that same power in a new and surprising context, exerted, for example, by a fictional spider on behalf of a fictional pig.
The story of Charlotte’s Web is a metaphor for the power words have to shape us into who others see us as well as how we see ourselves. For it is through words that Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life—not temporarily, as Fern has, but forever, at least the sort of forever that’s contained within the pages of a book. By knitting those words into her web which stretches above Wilbur’s pigpen, Charlotte makes the pig the talk of the town. No one, not even a farmer like Homer Zuckerman whose livelihood depends upon the fruit of his toiling, does away with a pig as special as Wilbur, one who gains widespread fame and visitors from near and far. Even when Wilbur loses first place at the County Fair to a much bigger pig, Wilbur’s life is no less secure than was my rabbit’s for his award of the red ribbon each year at the Monmouth Fair. Yet, Charlotte’s words not only save Wilbur’s life, they shape his life.
As she weaves words about Wilbur into her web, Wilbur tries to live up to the meaning of the words. “Some pig,” she proclaims. “Terrific,” she writes. And as if by magic, Charlotte’s serendipitously chosen words create in everyone who comes to see Wilbur, and even in Wilbur himself, a sense of being, in fact, “some pig,” and a pretty “terrific” one, too.
Wilbur protests when Charlotte chooses the word “terrific,” that he’s not terrific: “That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print.” When she chooses the word “radiant,” she puts Wilbur through a series of tests to see if he is. And Wilbur does “everything possible to make himself glow.”
Charlotte observes critically: “I’m not sure Wilbur’s action is exactly radiant, but it’s interesting.”
“Actually,” said Wilbur. “I feel radiant.”
And the last word that Charlotte makes for Wilbur, “humble,” foretells both his second place ribbon and the ordinary but happy natural life her words allow him to live out.
When I was a child, I overheard my mother talking to some other adults. I was only half-attentive until I heard my mother speak my name. “Karen’s very perceptive,” my mother was telling them.
I piped up: “What does that mean? Perceptive?”
My mother hesitated, searching for another word. “Deep,” she finally explained. I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by that either, but I do remember understanding that somehow, in some way, my mother noticed something that distinguished me, something she could name even if I could not. From that moment and for the rest of my life, my mother’s words—perceptive and many others—have helped me to be the thing she saw and named in me.
Like the old riddle of the chicken and the egg, the power of giving something its proper name, in turn, empowers it to become the name it is called; which comes first matters little, perhaps.
Charlotte, through her words, gives Wilbur life, just as her own life is nearing an end, but her life-giving role is not over yet.
She leaves behind dozens of offspring, born in Wilbur’s barnyard under his watchful eye. Three of these stay on in Zuckerman’s barn to be Wilbur’s companions, though none can replace Charlotte, for as the narrator says, “It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
Like a true friend and a good writer, right words are hard to find. And all of these, like a mother, have the power to give life.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012) is the first book by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University and a contributing writer for The Atlantic, Christianity Today, and other venues. Booked is a literary and spiritual memoir, the story of Karen’s journey through classic works of literature that taught her things she never learned in the classroom or Sunday School. The excerpt here is taken from chapter two, which centers on the lessons she learned from Charlotte’s Web about the power of words.