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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How Charlotte's Web Helped Me Like Spiders





Spiders were something that I was terrified of in my really early childhood.

I'm not kidding either.  From birth until about the age of seven, spiders creeped me out.  I couldn't even be in the same room as a spider when I was really young.  I guess you could say that like Garfield, I really wanted all spiders to die a slow and painful death because I saw them as being nothing more than a creepy crawlie that nobody liked.

If I happened to cross a spider in my earliest years, I would either do one of three things.  I would either cry, I would run out of the room looking for Mom or Dad, or if the spider was tiny and didn't look threatening, I'd find the closest toy I could find and give it a whack.

Oh, I hated spiders.  I believe the word for the fear of spiders is arachnophobia.  And until I was in second grade, I definitely suffered from arachnophobia.

But then in second grade, my attitude towards spiders changed, if only somewhat.  I imagine if I were faced with a gigantic tarantula, a black widow spider, or some of those freakishly huge mutated spiders that live around the equator, I'd still be terribly squeamish.  But your average everyday spider doesn't bother me much at all anymore.  In fact, there's a few spiders that I actually find cool to look at.

Have you ever seen a spider forming a web right up close and personal?  It's probably one of the coolest things in nature that one can see.  Imagine an eight-legged arachnid creating something beautiful and intricate.  Spider webs are almost like snowflakes in the sense that no two are ever identical.  They're almost like works of art.

Well, works of art that double as house fly graveyards and all-you-can-eat snack bars for spiders, anyway.  Spider webs serve multiple uses, you know.

The point is that in the case of most spiders, they're harmless creatures.  Yes, some bite, and some are poisonous, but you wouldn't actually pick them up.  I'll grant you that some spiders are neat to watch, and that spiders actually do a lot of good in this world.

In fact, I'd wager a bet that if spiders could talk to human beings, quite a few of them would be quite nice to have a chat with. 

What caused my about face about spiders in second grade?  Well, I'll tell you.

Back in second grade, there were two teachers that taught the subject at my school.  There was Mrs. Winslow and Miss Johnson (I had the latter).  In most cases, each teacher had their own individual lesson plans, and as far as classroom style went, both of them couldn't be more different from each other. 

Yet, there was one similarity between the two classes.  Both teachers read their classes the same book that year.  A book by author E.B. White that detailed the wonderful friendship between a barn spider and a pig who was the runt of the litter.





That book was Charlotte's Web.

And at the risk of losing a bit of my masculinity by making this statement, I feel it's worth it.





Charlotte's Web made me cry.  The book.  The 1973 animated movie.  The 2006 live-action movie starring Julia Roberts and Dakota Fanning.  It doesn't matter what version it is.  Whenever I read the book or watched the movie, the tears would come a flowing. 

And, the confession day isn't until TOMORROW!  Ah well...

Anyway, Charlotte's Web was first published in 1952, and is widely considered to be one of E.B. White's finest pieces of work.  And, I'll be the first to admit that E.B. White was one of the authors who greatly inspired me to follow the dream I have of making it big in the writing world one day.  So, I've been looking for an excuse to feature this book in my blog.

(Fair warning:  Because I'll be talking about the book, I will be putting spoilers in this blog entry.  Now you can't say that I did NOT warn you.)

The book begins as we visit the Arable family farm.  John Arable's prize sow gives birth to a litter of piglets, all of which are healthy and a good size.

All except one piglet.  The runt of the litter.

And normally what John Arable would have done was taken the runt of the litter to be slaughtered.  Normally.

That was until a little eight-year-old girl spoke up and said 'SAVE THE PIG!'

Well, all right, maybe it didn't exactly go like that.  But Fern Arable saw something in the little piglet, and begged her father to let the pig live, promising that she would take care of it as a pet.  John Arable agreed, and Fern happily gave the piglet a name.  Wilbur.

And Wilbur was a pig that kept everyone busy.  Hyperactive and exploring his surroundings, poor Fern sometimes had a hard time keeping up to him.  But she loved Wilbur very much.  And when it came time to send Wilbur to live at Homer Zuckerman's barn, Fern found it hard to say goodbye.  For a little while after Wilbur was put in the Zuckerman barn, Fern visited Wilbur as often as she could.  But as Fern grew older, life grew more complex, and the visits became less and less frequent.  And the less that Wilbur saw Fern, the lonelier he felt.

It was bad enough that Fern wasn't able to visit as often as she wanted to.  Wilbur's situation was made worse by the fact that the other animals in the barn sort of saw Wilbur as a bit of an outsider, and barely had anything to do with him.  All Wilbur wanted was to have a friend.

And just as Wilbur wished it, a calming voice responded to his wish, saying that she would love to become his friend.  But Wilbur has no idea where the voice is coming from at first.





It isn't until he looks up at the spider web that has formed inside the barn that he meets up with a tiny barn spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica (a clever pun on the scientific name of a barn spider, which is Araneus cavaticus).  Of course, she just wants Wilbur to call her Charlotte.  While the other animals dislike Charlotte because of the bloodthirsty way she catches and prepares her daily meals, Wilbur doesn't seem to share their opinion.  The more that Wilbur and Charlotte talk, the stronger the bond is between the two, and they quickly become fast friends.

They become so close that Charlotte ends up becoming his saviour, so to speak.

When Wilbur happens to overhear some of the animals talking about how Wilbur's destiny is to be roasted and served with yams and mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner, Wilbur is afraid, and is desperate to find a way to survive past Christmas.  But according to what he had heard, the plan appeared to be set in stone.

It was then that Charlotte came up with a clever plan.  Knowing that pigs and other animals were never killed if the were prize-winning animals at the county fair, Charlotte had the idea that if people could see something in Wilbur that would make him win a prize at the fair, he might just end up living to oink another day.

And the way that she does this is by turning her spider web into an instant commercial for Wilbur by coming up with some buzzwords that would have everybody talking.

And, no, none of these words include 'FREE', '50% OFF' or 'SHAMWOW'.

No, the first message was something simple.





SOME PIG.

Nothing too fancy.  After all, Charlotte could only managed to write so many letters in a web.  But her hope was that the farmer would see the message, and rethink his plans to turn Wilbur into a holiday dinner for a dozen people.

And her plan worked.  Within a day of writing the message (and with some assistance from the self-confessed gluttonous rat known as Templeton), Homer, the Arable family, and eventually the local press came around to marvel at the sight of a spider web providing instant publicity for Wilbur.  And that was just the tip of the iceberg, friends.





More words soon followed.  Words like 'RADIANT' and 'TERRIFIC'.  Words that Charlotte felt best described Wilbur.  Words that definitely suited Wilbur's innocent, yet sweet personality.  Eventually, Charlotte's spider web words caused not only the townspeople to look at Wilbur differently, but the other farm animals could see that Wilbur wasn't the runt they had made him out to be.  In fact, they were starting to see the wonderful qualities that Charlotte knew Wilbur had all along. 





And more importantly, Farmer Homer could see that maybe killing Wilbur wasn't the best idea in the world.  Instead, he thought that if he entered Wilbur in the county fair, he was a favourite to win the top prize.  But if Wilbur came home without a ribbon, the threat of becoming a delicious dinner continued to be a worry.

So, Wilbur is loaded up into the back of a truck, with Templeton and a very tired Charlotte.  Although it is widely believed that Wilbur stood a good chance of winning a prize, Charlotte wanted to make sure that Wilbur won at all costs.  And after talking with the defending champion of the Blue Ribbon title (who was far from charming and graceful), Charlotte knew that there would be one final word that she could make that would not only describe Wilbur's personality the best, but also make everyone else see just how special he was.

'HUMBLE'

And, of course, Wilbur was too humble to outrightly brag about winning the prize that he rightfully deserved at the fair.  He wasn't that sort of pig.  He was more interested in seeing how proud he made everyone else...especially Charlotte.

But when Wilbur visited Charlotte to thank her for everything that she did, he stumbled upon Charlotte putting the finishing touches on her latest masterpiece, her magnum opus.  A small sac of spider eggs containing Charlotte's sons and daughters.  All five hundred and fourteen of them.





But with the birth of the magnum opus comes the news that Wilbur was not expecting.  The magnum opus would be Charlotte's last web.  She was a spider on borrowed time, and she didn't have long to live.  In helping Wilbur out, Charlotte maxed out her natural lifespan, and now she was minutes from death's door.  To add to the heartache, Charlotte was forced to create her magnum opus at the fairgrounds because she simply didn't have any energy to go back to the barn.  The last thing she told Wilbur was how proud she was of him, and how much she treasured his friendship.

Of course, this was of little consolation to Wilbur, who was saddened that his best friend was losing her life.

It was then that Wilbur came up with the perfect idea to pay Charlotte back for her kindness and love.  With Wilbur basically forcing Templeton to help, Wilbur manages to pick the magnum opus up with his snout, and smuggles it onto the back of the truck which would take him back home as Charlotte said her final words.  "Goodbye, my sweet, sweet Wilbur."

Hold on a sec...got something in my eye...





...okay, I'm okay to continue.

The animals of the barn mourned the loss of Charlotte, none more than Wilbur himself, who was left devastated by her death.  But at least Wilbur had the magnum opus filled with Charlotte's children.  And all winter long, he looked after Charlotte's kids, the way that Charlotte herself would have.  And when the big day came, all five hundred and fourteen baby spiders hatched out of the eggs and were born into the world.

But when it looked like all of the spiders were going to leave the barn off for parts unknown, Wilbur grew sad.  It was almost as if he were saying goodbye to Charlotte all over again.  Until he heard three little voices calling out to him.

Three spiders stuck around, and decided to make Wilbur's home their home too.  And, Wilbur was thrilled to have Aranea, Joy, and Nellie become a part of his life.  Not only did he have three new friends to play with, but he also now had a reminder of his friendship that he shared with Charlotte.

Charlotte's Web certainly helped me look at spiders a different way.  No longer did they seem all that scary.  In fact, I actually don't mind being in the same room as a spider.  After all, that spider could very well have formed a friendship with a terrific, radiant, humble pig!

But, I think a better lesson that Charlotte's Web taught me was the value of what friendship really was.  Knowing that two friends could inspire and help each other the way Charlotte and Wilbur did throughout the book...it's an example that we should all take after.

It may have been one of the unlikeliest friendships in the world...but wouldn't we all be lucky to have a friend like Charlotte in our lives?

I know I would be.



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