Words: they ennoble, animate and transform us, even if they cannot keep us alive for ever. We see this so clearly in the classic, ‘Charlotte’s Web‘.

Wilbur changes ‘from pork to pig’ by the power of his dear friend Charlotte’s words written in her web.

‘Some Pig’ are the spider’s first woven words – a trick that works magic. The farmer starts to describe the pig as ‘completely out of the ordinary’; then observes that he is ‘solid’ and ‘smooth’. Lurvy, the farmhand replies that Wilbur is ‘some pig’.

When Charlotte weaves ‘Terrific’ into her web, Wilbur begins to feel terrific and Zuckerman, the farmer, declares that ‘there isn’t a pig in the whole state that is as terrific as our pig’.

The word ‘radiant’ produces the same effect: Wilbur tries so hard to make himself ‘glow’ that Zuckerman proudly announces: ‘That pig is radiant’. The ‘miracle of the web’ is repeated one last time when Charlotte describes Wilbur as ‘humble’, and, once again, Wilbur rises to the challenge, while the farmer finds ‘humble’ to be ‘just the right word for Wilbur’.

Just as Charlotte is an expert in art and artifice, she is also a writer who knows how to wield her authority. She clearly understands the transformative dimension of language, knowing how to use words to accomplish things. Charlotte revitalises five words (some gathered from the dump), making them sparkle and effecting miraculous changes that not only ennoble Wilbur but also save his life. Everyone gets a little dizzy when they come across the term ‘radiant’ in ‘Charlotte’s Web’.

Charlotte knows how to spin straw into gold and make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. All writing is a ‘tissue of quotations’ (Roland Barthes) and crafted from the appropriation and citation of words learned from others. But Charlotte knows how to turn words into strings that vibrate endlessly with connections and vitality – despite the theme of death. For death is not the only topic: E. B. White said his book turned on ‘friendship, life, death, salvation’. He sends a tender signal about the ‘consolations of beauty’: ‘All I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world’. The power of the author’s words to immortalise Charlotte mirrors the power of a fellow ‘good writer’ to save Wilbur from death, even while her tool represents an instrument of death to any creature ‘careless enough to get caught in my web’.

In ‘Charlotte’s Web’ E. B. White, like Bruno Bettelheim, endorses a therapeutic model that embraces fantasy as a way of working through the complex primal emotions of childhood. Children are able to retreat into the world of the imagination where they can take charge and thereby come to terms with the frightening, sad or intense experiences they encounter. They are taught through literature how to cope when the parent is no longer there.