Sunday, February 28, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (1907)

My newest fantasy read is The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, originally published in 1907. During a holiday from school, three siblings, Gerald (Jerry), James (Jimmy), and Kathleen (Cathy) are staying with a French governess who, because of Jerry's knack for talking to adults, gives them a lot of freedom to go off exploring on their own. On their first excursion, the three stumble across a castle, and in the castle's garden, a sleeping princess. The princess tells them of an enchantment that was placed over the castle, but just as the three children begin to believe her story, she puts on a magic ring and turns completely invisible. Once she realizes no one can see her, the princess reveals her true identity: Mabel, the housekeeper's daughter. The four children work together, first to make Mabel visible again, and then to figure out the rules of the magic ring.

I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that my favorite elements of this book are of the real world, and not the fantastical. I like the way the children interact with each other, and the way their personalities come across in dialogue. I like their smart comments about the behavior of adults, and Jerry's cockiness, even in the face of dire circumstances. I like the way the magic annoys and frustrates the characters as much as it would me if I were in their shoes. I could get into this book easily because of these very real and human attributes. What I had trouble with is the magic. The fact that the ring allows its wearer to become invisible, or to make wishes is not really the problem. But the explanation of the origin of the magic, which involves sentient statues and Greek gods, and lots of poetic language about the moon, and space, and light - it makes me roll my eyes. The writing is great, but once the story separates even a bit from that day-to-day banter amongst the kids, it loses me. I think, even after I finish this project, that may always be the case.

Still, despite my issues with magic, I got through this book very quickly. The kids take the entire book, almost, to figure out how the ring actually works, so there are lots of surprising twists and turns that keep things interesting and unpredictable. I was always eager to know what the ring's next trick would be. (And I also thought it was fun that one of the kids suggests using the ring to become a burglar. This book was published 30 years earlier, but that moment made me think immediately of The Hobbit.) There are also lots of great lines from the kids that hint at Nesbit's understanding of how kids and adults view each other, and also of how young boys think of girls, and vice versa.

One quote that jumped out at me is from page 60: "The more there are of children, the younger they look, I think, and the more people wonder what they're doing all alone by themselves." This struck me as both funny and true, especially in light of the case of the local free range parents whose kids were picked up twice by police for being on their own. It's amusing - and comforting, in a way - to realize that problems with trusting kids on their own are not new, but at least 100 years old.

Another moment I really liked was when the two girls are left on their own while the boys venture off to take care of some magical consequences. They are fed up with magic by this point, and they have the following exchange on page 183:

"There won't be any apples and books today," said Kathleen. 

"No, but we'll do the babiest thing we can do the moment we get home. We'll have a dolls' tea party. That'll make us feel as if there wasn't really any magic." 

"It'll have to be a very strong tea party, then," said Kathleen, doubtfully.

This little snippet makes me laugh because of how adult the girls sound, even when they are discussing something as childish as a tea party with dolls. Nesbit has a knack for writing lines like this that show how much smarter kids are than adults often realize.

The Enchanted Castle is similar - at least in terms of subject matter - to Edward Eager's Half Magic, and The Knight's Castle, as well as to contemporary books like Bigger Than a Breadbox and Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder, All the Answers by Kate Messner, and Dreamer Wisher Liar by Charise Mericle Harper. In terms of writing, though, Nesbit is far superior to these others, and her writing is surprisingly accessible even though the children she was writing for are long dead. This book is a good choice for kids who already like fantasy, as well as for those who are skeptical,  but want to give it a try. 

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