Wednesday, March 12, 2008

E. Nesbit, Part 2

The Book of Dragons
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

In this series of eight short stories, written in 1900 for The Strand magazine, Edith Nesbit pulls off a virtuoso performance in imagining an unheard-of variety of dragons, princesses, silly children, and other magical creatures.

In "The Book of Beasts," little Lionel is pulled away from building a palace out of blocks in his nursery, to be made King. But at first it seems he will be a naughty little king, insisting on opening a magical book previously owned by his wizard great-great-great-great-grandfather. And every time he opens it, a magical creature escapes from one of the pages. At first they are harmless little things, but soon enough a dragon gets out. The kind of dragon who comes to town every Saturday and eats, say, a soccer team or an orphanage to tide him over for the week. What can Lionel do to win back his citizens' love? He must open the book again and find a beast that can help him beat the dragon!

"Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger" tells the fanciful story of an island that "turned the wrong way" in the prehistory of the world, and as a result all the animals are the wrong size. Elephants are lap-sized pets, and guinea pigs are unspeakably huge. But the people are the right size, and little Princess Mary Ann thinks Tom the gardener's son is the right boy for her. He proves it when he cleverly saves the princess from being given to a purple dragon as a birthday gift by her evil Uncle James. ("Magicians are always bad, as you know from your fairy books, and some uncles are bad, as you see by Babes in the Wood, or the Norfolk Tragedy, and one James at least was bad, as you have learned from your English history. And when anyone is a magician, and is also an uncle, and is named James as well, you need not expect anything nice from him. He is a Threefold Complete Bad - and he will come to no good.")

In "The Deliverers of Their Country," a nationwide plague of dragons begins with a tiny gnat-sized one getting in little Effie's eye. Soon the country is overrun with dragons ranging in size from the kind that get in your tea to the kind that eat elephants. For Harry and Effie, the worst kind are the dining-room-sized ones that eat children. Soon no one dare go outside by day (since dragons sleep by night.) But finally Harry and Effie risk it, first to attempt to wake St. George, then to do what he tells them they must do to put an end to the dragons. (Where I live, the "tap room" has only two taps: Sunshine and Dust.)

"The Ice Dragon, or Do As You Are Told," is one of Nesbit's subversively gentle morality tales in which she pokes fun at the consequences of children being disobedient. George and Jane disobey their parents' command not to walk on the wet grass on a December night, and end up going all the way to the North Pole. And what should they find curled up around the North Pole, but a sleeping ice dragon! Next thing they know, George and Jane are surrounded by a tribe of Sealskin Dwarfs who want to wake up the dragon to eat everyone else in the world. Luckily the children did good turns for a white grouse and an Arctic moth on their way to the Pole...

"The Island of the Nine Whirlpools" is like a classic fairy tale. A queen goes to a witch to find out how to have a child, but when the child turns out to be a girl, the king (who is also a wizard) is incensed. He condemns the princess to a Lone Tower on an island surrounded by nine whirlpools, to be guarded by a Griffin and a Dragon until such time as a suitor clever enough to get past all these obstacles comes to win her hand. Hundreds of years pass in the outside world while no time goes by for the princess, and her mother and the witch are turned into stone. Until (there has to be an "until") along comes Nigel, a fisherman's boy, who does what many a prince failed to do...

In "The Dragon Tamers," a poor blacksmith living in a ruined castle gets the fright of his life when a dragon crawls out of the deepest dungeons. But he soon tricks the dragon and saves the village from being eaten. Years later, the blacksmith's son Johnny and the neighboring whitesmith's girl Tina pull another fast one to get the dragon to drive off a giant that threatens their town, and to chain him up again. But what the dragon turns into after a diet of bread and milk will simply make you laugh till the milk shoots out of your nose.

"The Fiery Dragon, or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold" features the princess Sabrinetta whose heart of gold makes her immune to being eaten by dragons, the clever pigkeeper named Elfin who wins her heart, and the ever-so-aptly-named Prince Tiresome who tries to put one over both of them. Now you have to wonder about parents who call their child Tiresome. There must be some truth in the saying that your name can shape your destiny. But the one really fiery dragon of this anthology is interesting too, because of the way it changes size and resists all efforts to kill it. And even more interesting, perhaps, is Elfin's courtship of the princess, and his destiny which raises eyebrows for fans of a later, greater pigkeeper (see The Prydain Chronicles).

Finally, there is "Kind Edmund, or The Caves and the Cockatrice," introducing another silly, subversive hero - a little boy named Edmund who often plays truant from school and tells tales that get him caned when he doesn't. He doesn't care for learning so much as "finding out things," and one of the things he finds out is the address of a Cockatrice living in the mountain above his town. And when he accidentally sets a horrible dragon loose on his town, Edmund has no one to turn to but the Cockatrice - who finally, of all people, figures out how to make Edmund do what he is told. The result is a trick of delightful cleverness, and an ironic comeuppance for Edmund too.

My edition, from the series of Sea Star books edited by Books of Wonder owner Peter Glassman, contains H. R. Millar's original illustrations and Granville Fell's historic chapter decorations, which add to the delight of these cheerful, clever, magical tales. The dragons are such characters, and each of them is so unique, but what really tickles my funny-bone is Nesbit's brilliant, tongue-in-cheek observations in the form of fairy-tale reasoning. One feels she believed in the power of books on the imagination-and through it, on the real world-both for good and for bad; on teachers and parents being patient and understanding with the child's world of pretend; and on the (then perhaps not so self-evident) view that all nobility is not in the blood. And these are themes that continue to fascinate young readers right down to the age of Harry Potter.

The Enchanted Castle
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+
'It is an enchanted castle,' said Gerald in hollow tones.

'But there aren't any,' Jimmy was quite positive.

'How do you know? Do you think there's nothing in the world but what you've seen?' His scorn was crushing.

'I think magic went out when people began to have steam-engines,' Jimmy insisted, 'and newspapers, and telephones and wireless telegraphing.'

'Wireless is rather like magic when you come to think of it,' said Gerald.

'Oh, that sort!' Jimmy's contempt was deep.

'Perhaps there's given up being magic because people didn't believe in it any more,' said Kathleen.

'Well, don't let's spoil the show with any silly old not believing,' said Gerald with decision. 'I'm going to believe in magic as hard as I can. This is an enchanted garden, and that's an enchanted castle, and I'm jolly well going to explore...'
Gerald turns out to be quite right. He and his brother and sister, forced to stay at school over the summer holidays, soon make the acquaintance of a sleeping princess who is actually the housekeeper's niece, Mabel Prowse, playing at dress-up. But make-believe magic soon leads them to real magic, with an enchanted ring that first turns people invisible, then grants wishes. Meanwhile, the statues in the castle grounds come to life in moonlight, and the castle is full of secret passages and hidden treasures.

What comes of it is a series of hilarious and exciting adventures - first as the children use the power of invisibility to make money and to solve a crime, then as their wishes go awry one after another. A half-dozen "ugly-wuglies" come to life. A boy is suddenly changed into a prosperous old man. A girl becomes a statue, and another girl finds herself stretched out to 12-feet tall. A feast with the immortals, made of marble come to life, results in the children being stranded on an island. Star-crossed lovers, dinosaurs, Greek gods, and a headless ghost come into the tale. And some of these wishes aren't easy to undo. And perhaps it takes an end to magic to prove the magic real...

Once again, Edith Nesbit spins a tale of delightful children, mischievous magic, thrills and chills and a touch of romance. This 1907 book proposes some fascinating theories for how the magic works and what its limits are. It contains passages of sumptuous beauty, similar to my favorite chapter in The Wind in the Willows. And it boasts one of Nesbit's most sparkling characters, young Gerald, who is fascinating from start to finish. At bottom, his leadership skills combined with his determination to believe in magic, is what makes all the magic of this story possible.

The Magic City
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

One of Edith Nesbit's best-loved tales of magic features a boy named Philip Haldane, an orphan who has been raised from a baby by his older sister Helen. Helen has been his teacher, playmate, and boon companion all along. Together they invented an imaginary island, which they mapped out in fantastic detail, and built sand castles and pretend cities out of toys, books, and bric-a-brac. It is a wonderful life for an imaginative boy like Philip.

But now Helen has become reacquainted with her own childhood playmate, now a widower, Mr. Peter Graham. "That Man" asks Helen to marry him, and she accepts. And Philip is sent to live in Mr. Graham's beautiful mansion while Helen and "That Man" are in Europe for their honeymoon. Philip is suddenly not so happy anymore. He thinks That Man has taken his beloved sister away from him. He is sullen and resentful toward Mr. Graham's daughter, Lucy, who wants to be his playmate. And his mood isn't much helped by the Nurse, who hates him and spoils his fun. Before long Philip is alone in the house except for servants, and has nothing to do and no one who likes him. His loneliness, jealousy, boredom, and hurt make him pretty miserable and unpleasant to be around.

Things start to turn around when Philip begins to build a pretend city - his biggest one ever. Using blocks, dominoes, dolls, toy soldiers, Noah's Ark animals, books, vases, chess men, and other handy things, he makes a beautiful and exotic town that has no ugly factories in it. And he starts to make friends with the servants too. But then the nurse comes back from out of town, and catches him in the act, and deals with him harshly. And Lucy gets involved too. And just when it's all about to be torn down, Lucy and Philip enter the magical world which he himself has built.

Thrown together against their will, Lucy and Philip learn to be good friends, and Philip comes to accept the change in his life and not fear that he has lost Helen. He also learns about courage and loyalty, as he is sent on seven heroic tasks that will enable him to rescue Lucy from the magic kingdom of Polistarchia and escape the wiles of the conniving, motor-veil-wearing Pretenderette.

Escaping from prison is only the easiest of their adventures. They must also slay a dragon, put a great sloth to work, destroy fear, make a terrible sacrifice, survive a hair-raising underground river run, and call up Caesar and his legions to vanquish a barbarian horde. All that, and get home before their disappearance ruins Helen and Peter's honeymoon.

This is one of the most satisfying magical stories I have ever read. The edition I have comes from Books of Wonder, the wonderful store in New York City dedicated to "new and old imaginative books for children." The store's owner provided an afterword for this edition which favorably compares the works of E. Nesbit to Alice in Wonderland and the Oz stories - and I fully agree. Nesbit only adds the innovative twist of making the magic happen in the real world, with realistic children working out realistic problems in a realistic (but charming) family environment.

Philip's "blended family" problem, for instance, and his transformation from an angry child to a hero and a friend, touch something in the experience of most people today. And the idea of building a city out of toys, and the dream of seeing it come to life, is also a common fantasy for all children and many adults. All this, after approximately 100 years, means that these stories are still fresh, true to life, and apt to awaken the imagination in today's child of any age.

British slang advisory: the word "peckers" would be edited out of the American edition of even the latest book by J. K. Rowling. (Indeed, it was. The American version reads "spirits" instead.) This is one of those really embarrassing cultural differences between the UK and the US, but the fact that the word remains in this book either means that E. Nesbit pulls more weight with book editors than J. K. Rowling, or it indicates what JKR has in store for her when her books become regarded as "classics." Anyway, forewarned is forearmed. Try not to blush too warmly when you read this aloud to small children.

Care of Magical Creatures Advisory: Hippogriff spotters beware, what E. Nesbit calls a Hippogriff is quite different from what J. K. Rowling calls a Hippogriff.

The Magic World
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

This collection of delightful modern fairy tales dates from 1912, when Edith Nesbit was already well-established as the godmother of children's literature. It contains twelve stories that combine classic fairy-tale elements with modern concepts in a deliciously witty way. And almost every one of the stories is as full of fun and magic for today's children as it was nearly a century ago.

In "The Cat-hood of Maurice," a little boy about to be punished for playing a cruel prank on the family cat, Lord Hugh, discovers that Lord Hugh can talk. And Lord Hugh decides to teach Maurice a lesson of his own, by trading places with him for a week. It turns out to be an experience neither of them would ever want to repeat, but it does teach Maurice some lessons about being kind to cats, and his sister too.

"The Mixed Mine" brings together two boys from opposite sides of the tracks - well-to-do Edward and desperately poor Gustus - when a magic spyglass washes ashore after a shipwreck. The things you look at through the telescope, actually grow larger - or, if you look through the wrong end of the telescope, they shrink. But the real adventure happens when Edward and Gustus set about making their families' fortune by turning a handful of pocket change into a "mixed mine."

"Accidental Magic, or Don't Tell All You Know" tells what happens to young Quentin de Ward when he runs away from a Salisbury boys' school and goes to sleep on the stone altar at Stonehenge. Quentin wakes up thousands of years in the past, on a ship bound from Atlantis to deliver an altar stone - and a sacrificial victim...

"The Princess and the Hedge-Pig" is the first of several stories in this collection that put a light-hearted modern spin on the classic "prince or princess cursed in the cradle by an evil fairy," also known as "christening curse" for short. The Princess Ozyliza's christening curse is that "She will be turned out of her kingdom. She will have to face her enemies without a single human being to stand by her. And she will never come into her own until she finds a thousand spears to follow her into battle - a thousand spears devoted to her and to her alone." How this comes about is a delightful story, laced with laugh-out-loud details like the surreptitious plans for the christening party, the King and Queen's retiring to Tooting, England, on a pension after being deposed, and the fact that the wicked new King advertises for a French maid in Usurpers Journal.

"Septimus Septimusson" is about, you guessed it, a seventh son of a seventh son who goes out to seek his fortune. Befriended by the wind and by various animals he aids along his way, young Sep finally finds his fortune in the form of a beautiful princess... but due to another christening curse, she is blind, deaf, and dumb. What can he do? You'll love finding out.

In "The White Cat" a little boy has experiences that bring to mind the story by the same name in Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, only in a form suited to the problems of a 1912-era British family going through money troubles.

"Belinda and Bellamant, or the Bells of Carillon-land," is another adorable story about a prince and a princess who are both under christening curses. His is to be handsome on weekdays but ugly on Sundays; hers is exactly the other way around. How will they find happiness together? Part of the answer has to do with a hysterical personal ad in Royal Match Catalogue Illustrated: "Prince Bellamant, aged twenty-four. Wants Princess who doesn't object to a christening curse. Nature of curse only revealed to the strictest confidence. Good tempered. Comfortably off. Quiet habits. No relations."

"Justnowland" is the story of Elsie, whose mother dies while her father is abroad, leaving her at the mercy of a cruel guardian. Elsie escapes into a magical land where all the rich people have been turned into giant crows, and the working people into pigeons - until a deliverer comes who can tame the dragon. This story seems to have a bit of a social agenda (don't forget, Nesbit went in for controversial political views) but the ending, both in the real world and in Elsie's magical one, has a real poignancy.

"The Related Muff" is a brief story in the style of the Bastables trilogy, in which a cousin who comes to stay at the holidays seems, at first, to be a "duffer" (fool) and a "muff" (weakling). But in the end, cousin Sidney turns out to be a hero.

"The Aunt and Amabel" is the one story in this collection that I simply don't "get." I mean, it's obviously about a magical adventure that a naughty girl and her angry aunt go on together, that teaches them both to be sorry and to "understand" each other. And something about the wardrobe that becomes a train station with a train to "Whereyouwantogoto" shows that E. Nesbit may have been an inspiration for C. S. Lewis (see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). But otherwise, this is a rather weird story that I imagine might have been written, tongue in cheek, to break through the pouting of a real-life niece. Don't quote me as an authority, though.

"Kenneth and the Carp" is another story like a chapter from one of Nesbit's novels of magical adventure in modern times. Kenneth is left at home from a picnic with his uncle, aunt, and cousins after being unjustly accused of stealing a ring, and when he finds the ring in the moat around the house - and falls into the moat - he becomes a fish! Both the cause of Kenneth's adventure and the conclusion of it is full of tenderness and warmth, one of Nesbit's sweetest stories.

And in a final bow to the "christening curse" genre, "The Magician's Heart" tells the story of the wicked sorcerer Professor Taykin, who has a weakness for christenings. And two of his curses come back to haunt him later, in the form of a stupid prince and an ugly princess who both get the better of him. And once again modern periodicals come in for a bit of scorching ridicule when the Princess Aura looks in bound volumes of The Perfect Lady to find out how to disguise herself as a beggar woman. And in a passage that, in my opinion, stands in a direct line from the classic fairy tales of Grimm and the Arabian Nights to the recent novels of Diana Wynne Jones (like Howl's Moving Castle and Dark Lord of Derkholm), the magician makes these remarks to a person holding his heart in one hand and a knife in the other:
"I say, look out!...Be careful what you're doing. Accidents happen so easily. Suppose your foot slipped! Then no apologies would meet the case. That's my heart you've got there. My life's bound up in it."
You will love this book if you like fairy tale magic, the pretend-play of real live children, the romance of princesses as beautiful as the day and heroic young men who are only sometimes princes in disguise (for even fairy tale conventions get stung by the gentle barbs of Ms. Nesbit's wit). Frankly, you have to love the book the minute you read the following passage, from "Septimus Septimusson:"
And directly he saw her he knew that she was the only girl, Princess as she was, with a crown and a throne, who could ever be his heart's lady. He went up to her and kneeled at her side and took her hand and kissed it. The Princess started. She could not see or hear him, but at the touch of his hand and his lips she knew that he was her heart's lord, and she threw her arms round his neck, and cried more than ever.

He held her in his arms and stroked her hair till she stopped crying, and then he called for bread and milk. This was brought in a silver basin, and he fed her with it as you feed a little child.
After reading this, I only wish I could get my hands on whoever it is who sits at the top of a long table in a smoke-filled room and decides to let books like this go out of print. Not to harm them, mind you. Just to shake them a little and say, "What's wrong with you?" As for you, my dears, you'll simply have to graze used book sellers and libraries to read these wonderful tales. Don't let them pass you by!

The Railway Children
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

Famous for her happy-go-lucky tales of children having magical adventures, Edith Nesbit proved in this book that she could write an equally engaging story about a family coping with serious trouble. At first Roberta (better known as Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis are as well off as the children in The Phoenix and the Carpet, etc. But then their father is mysteriously taken away from them, and their mother moves them to a little cottage in the countryside where they have no school and no friends and nothing to do except mess around in the garden, look at barges on the canal, and wave at passing trains. Meanwhile, they have to get by without servants (gasp!) and manage on a lot less money, as Mother is forced to make a living selling stories.

The children make the most of it in a series of charming adventures, and by their honesty and courage and playfulness and kindness they work their way into the hearts of everyone in the village - particularly the doctor, the railway station-master and porter, and an old gentleman who waves back from his train every day. They learn from their mistakes, they make up after all their quarrels, and they blunderingly and good-naturedly teach lessons in loving-kindness to their olders and betters.

And what adventures they have! Bobbie accidentally gets swept away on a train when she only meant to get the driver's attention... the children help a lost and confused foreigner find his way... they prevent a railway accident, and save a boy who gets hurt in the railway tunnel... they save a child from a fire... they help make a proud (but poor) man's birthday a happy one... and Bobbie, finally, helps unravel the mystery behind their father's long absence.

Of the several groups of children Nesbit created, it's hard to say which group is the nicest. It is a pleasure getting to know every one of them. But in this comparatively serious book (it stops short of being too sentimental) you get to know and admire Bobbie, Pete, and Phil like none of the other Nesbit children. Perhaps the serious tone may account for this being one of her less popular books. But there is so much here to love, for those who are open to it!

If you are fascinated with trains, or know someone who is, I especially recommend this book.

Wet Magic
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

The last children's fantasy novel by Edith Nesbit follows the adventures of five children who, thanks to a poem that is actually a magic spell, meet a mermaid. Francis and Bernard and their sisters Mavis and Kathleen join Reuben, a runaway from a gypsy circus, in setting free a captured mermaid who would otherwise die in captivity.

Their reward is a voyage to the Mer Kingdom and the delights of the bottom of the sea. But they soon make a mistake that "lets the sea in" and leads to a war between the Mer People and the deep, dark Under Folk. The children join in the fight, in which many different kinds of valiant sea creatures take part, and which also involves good and bad characters out of a magical library. (Some of this will seem familiar to readers of The Magic City.)

But then Francis, Bernard, Mavis, and Kathleen are taken prisoner by the Under Folk, and their adventures take a marvelous new turn. Memories lost and regained, long-lost loved ones discovered, making war, making peace, and a bit of romance come together. The children cope with becoming invisible, riding sea horses, and wearing fish-like tails. They spend time in prison, they visit a museum, and they figure out how to get back to their own world again.

Meanwhile, Nesbit's wit lampoons (or should I say, harpoons?) the stupefying effects of certain books or the characters in them, the possibility of "straight talk" with kings and queens, and the accuracy of what they tell you in historical museums. The lightheartedness of the book's humor combines with the seriousness of its adventure to create a compelling and magical adventure for young minds and hearts.

Having trouble finding E. Nesbit's books in print? Try a used book dealer or your library, or visit New York's Books of Wonder, a "bookstore specializing in both new and old imaginative books for children" - who produced the beautiful edition of this book that I have. They're available online too.

IMAGES: The red book is a special edition of The Phoenix and the Carpet; the costume photo is from a stage play based on The Magic City; and the ink drawing is an illustration of Cedric and Robert from the Psammead trilogy.

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