Alison Lurie on the modern magic of E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit's The Book of Beasts, illustrated by Inga Moore

I'd like to end the week with one more passage from Alison Lurie's writings on children's books, this time from her essay on E. Nesbit (1858-1924), published in Don't Tell the Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature:

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It illustrated by HR Millar"Victorian literary fairy tales tend to have a conservative moral and political bias. Under their charm and invention is usually an improving lesson: adults know best; good, obedient, patient, and self-effacing little boys and girls are rewarded by the fairies, and naughty assertive ones are punished. In the most widely read British authors of the period -- Frances Browne, Mrs. Craik, Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and even the greatest of them all, George MacDonald -- the usual manner is that of a kind lady or gentleman delivering a delightfully disguised sermon. Only Lewis Carroll's Alice books completely avoid this didactic tone....

In the final years of Victoria's reign, however, an author appeared who was to challenge this pattern so energetically and with such success that it is possible now to speak of juvenile literature as before and after E. Nesbit. Although there are foreshadowings of her characteristic manner in Charles Dicken's "Holiday Romance" and Kenneth Grahaeme's The Golden Age, Nesbit was the first to write at length for children as intellectual equals and in their own language. Her books were startlingly innovative in other ways: they took place in contemporary England and recommended socialist solutions to its problems; they presented a modern view of childhood; and they used magic both as a comic device and as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination. Every writer of children's fantasy of since Nesbit's time in indebted to her -- and so are some authors of adult fiction."

E. Nesbit's The Railway Children illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later in the text, Lurie returns to the subject of magic in Nesbit's work:

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, illustrated by HR Millar"Though we tend to take it for granted, the importance of magic in juvenile literature needs some explanation. Why, in a world that is so wonderful and various and new to them, should children want to read about additional, unreal wonders? The usual explanation is a psychological one: magic provides an escape from reality or expresses fears and wishes. In the classic folktale, according to this theory, fear of starvation becomes a witch or wolf, cannibalism an ogre. Desire shapes itself as a pot that is always full of porridge, a stick that will beat one's enemies on command, a mother who comes back to life as a benevolent animal or bird. Magic in children's literature, too, can make psychological needs and fears concrete; children confront and defeat threatening adults in the shape of giants, or they become supernaturally large and strong; and though they cannot yet drive a car, they travel to other planets.

"Magic can do all this, but it can do more. In the literary folktale, it becomes a metaphor for the imagination. This is particularly true of Nesbit's stories. The Book of Beasts, for instance, can be read as a fable about the power of imaginative art. The magic volume of its title contains colored pictures of exotic creatures, which become real when the book is left open. The little boy who finds it releases first a butterfly, then a bird of paradise, and finally a dragon that threatens to destroy the country. If any book is vivid enough, this story says, what is in it will become real to us and invade our world for good or evil.

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, illustrated by HR Millar"It is imagination, disguised as magic, that gives Nesbit's characters (and by extension her readers) the power to journey through space and time: to see India or the South Seas, to visit Shakespeare's London, ancient Egypt, or a future Utopia. It will even take them to Atlantis or to a mermaid's castle under the sea. All these places, of course, are the traditional destinations of fantasy voyages, even today. But an imagination that can operate only in conventional fantasy scenery is in constant danger of becoming sentimental and escapist. At worst, it produces the sort of mental condition that manifests itself in plastic unicorns and a Disney World version of foreign countries. True imaginative power like Nesbit's, on the other hand, is strong enough to transform the most prosaic contemporary scene, and comedy is its best ally. Nesbit's magic is as much at home in a basement in Camden Town as on a South Sea island, and it is never merely romantic. Though it grants the desires of her characters, it may also expose those desires as comically misconceived. Five Children and It, for instance, is not only an amusing adventure story but also a tale of the vanity of human -- or at least juvenile -- wishes. The children first want to be 'as beautiful as the day'; later they ask for a sand pit full of gold sovereigns, giant size and strength, and instant adulthood. Each wish leads them into an appropriate comic disaster....

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, illustrated by HR Millar
"It is also possible to see the magic in Nesbit's tales as the metaphor for her own art. In many of her fantasies the children begin by using supernatural power in a casual, materialistic way: to get money and to play tricks on people. Gradually they find better uses for magic: in The Story of the Amulet, to unite the souls of an ancient and modern scholar, and at the end of The Enchanted Castle, to reveal the unity of all created things. Nesbit, similarly, first used her talents to produce hack work and pay the bills; only much later did she come to respect her gift and write the books for which she is still remembered.

"Nesbit's magic can also be read as a metaphor for imaginative literature in general. Those who possess supernatural abilities or literary gifts, like the Psammead of Five Children and It, are not necessarily attractive or good-tempered; they may be ugly, cross, or ridiculous. We do not know who will be moved by even the greatest works of art, nor how long their power will last; and the duration and effect of magic in Nesbit's stories in unpredictable in the same way. E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, illustrated by HR MillarCertain sorts of people remain untouched by it, and it is often suspected of being a dream, a delusion, or a lie. The episode of the Ugly-Wuglies also suggests that things carelessly given life by the imagination may become frightening and dangerous; the writer may be destroyed by his or her second-rate creations -- by the inferior work that survives to debase reputation, or by some casual production that catches the popular imagination and types its creator forever.

"Also, though they were written [over a century ago], Nesbit's books express a common anxiety of writers today: that the contemporary world, with its speed of travel and new methods of communication, will soon have no use for literature. As practical Jimmy puts it in The Enchanted Castle: 'I think magic went out when people began having steam engines...and newspapers, and telephones and wireless telegraphing.

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, illustrated by HR Millar"New as Nesbit's stories are in comparison with most children's books of her period, in some ways they also look back to the oldest sort of juvenile literature, the traditional folktale. They recall the simplicity and directness of diction, and the physical humor, of the folktale rather than the poetic language, intellectual wit, and didactic intention of the typical Victorian fairy tale. Socially, too, Nesbit's stories have affinities with folklore. Her adventurous little girls and athletic princesses recall the many traditional tales in which the heroines have wit, courage, and strength....There is no way of knowing whether E. Nesbit went back to these traditional modes consciously, or whether it was her own attitude toward the world that made her break so conclusively with the past. Whatever the explanation, she managed not only to create some of the best children's books ever written, but to quietly popularize ideas about childhood that were, in her time, extremely subversive. Today, when the words of writers like Mrs. Ewing and Mrs. Molesworth and Mrs. Craik are gathering dust on the shelves of second hand bookshops, her stories are still being read and loved by children, and imitated by adults."

E. Nesbit's The Railway Children illustrated by Inga Moore 3

For more about Edith Nesbit herself, who lived a radical and fascinating life, I recommend The Lives and Loves of E. Nesbit by Eleanor Fitzsimons. It is, hands down, the best of the Nesbit biographies. Also, A.S. Byatt's splendid novel The Children's Book owes more than a little to Nesbit, her complicated marriage, and her social circle.

The art today: color illustrations for Nesbit's The Book of Beasts and The Railway Children by Inga Moore; and pen-and-ink drawings by H.R. Millar (1869-1942) from the first edition of Five Children and It (1902).

E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, illustrated by Inga Moore

The passage about is quoted from "Modern Magic" by Alison Lurie, published in Don't Tell the Grown-ups (Little, Brown & Co., 1990). All rights reserved by the Alison Lurie estate. All rights to the color art above reserved by Inga Moore. The H.R. Millar drawings are in Public Domain.

Alison Lurie on ''The Oddness of Oz''

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Here's another passage from Alison Lurie, this time on the The Wizard of Oz and its sequels by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919). It's from her in-depth essay on Baum, "The Oddness of Oz," originally published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter:

Dorothy and Toto by Lisbeth Zwerger"Though the Oz books have always been read by children of both sexes, they have been especially popular with girls, and it's not hard to see why. Oz is a world in which women and girls rule; in which they don't have to stay home and do housework, but can go exploring and have adventures. It is also, as Joel Chaston has pointed out, a world in which none of the major characters have a traditional family. Instead, most of them live alone or with friends of the same sex. The Scarecrow stays with the Tin Woodman in his castle for months at a time, while Ozma, Dorothy, Betsy, and Trot all have rooms in the palace of the Emerald City, and Glinda lives in a castle with 'a hundred of the most beautiful girls of the Fairyland of Oz.'

"The appeal of Oz seems even clearer if it is contrasted to that of contemporary books for girls. In the early years of the 20th century, the heroes of most adventure stories were boys; girls stayed home and learned to get on better with their families. If they were rejected children like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or orphans like Anne of Green Gables and Judy in Daddy-Long-legs, they found or established new families. At the end of all these stories, or their sequels, the heroine grew up, fell in love, and got married.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger 12*

"There was of course already another famous little girl protagonist who had adventures in a magical world: Lewis Carroll's Alice. But from the point of view of most child readers (including me) her experiences were less attractive. Unlike Dorothy and Ozma, who collect loving friends and companions on their journeys, Alice travels alone, and the strange creatures she meets are usually indifferent, self-absorbed, hostile, or hectoring. Rather than helping her, as Dorothy's companions do, they make unreasonable demands: she is to hold a screaming baby, do impossible math problems, and act as a ladies' maid. One or two of the characters seem to wish her well in a helpless way, like the White Knight, whom many readers have seen as a stand-in for Carroll himself. Moreover Wonderland, unlike Oz, turns out to be only a dream.

"Most children, though they may enjoy Alice's adventures, don't want to visit Wonderland, which is full of disappearing scenery and dangerous eccentrics, some of them clearly quite insane. They prefer Oz, where life is all play and no work, and all adventures end happily.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

"To some extent Baum's endorsement of escapism was hidden -- disguised as a light-hearted fantasy, with a series of sweet, pretty-little-girl protagonists, the most famous of whom at first declares that all she really wants is to go home to flat, gray Kansas and see her dull, deeply depressed Uncle Henry and Aunt Em again. But, as anyone knows who has read even a few of Baum's later Oz books, Dorothy may return to Kansas after her adventures, but she doesn't stay there very long -- somehow, a natural disaster (shipwreck, earthquake, whirling highways) always appears to carry her
back to Oz and the magical countries that surround it. She spends more and more time there, and has more adventures.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger"Finally, in the fifth volume of the series, Dorothy not only moved to Oz permanently, but arranges for Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (whose failing farm is about to be repossessed by the bank) to join her there. Yes, you can escape from your dreary domestic life into fairyland, Baum's books say: you can have exciting but safe adventures, make new friends, live in a castle, never have to do housework or homework, and -- most important of all -- never grow up.

"This subversive message may be one of the reasons that the Oz books took so long to be accepted as classics. For more than half a century after L. frank Baum discovered it in 1900, the Land of Oz had a curious reputation. American children by the thousands went there happily, but authorities in the field of juvenile literature, like suspicious and conservative travel agents, refused to recommend it or even handle the tickets. Librarians would not buy the Oz books, schoolteachers would not let you write reports on them, and the best-known histories of children's books made no reference to their existence. In the 1930s and 1940s they were actually removed from many schools and libraries.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger"As a child I had to save my allowance to buy the Oz books, because the local library refused to carry them. This censorship was justified at the time by pointing out that the books were not beautifully written and that the characters were two-dimensional. This is arguable, but it has not prevented many other less stylistically perfect children's books of the period from being admired and recommended. It seems more likely that in the dark years between the first and second waves of American feminism, critics recognized the subversive power of Baum's creation. Not until recently did the Oz books enter the canon."

For me, this passage captures the flavor of Lurie's writings on children's literature perfectly: I constantly find myself arguing with her essays (for example, with her sweeping and America-centric statement that most children prefer the Land of Oz to Wonderland), and yet I constantly learn from her too. She is exasperating and brilliant in equal measure, and I treasure her books despite the number of times I have wanted to chuck them across the room.  Thus I highly recommend Boys and Girls Forever, and Lurie's earlier collection of children's literature essays, Don't Tell the Grown-ups. I may not always agree with Lurie's conclusions, but the range of her knowledge is impressive and her prose is delightful.

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The charming imagery today is from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by Austrian book artist Lisbeth Zwerger (North-South Books, 1996).

The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The passage about is quoted from "The Oddness of Oz" by Alison Lurie, published in Boys and Girls Forever (Vintage, 2004). All rights to the art and text in this post are reserved by Lisbeth Zwerger and the Alison Lurie estate.

Alison Lurie on The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

Another writer I've been re-reading recently is novelist and academic Alison Lurie (1926-2020), whose essays on children's literature I sometimes love and sometimes argue with, but always find interesting. Here, for example, is a passage from "Enchanted Forests and Secret Gardens: Nature in Children's Literature," published in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classic from Cinderella to Harry Potter:

Fox by Imga Moore"When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country, and my perception of the world entirely altered. I had been used to regular, ordered spaces: labeled city and suburban streets and apartment buildings and parks with flat rectangular lawns and beds of bright 'Do Not Touch' flowers behind wire fencing. Suddenly I found myself in a landscape of thrilling disorder, variety, and surprise.

"As the child of modern, enlightened parents I had been told that many of the most interesting characters in my favorite stories were not real: there were no witches or fairies or dragons or giants. It had been easy for me to believe this; clearly, there was no room for them in a New York City apartment building. But the house we moved to was deep in the country, surrounded by fields and woods, and there were cows in the meadow across the road. Well, I thought, if there were cows, which I'd seen before only in pictures, why shouldn't there be fairies and elves in the woods behind our house? Why shouldn't there be a troll stamping and fuming in the loud, mossy darkness under the bridge that crossed the brook? There might even be one or two small hissing and smoking dragons -- the size of teakettles, as my favorite children's author, E. Nesbit, described them -- in the impenetrable thicket of blackberry briars and skunk cabbage beyond our garden.

"No longer a rationalist, I began to believe in what my storybooks said. Suddenly I saw the landscape as full of mystery and possibility -- as essentially alive. After all, this was not surprising: it was the way most people saw the natural world for thousands of years, and it was the way it was portrayed in the stories I loved best."

Illustrations from The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

One of those stories was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924):

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore"Consciously or unconsciously, many of the authors of classic children's books are pantheists. For them nature is divine, and full of power to inspire and heal. But while for some nature must be sought in the enchanted forest, for others the magical location is a garden. In their books, to go into a garden is often the equivalent of attending a Sunday service, and gardening itself may become a kind of religious act.

"For Frances Hodgson Burnett, nature was intrinsically healing. She herself was a dedicated gardener, the author of a how-to book about her own garden on Long Island. In her famous children's story The Secret Garden (1911) two extremely neurotic, unattractive, and self-centered children are transformed by a combination of fresh air, do-it-yourself psychology, and, most of all, the discovery and restoration of a long-abandoned rose garden.

"When we meet Mary Lennox in India, she is a sickly, disagreeable child whose selfish, beautiful mother never had any interest in her. No one has ever loved her and and she loves no one. But even then, to amuse herself, she plays at gardening, sticking scarlet hibiscus flowers into the bare earth. Later, after both her parents are dead, she is sent home to England, and then to Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, which she hates at first sight. Things begin to improve when she is send outdoors to play:

" '...the big breaths of fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes....'

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

"Eventually Mary discovers the secret garden of the title. For years, like Mary herself, it has been confined and neglected. Then, as winter turns to spring, she begins to restore it, to weed and water and prune and plant, and in the process is herself restored to happiness and health. Later she is assisted in her task by a local boy, Dickon, and by her cousin Colin, who has spent most of his years indoors. The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga MooreColin's mother died when he was born, and he has been brought up to believe that he is a crippled invalid. Yet he too is transformed and restored to health in the garden.

"Sometimes in children's books the power of nature is embodied in a character, and Dickon in The Secret Garden is the most famous of these characters. Though he is only twelve years old, rough and uneducated, he is a kind of rural Pan, who spends most of his time, winter and summer, out on the moor. He can charm birds and animals by playing on his pipe, and knows all about plants -- his sister says he 'can make a flower grow out of a brick walk...he just whispers things out o' th' ground.' It is Dickon who teaches Mary and Colin how to bring the secret garden back to life and he is the first to declare that nature has spiritual powers; he calls it Magic.

" 'Everything is made out of Magic,' [Colin says] 'leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us.' "

Indeed it is.

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The imagery today is from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Inga Moore (Walker Books, 2007). Go here for a good interview with this wonderful artist.

The Secret Garden illustration by Inga Moore

The passage about is quoted from Boys and Girls Forever by Alison Lurie (Vintage, 2004). All rights to the art and text in this post are reserved by Inga Moore and the Alison Lurie estate.

Recommended reading: The Magician's Book


Last week I met a friend in our village churchyard (an outdoor, Covid-safe setting) to talk about Narnia, prompted by our reading of From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self  by Katherine Langrish, among other C.S. Lewis-related works. During our long, rich conversation, I was reminded of an earlier volume: The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller, published back in 2008 -- so I went home and pulled the book off the shelf to give it a second read.

The Magician's BookIn The Magician's Book (as in the new Langrish volume), Miller examines her personal relationship with the Chronicles; explores C.S. Lewis's life and literary influences; and casts a shrewd eye over the underlying themes of the Narnia sequence. The two authors cover similar ground and yet these are two markedly different books -- largely because Miller (raised in California) and Langrish (raised in the north of England) had very different lives as children and are very different writers today: one a literary critic, and one a folklorist and author of children's fiction. Each of the books has its clear strengths and to chose between them comes down to personal taste. For me, the Narnia evoked by Langrish is closer to the one I wandered in my own youth -- and yet, reading Miller's text brings strong flashes of recognition too. She is particularly insightful on the differences between Lewis's and Tolkien's work, on the syncretism of Lewis's imagination, and on the influence of William Morris on the early fantasy genre as a whole. The chief difference between these two paeans to Narnia is that Miller views the Chronicles through a distinctly American lens, Langrish through an English one; thus reading their books in tandem makes for a rather interesting conversation between them.

Having already given you a taste of From Spare Oom to War Drobe, here's a snippet from The Magician's Book. In an early chapter, Miller writes of her young passion for Narnia:

"Do the children who prefer books set in the real, ordinary, workaday world ever read as obsessively as those who would much rather be transported into other worlds entirely? Once I began to confer with other people who had loved the Chronicles as children, I kept hearing stories, like my own, of countless, intoxicated re-readings. 'I would read other books of course,' wrote the novelist Neil Gaiman, 'but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn't an infinite number of Narnia books.' Later, when I had the chance to talk with him about the Chronicles in person, he told me, 'The weird thing about the Narnia books for me was that mostly they seemed true. There was a level on which I was absolutely willing at age six, age seven, to accept them as a profound and real truth. Unquestioned, there was definitely a Narnia. This stuff had happened. These were reports from a real place.'

"Most of us persuaded our parents to buy us boxed sets of all seven Chronicles, but I also saved up my allowance and occasional small cash gifts from relatives to buy a hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of the few times in my life I've ever succumbed to the collector's impulse....This was not about obtaining a possession, but about securing a portal. I was not yet capable of thinking about it in this way, but I'd been enthralled by the most elementary of readerly metaphors: A little girl opens the hinged door of some commonplace piece of household furniture and steps through it into another world. I opened the hinged cover of a book and did the same.

Narnia illustration by Michael Hague

"Why did I fall so hard and so completely, and why was a land of fauns and centaurs and talking animals so exactly what I wanted to read about? Not long ago, a friend told me about her nine-year-old daughter's infatuation with Narnia. My friend had grown up loving historical novels about 'prairie girls,' and while she didn't disapprove of her daughter's appetite for fantasy, it baffled her. 'I just don't get it,' she complained.

"If you had asked me at the same age why I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe better than, say, Little Women or any other story that was about lives more like my own, I wouldn't have been able to answer; it seemed crazy to prefer anything else. The best analogy I can make is a corny one, to the film version of The Wizard of Oz and that famous moment when Dorothy ventures out of the drab, black-and-white farmhouse that's carried her all the way from drab, black-and-white Kansas and into the Technicolor of Oz. Who in her right mind would poke her head out for just a sec, then slam the door shut, and shout, 'Take me back to Kansas'?

Narnia illustration by Michael Hague

"Once upon a time, people used to label the kind of book I would come to crave -- the kind 'with magic,' as I usually thought of it -- as escapist. Consequently, readers with this taste often have a chip on their shoulders. Lewis, who enjoyed the occasional H. Rider Haggard adventure or H.G. Wells novel in addition to Anglo-Saxon epics and medieval allegories, wrote several essays defending science fiction and 'fairy tales' from the scornful advocates of stringent realism. I, on the other hand, came up in the age of metafiction, postmodernism, and magic realism; realism no longer commands all the prestige. Lewis's arguments on behalf of fantastic literature feel a bit superfluous to me. Still, I can hazily remember, long ago, having adults -- librarians, friends' parents -- suggest to me that I liked books 'with magic' because I wanted to escape from a reality that, by implication, I lacked the gumption to face. Perhaps this still happens, say, to kids who obsess about Harry Potter. Or perhaps adults are now so thankful to see children reading that they don't quibble with the books they choose.

"Did I use storybooks to get away from my life? Of course I did, but probably no more so than the kids who chose Harriet the Spy instead of books about dragons and witches. (For the record, I read and liked Harrriet the Spy, too.) Insofar as they are stories at all, all stories are escapes from life; all stories are unrealistic, or at least all of the good ones are. Life, unlike stories, has no theme, no formal unity; and (to unbelievers, at least) no readily apparent meaning. That's why we want stories. No art form can hope to exactly reproduce the sensations that make up being alive, but that's OK: life, after all, is what we already have. From art, we want something different, something with a shape and a purpose. Any departure a story might make from real-world laws against talking animals and flying carpets seems relatively inconsequential compared to this first, great leap away from reality. Perhaps that's why humanity's oldest stories are full of outlandish events and supernatural beings; the idea that a story must somehow mimic actual everyday experience would probably have seemed daft to the first tellers. Why even bother to tell a story about something so commonplace?

Narnia illustration by Michael Hague 3x

"There were particular fantastic elements that drew me to Narnia at that age, and they were not always what people associate with fairy tales. I disliked princesses and any other female whose chief occupation was waiting around to be rescued, but I also had no great interest in knights, swords, and combat. The Chronicles, which are relatively free of such elements, spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning. The youngest part of myself loved Narnia's talking animals. The girl I was fast growing into fiercely seized upon the idea of possessing an entire, secret world of my own. And the seeds of the adult I would become revelled in the autonomy of Lewis's child heroes and the adventures that awaited them once they escaped the wearying bonds of grown-up supervision."

"The Chronicles...spoke to me across a spectrum of yearning." That's such a wonderfully concise description of the power of the very best fantasy, pulling us into the worlds we long for without even knowing we do, recognizing them, somehow, from the very moment we step inside. Worlds "with magic": yes, that's what I longed for as a child too.

It's what I long for still. And find, in the realm of story. Chagford Church

The Living Churchyard

Chagford Church

The Magician's Book by Laura Miller

Pictures: The paintings are from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, illustrated by Michael Hague (Atheneum, 1983). All rights reserved by the artist. The photographs are of the "living churchyard" surrounding our village church, a community bio-diversity project. The church building is 13th century, with substantial portions rebuilt in the 15th.

Words: The passage quoted above is from The Magician's Book by Laura Miller (Little, Brown & Co., 2008). All rights reserved by the author.

Books on Books, Part 7

Narnia map by Pauline Baynes

Continuing yesterday's discussion, I'd like to share a bit more from Katherine Langrish's new book, From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self. Here she discusses The Magician's Nephew, which is the first book in the Narnia timeline (though not the first written or published):

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"For those who came to The Magician's Nephew as I did, after reading several of the others first -- this would include most of its original readers -- there is a brisk, fresh energy to the narrative with its new characters and new setting. The first four pages (three minus the illustrations) form a brilliantly economical scene-setting and tell us everything we need to know about Polly and Digory, and Digory's Uncle Andrew, mad Mr. Ketterley. Within another page or so Polly is showing Digory her den in the attic, a dark place behind the cistern where she keeps a box containing various personal treasures, a story she's writing, and of course provisions: apples, and bottles of ginger beer which make the den look satisfactorily like a smugglers' cave. 

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Polly is tough, practical, and confident, with a strong sense of self-respect. (And she is the only character in all the Narnia stories who is a writer. I wonder what she wrote about?) She is an excellent partner for the impulsive and more emotional Digory. In his 1998 article for The Guardian, 'The Dark Side of Narnia,' Philip Pullman has complained that in the Narnia books Lewis is guilty (among other crimes) of sending the message 'boys are better than girls.' Possibly it's not fair to take someone to task for an opinion in a newspaper article written so long ago, and some of Pullman's accusations are justifiable, but hardly this one. I cannot see it and never have. To base an accusation of sexism on 'the problem of Susan' alone is to ignore the strength of such different characters as Polly, Lucy, Aravis and Jill -- all gallant, courageous and memorable. I do wonder how recently Mr. Pullman had read the books.

"A little girl myself, I certainly didn't feel excluded or denigrated. The easy, bickering comradeship between Polly and Digory was just what I was used to in E. Nesbit's books. Moreover, Polly sounded like me: I wrote secret stories! With my brother, I loved to make dens -- in hedges, cupboards, in corners of the playground, in barns, in attics, sheds and lean-to's, in patches of waste ground, on building sites. (Pacing stilt-like, ten feet up, across the open floor-joists of a half-completed house, my brother fell across and through them, badly scraping his ribs. We didn't confess.)

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Just as the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers play detectives and spy on the empty house next door, Polly and Digory explore further down the attic tunnel, hoping to come out in the abandoned house next-door-but-one. They try to calculate how far they will have to go, and I don't notice any nonsense about boys being better than girls: the children are equally and endearingly erratic with their sums, getting different answers, trying again, and even then not getting it right. Their mistake leads them to emerge in the wrong house. Pushing open a little door in the rough brick wall, they see not a barren attic but a comfortably furnished room -- lined, of course, with books. Everything is silent. No one seems to be here. Full of curiosity, Polly puffs out the candle-flame and steps through the door...."

But Katherine, like many other readers, is not forgiving of C.S. Lewis's portrayal of Susan in The Last Battle, the final book of the sequence (and arguably the most flawed):

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes"At the very end of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Ignorance, who has followed the hero Christian from the City of Destruction (the world) to the Celestial City on top of Mount Zion (heaven) is refused entry. Instead of keeping to the King's Highway he has taken the by-roads, dodging the hardships and not learning the lessons, so when he comes to the gates he has no passport and is turned away:

"'Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.'

The Last Battle illustrations by Pauline Baynes"Susan is made an example of by Lewis to illustrate the same point. Her sins, according to her friends, are numerous. Eustace complains that she regards Narnia as a childish game. Jill says Susan's only interested in 'nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Polly -- Polly! -- snarkily accuses Susan of having wasted all her time at school waiting to be the age she is now (is this really the sensible, responsible Susan who was so excellent at swimming and archery?) and predicts that she'll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes"It is a ludicrous prediction: Polly cannot possibly know how Susan will behave for the rest of her life. Even God doesn't judge you until you're dead. What Lewis clearly hopes to convey is that Susan has been lost to worldliness, but it's a sorry try. Nylons? What else did he think a young woman would put on her legs in 1955? The reference to lipstick may have worked (a bit) when I was a pony-mad nine year-old with no conception of ever wanting to use make-up or talk to boys, but it's poor evidence for the eternal damnation of a character who simply seems to have reached adolescence or committed what A.N. Wilson has called 'the unforgiveable sin of growing up.' Lewis has grafted all this on to Susan's character, and the whole thing is trivialised by the shocking indifference of her family and friends as they line up to drop a few catty remarks and dismiss her:

"'Well, don't let's talk about that now,' said Peter. 'Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.'

"Lovely fruit trees? Huh!"

I had the same reaction to Lewis's betrayal of Susan when I was a child, though I could never have articulated the problem so well; and half a century later, I still feel that same indignation. Susan deserved better. But as for the other girls in the seven Narnia books, to me they were heroes all.

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes

From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish

Words: The passage quoted above is from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2021). The Philip Pullman quote is from "The Dark Side of Narnia" (The Guardian, October 1, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The Narnia map and book illustrations above (from The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle) are by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008). All rights reserved by the Baynes estate.