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.


Witchery and Elizabeth Goudge

Little white horse

Here's a second passage from The Joy of Snow, the autobiography of Elizabeth Goudge (author of The Little White HorseLinnets & Valerians and other classics), who lived in a small village on the coast of Devon in the 1940s. It was, she says,

"an unearthly place. The round green hills where the sheep grazed, the wooded valleys and the lanes full of wildflowers, the farms and apple orchards were all full of magic, and the birds sang in that long-ago Devon as I have never heard them singing anywhere else in the world; in the spring we used to say it sounded as though the earth itself was singing.

"The villages folded in the hills still had their white witches with their ancient wisdom, and even black witches were not unknown. I have never had dealings with a witch either black or white, though Francis, our village chimney-sweep, a most gentle and courteous man, was I think half-way to being a white warlock. He was skillful at protecting his pigs from being overlooked. He placed pails of water on the kitchen floor to drown the Evil Eye and nothing ever went wrong with his pigs before their inevitable and intended end.

Village gate

Sheep in a Devon field

EJ's piglet

Queen Ann's Lace

Fresh nettles

"Black magic is a thing to vile to speak of, but many of the white witches and warlocks were wonderful people, dedicated to their work of healing. I knew the daughter of a Dartmoor white witch and she told how her mother never failed to answer a call for help. Fortified by prayer and a dram of whiskey she would go out on the coldest winter night, carrying her lantern, and tramp for miles across the moor to bring help to someone ill at a lonely farm. And she brought real help. She must have had the true charismatic gift, and perhaps too knowledge of the healing herbs.

Lamb by the leat

Cow in the green

"The father of one of my friends had a white witch in his parish in the valley of the Dart. She was growing old and she came to him one evening and asked if she might teach him her spells before she died. They must always, she said, be handed on secretly from woman to man, or from man to woman, never to a member of the witch's or warlock's own sex. 'And you, sir,' she told him, 'are the best man I know. It is to you I want to give my knowledge.' 

"Patiently he tried to explain why it is best that an Anglican priest should not also be a warlock, but it was hard for her to understand. 'But they are good spells,' she kept telling him. 'I know they are,' he said, 'but I cannot use them.' She was convinced at last but she went away weeping."

Dream horse coming

Dream horse going

In her lovely essay "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal," Kari Sperring notes:

"The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves.

"Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people -- I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness -- the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves."

The Joy of Snow by Elizabeth Goudge

Books by Elizabeth Goudge

Words: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). The passage by Kari Sperring is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal" (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Pictures: The daily magic of Devon, and a few of Goudge's fine books. Related posts: Fairies and Elizabeth Goudge and Visiting Moonacre Manor (from The Little White Horse).


Recommended reading: Why Rebel

Down by the leat

Jay Griffiths is one of a handful of writers that I more than admire, I am actively in awe of: writers whose work is so original and so damn good that I just don't know how they do it. Griffith's remarkable books (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, and Tristimania especially) have stretched my mind, touched my heart, and taught me to perceive the world in new ways.  She's braver in her life and prose than I could ever be, and I love her for it.

Her latest publication, Why Rebel, is a small, slim volume of eleven essays published in the "Penguin Special" series. The essays are tied together by the central theme of love for the wild earth, with a clear-eyed look at the forces that undermine our ability to live soulfully and sustainably on this beautiful, ailing planet. I've had my copy for just two weeks and already it's dog-eared, coffee-stained, and scribbled with margin notes. (I carry it on my walks with Tilly, so it's speckled with rain, mud, and leaf-mulch too.)

Leat 2

Griffith's essay "The Forests of the Mind" is one I keep returning to. Here, she discusses the poetic mindset of shamanism, its relationship to art, and the ways that the rise of literalism has eroded our understanding of metaphor, to our great cost. (This is something I've long been worried about too, and I'm glad I'm not the only one.) Shapeshifting, she says, is a metaphorical act performed by shamans and artists both:

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths"It is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats's 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time, the beginning of mime. It did not have literal truth, quite obviously, but had 'slanted, metaphoric truth' -- the words I used, when the page was printed, to describe it.

"Shapeshifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment of self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond. Out of this is born a conviviality with everything alive, the relationship acknowledged and the necessity of its protection vouchsafed....We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

"Shapeshifting involves a willingness to makes mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, Swan, French dancers performed and danced with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists' ability to lose themselves in order to mirror this something beyond.

" 'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in his Second Elegy. In making art, the artist expires, breathing themselves out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of the glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shapeshifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream. 

"Self-appointed shamanism can reek of cultural appropriation, but even in cultures that have temporarily misplaced their shamanism, the role survives, donning a deep disguise. Joseph Campbell and others believed that artists have taken up the role, and it seems to me that this is true for a particular reason, that both art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor, where emotion is expressed and healing happens. With the metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both artist and shaman create harmony within an individual and between the individual and the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life; poetry works 'to renew life, to renew the poet's own life, and, by implication, renew the life of the people,' wrote Ted Hughes. But ours is an age of lethal literalism which viciously attacks metaphoric insight and all its value...."

Leat 3

Bluebells

Leat 4

Later in the essay she returns to the subject of metaphor:

Illustration by John D. Batten"If I were asked what is the greatest human gift, I would say it is metaphor. A little boat of metaphor chugs across the seas, carrying a cargo of meaning across the oceans that divide us. Metaphor is how we relate to each other and how our one species attempts to comprehend others. With this gift, humans listen and speak more intensely and the meanings of all things -- ocean or forest, snail or chaffinch -- grow outwards in concentric rings of concentrated word-poems. 'Each word was once a poem,' said Emerson, and 'language is fossil poetry.' So a tulip, for example, ultimately derives from the Turkish word for 'turban.'

"Metaphor works with the legerdemain of the psyche, the lightest of touched to shift the mindscape, transforming one thing into another, leading to new ways of seeing. Metaphor follows Emily Dickinson's injunction to 'tell the truth but tell it slant,' so, slantwise by Saturn-mind running rings around literalism, metaphor is canted incantation, it breathes fact into life, it enchants. And metaphor is the language of the shaman and the artist."

(You can read the full essay online here.)

Leat 5

Pink stitchwort

In subsequent essays, Griffiths turns her gaze on animals, insects, the soil below and the sky above ... on the toxic ideas and forces that threaten them ... and on those courageous souls rebelling on their behalf.

Why Rebel is wise, and fierce, and heart-breaking, and well worth reading. It's good medicine.

Leat 6

Leat 7

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths

Words: The passages above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Joy Harjo (WW Norton, 1996). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Morning coffee break down by the leat. The little drawing is by John D. Batten, a fairy tale illustrator from Plymouth, Devon (1860-1932).

Posts discussing Jay Griffiths' previous books & essays include Finding the Way to the Green, The Enclosure of Childhood, Kissing the Lion's Nose, To the Rebel Soul in EveryoneDaily Grace, and Once upon a time.


Speaking with animals

East of the Sun  West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

Seven Little Tales

Seven Little Tales

Seven Little Tales

Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac

"A Spell for Speaking With Animals" is one of seven little pieces of mine published in Seven Little Tales (Hedgespoken Press, 2018). For a look at the folklore behind the poem, see: "The Speech of Animals."

For general animal folklore, go here. For tales on marriage between animals and humans, go here. Or follow these links for rabbits and hares, wolves, pigs, foxes, cats, sheep, goats, bears, swans & cranes and other birds in folklore, myth, and mythic fiction.

The Lady and the Lion by Arthur Rackham

Seven Little Tales

Poor Little Bear by John Bauer

The art today is by four artists from the Golden Age of Book Illustration: East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (Danish, 1886-1957), Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac (French/British, 1882-1953), The Lady and the Lion by Arthur Rackham (British, 1867-1939), and Poor Little Bear by John Bauer (Swedish, 1882-1918). 


Ordinary magic

Tales from Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

Following yesterday's post on magic and magicians, here's a passage from David Abram's second book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. In this section of the text, he discusses a long journey through the Himalayas meeting with indigenous medicine workers and shamanic practioners -- sharing his own techniques of sleight-of-hand magic while listening, observing, and attuning himself to the local landscape:

Tehanu illustrated by Charles Vess 6"In the course of these first months in the Himalayas I came into contact with several jhankris of very diverse skill, and I lived for several weeks with two of them, a husband and wife who were both highly regarded as healers....The strangest thing about my time with Sonam and his wife, Jangmu, was how deeply I came home to myself during those days and nights. Rather than sampling alien practices and exploring beliefs entirely new to me, it was a quality of my own felt experience that became ever more fascinating, the carnal thickness underlying even my most ephemeral daydreams. From that first evening in their house, I found myself noticing ordinary, physical sensations much more vividly than I had realized was possible....Their home, with its stone walls, had a palpable density that hunkered close as I slept on the mud-caked floor across from Sonam and Jangmu, and when I woke in the morning I seemed to emerge from my private dreams into the wider dreaming of this breathing house nested within the broad imagination of the bouldered hillside.

"My hosts were already at work, whether feeding their few animals or hauling water back from the stream or consulting the spirits regarding the faltering crops of potatoes in a nearby village. Later I would be carrying fallen deadwood gathered from a stand of trees by the far below river, walking up the switchback trail behind Jangmu -- she seeming to float up the steep trail in her bare feet while her back was bent forward, its huge load slung from a single rope tumpline around her forehead, me straining and staggering in my hiking boots with a far smaller stash of fuel under my arms. I remember how completely those walks annihilated any separation of my conscious thoughts from my aching shoulders and my hammering heartbeat and the step and tumble of my legs.

The Books of Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

"And herein was the strangeness: the more my consciousness sank into the muscled thickness of my animal flesh, the more I could feel the tangible earth around me swell and breathe and move within itself -- trees, riverbanks, and boulders quietly responding to all the happenings in their vicinity. It seemed the ground itself felt my footsteps and nudged my feet in the most serendipitous directions, ensuring that I'd come across some unexpected event at just the right moment -- that I'd encounter a hawk just as it swerved into a tree to feed its nestlings, or that I'd step into the precise spot to glimpse, through a momentary opening in the monsoon clouds, two mountain goats coupling on the high ridge.  As though by dissolving my detached cognitions into the sensory curiosity of my body I had slipped into alignment with the sentience of the land itself. Awakening as this upright, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned thing, I noticed that all the other things around me were also awake.

Tehanu illustrated by Charles Vess

Tales from Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

"It was as profound an experience of magic as any I'd yet tasted, and yet it was entirely ordinary. There was nothing extraordinary about it, not in the least. It was not the encounter with a supernatural dimension that unfurls somewhere beyond my everyday, into which I might elevate myself now and then, but with a dimension always operative beneath my conventional consciousness, a carnal realm where my animal body was engaged in this ongoing interplay with the animate earth.

"Hence I began to feel far more palpably present, and real, to the rocks and shadowed cliffs than I'd felt before. I felt that I was known to these mountains now. This experience -- this awareness of my elemental, thingly presence to the tangible things that surrounded me -- has remained, for me, the purest hallmark of magic, the very signature of its uttermost reality. Magic doesn't sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine -- to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.

"The deeper I slid into the material density of the real, the more I found that there was nothing determinate or predictable about existence. Actually, this inexhaustable mystery cannot be domesticated. It is wildness incarnate. Reality shapeshifts."

I highly recommend David Abram's books to those writers and storytellers seeking to invest their words, worlds, and characters with enchantment. He reminds us that magic is all around us in the world that we walk every day.

The Other Wind illustrated by Charles Vess

The Books of Earthsea

The art day is by Charles Vess, drawn from the magnificent body of work he created for The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Charles worked closely with Ursula over four years to create fifty-four illustrations faithful to her vision of the Earthsea archipelago and its denizens -- from wizards and dragons to farmers, sailors, temple-dwellers and kings. The result is a masterwork of mythic fiction and art, a perfect embodiment of word magic.

"I’d pretty much reconciled myself to drawing what she was looking at in her brain," Charles says. "I had no problem with that. She’s particularly brilliant. I really wanted to let her see the world that was in her mind....She envisioned Earthsea as a world mostly comprised of people of colour. It wasn’t just black people, but also Mediterranean or Native American people. All sorts of shades of brown. No one ever put that on a cover. She’d had a lot of fights about that. So, this was an opportunity to gird for battle -- to make the book look the way she’d always envisioned it."

Go here to learn more about the project, here to see some of the sketches made for it, and here to see more Charles' exquisite, unique, and visionary art.

Tales of Earthsea endpaper by Charles Vess

Becoming Animal by David Abram

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (Pantheon, 2010). The Charles Vess illustrations are from The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Simon & Schuster, 20  ). All rights reserved by the author and artist.