Friday, January 18, 2013

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

Enchanted Castle (cover)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots  in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, almost anything may happen.

I first encountered E. Nesbit in my little Victorian fairy story collection, “Modern Fairy Stories.” Two of her stories were included in that volume: “Melisande” and “The Magician’s Heart.” The stories were entertaining, but not my favorite in the collection.

This is the first of her novels I’ve read. It was published in 1907, the same year that Ozma of Oz (the third Oz book) came out. I happened to be reading them both at the same time; Ozma to my boys, and this one to myself.

What intrigued me about the book, honestly, was the feeling that “This must have influenced C. S. Lewis.” I thought this because there are two boys and two girls who get caught up into magic at a castle. There’s a mythological, Greek-gods dimension to the magic. But most of all it was the language the children speak, which I seem to recall one of Lewis’s biographers said came from books, not “real life.” (That was A. N. Wilson, whom I have never forgiven for that biography.) Obviously the date of publication and the English setting fit, too. (A quick Google search shows that Lewis was a Nesbit fan and knew he was working in her style.)

But once begun, I found the story intriguing on its own terms and, in some ways, intricately wound. The children get drawn in by degrees and through a series of mistakes in magic. What begins as a nuisance is gradually revealed to be a much deeper, more tangled web. And things that seemed impossible to explain—and deus ex machina plot twists—turn out to have deeper roots in the story. It ties together nicely.

The book also features several fairy tale allusions, most of them humorous, and a bit of horror—nothing too rough for a nine-year-old. Better still, as the quote above shows, Nesbit took seriously in this novel that a fantasy should open up the reader to the mystical dimension just beyond nature—or perhaps always just concealed within it. Like Lewis, her story aims to lift your thoughts to something higher than your mundane experience. It rises at points to genuine mystical feeling.

I needn’t say more. You’ll either read it or, if you’re tempted by a faster resolution, there are plenty of plot summaries on the web.

In fact, I’ll give you one, with analysis (below). Meanwhile, if you’ve read The Enchanted Castle, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

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