Friday, August 12, 2016

The Magic World by E. Nesbit (1912)

I listened to the book The Magic World by E. Nesbit on streaming audio; it was narrated wonderfully by Johanna Ward - who I definitely want to hear read aloud other books and stories.  The Magic World  is a set of short stories that are all quite amazing.  I don't know what they were called in 1912, but today they would definitely be filed under a "fantasy" story.  They all have a modern feel, and none of them feel outdated.  Nesbit's world is never overly sweet or moralistic; in face, one story, "The Mixed Mine," ends like this:  "There is no moral to this story, except... but no - there is no moral."  This line is classic Nesbit too; her narrator is often third person omniscient, but with a wryly droll and humorous grown up with the heart of a child's voice.

The first story is "The Cat-hood of Maurice" about a boy who torments a cat, and the cat's revenge on him - they switch places.  I am sure that having a boy or girl turn into a cat or other animal wasn't first created by Nesbit; but I do think she does it with such modern flair.    Nesbit makes sure that Maurice's experience being a cat feels like if you or I turned into a cat.  Interestingly, as I was listening to this story in the car, I passed a billboard for a movie (that looks excruciating) called Nine Lives about a man who turns into a cat.  This trope will go on forever, but I think it's probably Nesbit who first gave it the modern twist it has today.  The cat also has all these "catty" exchanges with Maurice.  When Maurice realizes with horror that the cat has tricked him into trading bodies, he tells the cat:  "I didn't agree to your being me."  To which the cat deliciously replies:  "That's poetry, even if it isn't grammar" which I'm going to use on someone sometime.  The cat THEN goes on to spout the most modern of explanations, that fantasy and science fiction writers still use today.  "Why, my good cat, don’t you see that if you are I, I must be you? Otherwise we should interfere with time and space, upset the balance of power, and as likely as not destroy the solar system."  Diana Wynne Jones could have written that.  J.K. Rowling could have written that.  In the best fantasy worlds, there are laws and rules that cant' be broken; Nesbit was thinking about this and writing it into her stories.

There is also this idea of trading bodies in "The Cat-hood of  Maurice" that I think is something new.  Alice was always shrinking and growing bigger, but she never traded bodies with the white rabbit.    But Nesbit is, I think, doing this first.  This idea would be repeated later, although not with animals, in books like Freaky Friday.

 "Accidental Magic" is another story in the collection I enjoyed immensely.  The boy who has to go to the rotten boarding school - always, always C.S. Lewis has shades of Nesbit - and how he ends up going someplace else via magic, I loved this story, even if Nesbit's history of Stonehenge was probably way off.  This had the best quote at the end too: " Anyhow she" - the boy's mother -  took him to Egypt with her to meet his father, and, on the way, they happened to see a doctor in London who said: ‘Nerves’ which is a poor name for accidental magic, and Quentin does not believe it means the same thing at all."  Of course it doesn't, and every child knows that.  It's adults who forget about magic - that sharing of secrets between the narrator and the reader, which C.S. Lewis did so well later as well.

I like E. Nesbit the best when she takes normal everyday situations and infuses them with magic; or takes people from our world in puts them into magic worlds.  I'm not as big a fan of her fairy tales, although that's like saying I'm not as big a fan of strawberry jam verses marmalade, when in fact both are delicious in their own ways.  Her fairy stories "The Princess and the Hedge Pig" or "Belinda and Bellamant" are wonderful stories; they would make excellent read alouds.  "Hedge Pig" includes the phrase "alone among the oleanders" which I think would make a great title for something.

"The White Cat" is one of those magical stories set in the "real" world, about a lonely boy - the best kind of boys and girls in fantasy books are lonely boys and girls who discover magic in their world - The Children of Green Knowe, Charlotte Somtimes, Tom's Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden (although THAT magic sucked) - a lonely boy who is given a china cat who comes to life and takes him to a magical world.  No spoilers, but there was this fantastic end that I can quote without giving too much away:  

It was she, beyond a doubt, and that was why Tavy didn’t mind a bit about the China Cat being taken from him and kept under glass. You may think that it was just any old stray white cat that had come in by accident. Tavy knows better. It has the very same tender tone in its purr that the magic White Cat had. It will not talk to Tavy, it is true; but Tavy can and does talk to it. But the thing that makes it perfectly certain that it is the White Cat is that the tips of its two ears are missing—just as the China Cat’s ears were. If you say that it might have lost its ear-tips in battle you are the kind of person who always makes difficulties, and you may be quite sure that the kind of splendid magics that happened to Tavy will never happen to you.

Again, that cool grown up narrator talking to just you, the young reader, letting you in on a cool secret.  Of course, no one wants to ever be the kind of person who always makes difficulties!  I dont want to be that person.  But Nesbit knows that to children, especially imaginative, creative children, the world was and still is full of those kinds of people. Imaginative and creative children will identify and want to be Tavy.

"The Aunt and Amabel" is a good place to talk about C.S. Lewis, because so much of the story reminded me of Lewis.  I know that Lewis's favorite childhood author was E. Nesbit.  The Bastables make an appearance in The Magician's Nephew, if ever so briefly.  I've only read Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, but they are obviously patterned after Nesbit.  He uses the same close and personal narrative style, in which the narrator takes on the persona of a wise but cool grownup who sometimes drolly, but always respectfully, talks in asides to the young reader as if the two are sharing a cool secret.  His style is very derivative of Nesbit.  If she is the proto-writer of fantasy, and her characters and settings are the rich and teeming primordial sludge that certainly gave us Wynne Jones and Rowling, and T.H. White, and that copycat Edward Eager, and so many other fantasy writers for children and adults, then C.S. Lewis isn't far removed from that sludge.  "The Aunt and Amabel" isn't The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it DOES contain a wardrobe that takes our little heroine magically to another world.  I guess I should not have been surprised by this, but I was.  "The Magician's Heart" has a White Witch in it, but she's not evil like THE White Witch; there is an evil magician in this story too, and he's clearly but very, very distantly related to the magician of "The Magician's Nephew" although he had far more in common with some evil magicians in Diana Wynne Jones than C.S. Lewis.

The Magic WorldThe Magic World by E. Nesbit

I listened to an excellent audio streaming version of this, narrated perfectly by Johanna Ward. All E. Nesbit should be narrated by Johanna Ward; her voice encapsulates all that is droll and witty and excellent about Nesbit. Elsewhere, I've seen The Magic World described as "influential" and I have to agree. I'm not a scholar of either fantasy, or children's literature, but this collection of short stories seems to me to be the homo erectus from which all modern fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, sprang forth. Nesbit has a boy and a cat trading places, in a trope that became in various ways both The Sword in the Stone and Freaky Friday (and even Disney's The Shaggy Dog). In this story, she also talks about how the boy and cat have to follow magical laws, or destroy the universe, another concept that will come up in various ways again and again in modern fantasy (J.K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones) In "Accidental Magic" she has a lonely boy at a horrid boarding school use magic to travel back in time, to the building of Stonehenge, with a just a touch of horror; again, this trope will be used to great effect in novels of the future. Nesbit always uses the same narrative voice; it's a close, personal third person, in which the author injects herself again and again with drolly, witty asides that invite the reader, particularly a young reader, in, as if sharing really delicious secrets. It's this narrative voice that both makes Nesbit sound so modern, and also makes her so different and accessible from other fantasy or books for children around the same time; there are no morals either (see the end of "The Mixed Mine" for Nesbit thumbing her nose at morals at the end of stories). You can't read Nesbit and these stories, without thinking again and again of C.S. Lewis; it's obvious he patterned the narrative voice of his Chronicles after his favorite childhood author; there is even a wardrobe in Nesbit that magically takes a young girl to another world; and a White Witch in another story, although Nesbit's White Witch isn't as evil (and thus less interesting) as Lewis's scary White Witch. Nesbit has a magician as well, but Lewis's magician is more of a bumbler; I think you'd find more Nesbittian magicians in Diana Wynne Jones. If you love fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, then take a look at this collection of short stories.

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