May 14, 2008

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle is the story of three siblings, Gerald, Jimmy and Katherin, and of their friend Mabel. When spending a summer under the care of a French governess, the children discover a tunnel that leads to a castle, and decide to pretend that the castle is enchanted. But when they come across what seems to be a sleeping princess at the centre of a maze, a series of unbelievable things begin to happen, and what was shaping up to be a peaceful summer turns out to be a very adventurous one. Among the things they come across are magic rings that make the wearer invisible, but to which there is more than meets the eye (yes!), secret identities, secret passages, dinosaurs, Ugly-Wuglies, statues that come alive in the moonlight, Greek gods and goddesses, and much, much more.

Books with the kind of narrator The Enchanted Castle has – the conversational kind, who addresses the reader and interrupts the story with little observations – can go both ways for me. They can either annoy me or they can draw me in and make me feel like I’m being told a story by a benevolent and good-humoured figure. I am happy to say that the latter happened with this book.

For example, in the very first page of the story, there was an observation that made me like the narrator right away:
“And they were at school in a little town in the West of England – the boys at one school, of course, and the girls at another, because the sensible habit of having boys and girls at the same school is not yet as common as I hope It will be one day.”
Considering that the book was originally published in 1907, I thought this was quite an interesting comment. Unfortunately, later on the narrator makes several remarks about how very shameful it is for boys to cry, and this was especially disappointing for me because of the expectations that initial comment had created. But ah well.

Despite that, I did like the narrator, and I liked the characters even more. The oldest of the three siblings, Gerald, has the annoying (to his brother and sister) and endearing (to me) habit of narrating their adventures as they are living them:
“‘The bold captain, reproving the silly chatter of his subordinates—”
‘I like that!’ said Jimmy, indignant
‘I thought you would,’ resumed Gerald - ‘of his subordinates, bade them advance with caution and in silence, because after all there might be somebody about, and the other arch might be an ice-house or something dangerous.’”
This book reminded me a little of Diana Wynne Jones – the humour, the warmth, and especially the way the story mixes magic and extraordinary events with the everyday lives of its young protagonists. There was also the fact that the story has a more personal side to it, and a twist involving past secrets being revealed (although I have to say that Nesbit didn’t manage to surprise me the way Diana Wynne Jones often does).

The Enchanted Castle is a fun and charming story, and I can certainly see why 101 years later it hasn't been forgotten

There is, however, one thing I have to mention. When I posted about Jane Yolen’s Touch Magic, I mentioned that at some point she says that, returning to the work of E. Nesbit as an adult, she was surprised to find thinly veiled prejudices that she had no recollection of reading as a child. The reason why she missed them was because they were subtle – they were social assumptions rather than personal beliefs.

E. Nesbit is known for her involvement with the Fabian Society, and I don’t mean to say that she’d be hateful to a black person or a foreigner if she came across one. I don't know whether or not she would be, but I'd like to believe that when facing real people she'd question certain social assumptions.

But for example, at one point in the book Gerald disguises himself with charcoal to perform magic tricks at a fair, and the word “nigger” is very casually thrown around. And at another point, it is said that she children’s French governess is kind despite the fact that she is foreign. I suppose that what we have to bear in mind is that these prejudices were quite common at the time, and that what is now racial slur did not have the same weight back then – it wasn’t necessarily a deliberate attempt to hurt or demean others. According to wikipedia, “In the United Kingdom, "nigger" is now established as a derogatory word, but as recently as the 1950s it was widely regarded as acceptable in Britain for black people to be referred to as niggers.”

These things are, of course, revealing of social attitudes, and there’s a lot that could be said about that. I was quite surprised to come across this in what is otherwise a charming and harmless children’s novel, but I suppose that this is a common enough occurrence when one reads older books.

Reviewed at:
Just One More Chapter
Eva's Book Addiction


  1. I've been wanting to read something by E. Nesbit for a long time and this may be a good one to start with, eh? I always have problems with social biases in books like the one's you mentioned even if the books were written over 100 years ago. It just seems like they should never have been acceptable and it's hard for me to get past. I think what's important though is that in some ways we have begun to move forward. Even though the term "nigger" may still be used, it is at least socially unacceptable now whereas in Nesbit's time it was perfectly normal which is just sad. Great review and really great thoughts!

  2. I'm reading it next after the book I'm reading now, just about finished.... I took a detour after two people I work with were diagnosed with cancer within days of each other last week. I find at times like that I have to read whatever moves me, not just what I'd will hopefully have Enchanted Castle done by the weekend. I'm sorry for the delay, because I was really looking forward to doing this together!

  3. I'm so glad you and Nesbit started your relationship with this story - it captures in one volume all the things that make her books so remarkable.
    As you noted, her work was remarkably enlightened for the time it was written - in spite of some assumptions and the use of some language that is completely inappropriate and unacceptable in a children's story today. It should also be considered that the opinions held and espoused by the characters were not necessarily her own personal views (but you know that, I'll climb down off my soap-box).
    You should place The Railway Children on your TBR list - it's my favorite (if I have to choose a favorite) of all her books...thanks for this review - it got me thinking!

  4. Wow...what a wonderful review, Nymeth!

    I couldn't agree more with what Chris said, "I always have problems with social biases in books like the one's you mentioned even if the books were written over 100 years ago. It just seems like they should never have been acceptable and it's hard for me to get past." The book certainly does sound delightful though, apart from these things. And it sounds like reading it aloud to the kids could really open some conversations, too. We've been dealing with some issues like this in reading Peter Pan actually. The boys had never heard the word "redskin" and it's led to some opportunities to talk about the awful misconceptions and stereotypes people have had about Native Americans here in the U.S. and how horribly Native Americans have always been treated. Anyway, thank you for another incredible review!

  5. Chris: I do think it'd be a good one to start with, yes. It certainly was for me! You're right, it's unfortunate that those things were ever acceptable at all. But they were so prevalent a few centuries ago that you often come across them in some way or another when reading classics. But I do find comfort in the fact that we're making progress.

    Susan: I'm so sorry to hear about your coworkers :( You absolutely don't have to apologize. When you're done with the book it will still be fresh in my mind, so we'll be able to exchange ideas about it anyway.

    Ken: I'm putting it on my list - thanks for the recommendation! Another one I heard great things about is Five Children and It. And yes, that's a good point - I'm not sure if the word "nigger" was used by one of the characters or by the narrator, and I should have paid more attention to that. In either case, I did think that its use said more about what was socially acceptable at the time than about her views.

    Debi, you are always too nice to me. I had actually forgotten that about Peter Pan, but now that you mentioned it I remember that it did bother me. I also came across something similar recently when reading Welty's The Robber Bridegroom. But it's great that it gave you the opportunity to discuss those things with the boys.

  6. This has been one of my favourite books since ... I don't know, forever. Oddly enough, I don't think I've read any other Nesbitt novels -- but this one is fantastic. I love the part where all the statues come to life!

    As to now-incorrect social views in old books, I try to take them in stride. Like one of my professors said last term, "The past is a different country; things aren't the same there." How things were isn't necessarily barbaric or intolerant or ignorant or what-have you... they're just how they were.

  7. I remember picking up this book at a bookstore, but I didn't get it at the time. Thanks for the great review. Now I really want to go back and read it! It sounds like a book I would really like.

  8. These kinds of now-inappropriate words usually don't bother me in this kind of situation. I guess I've always been able to understand that it's simply reflecting the era in which a particular book was written. People always get upset about Gone with the Wind too, for example, but that's projecting our modern value system on something that happened in the past. I may or may not agree with it, but that' how it was then. I love the quote from shereadsbooks: "The past is a different country; things aren't the same there." I'll have to remember that. :)
    I guess I just generally find it interesting how social attitudes change over time or how words change in meaning. Who knows, maybe someday in the future people will say 'nigger' again as the acceptable term and 'black' will have become a dirty word.

  9. Kim: Do get it! I think you'd enjoy it.

    Shereadsbooks and Tanabata: Believe me, I am not at all easy to shock or offend, nor am I usually picky about these things. And those things really didn't stop me from loving the book. I guess that most of all I was surprised, and for two reasons. First, because the tone of the book was very much modern and progressive when it came to other things, and it made me think of Nesbit as being ahead of her time. Secondly, because for me the early 20th century is a bit of an indefinite period. To me it sounds like less long ago than it actually was, and I tend to forget that there were huge differences in regards to how people thought. I guess that when I read books from that period I tens to expect things to be more line they are now than they were in reality. But yes, the past is indeed a different country, and I would never think of the men and women of the past as barbariac. The way we are now is, after all, a consequence of the knowledge they gathered and accumulated.

  10. oh, i love the premise - and you set it out really well!

    i agree with you about those kinds of narratives. they can really make the book unbearable to read or wonderful! this one sounds as if it works well.

  11. JP: It did work really well! I hope you enjoy this one if you decide to pick it up.

  12. Uh-oh, I am definitely in the minority here now! I've just finished reading the book, and I had to drag myself through it. I think I finished it only because you and I are going to discuss it! I literally just finished it five minutes ago! So my post will be done in a bit. I'll try to be gentle there, since so many people love it, including yourself, but I disliked it from almost the beginning. It took me a while to figure out why, and I finally decided it was because the narrator is condescending. At least, I felt it(we are not told anything about the narrator, as you know) was. I didn't find many of the comments illumnating or kindly. I liked the adventures themselves, and I think if we could have been closer to the kids, gotten to know them better, I would have liked them more. I do like Mabel! And I like the ideas of the characters, and i love their adventures, but some of the descriptions are awful - since when is the sky at dawn like a tidewater pool? it was well-worked out, the magic, but it was missing a real sense of fun, I felt. Compared to the Famous Five or Adventurous Four by Enid blyton, who I grew up reading, this book has none of their charm and possibility it could be real. Darn it! I really wanted to like it! the part of the statues coming to life is my favourite part....but I could not reccommend it to anyone to read, no child I know would stick with it (at 300 pages it's a long storybook for children)and compared to say, the Narnia books, well, I would give Narnia every day, to anyone to read. I'll try to think of what is missing and put it in my post.
    Hope you're having a good weekend there! we're in the midst of a holiday weekend here, so now it's on to The Bloody Chamber!

  13. Susan, don't feel bad! The fact that you feel so differently about it will only make discussing it more fun :P I have lots to say, but I think I will save my comments for your post. It's funny that you mention Narnia, though - one of the reasons why I can't get into those books is the fact that they are, for me, an example of an interventive narrator gone horribly wrong. He completely alienates me from the story. And I see that this was the case with you with The Enchanted Castle. I hope you enjoy The Bloody Chamber a lot more! (And I think you will)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.