The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit
Like most children’s fantasy adventures, The Enchanted Castle begins with several displaced children, removed from their usual situation due to unfortunate events, and finding their independence in new surroundings. In this case, Gerald, Jimmy and Kathleen find themselves staying at Kathleen’s school over the summer holidays in the care of her French teacher. But adventure is on the way, as soon they find a secret path into a beautiful garden where a young princess lies asleep in the centre of a hedge maze.
Of course, she’s not real a princess, only the housekeeper’s niece, but soon her games of make-believe come astonishingly real as the children discover that her ring is really magical and capable of granting any wish they desire! Of course, being children, their wishes usually lead them to trouble; and in a book full of living statues, dinosaurs, headless ghosts, burglars, embodied clothing, accelerated growth, invisibility, and reunited lovers, there is plenty for the children to handle and for readers to discover.
Edith Nesbit is one of the masters of children’s literature, and is therefore virtually unknown. Published nearly one hundred years ago, E. Nesbit was a Bohemian liberal and philanthropist with a wicked sense of humour and a respect for children that shines in her thoughtful, realistic portrayal of them in her novels. Though some of the language is a bit dated (yet for me, phrases like “jolly good!” and “what a brick!” are part of the charm), the main appeal found within her books is the humour and wit with which the children behave and react to the magical events. Here it is Gerald’s habit of narrating the situation, Jimmy’s subversive comments concerning his siblings, Kathleen’s worrywart nature and Mabel’s insistence that she’s brave though she speaks: “with the tone of the truly terror-stricken.”
Almost secondary to this portrayal of children’s habits is the magical components of the ring that Mabel finds in the secret treasury of Yaldhurst Towers. Making several wayward wishes, the children gradually discover some of the rudimentary rules surrounding the ring and its powers whilst attempting to rectify the problems that they get themselves into. Nesbit’s melding of normal life and magic is the defining feature of her work, and for the first few chapters the reader is kept in suspense of what’s real and what’s not. As we get into the more magical components of the story, Nesbit moves from terror-filled scares to comedic escapades to beautiful moments of mysticism, written in a dreamy poetic prose. At all times Nesbit writes in a conversationalist tone, with an ongoing commentary on the nature of facts and magic.
There are some things that could have used some more work, such as a more detailed background story on the ring and its properties. Nesbit has the children realise some fundamental facts about it; such as the time limit on its wishes, the way it removes fear from the wearer and the behavioural changes it creates in the wearer’s loved ones, but never explains how and why the ring has these particular traits or where it originally comes from. The golden rule of any fantasy book is for its magical components to have a basic set of rules — if not the book runs the risk of feeling random. In this case the children help to balance the more surreal magical elements, but a few more details on the ring and its origins would have help make the magical storyline a bit more stable.
E. Nesbit is one of the finest children’s authors out there. If you haven’t already, then give her a go as she’s published plenty of great books. The Enchanted Castle is a great place to start.
Another endearing children’s fantasy by a woman who obviously knows what children like. You can’t go wrong with Edith Nesbit and most of her books are available free in the public domain.
This review was featured on Twinkl in their article ‘Fantasy Books for Kids’.
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