Or, Don’t Hide Those Roots
Edward Eager, author of Half Magic and its sequels, was my absolute favorite author when I was a kid. Well, he wrestled constantly with Roald Dahl, because Matilda was my absolute favorite book. In most of Eager’s novels, he made it a point to reference Edith Nesbit. He did it to point his readers to his own inspiration, and to insure that the kids who loved Katherine’s adventures in Camelot*, would get to enjoy Mabel’s feisty adventures in fooling the kids next door into thinking she’s a magic fairy tale princess (at least until the magic becomes real.)
I didn’t listen when I was a kid, but I’m glad he put that in there. I did eventually happen upon a copy of Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, and the name bit me, so I picked it up. I read it all in a night like I had done Half Magic when I first found that book as a kid. It was wonderful, even reading it at twenty five, rather than the recommended ten. It has since informed my own opinions on the construction of fairy tales, and both Edith and Edward are in my personal list of references, which I’ll highlight if the story draws directly from them.
In the interest of being thorough on this blog, I’d like to mention that this sentence in particular tends to appear somewhere in my mind (either on the forefront, or in the muddeldy scribbly back bits) pretty much any time I set out to write:
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 can happen. -E. Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle
I wrote a story about stories called Lawrence in the Last Days of Knowing (written about in my last post, too, yeah, still thinking about it…) and of course I had a lot of names thrown around the narrative. Names I love, like Nabokov and Kafka, but there had to be one name that stood above the rest. The really important name was in the character’s mask that she wore to obscure her identity; it was a paper mache mask made from a tattered old paperback. It was the only book in the story that the character chose solely for herself. I had a couple names written down in that spot on the page, something to fill in later… I scanned my bookshelf to find the perfect one… and I was lost.
I had to make a choice. Did I want to reference some highly lauded name that I hardly care about, thus perpetuating the canonical literature (and lie about my own background as a reader and writer), or could I really muster the strength to say “This story is brought to you in part by Moominland Midwinter, and Viewers like You.” I could. I did. And I’m still a bad Edward Eager, I don’t think I ever said Tove Jansson’s name aloud. But I stuck with the book I loved, and the story was true for that, even when I was lying about other things.
That small bit of writerly strength appeared in my main character later on in this passage:
For a week, Lawrence filled notebooks with desperate comparisons of famous authors he barely remembered reading. Juvenile assessments of literature perfected were torn from notebooks and discarded in the corners of his increasingly depressing apartment. He had nothing. This latest list of books was no more insightful than the last.
The conviction I had in my roots fueled the story, even when the fore-parts of my head were working against it. My subconscious is a lot smarter than I am. My subconscious is closer in relation to the leviathan that runs through the blood of all humanity, so it damn well better be. (Yours is, too… listen to it.)
*Katherine had the best chapter when I was ten, but as an adult, I enjoy Jane’s bizarre adventure becoming a thoroughly different person in a strange and unfamiliar family who thought to name her “Constance” and force her into piano lessons. It’s a good thing to read whenever you’re worried about the choices you’ve made.