14 September 2007

Eager Stands on the Shoulders of Giants

No one wore his influences more proudly on his sleeve than Edward Eager, that highly enjoyable if not deep mid-20th-century American fantasist.

Eager wrote Knight's Castle in 1956 as a sequel of sorts to his own Half Magic, providing a new story for the children of the heroes of the earlier book. It's clearly inspired by E. Nesbit's The Magic City, which gets quite a name-check in the early chapters. And it explicitly plays off Ivanhoe, both Walter Scott's novel and the 1952 movie version. What's more, this passage even starts out with an echo of Alice in Wonderland.

"I'm not afraid of you!" he [Roger] cried. "You're not even real! You wouldn't even be Bois-Guilbert, if I hadn't said you were! You're nothing but a lead soldier!"

"What?" cried Bois-Guilbert, his face deathly pale and his voice a mere whisper. "What didst thou say?"

"Lead soldier!" Roger repeated wildly. "That's all any of you are! Lead soldiers, lead soldiers, lead soldiers!"

Bois-Guilbert fell back shuddering before him, and the fighting men dropped their swords and all the people fell on their knees, and a murmur of awe ran from lip to lip among the crowd.

"The Words of Power!" cried some, and "The Elfish Charm!" cried others, and "I said 'twas no mortal boy!" cried Lionel.

And Roger jumped down from his perch and pushed his way through them, and as he did so they seemed to grow paler and dimmer, and as he ran down the stairs the walls of the castle seemed to grow fainter, the way the picture on your television set does when a tube is ailing and your mother has to send for the man.
That television metaphor shows how modern Knight's Castle was--for 1956. Like Nesbit and L. Frank Baum, he made his young heroes' shifts into fantasy all the more plausible by mentioning contemporary details. But time has moved on. What details in this passage would today's children understand without great exertion on the part of an adult?
  • easy allusions to the villain in Ivanhoe?
  • toys made entirely out of lead?
  • television sets with tubes and repairmen who come to the house?
Nonetheless, Eager always seems effortlessly charming.


fusenumber8 said...

There are few pleasures in life quite as keen as having a group of schoolchildren come into your library, see the multiple copies of Edward Eager on your shelves, and say, "Oh, SNAP!"

It recently occurred to me that Eager is one of the rare American fantasy authors aside from Baum that are still read today. Obviously he owes much to Nesbit, but when I was trying to come up with American fantasy pre-60s that's still popular, I found myself oddly stuck.

SamRiddleburger said...

iqs"What details in this passage would [Sam] understand without great exertion on the part of [Bell]?

Not much at all, frankly. That all flew over my head.

a little off-topic, but speaking of old-old-school fantasy. Have you read Eddison's 1922 Worm Ouroborous? I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't read Worm Ouroborous, but I'm making this link so folks can explore it.

I tend to prefer fantasies that have a toe or more in a world like ours, and don't get as excited by the "high fantasy" genre that E. R. Eddison seems to have done a lot to shape.

But that's just my taste.