02 November 2007

Knights and Ladies in Knight's Castle

One of the weaknesses of E. Nesbit's fantasy books is that her children aren't very distinct. It doesn't help that there are often three or four of them, all from one family. And it doesn't help that they tend to fall into gendered types: the commanding boy, the maternal girl, the youngest, and so on, so even what sets them apart from each other doesn't make them individuals. I think her child characters have delightfully childish dialog and thinking, but they just don't stand out.

Nesbit's acolyte Edward Eager largely avoids that problem, though he, too, uses multiple children as protagonists. I think in Knight's Castle Eager exaggerates the types a bit, making each more distinct. And he reverses the usual stereotypes by depicting one girl, Eliza, as the most aggressive of the bunch, while another, Ann, is the youngest and shyest.

And here's a passage when those personalities and gender expectations come out most clearly.

"Don't!" said Ann. "Once you start moving them around you never can tell what might happen!"

"What could happen?" said Jack.

"Almost anything," said Eliza. "You don't know what that magic's like when it's roused!"

"Ah, don't pay any attention to them," said Roger suddenly and basely, full of his new manly importance as Jack's friend. "They're just a couple of crazy girls."

After that, Ann did not take much part in the conversation.

Eliza's reaction to being called a crazy girl was different. In the process of her reaction a chair leg came off and the floor was scratched, but no one was seriously hurt.
Later Eliza also proves to be the most bloodthirsty of the children in battle: "I cut off four heads and cleaved three knights in two. How did you do?" Roger is feeling a little queasy at that moment.

As for Ann, just at the moment in the book when she's feeling most small, there's a need for a small girl. A bit neat, to be sure, but satisfying nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

I remember being a child and staring in fascination at the cover of "Half Magic". The half-girl/half-knight image completely threw me. Then to find a girl actually becoming a knight in the book... well it's not exactly an image you find that often in today's children's literature (unless, of course, that's the whole point of the book) let alone titles written in 1954. Quite the forward thinker, that Mr. Eager.

Anonymous said...

Oswald Bastable and Dick Harding are unique, also Roberta in The Railway Children.

J. L. Bell said...

Oswald benefits from narrating his siblings' story, though he modestly avoids taking credit for that. I'm not sure an account from any of his siblings would differ markedly from his own, however.