RogerBW's Blog

The Magic City, E. Nesbit 19 August 2015

1910 children's fantasy. Philip, feeling abandoned after his older sister and sole family member marries, builds a model city from things around the house, then finds he has been sucked into it.

This is a relatively late novel in Nesbit's career, but it still feels as if it's defining the tropes rather than expanding on them: in 1910, it was enough, and unusual enough, to have a child hero going into a magical land with parallels to reality, having adventures, and coming back, without any need to sophisticate the story beyond that.

The writing is always light, with occasional asides to the reader: I was particularly struck by a long divagation on the disappointingness of toy food, ending: "But I am wandering. When you remember the things that happened when you were a child, you could go on writing about them for ever. I will put all this in brackets, and then you need not read it if you don't want to." Indeed, if you've never seen the classic Victorian Noah's Ark toy, you will be at a substantial disadvantage when working out what's going on in places.

Philip is a well-developed character, though often not a sympathetic one: when his sister marries, he goes into a sulk which is quite out of proportion to the situation. Yes, all right, he's ten and she's the only family he's known; and yes, all right, he has to be down so that he can raise himself; but I did find him a bit wearing in the early sections, where his self-absorption quite keeps him from seeing any possible allies. His companion in adversity Lucy is more interesting, but doesn't get as much narrative time.

More disappointing to me, though, was the unquestioned assumption that building cities in the drawing-room, and visiting them, is all very well but it's never going to happen again. (Helen, who used to join in the imagination of fantastic worlds with Philip, shows up briefly but is explicitly exiled forever, and doesn't mind because she thinks it was all just a dream; and it's clear later that something like this applies to Philip and Lucy too.) It moves the whole story away from "adventure" and into "improving episode" or "metaphor for childhood", in a way that the presence of a clockwork lizard from Philip's toy-box as a real dragon that he has to slay cannot manage.

The plot itself is almost an afterthought: strangers to the fantasy land may be either the Deliverer or the Destroyer, and Philip has to accomplish the seven great deeds to prove that he is indeed the Deliverer. Even here, it's clear that nobody's taking it terribly seriously, with actions retroactively declared to have been deeds because they've turned out to be useful. What does get taken seriously is the idea of having rules for the world: they may be arbitrary, but you can't break them. This was a substantial step away from the more whimsical approach of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; it's still not what one could call solid world-building, but later fantasy writers including Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman have acknowledged Nesbit's work as fundamental to beginning this change.

As things progress, the focus changes substantially, when it becomes clear that the books which are the main building-blocks of the "real" city are still books in the fantasyland, and can be opened; and people and things can get out. This is an idea which frankly deserves its own book, and Nesbit used it again three years later in Wet Magic.

It's sometimes a little ponderous and preachy, and occasionally shows its age (in the matter of the lions), but there is a sense of joy about this book that overcomes all its problems.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg and as an audiobook from Librivox.

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