Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Heir of Redclyffe and My Emotions

I'm ending the year by finishing a book that I've had on my to-read list for a long time, The Heir of Redclyffe, by Charlotte Yonge. I first heard about this book in Little Women, when Meg finds Jo "eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe," and then Lisa May mentioned it back in November. (And now I can read her review -- I've been waiting to finish the book myself first.) I thought that if Jo and Lisa May both liked it, it would probably be excellent, and I was not disappointed. The Heir of Redclyffe actually kept me up late because I couldn't stop reading it -- a thing that book blurbs always say will happen,  but that rarely happens to me because I really, really like sleep.

(The Heir of Redclyffe was published in 1853, but this is the 1882 edition with illustrations by Kate Greenaway.)

One of the reasons I found The Heir of Redclyffe so engrossing was that I disliked Philip Morville so much. He's such a well-drawn character: his role in the story is that of the villain, but he isn't really villainous, just arrogant and condescending and snobbish. (Oh, and he calls Dickens "cheap rubbish," and he dismisses Le Morte d'Arthur as being for children only. Grrrr.) He's basically decent, though, and he doesn't really mean to do the awful things he does. I could imagine him being the friend of a friend -- someone could like him, but I couldn't. I loved the scene where Philip's cousin Guy, the hero of the book, is telling a story, and Philip interrupts him with a Latin tag, a quotation from Horace -- because Philip is exactly the kind of person who would interrupt someone else's story with a Latin tag -- and when Guy caps Philip's quotation with the next line from the Horace poem, Guy mispronounces a Latin vowel, and Philip freaks out. It's the word "ovium" ("of the sheep"), and Guy says "ah-vium" instead of "oh-vium," to which Philip says, horrified, "Do anything but take liberties with Horace!" This is hilarious because it's a ridiculously small mistake, and I would be so impressed if any of my students could quote Horace like Guy. But Guy's pronunciation reveals that he hasn't had an aristocratic education at a private school, and that's what horrifies Philip. Ugh, Philip.

(Look at Guy's sad eyes in this Kate Greenaway illustration! How can Philip be so terrible to him?)

I liked Guy Morville, and I liked Amabel, who is underappreciated by her family and taught to think of herself as "silly little Amy," but who turns out to be secretly strong-minded. But my favorite character was Amy's brother Charles. I was surprised when I encountered Charles, because he seemed so familiar to me. It was like seeing a beloved actor in a new role. And then I realized that I knew Charles because he must have been the inspiration for Aubrey Lanyon in my favorite Georgette Heyer romance, Venetia. There are some differences between the two, but both Aubrey and Charles are bookish invalids who suffer from "a disease of the hip-joint" (that's a quotation from both Heyer and Yonge). Both have a cutting wit, and both tyrannize over their sisters. And even though Aubrey and Charles are fundamentally selfish, I can't help liking them both. Charles makes me happy every time he deflates Philip's pompousness with one of his jokes.

(Guy doing some gardening.)

I was glad that I read Sintram and His Companions before I read The Heir of Redclyffe, because the story of Sintram informs the whole novel. Guy Morville admits that he is "foolish about Sintram," and that he sees himself as the title character. Sintram is the Viking prince who is followed through his life by two terrifying figures, an impish little man in a pointy hat, who turns out to be Sin, and a pale old man dressed in bones, who turns out to be Death. Guy identifies with Sintram so much because he too is fighting against his own sinful nature, struggling against his family's violent past, and trying to make his peace with death. Charlotte Yonge even recasts some scenes from Sintram in The Heir of Redclyffe: a storm at sea, a melancholy Christmas spent in solitary meditation, the separation of the main character from his true love. I do think it's a little strange that Guy keeps referring to the woman he loves as "my Verena." Verena is not Sintram's true love; she's his mother. I mean, I know Guy is talking about Verena's saintly influence on Sintram, but still.

(Verena, illustrated by Gordon Browne.)

Like Sintram, The Heir of Redclyffe is a sad story. But Sintram is more of a gloomy fantasy, while The Heir of Redclyffe is a tragedy. I did cry over it, just like Jo March. But I loved it, and I'm hoping to read more books by Charlotte Yonge in 2013. (The Clever Woman of the Family is on my bedside table right now.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas with Rat and Mole

The Christmas scene that I love the most might be the one from The Wind in the Willows, the chapter called "Dulce Domum" ("Sweet Home"). I love its contrast between the cold winter night and the warm, bright home full of feasting and friends. To me, that's the essence of Christmas, and Kenneth Grahame does it so well.

Nothing makes me feel colder than reading about Mole and Rat as they travel their cold road through the village, watching all the cozy scenes of domestic life through the windows of the houses. They are especially affected by the sight of a sleepy canary in his cage, which makes perfect sense, because he is their exact opposite. Mole and Rat are independent animals with their own cares and worries, but the canary is a pet who is cared for completely. He never has to go outside in the winter. In fact, his cage is like a little house, making him the ultimate inside animal: he's so domestic that he has a house inside a house. Meanwhile Mole and Rat are freezing outside: "Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as in a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way."

(Arthur Rackham's illustration of Mole and Rat in the snow.)

But then nothing makes me feel warmer than reading about Mole's house, once the field-mice show up to sing a Christmas carol. At this point the Rat has warmed up the house by lighting a fire. Mole hasn't been in his house since the spring, and the only food he has is an old sausage, a box of hardtack, and a tin of sardines, but the Rat finds four bottles of beer left in Mole's cellar. (The Wind in the Willows contains much more alcohol than one would ever find in a contemporary children's book; it's like the Mad Men of children's literature.) And then the young field-mice arrive to sing a carol at Mole's door, and the Rat invites them in for mulled ale and a feast (which one of them will have to go out and buy). This is where Mole and Rat finally get the domestic warmth that they longed for earlier in the story. "It did not take long to prepare the brew and thrust the tin heater well into the red heart of the fire, and soon every field-mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in his life."

(Illustration by E.H. Shephard.)

There is so much to think about in this chapter: how the animals never mention Christmas, except vaguely in the carol (maybe because, as we see in "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," they worship Pan); how the class differences between Mole and Rat show themselves (Mole's house, with its skittle-alley and yard art, is decidedly middle-class, while the Rat and his other friends are more aristocratic). But what I really like about "Dulce Domum" is how well it describes the experience of going home for the holidays. It covers all aspects, beginning with "the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden fire-light, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea." Then there is Mole's unsettling feeling that things are different than he remembered them -- in his case, his house is smaller and shabbier than the places of his new life -- and finally, there is his joy at homecoming and his realization that his old home will be part of him forever. He sees "the value of some such anchorage in one's existence." He doesn't want to leave his new life, "but it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome."

This is the season when I'm glad I have my own anchorage, and I wish you all an anchorage in your existences, of one sort or another. Merry Christmas!

(Another illustration by Arthur Rackham, this one of Rat and Mole about to enjoy some Christmas beer.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas with Sherlock

Every year I almost forget, and then happily rediscover, that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a Sherlock Holmes Christmas story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." (It's in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and you can also read or listen to the story online here.) It's satisfyingly Holmesian -- London streets with gaslights, surly criminals, eccentric behavior from Sherlock -- and also satisfyingly Christmasy, with frosty weather and a Christmas goose. There are many things to love about "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle:"

1. The way that Holmes comes across the goose. Of course he doesn't go to the store and buy one. No, the goose appears slung across the back of a mysterious figure in the streets of London on Christmas Eve. The man with the goose is attacked, Holmes' policeman friend Peterson tries to stop the attack, and everyone but the officer runs away, leaving the goose in the street. Naturally Peterson takes the goose to Holmes to see what he makes of the incident, and Holmes concludes that Peterson should eat the goose himself. Would I eat something for my Christmas dinner that had been dropped in the street under mysterious circumstances? Probably not. But obviously it's a good thing that Peterson does roast the goose, because that's how he discovers that hidden inside the goose is an extremely rare jewel, the blue carbuncle.

2. The blue carbuncle. What is it? I spent way too much time thinking about this question. According to Holmes, it's "more than a precious stone. It is the precious stone." At first I thought it was a diamond, because Peterson tells Holmes that it can cut glass. It's "brilliantly scintillating," and diamonds can be blue, or at least bluish.

(For example, the Hope Diamond is blue.)

But Holmes says that the stone is "remarkable in having every characteristic of the carbuncle, save that it is blue in shade instead of ruby red." Carbuncles are red jewels, either garnets or rubies. But this can't be a ruby, because blue rubies are sapphires, which are lovely but not particularly remarkable. The blue carbuncle has to be completely fictional. Then I discovered, though, that blue garnets do exist. They were discovered in Madagascar in the 1990s. They won't cut glass, and they aren't worth as much as Holmes' blue carbuncle, but they are bright blue, sparkly, and very rare.

(You can buy your own blue carbuncle here.)

So now I think that Conan Doyle was prescient. The jewel in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" wouldn't be discovered for a hundred more years.

4. The opening scene, where Watson discovers that Holmes has been spending the post-Christmas holiday dissecting a hat:

"I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand. Beside the couch was a wooden chair, and on the angle of the back lay a very seedy and disreputable hard-felt hat, much the worse for wear, and cracked in several places. A lens and a forceps lying upon the seat of the chair suggested that the hat had been suspended in this manner for the purpose of examination.

5. The conclusion that Holmes draws from the evidence of the hat about the hat's owner: "He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral regression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him."

5. The way that Holmes gets a witness to produce evidence by betting him he doesn't know the information Holmes needs: "When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the 'Pink 'un' protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet."

7. The cheerfulness of this story, even in the midst of crimes like theft and assault. Sherlock Holmes seems to be in such a good mood during the whole "Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." Maybe it's the Christmas spirit.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas in The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights, written by John Masefield in 1935, is a classic children's novel, but I read it for the first time last Christmas. Before last year, I didn't even know that John Masefield wrote children's books. I thought he was just the Salt Water Ballads guy, the guy who wrote "Sea Fever." ("I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/ Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.") But then I got a book called Spellbound, a compilation of Diana Wynne Jones' favorite fantasy stories -- highly recommended, by the way -- and in that book I read an excerpt of The Box of Delights. Now John Masefield is one of the authors I read every Christmas.

The Box of Delights is about Kay, a boy who comes into the possession of a magical box during his Christmas holidays. The title is also a description of the book itself, which is crammed full of every possible thing you could want in a story, at least if you were a boy in the 1930s: time travel, jewel thieves, wolves, an evil wizard, talking animals, gangsters who fly stealth airplanes, mysterious strangers, gods and goddesses, pirates, and magical transformations on almost every page. This book is a lavish entertainment.

(The endpapers, illustrated by Judith Masefield, give you a sample of some of the book's variety.)

Its Christmas scenes are lavish too, especially the Christmas party that Kay and his friends attend at Tatchester Palace. They have "the biggest and most glorious Christmas Tree that had ever been seen in Tatchester," decorated with glass globes and electric lights, and stuffed full of incredible toys. It takes John Masefield almost two pages to describe all of these toys: whistles, drums, popguns, swords, dolls, teddy-bears, trains and railways, airplanes, farms, zoos, aquariums, soldiers, bricks, books, sewing kits with silver thimbles, costumes, jewelry, toy boats, and all kinds of candy. And there's more:

"All round this marvellous tree were wonderful crackers, eighteen inches long. The Bishop made all the children stand in a double rank round the tree, each with one end of a cracker in each hand. The musicians struck up a tune and they danced in the double rank three times round the Christmas Tree. Then the Bishop gave the word: they pulled the crackers, which went off with a bang together, like cannons. And then, inside the crackers there were the most lovely decorations -- real little tiny coats of coloured paper that you could put on, with the most splendid hats and necklets like real gold."

(A 1930s label for a box of Christmas crackers. I love how happy the random dragon in back is.)

This is a book in which one boy gets everything he has always wanted. That doesn't just include Christmas presents. In one scene, Kay enters an enchanted forest and meets Herne the Hunter, the horned spirit of the woods, who grants some of Kay's lifelong wishes by turning him into a stag, a wild duck, and a fish. The forest is just as rich and beautiful as Kay's Christmas party:

"... For there he was in the forest between the two hawthorn trees, with the petals of the may-blossom falling on him. All the may-blossoms that fell were talking to him, and he was aware of what all the creatures of the forest were saying to each other: what the birds were singing, and what it was that the flowers and trees were thinking. And he realized that the forest went on and on for ever, and all of it was full of life beyond anything he had ever imagined: for in the trees, in each leaf, and on every twig, and in every inch of soil there were ants, grubs, worms; little, tiny moving things, incredibly small yet thrilling with life.
'Oh dear,' Kay said. 'I shall never know a hundredth part of all the things there are to know.'
'You will, if you stay with me,' Herne the Hunter said."

(George Cruikshank's print of Herne the Hunter, 1840s.)

Later in The Box of Delights, Herne takes on the role of Santa Claus, taking Kay for a ride in a glittery, icy sleigh driven by a team of flying unicorns. Is it strange that two of my favorite Christmas books -- The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising -- feature Herne the Hunter? I think that Susan Cooper must have been inspired by The Box of Delights, even though The Dark is Rising is so different in tone. The Box of Delights has some serious moments, but it's not a work of epic fantasy. It's more like a magic show that keeps unfolding enchantment after enchantment. That's exactly the kind of experience I want to have at Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas With Jeeves

I don't think that P.G. Wodehouse was the biggest fan of Christmas. First of all, there is the comic essay he wrote for Vanity Fair in 1915, in which he skewers the whole tradition of gift-giving. (I love the cynical modern child at the end of the essay who sneers at his Christmas present -- a silver cigarette case -- and then languidly re-gifts it to his manservant.) And then there are all the lines in Wodehouse stories referring to Christmas as an annoyance, like this one from "Jeeves and the Greasy Bird:"

"Jeeves was in the sitting-room messing about with holly, for we would soon be having Christmas at our throats and he is always a stickler for doing the right thing."

But in spite of that, I think that the Wodehouse story "Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit," from Very Good, Jeeves, is the perfect lighthearted Christmas read.

This is the story in which Bertie Wooster falls in love with Bobbie Wickham, and he cancels his holiday trip to Monte Carlo so that he can spend Christmas with her family. He defends his choice to a disappointed Jeeves:

"'In the first place, does one get the Yule-tide spirit at a spot like Monte Carlo?'
'Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?'
'Certainly one does. I am all for it.'"

One might expect this Christmas to turn into a traditional Dickensian holiday. Christmas with friends at their country house -- that's exactly like the Christmas scene in The Pickwick Papers. But Wodehouse redefines the Yule-tide spirit in this story, and it ends up not being Dickensian in the slightest. Wodehouse's Yule-tide spirit isn't the feeling of goodwill and merriment that you get in The Pickwick Papers; it's more like a high-spirited sense of mischief. Traditional Christmas activities like carol-singing and dancing recede into the background, and instead everyone in the story focuses on playing practical jokes on each other. It all culminates in the kind of Christmas morning that only Bertie Wooster would have:

"I could have sworn I hadn't so much as dozed off for even a minute, but apparently I had. For the curtains were drawn back and daylight was coming in through the window and there was Jeeves standing beside me with a cup of tea on a tray.
'Merry Christmas, sir!'
I reached out a feeble hand for the restoring brew. I swallowed a mouthful or two, and felt a little better. I was aching in every limb and the dome felt like lead, but I was now able to think with a certain amount of clearness, and I fixed the man with a stony eye and prepared to let him have it.
'You think so, do you?' I said. 'Much, let me tell you, depends on what you mean by the adjective 'merry.''"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas in The Dark is Rising

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

Every year around this time I find that verse jingling around in my head. I might be a little obsessed with the book that the verse comes from, Susan Cooper's 1973 book The Dark is Rising. It's the second in a series of five books, but it was the first Susan Cooper book I read when I was a child. It's my favorite in the series, and it works as a stand-alone novel too (although I can't imagine anyone not wanting to read the entire series after this one). And it's a wonderful Christmas book.

If The Blue Castle has the most romantic Christmas, The Dark is Rising has the most magical one. The story begins on midwinter's day and ends on Twelfth Night, and it features lots of the English and Celtic traditions associated with that time. There are traditions that I've practiced myself, like hanging up holly and going caroling, and there are folk rituals that I only know about from The Golden Bough, like the Hunting of the Wren. In The Dark is Rising, all of those traditions are recast as part of a literal battle between light and dark.

This book has some of the same plot points that I love in the Harry Potter books: an epic battle between good and evil, a boy who finds out on his eleventh birthday that he has special magical powers, a kindly but cryptic wizard who mentors him. But The Dark is Rising is more mysterious and sometimes scarier than the Harry Potter books. Susan Cooper can make the basic elements of winter -- snow, long nights, flocks of winter birds -- seem eerie and threatening. Behind the whole book is the idea that this time of year is dangerous; that the sun might not actually return. It makes the fires and festivities of Christmas seem all the more joyous in contrast.
(Christmas in The Dark is Rising features terrifying mobs of rooks like the ones in this picture.)

I love the Christmas Eve scene in The Dark is Rising, where the children go caroling, and the song "Good King Wenceslas" becomes a time-traveling device. And I also love Christmas Day with the family of Will Stanton, the hero of the book. He's the youngest of nine children, so he has the kind of busy and bustling holiday that you get in a big family, with all of its traditions and quarrels and merriment. This is what Christmas is like in Will's household:

"Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly bloomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in a corner of which Gwen could be found putting the last touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that. Ageless, familiar Christmas music permeated the house whenever anyone turned on the radio ... Straight after breakfast -- an even more haphazard affair than usual -- there was the double ritual of the Yule log and the Christmas tree.
"For it was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was in the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside. Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living-room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down."

(I would like to have a Yule log! If I had a fireplace.)

I can't think of Christmas without thinking of that scene. Also, every time I hear that it's going to snow, I quote The Dark is Rising to myself: "This night will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christmas in the Blue Castle

Christmas is coming, people! It's time for my most cherished holiday ritual, which, of course, is reading books. As the holiday gets closer, I'll revisit some of my favorite Christmas scenes in literature. I've already started reading Little Women out loud with my husband. I'm thinking, like Sarah from Pink of Perfection, that it might inspire my Christmas this year. (Can I convince my family to perform amateur theatricals?) But there are so many literary Christmases that I want to take part in. For the rest of the month, I'll occasionally be posting about the Christmas scenes that I love, and maybe I can manage to have a holiday that includes aspects of all of them.

(1896 illustration of Little Women by Frank T. Merrill.)

I'll start with the Christmas scene that I think is the most romantic: Valancy's Christmas from L.M. Montgomery's 1926 novel The Blue Castle. This is one of my favorite books ever, and I plan to write about it at great length later. (Spoilers follow. Well, one spoiler, anyway.)

For now I just want to say how much The Blue Castle makes me want to spend Christmas on a lake in Ontario. Maybe in Bala, the town in Muskoka that is supposed to be the inspiration for The Blue Castle. (They have an L.M. Montgomery museum! Let's all go.) But I doubt that any real place could be as solitary and beautiful as the cabin on (fictional) Lake Mistawis where Valancy and Barney live, the little house that is so perfect that Valancy names it after the place she always dreamed she would live, her imaginary "Blue Castle." This is what it's like on Lake Mistawis in winter:

"Days of clear brilliance. Evenings that were like cups of glamour -- the purest vintage of winter's wine. Nights with their fire of stars. Cold, exquisite winter sunrises. Lovely ferns of ice all over the windows of the Blue Castle. Moonlight on birches in a silver thaw. Ragged shadows on windy evenings -- torn, twisted, fantastic shadows. Great silences, austere and searching. Jewelled, barbaric hills. The sun suddenly breaking through grey clouds over long, white Mistawis. Icy-grey twilights, broken by snow-squalls, when their cozy living-room, with its goblins of firelight and inscrutable cats, seemed cosier than ever. Every hour brought a new revelation and wonder."

(This is a frozen lake in Japan, not Canada, but I found it on this wonderful Blue Castle-themed board on Pinterest.)

Okay, yes, I live in Florida, and I wear a sweater when the temperature gets below 70 F (21 C). But I'm pretty sure that if I were ever surrounded by such wintry loveliness, I would be exactly like Valancy: snowshoeing through the woods and skating on the frozen lake, too happy to catch a cold.

Valancy's life with Barney out on Lake Mistawis is her escape from the rest of the world, especially from her terrible family. But even if you don't need to escape from anything, there is something to be said for spending a holiday the way Valancy does: alone in a cabin with the person you love (and a couple of cats). Barney and Valancy celebrate Christmas with a dinner of roast goose, which they share with their cats, and a bottle of dandelion wine, which I hope they finish themselves. It sounds so relaxing:

"They had a lovely Christmas. No rush. No scramble. No niggling attempts to make ends meet. No wild effort to remember whether she hadn't given the same kind of present to the same person two Christmases before -- no mob of last-minute shoppers -- no dreary family 'reunions' where she sat mute and unimportant -- no attacks of 'nerves.' They decorated the Blue Castle with pine boughs, and Valancy made delightful little tinsel stars and hung them up amid the greenery."

(Christmas at my parents' house, where it does snow occasionally.)

The Blue Castle Christmas isn't exactly my ideal holiday, as I would like to see my family, and also maybe have indoor heating. But it's close.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magician's Nephew and its Delights

I haven't been writing a lot lately because it's the end of the semester, which is a time of frantic grading for me. But somehow I have still managed to get in a lot of reading. This week I came across an essay that a student wrote on C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, and I realized that I couldn't remember the plot of that book at all; it had been such a long time since I'd read it. Obviously it was my duty to stop grading and reread The Magician's Nephew immediately. It's work-related, right? That doesn't count as procrastination.

 (This is the first edition, published in 1955.)

Rereading the Narnia books as an adult hasn't always been successful for me. The Horse and his Boy, for example, turned out to be way more offensive than I remembered, and it was so disappointing. And I get tired of all of the villainous vegetarians, educational reformers, and independent women. All of the characters who would be sympathetic ones in an E. Nesbit novel are the bad guys in the Narnia books. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Magician's Nephew.

Maybe it's because The Magician's Nephew is the most E. Nesbit-like of all of the Narnia books. There is a reference to The Story of the Treasure Seekers in the first paragraph, and Polly and Digory, the main characters of The Magician's Nephew, are really similar to the Bastables children. (Except that they are much less hilarious.) When Polly and Digory plan to explore an abandoned house or make a smuggler's cave with packing-cases and ginger-beer bottles, it's straight out of the Bastables' playbook. They even sound like the Bastables when they talk, especially in the beginning when they are speculating about Digory's mysterious uncle:

"'Well, either he's mad,' said Digory, 'or there's some other mystery. He has a study on the top floor and Aunt Letty says I must never go up there. Well, that looks fishy to begin with.'
'Perhaps he keeps a mad wife shut up there.'
'Yes, I've thought of that.'
'Or perhaps he's a coiner.'
'Or he might have been a pirate, like the man at the beginning of Treasure Island, and be always hiding from his old shipmates.'
'How exciting!' said Polly. 'I never knew your house was so interesting.'"

(Illustration by Pauline Baynes from the 1955 edition.)

So much of The Magician's Nephew reminds me of the E. Nesbit book The Story of the Amulet. Both books are about objects that allow their bearers to travel magically: Polly and Digory have magic rings that take them to different worlds, and the children in The Story of the Amulet have a magic necklace that lets them travel back in time. Both books have imperious ancient queens who appear in present-day London, scholarly gentlemen who are interested in Atlantis, and mystical scenes that take place at the beginning of the universe. But it's fascinating to see C.S. Lewis's different take on these ideas. E. Nesbit's ancient queen is mildly annoying, her mystical scene is based on Egyptian mythology, and her Atlantean scholar is a kindly old man with a passion for learning. C.S. Lewis has a truly wicked queen, a mystical scene that is based on Genesis, and an Atlantean scholar -- Digory's uncle, and the magician of the title -- who is pure evil.

(H.R. Millar's illustration of the Queen of Babylon causing chaos at the British Museum, from The Story of the Amulet.)

(Pauline Baynes' illustration of the Queen of Charn causing chaos on the streets of London, from The Magician's Nephew.)

The Magician's Nephew has delights of its own, though, that are not found in any E. Nesbit book. I love the Wood Between the Worlds, a peaceful, drowsy woodland dotted with ponds that serve as portals between dimensions. (I also loved how these portals showed up in Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King, which are must-reads for any Narnia fans.) One of the ponds leads to Narnia, of course, but it's Narnia in its earliest days. That was one of the things I had forgotten about The Magician's Nephew: that it's the story of the creation of Narnia. It explains the origin of the witch, the wardrobe, the talking animals, even the lamp post. It's fun to see all of these things popping into existence.

(Aslan in the process of creating Narnia's animals.)

The Magician's Nephew is the best Narnia book that I've reread so far. I might try rereading The Silver Chair next. Although I just looked at it, and it starts out complaining about "co-educational" schools where the teachers don't beat the students, so ... maybe I should just reread another E. Nesbit book.