To the child, from the beginning, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery; to him our stalest commonplaces are great news, our dullest facts prismatic wonders. To the baby who has never seen a red ball, a red ball is a marvel, new and magnificent as ever the golden apples were to Hercules.
You show the child many things, all strange, all entrancing; it sees, it hears, it touches; it learns to co-ordinate sight and touch and hearing. You tell it tales of the things it cannot see and hear and touch, of men “that it may never meet, of lands that it shall never see”; strange black and brown and yellow people whose dress is not the dress of mother or nurse—strange glowing yellow lands where the sun burns like fire, and flowers grow that are not like the flowers in the fields at home. You tell it that the stars, which look like pin-holes in the floor of heaven, are really great lonely worlds, millions of miles away; that the earth, which the child can see for itself to be flat, is really round; that nuts fall from the trees because of the force of gravitation, and not, as reason would suggest, merely because there is nothing to hold them up. And the child believes; it believes all the seeming miracles.
Then you tell it of other things no more miraculous and no less; of fairies, and dragons, and enchantments, of spells and magic, of flying carpets and invisible swords. The child believes in these wonders likewise. Why not? If very big men live in Patagonia, why should not very little men live in flower-bells? If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? The child’s memory becomes a store-house of beautiful and wonderful things which are or have been in the visible universe, or in that greater universe, the mind of man. Life will teach the child, soon enough, to distinguish between the two.
But there are those who are not as you and I. These say that all the enchanting fairy romances are lies, that nothing is real that cannot be measured or weighed, seen or heard or handled. Such make their idols of stocks and stones, and are blind and deaf to the things of the spirit. These hard-fingered materialists crush the beautiful butterfly wings of imagination, insisting that pork and pews and public-houses are more real than poetry; that a looking-glass is more real than love, a viper than valour. These Gradgrinds give to the children the stones which they call facts, and deny to the little ones the daily bread of dreams.
Of the immeasurable value of imagination as a means to the development of the loveliest virtues, to the uprooting of the ugliest and meanest sins, there is here no space to speak. But the gain in sheer happiness is more quickly set forth. Imagination, duly fostered and trained, is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.
But Mr. Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly, the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David. There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubts about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the Spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little Materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?
I have yet to read anything by Edith Nesbit that I didn’t enjoy. Her children’s books tend to be a bit long and plodding at times for the modern reader suffering from distractions and attention deficits, but that is part of what makes them all the more worthwhile. They are entertaining, yet countercultural reading for the modern child. At times her writing smacks of well-to-do Victorian England. But hey, that’s the world in which she lived. Not everyone has ponies and large gardens, but that shouldn’t cause us to despise her stories.
Her dialogue is always a pleasure, and this book has a lot of it. Her moral vision is helpful, and this book has plenty of that as well. This is not a review, and I will not spoil anything; I will simply give my main takeaways from the story.
The Magic City is imaginatively enlivening. The main character, Philip, is an imaginative builder, as most children are. What child in the presence of sand would not build a sandcastle? The difference is that Philip’s toy building projects come to life. His play castles become real castles in an alternate world.
Philip is orphaned and lives with his older sister. The main story revolves around Philip’s struggles as his older sister gets married. He will no longer be the main focus of her life. This causes his struggles. His new stepsister, Lucy, comes into play and has a sanctifying influence on Philip – drawing his hatred at first, but ultimately winning his love and making him a better person through her own. Chivalry comes to life in a new context with these two brave children, as they seek, despite the friction of being new step-siblings, to deliver Philip’s magic city from the hands of a Destroyer.
The love and devotion of children, in the midst of heartbreak and confusion, is the great takeaway of the story. It provides an imaginative glimpse into how bravery, humility, sacrifice, and selfless love (witnessed and practiced) can change even, or especially, a child. In addition to that, the lively imaginative feel of the book is inspiring for those who aspire to greater creativity. I heartily recommend the book to families with young children. My eight-year-old daughter enjoyed it tremendously, and I did as well.
A great line from The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit:
‘You know jolly well you can’t,’ said Cyril, bitterly. ‘It’s settled. It’s Medium and Persian. You’ve done it, and you’ll have to stand by it.’
We were so sorry he was gone that we could none of us eat much tea; but we did not mind, because we had pleased the poor Indian and enjoyed ourselves too. Besides, as Dora said, ‘A contented mind is a continual feast,’ so it did not matter about not wanting tea.
-E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, p. 226
- 1 Timothy 6:6 Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.
- Proverbs 15:15 All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.