This holiday week I’m recommending some entertaining dragons. Do you have any favourite Fantasy authors who are guaranteed to cheer you up when you are in a fit of the glooms? One of mine is E.Nesbit. She is famous for classic novels such as `The Railway Children’ and `Five Children and It’ but she also wrote delightful modern Fairy Tales. Modern in 1900 that is, which is when `The Book of Dragons’ was first published. The eight stories in this collection had previously appeared in `The Strand’ magazine, the original home of Sherlock Holmes. Cheap paperback copies of `The Book of Dragons’ are fairly easy to find or you can download the text for free on most e-readers. Better still, find a copy of `The Complete Book of Dragons’ a 1972 edition which contains an extra story `The Last of the Dragons’ and witty illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This book has also been republished under the title of `The Last of the Dragons and Some Others’.
Nesbit’s funny and fast-paced stories all feature intrepid young people who have to deal with monsters, including a clever cockatrice (in `Kind Little Edmund or the Caves and the Cockatrice’), a cat-eating manticora (in `The Book of Beasts’) and lots and lots of dragons. One story is set in Cornwall `before what you call English History began’ (The Last of the Dragons’) while two start in Victorian London (`The Deliverers of their Country’ and `The Ice Dragon or Do as You are Told’) and contrast everyday life with some very strange happenings. Others are set in invented realms, like the Kingdom of Rotundia where `all the animals were the wrong sizes’ (`Uncle James or the Purple Stranger’) or have typical Fairy Tale backgrounds with a distinctive twist or two – such as a royal pack of hippopotamuses in `The Fiery Dragon or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold’ and a griffin who does housework in `The Island of the Nine Whirlpools’. Like traditional tales, Nesbit’s stories often claim to explain the origin of something, ranging from the English climate (`The Deliverers of the their Country’) to the first cat (`The Dragon Tamers’).
Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was an unconventional woman who flouted many of the rules of Victorian morality. She cut her hair short, earned her own living by selling her poems and stories to magazines, was a campaigning socialist and enjoyed what we might now call an `open marriage’. She had three children and also brought up her husband’s two children by their housekeeper as her own. Nesbit was too busy to be the type of ideal mother who appears in `The Railway Children’. She was sometimes neglectful to the point of irresponsibility and she herself claimed that she retained a child’s mind in a grown-up’s body. All this shows in her writing in various ways.
Nesbit is the most unstuffy of Victorian authors and her stories are seldom preachy. She knew what children liked, so there are never any boring bits in her Fairy Tales and the plots get underway very quickly. For example, in `The Book of Beasts’ a little boy unexpectedly becomes king of his country on the very first page. Nesbit remembered how children think and feel – especially the kind of children who frequently get into trouble. The behaviour and motivation of her young characters is always convincing, even in her Fantasy stories, so you’ll believe that the bizarre things which happen to `Kind Little Edmund’ are due to his laudable desire to `find out new things that nobody has thought of but me’. Above all, like the writers of many of Pixar’s films, Nesbit has a sense of humour which appeals to both children and adults.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am keen on dragon-centred Fantasy. I particularly admire the variety of Nesbit’s dragons. They can be clever or stupid, gentle or ferocious, huge or tiny. There is a dragon made of ice, and a dragon that sets everything on fire, a smooth-talking purple dragon, a rapacious red dragon and a giant yellow dragon who turns out to be a devoted mother. In `The Deliverers of their Country’ an `Alarming Plague of Dragons’ begins with a dragon small enough to get in a little girl’s eye and swiftly progresses to people finding earwig-sized dragons in their soap and butter, dog-sized dragons steaming in their baths and sheep-sized dragons scorching their bedsheets. Nesbit, who also wrote Horror stories, isn’t afraid to make her bigger dragons scary. There are jaunty descriptions of these monsters gobbling up animals, people, and in one case an entire football match `players, umpires, goal-posts, football and all’ (`The Book of Beasts’). A major function of dragons in literature (and of dinosaurs in movies) is to eat the bad guys before being defeated by the good guys. Nesbit has her dragons munch on the kinds of people she disliked, such as greedy politicians, arrogant aristocrats and big-game hunters. Who would you put on the dragon-food list?
There is a two-headed dragon that only eats kings and queens in a story called `Billy the King’ which you can find in another collection called `E.Nesbit Fairy Stories’, which was published in 1977 and edited by Naomi Lewis. I wouldn’t put Nesbit in the very first rank of Fairy Tale writers. Her stories are always witty and charming but they lack the poignancy and the haunting qualities of the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my `Snow Queen’ post of January 2013) or Oscar Wilde (see post of November 2013). Where Nesbit does score highly is with her female characters. They are not just there to cast evil spells or to look pretty and be rescued. In most of her stories, the girls are as smart, brave and resourceful as the boys. As plucky Jane says to her brother in `The Ice Dragon’, `I’m not so stupid as you think, George’. If you believe that Feminist Fairy Tales are a recent development try `The Last of the Dragons’ which features `the strongest and boldest and most skilful and most sensible princess in Europe’. She won’t tolerate being rescued from a dragon by a prince in the traditional manner. The princess persuades her weedy but nice prince that they should tackle the dragon together. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to seek out the treasure that is E.Nesbit’s dragon stories. Happy Easter.