Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle starts off with a proper show of respect to both Edith Nesbit and the Betsy-Tacy books, and a slightly improper lack of respect to both the film and book versions of Ivanhoe. (Given the date of the book and a couple of discreet comments early on, this appears to be the 1952 Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor version, and I am so on young Roger’s critical side here. But I digress.) Much of the anti-Ivanhoe argument revolves around the absolutely correct conclusion that although, you know, Ivanhoe is excellent with the knights and Robin Hood and all that, it is much less excellent with the whole Ivanhoe ending up with the wrong girl bit. (Don’t try to argue either the kids in the book or me out of this one.)
Naturally, the kids, with the help of a bit of magic, end up traveling into Ivanhoe. (The, um, book, that is, not the knight.) Well, sorta Ivanhoe. A flying saucer is involved.
This is going to get a bit complicated for such a short book, isn’t it?
Shortly after the conversation about the Betsy-Tacy books, ten year old Roger and eight year old Ann learn that their father is very ill, and needs treatment and potential surgery down at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. (The hospital isn’t specifically named, but the descriptions make it clear that this is the place Eager had in mind.) Even apart from their worry about their father, this brings up new problems: they are going to have to spend the summer with their horrible cousins: bossy Eliza and scientific Jack. Ugh. It’s especially difficult for Ann, who is shy and not very brave and, as she tells herself,
Not only was she a girl, but she was too young. There didn’t seem to be much future for anybody who was both these things.
Fortunately, Roger is able to bring along his toy soldiers (Eager’s narrative at this point suggests that he had spent several lengthy and painful conversations with his own children about what can and cannot be taken along on vacation), and their cousins have a really wonderful dollhouse and an even more wonderful toy castle, perfect for doing re-enactments of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. And equally fortunately, one of Roger’s toy soldiers—the very old one that has been handed down so carefully within the family—tells Roger he can earn a wish. And have an adventure.
I am very pleased to note that Roger, unlike virtually every other child protagonist I have written about in this series of rereads so far, has done his homework and does remember how to correctly address the Old One. But that doesn’t prevent him from screwing up his first adventure, and screwing it up quite badly, which I suppose proves that reading doesn’t solve everything – although it helps.
That adventure sends Roger into the toy castle, where the toys, since they were set up to re-enact Ivanhoe, are well, re-enacting Ivanhoe. At least, they’re re-enacting Ivanhoe until a terrified and furious Roger explains to Brian de Bois-Guilbert (as played by the late, great George Sanders, perhaps best known to most Tor.com readers as Mr. Freeze, but also known for his brilliance in All About Eve) exactly what his enemies are up to and how the story will end, which of course kind of ruins the ending. In many ways. Roger escapes only by misquoting Alice in Wonderland.
It’s a rather obvious borrowing from Edith Nesbit’s The Magic City (mentioned if not precisely credited in the text), but Eager saves it from becoming a tired retread of the other book by adding a new element: Roger and the others are able to travel in and out of their magical world, and while outside that world, change it, merely by shifting around the toys. If this turns the second trip into a rather nightmarish vision of the major characters from Ivanhoe sent to a rather bizarre modern world complete with, well, flying saucers and trips to the moon, and a third trip into an equally terrifying encounter with the dolls from the dollhouse next door (understandably infuriated at their poor treatment at the hands of the four children), it also gives them power to change events and save their lives. And play baseball.
And, um, for those of you flipping out about Ann’s statement above? Well, let’s just say this gives her the ability to become the hero.
It’s a fast-paced, often hilarious book. The literary and fairy tale references fly fast and furious – not just Ivanhoe, Edith Nesbit, and Alice in Wonderland, but also Mary Poppins, John Keir Cross (presumably less obscure then than now), The New Yorker, Jack and the Beanstalk, and a lot more that I probably missed. One of my favorite bits includes a ripoff of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, here transformed into something considerably scarier, since the phrases are mouthed by some very angry dolls on the warpath, but Ivanhoe taking a flying saucer to the moon decidedly has its moments, as does the image of most of the cast of Ivanhoe taking a break for a nice baseball game, Saxon against Norman. Eager also has distinct fun with the dialogue, leaping in and out of a decidedly faux old British language straight from Howard Pyle to some very American phrases. And I for one can wholeheartedly embrace “correcting” the end of Ivanhoe, more than just a bit. (If my first paragraph didn’t give it away, I am not exactly a fan of how Scott ends his novel, even if, yes, realistically, Scott really couldn’t have ended it in any other way.)
My one quibble: I’m not sure just how well readers, young and old, not familiar with Ivanhoe would be able to follow the book. Since it’s been a long time since I’ve read or seen Ivanhoe, I missed a few of the references, and although Eager does what he can to identify villains versus heroes, and somewhat describe characters in a few short lines, I fear that readers completely unfamiliar with Ivanhoe may end up having some difficulties following along, although enough other things are going on that it’s not completely impossible. The book’s ending, too, is a bit muddled; I have to confess I had to reread bits just to figure out exactly what Ann was doing, which rather robs the book of her final triumph.
But for all that, it’s still fun, and, well, Ivanhoe. In a flying saucer. Lots to be said for that.
Mari Ness has never quite forgiven Sir Walter Scott for the ending of Ivanhoe. She lives in central Florida.