Sep 27 2012 3:00pm

Dealing with Ivanhoe and Other Literary Issues: Knight’s Castle

Dealing with Ivanhoe and Other Literary Issues: A Reread of Knight’s Castle by Edward EagerEdward 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 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.

Eli Bishop
1. EliBishop
When I read it at about age 10, I was completely unfamiliar with Ivanhoe (still am) but I had no trouble with it - as an avid reader of Mad Magazine movie parodies, I was used to laughing at references that I didn't understand. On the other hand, for some reason Eager's frequent references to Nesbit (who I was also unfamiliar with at that point, but no longer) really annoyed me-- I guess I didn't like for an author to tell me what to read, even if he might be right.

Anyway, I loved this book and it's a great example of how funny Eager could be. My favorite joke is when one of the superstitious medieval characters sees a "BVD" label on the kids' thermal underwear and decides it means "Bene Volens Diabolis," or "best wishes from the Devil."
seth e.
2. seth e.
This was one of my favorite of Eager's books. I too had no problem with the Ivanhoe references (and I too still haven't read it). But I was used to not picking up on a lot of the references in books when I was a kid, since I read so many older books, and books above my supposed reading level. I can't remember whether I read Eager or Nesbit first, but in either case, the actual everyday reality they described also felt like fairyland to me--a little less so in Eager's case, obviously, but still.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@Elibishop and seth e -- Ah, good to know my fears about needing to know Ivanhoe were wrong.

I hadn't realized that his recommendations for what to read would get annoying, but now that you mention that, I can see your point.
seth e.
4. Teka Lynn
I had never read any Nesbit before I read Eager, and I still haven't managed to crack Ivanhoe (over the head?). Even so, Knight's Castle was always my favorite Eager book. I'd never heard "Sh-boom" either, but the incongruity of medieval knights and ladies singing it is still hilariuous.

Probably the hardest suspension of disbelief to a contemporary reader is that any parent would let the kids play with LEAD toy soldiers. Gadzooks!
Pamela Adams
5. PamAdams
This one was fun and I loved the ability to mess with the dolls' universe by adding other toys.
seth e.
6. HelenS
I was very fond of this book and did TRY to read Ivanhoe after reading it, but I think failed to get very far until I was a good deal older. (Dealing with characters called things like Gurth and Wamba was, however, good practice for reading certain sorts of fantasy literature later.) I have to say that The Magic City was quite a disappointment when I got to it (I like it better now, after a few rereadings, but it's never going to be in my top few). I hadn't expected terribly much of Ivanhoe, but I had thought Eager would be trustworthy about Nesbit.
john mullen
7. johntheirishmongol
Any book that disses the 1952 Ivanhoe movie, which not only had Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine..but George Saunders and Elizabeth Taylor at her most gorgeous time of life..should be totally ignored. But I do recommend reading the original book. Like many from that long ago, you have to get used to the candence and do some language research, but it is a great story.
seth e.
8. between4walls
Haven't seen the 1952 version, but the 1997 is dire. Yeah, what Ivanhoe really needs is graphic torture scenes and a long, drawn-out trial by combat. Not.

Flying saucers, on the other hand, sound promising...
seth e.
9. John Cowan
But torture and trial by combat is exactly what the book has. I speak as One Having Authority here, having adapted a small part of the original to video as a teenager, circa 1972. Of course, in those days not only did a teacher have to be cameraman, a teacher had to burn down the castle (or at least a painting of it on a huge roll of brown paper that we used as a backdrop).

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