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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Magic and Children, Then and Now
Back in the day, magical children didn't exist in children's literature. Nesbit, for example, wrote about children who got involved with magical creatures or objects, but while those creatures or objects might lend them magic for a limited time, for example by granting wishes, the children themselves were sturdily ordinary. That, as far as I can see, was typical: children might encounter magic users - from Molesworth's cuckoo clock to Puck, to Cole Hawlings, to Merlin - and they might get temporary magical powers as a result (often to regret it), but they weren't themselves presented as magical.

Then something changed. In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly post 1970, we begin to meet children who are intrinsically magical. Ged. Will Stanton. Mildred Hubble. The Chants (Christopher and Laura). Buffy. Harry Potter. Percy Jackson.

First, is this even true? It's top-of-the-head stuff, and there may be many counter-examples I've not yet thought of. I suspect things are fuzzier in humorous texts, and in ones set in secondary worlds. (I'm wondering about Dorothy, for example.) But if there is any truth to it is it significant, and if so, of what? Does it reflect changing views of children and childhood? The rise of superhero comics? Different attitudes to magic itself?

I don't think this necessarily works. Think about George MacDonald with At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin. Diamond and Irene are both pretty magical, particularly if we include the special, intrinsically virtuous child that shows up in so much Victorian literature as part of their magic. And The Water Babies--Tom is pretty much magical by definition, having been tuned into a water baby after his death.

Are Irene and Diamond magical? It's a while since I read those books, and I have no memory of it, but I may be wrong. I don't think being intensely virtuous counts as magical in itself.

Tom's an interesting case, but having seen heleninwales's point (below) I'd be inclined to say that turning into a water baby is something that happens to him, like an enchantment, rather than something that stems from his magical nature. And of course, as with her example of the Light Princess, he's returned to "normal" at the end.

These are interesting counter-examples, though: I think I'm going to have define my terms more carefully.

(no subject) - vschanoes, 2013-03-14 06:39 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-14 07:07 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rachelmanija, 2013-03-14 08:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-14 08:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rachelmanija, 2013-03-14 08:49 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-14 08:55 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Will have to think about this, but you could be on to something. You previously had children who were enchanted in some way -- I'm thinking of George MacDonald's Light Princess, but that was the fairy tale magic of being enchanted by a malevolent magic user. And of course she was unenchanted at the end.

Yes, I don't think being on the butt-end of an enchantment makes you magical any more than being granted a wish does.

First I'd like to know about how child readers see the different kinds. Dorothy was ordinary and went to a very interesting magical world; the Phoenix and the Psammead were interesting magical creatures. Don't some of the 'magical children' kind keep them in this world, using their single magic talent to deal with rather mundane things?

Do the Chants and Harry Potter really count, since they are joining a magic caste in a world different from ours?

I too would like to know how child readers see it. I'm not sure how to find out, but it's something to consider.

I mention Dorothy because I'm not sure (not having read all the books) whether she gains magical powers or not, but I'm sure there are those on my friends list who would know (sartorias?).

The children who find the Phoenix and Psammead aren't magical in themselves: they just have the temporary use of magical objects and creatures.

It's true that the Chants and HP are joining a magical caste (as are Will Stanton and Percy Jackson) although I would say that only Christopher Chant is doing it in a world different from ours. Discovering you're a member of a magical caste is a very common trope, now - but are there any examples of it prior to, say, 1965?

(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2013-03-14 05:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-14 05:57 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2013-03-14 08:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-14 08:52 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2013-03-15 05:19 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-15 08:07 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2013-03-14 08:06 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-14 08:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2013-03-14 09:59 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - tekalynn, 2013-03-22 03:43 am (UTC)(Expand)
You know whom I completely forgot? Peter Pan.

Excellent point. Yes, he really seems to have "gone native" with magic a big way, to the extent that he barely seems to be treated as a real boy at all, but he clearly is, or was.

(no subject) - heleninwales, 2013-03-17 03:39 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Hmm. You have me thinking about the enormous impression that Will Stanton made on me when I first read Dark is Rising (and later Bran). I think my fantasy reading up to that point had been characterized by the sturdily ordinary children in magical situations -- Nesbit, Eager, and come to think of it the first book in Cooper's series, "Over Sea Under Stone." It bowled me over to read about a child protagonist as special and magical as Will.

Heh - you and me both.

I think there are magical children in the Water Babies. And the heroine in The Light Princess is certainly magical. Going back further, you have things like the various version of Le Bel Inconnu, in some of which the young hero has, if not out and out magic, better-than-human skills and has often been raised by fairies or other supernatural beings. The latter isn't aimed at a child audience, I guess, but...

Yes, I'm thinking of children's literature specifically. The question about the Light Princess is, is she actually magical or is she just an ordinary person suffering under a curse put on her by Princess Makemnoit - just as Sleeping Beauty slept a magical sleep not because she had the Power of Protracted Lie-Ins but because of the bad fairy's spell?

(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2013-03-15 10:53 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-16 10:17 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2013-03-16 02:45 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I recollect magical children like Pippi Longstocking, and one called Star Child, from the fifties/sixties, but they weren't British.

I don't know Star Child, but yes, Pippi would certainly count (even though she doesn't talk about things in terms of magic, if I recall). Of course, we have Tommy and Annika, our representatives, to keep our feet on the ground.

Edited at 2013-03-14 08:10 pm (UTC)

(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-03-15 08:10 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias, 2013-03-15 12:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
There's The Witch Family, by Eleanor Estes, 1960 (a really wonderful book, by the way).

Another new one - what a boost this is proving to my tbr pile!

Going back to the nineteenth century, does Thumbelina count?

Interesting question. Certainly magical in her origins, anyway. I've always assumed that Andersen invented her in allusion to Tom Thumb, who isn't magical but happens to be born very small (just as Stuart Little happens to be born looking like a mouse), so I've never thought of her as magical, but I think a case could be made.

In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly post 1970, we begin to meet children who are intrinsically magical. Ged. Will Stanton. Mildred Hubble. The Chants (Christopher and Laura). Buffy. Harry Potter. Percy Jackson.

The big divide I see between those periods (at least for children's literature involving children using magic in our world), is dark vs light, gloomy vs fun. Later the children who "are magic", have dark dangerous situations to challenge them. In the earlier period, children who had magic had fun (as well as harmless chaos and frustration): Nesbit, Eager, and I hope others I'm forgetting. (Narnia, written mid-century, had various mixtures). Also, the later magic children's "own" powers, which they exercise naturally and can control, are not as spectacular as the magic that comes from outside sources; in the earlier period spectacular magic was from wishes or enchantment, later from evil sources.

Maybe there's a POV problem here. If the story is from the POV of the child, how is she going to regard the magic that "she is"? If the magic comes from outside (whether by magic item or spell cast on her etc etc), then she can be surprised and impressed and see it as cool and awesome and spectacular. But if it's just something that "she is" and always has been, such an attitude would be problematic.

I think in general that's a fair distinction, but I think we might add that the "fun" time was also the time of using magic as a means of moral instruction, not so much with Nesbit, still less Eager, as with the tradition Nesbit was writing out of - and I'm thinking particularly of Mrs Molesworth. Actually, even with Nesbit there's frequently an element of "Be careful what you wish for". You want to be as beautiful as the sun? Fine, but no one will care about you. You want unlimited wealth? Okay, but it'll be as much use to you as it was to Midas.

Your comment also helps bring into focus one of the achievements of Diana Wynne Jones, who did manage to combine magical powers with fun and spectacular magic, and is I think an exception to your general rule. The general rule is still, I think, a sound one.

Nesbit's children mostly have magic thrust upon 'em, or at least offered on a plate. But I'm currently reading Harding's Luck, for the first time in half a century, and there's a bit there in which she explicitly says some children are able to access magic and make use of it, while others can't. Dickie Harding (possibly her only genuinely working-class protagonist?**) lays out a magic symbol, without knowing it, and thus summons magic, but he actually has to take the steps to make it work for him. She also states that Edred and Elfrida, of House of Arden have a similar talent. The children in that case are offered magic by the Mouldiwarp, and use it for a specific quest. That's relatively late Nesbit, 1909.



**Dickie turns out to be a closet aristocrat, but not until he's spent a lot of time as a tramp, learning about the dignity of labour and actually earning enough to support a household and set his tramp friend on the Path of Virtue.

I remembered Mouldiwarp as another magical creature in the Psammead line, but I'd forgotten that she says only some children have the capability to use magic - interesting!