'Life wasn't golden or perfect, he knew that now.' (p 68)
More than it seems
Piers Torday has himself indicated that his new book is something of a homage to C S Lewis' Narnia. It is however, far more than just this. It is an enormously clever and important addition to children's literature which uses this reference to explore themes and reach depths that children's books of that immediate post-war period rarely if ever did.
The book opens with intriguingly enigmatic, although possibly sinister, information about a secret project the aim of which is claimed to be to 'to end human conflict, once and for ever.' It is an important hint that what is to follow might not be exactly what it appears.
However, what does immediately follow is the most wonderful pastiche, not only of the Lewis books, but of the whole world of earlier 20th century children's 'adventures', from Nesbit, through to Blyton and beyond. This story is set just after, rather than during WWII, and the four Hastings siblings, Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and, youngest, Larry, who are packed off to remote country house owned by a mysterious 'professor', are almost-but-not-quite the Pevenseys. The send up is in no way mocking; rather it is deeply affectionate, even reverential. It is is nevertheless both immensely clever and highly amusing. The language, style and sentiment of the 50s are all caught quite beautifully, yet the twinkle in the author's eyes is evident in almost every sentence. As someone who was steeped in just this era of children's books in my own younger days, I found myself smiling and chuckling throughout the opening chapters
'Then (Simon) swapped the magazine for a pack of playing cards from the ottoman. "Right, you two. If we aren't to have our tea, then we are jolly well going to have some gin rummy." And he began to shuffle.' (p 9)
There are nods to other particular books too. You can even play 'spot the reference'.
'Larry continued up the stairs, Grey Bear bumping behind him.' (p 10)
I did wonder whether these things might be lost on young readers, but there are many bright, sparky children out there who will I'm sure 'get it' and not be put off by what might otherwise seem just a very old-fashioned opening. It will almost certainly help, though, if they have already read at least The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and preferably also a few other 'classic' children's books from before and just after WWII. Although this pastiche segues reasonably quickly into much more of a complete reimagining of the Lewis book, this applies to the rest of the work too.
Children of war
It is not long before the book starts to show more of its depth. Just when you begin to fear the story focusing on young Larry's first discovery of a magical library is becoming too twee for words, the author not only switches the focus to his sister, Evie, but darkens its colours chillingly by introducing her haunting memories of wartime London.
'Some things were much harder to explain. Like that day in Maguire Street. After the bomb. What she saw lying in the road in front of her. What she saw again and again, every night, in her nightmares.' (p 40)
Unlike many of the actual children's fictions of the 50s, not far below the surface of this superficially cod version, is the grim reality of the war that has just ended. For these children, London in the Blitz, with its persistent fear and its horrendous sights, was no dream. To Patricia, as well as to Evie:
'It had all been horribly, horribly real. And the proof was her, how she now thought, spoke and acted. Like a grown-up.' (p 67)
And Simon is affected too:
'You could be the fastest runner in the school, like him, but no one could run fast or far away enough to escape a war. . . . Even when you thought it was over, and you thought you had survived, you felt a pain in your chest, and there was a monster incubating inside. ' (p 68).
Larry's bear may be an echo of Pooh, but it is actually 'Grey Bear', indelibly coloured with the ashes of the Blitz. Unlike the essentially naive and innocent Pevenseys, Piers Today's children have already had something of their childhood taken by the war. They have each had to find an accommodation to horror; Larry escapes into stories and fantasy, Evie obsessively seeks answers, Patricia has had to learn to be older than her years and Simon has developed a coldness, a hardness of heart:
'The sun's out . . . and all the Germans are buried under rubble or dangling from a rope, so ---' (p 69)
In stark contrast too, whilst the discovery of Narnia happens in the context of a game of hide-and seek, the Hastings children are driven into their fantasy land to escape the shocking invasion of the old house by armed troops. The juxtaposition of militaristic aggression with fairies in tree houses, and the constant tension, in what follows, between Enid Blyton tweeness and the real horrors of warfare are uncomfortable, but importantly challenging. They reach in towards the heart of what this book actually is.
Read and never read
The fantasy world, which the Hastings children enter, through the books of a magic library, is 'Folio'. The library may once have been that of the titular Lost Magician, and the children need to find him. However, they soon become embroiled in a futile war between characters representing fiction and others representing facts. Over both, looms the even more sinister threat of those who 'never read'. It is a telling parable for our our time, and carries important messages for the children (and adults) of any time. Yet, at its height, the Folio story is every bit as exciting and compelling as many a more straightforward fantasy. There is delightful humour too, not least from a laconic rainbow unicorn - a cross, as it were, between Rainbow Bright's Starlight and Marvin from Hitchhiker's Guide.
However it is the interplay between actual war and fantasy war that is one of the book's most interesting and compelling themes. The treatment of a randomly met assortment of highly recognisable fairy tale characters as wartime combatants, victims and refugees (including, significant appearances by Tom Thumb and Goldilocks' The Three Bears) seems initially incongruous, but as the story develops it all becomes strangely and disturbingly powerful, as if an Alan Ahlberg book had been graphically illustrated by a WWII war artist. Can victory in one world really bring peace to the other?
In many ways, the narrative development of The Lost Magician closely echoes that of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But is its author simply 'writing a new story over the old' (p 189) ? No, he is himself more of a magician than that. Piers Torday shows here how something old can be turned into something totally fresh and provocative, without in any way diminishing the original. It is not a replacement for, or simply an adjunct to, the C.S.Lewis book , but an important complement to it. This reimagining serves to throw the contrasts as much into focus as the similarities The differences are important, so recognising them is important too.
Narnia, not Narnia
Even though many children read and enjoy it simply as the fine fantasy that it is , and do not necessarily take much account of the Christian allegory that is its true essence, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is as much of its time as The Famous Five. The Pevensey children are basically 'nice' (apart from Edmund, who learns to be nicer); their fantasy adventure is essentially simple, good v evil, with good triumphing thanks to Aslan. PiersTorday's child characters are more 'real', deeply affected by the world in which they have grown up; the issues of their fantasy adventure are both less simplistic in themselves and more immediately related to the children's world, and our own.
Additionally, in another contrast to its illustrious predecessor, girl characters are, here, just as prominent in the action as the boys. There are messages too that encourage boys to 'dare to be different'*, which in itself is no small thing.
'What would his father say? Larry wasn't a pansy. He meant . . . he wasn't any old pansy. He was the brightest, bravest and most glorious pansy on a flying rainbow unicorn, and he was going to show them all.' (p 255)
Piers Torday succeeds in giving his tale a very classic children's fantasy structure. But then that is because The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which it echoes, is perhaps the archetypal children's fantasy of them all. However this book fully deserves to stand alongside its classic predecessor as the 'Return to Narnia' for our own times. It will be a particularly welcome addition for those who revel in the celebration of imagination, the promotion of reading and the value of libraries.
Of our time, for our time
Yet there is rather more to The Lost Magician even than this. The framing segments, extracts from that security file concerning the intriguing but rather sinister 'Magician Project', continually mystify the reader, not least because of their feeling of incongruity with he rest of the narrative. By the story's close, however, they have added another crucial layer to the book and shaken the reader out of any feeling of Narniaesque coziness. Even though living in Folio has apparently helped the Hastings children forget the traumas of the actual war, even though they have earnestly been seeking the magic that would secure a peaceful future, the world to which the they return . . . Well, no spoilers. Suffice to say that the shocking ending adds another level of true, if deeply disquieting, importance to an already fine book.
In his Last Wild series, Piers Torday pitted a world of rampant technology and aggressive acquisitiveness against that of nature; here he explores the threat that much the same world (our world?) poses to literacy in general and fantasy in particular. He has much of great resonance to say about it too. Those who have hailed him as one of our foremost contemporary writers for children are not far wrong.
And let us all desperately hope that the lost magician really is still there, looking out from his (or her) library window.
*See my review of Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different, from April 2018.