Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Mixed Mine by E. Nesbit.

I'm not sure whether or not it's possible to ever arrive at an original artist.  I am certain at least that the search for perfect artistic originality has been a long one.  Nor does it ever show signs of stopping.  In artistic-critical circles, the desire for the new has long since passed into something like the local totem of the trade.  Any writer whose book smacks of the least bit of "originality", or a filmmaker who is held to have discovered a "new image" is often hailed as a wunderkind for the very simple excuse of a bad habit getting in the way.  I can't say I know where this human addiction for novelty in the arts comes from.  All I can be sure of is two things.  The first is that it is very much a separate topic from politics.  The other is that the habit is very old.  Or at least that's how it seems to me.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to claim that it was around as far back as the Bronze Age, or anything like that.  There's just something far too modern about the whole thing to for it to ever be considered in any way ancient.  If I had to pinpoint where it all might have started, then I guess that would have to be sometime during or just after the middle of the 19th century, when the world of book publishing was established as an industry, and literacy was starting to achieve a mass level that has long since leveled off, and may never be reached quite ever again.

The desire for the novel and the unknown in storytelling seems to have been one of the unintended side-effects of a growing ability to read on behalf of the American public.  I also wouldn't be surprised to learn that an element of snobbery lay somewhere in back of the desire.  It's didn't take long for the birth of the literary critical establishment once the art of writing was able to become a Big Business of its own.  One of the perennial problems of arts criticism is that it didn't take long to find out that it also serves as a neat window into human nature.  This is a topic that comes in both good and bad varieties.  The biggest pitfall to be avoided is the kind of psychological arrogance that results in the phenomenon known as snobbery.  It's this particular mental malady that lead the charge for consigning books like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to the children's nursery back in the day (and that was an irony all its own), while also trying to establish various types of nonsense as a necessary, critical shibboleth.

One of these garbage ideas, seems to have hinged around a nebulous concept of newness.  The trouble with this kind of logic is that it's always difficult to maintain when actual literary practice keeps bursting your bubble.  Too often what happens is that the next written work of genius will reveal that the main reason it succeeds so well as a book is because the author wasn't concerned at all with making anything new.  He or she was just focused on trying to tell the story to the best of their abilities.  A book like Moby Dick sounds like it could be a revelation, until you learn that Melville was inspired to write his work based on reading material he'd manage to snag, telling about how an actual, real life whale was able to batter and sink an American harpooning ship not long ago, at the time.  It's the kind of situation that can serve as a blow to those dumb enough to place their egos up in the shooting gallery.

It's a bad habit that a lot of worthy names out there have had to fight tooth and nail against.  Edith Nesbit is one such author.  I've talked about her at least once before on this site.  Though this marks the first time I've ever taken a look at one of her own stories.  Before we get there, first, I think it helps to know what kind of a writer we're dealing with.  In her book-length study, Magic and the Magician, children's author and critic Noel Streatfeild makes this very interesting observation.  "The background and personality of a writer of adult fiction is not necessarily revealed in their books, but something of the background and personality of a good children's author is almost always discernible, for it is their ability to remember with all their senses their own childhood, and what it felt like to be a child, that makes their work outstanding.  E. Nesbit, because she has been read and loved by many generations of children, has established herself as one of the great, and today her books are ranked as classics (11)".  

Well, at least that how it probably still is in England.  I've never seen any proof that she ever made quite as big a splash here, across the pond.  Nesbit's reputation in America is the type that can be lumped in with the likes of P.L. Travers and Beatrix Potter.  These are the types of writers who are known more for their indirect impact on the culture and content of modern children's literature, rather than for their own efforts.  In other words, we might have heard of Mary Poppins.  So who on earth is this Pamela Travers when she's at home, then?  I mean, what's the big deal?  I'm also not certain whether telling anyone that a girl like Travers is the actual creator (or transcriber) of the world's most famous nanny will make that much of a difference.  It's one of those cases where the author is eclipsed by the impact she has left behind, while the work she wrote, the one that helped to set the type of narrative trends we are all familiar with now, has been relegated to an obscure corner of the nursery.

I'm afraid Edith has suffered a lot worse than Pamela, in this regard.  She's a trendsetter with barely any honor to her name as it is, at least here in the States.  This has resulted in a kind of schizoid form of creative irony.  We're able to enjoy the fruits of her labors, and yet we can't name the creator of a lot of the stories we now enjoy.  We've long grown used to the tropes of a lot of Young Adult and/or Fantasy fiction, and so most of us have no choice except to be clueless about where they came from, or who is responsible for a lot of it.  There's also a sort of double irony involved as well, once you realize just what kind of achievement Edith was able to pull off.  A huge part of the key to her success was the fact that in all that time, she never seems to have stopped to worry about the question of originality.  Rather than giving any sort of fig about creative novelty, Edith did the smart thing by first searching out for her creative strengths as a writer, and then putting them to good use once she'd found her natural pace.

This strength manifested itself less in the creation of new images.  Instead, it's more truthful to say that she made her way back to the nursery and saw a lot of the older images and legends just lying around, rusted and disused, like an entire island of lost toys, and then found the right way to put them to good use once more.  A lot of it seems to be down to what Streatfeild observed earlier.  Edith had a good knack for recalling all the golden times of her childhood, and a lot of it seems to have revolved around the fun she had in being regaled by stories of ancient myth and legend.  Whether it was the Brothers' Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, or the various retellings of Greco-Roman and Norse epics and sagas by anthologists such as Andrew Lang, Edith's experience as a writer bears at least this much similarity with someone like Tolkien.  Both of them had to start their careers as writers by first learning how to be good readers and listeners.  It's one of those vital skills that are so easy to overlook.  Most of it is probably because the task itself appears to be so simple enough, that it's kind of easy to lose sight of the obvious work involved, especially if you're busy caught up in the shuffle of things.  

Nesbit and Tolkien were both good learners, in that sense.  Each of them was able to first pinpoint the type of stories they liked to hear or read.  Next, they developed their own literary skills to a point that left them in a position to be able to tell more of the type of stories they liked as children once they were adults.  In both of their cases, this amounted less to any sense of novelty in their writings (there's noting all that original about Middle Earth, once you stop to take a closer look at the layout and nature of its contents and characters).  It's more do to with the matter of literary expression, if that makes any sense.  Each of them was able to find the right narrative voice that would help breath new life into old images.  What they discovered was that there was no need to reinvent the dragon.  All you needed to do was find the right type of story for it, told in a way that appealed to, or was able to draw in, the modern sensibilities.  Once Edith and Tolkien were able to do this, the rest has sort of become history.

It's an achievement for which she plays just as integral a part as that of the more familiar Bard of Hobbiton.  And yet she never seems to have gotten as much of the credit and recognition that I believe she rightly deserves.  That's why I'd like to take some time to examine one of her early efforts in this endeavor of making the old new again.  It's one her minor short pieces, and yet I don't that's any slight against her effort.  Sometimes it turns out that one of the early efforts in the career of a talented writer can hold the DNA for the later output that cement their names in the annals of creative history.  With this in mind, let's see if this is the case with The Mixed Mine.The Story.   

If there's one thing life has to teach, it's that no one can agree on what is old, new, out of date, or the next big thing.  We call ourselves the product of a civilized modern age, and yet it's always struck me as funny how such talk is stifled by the introduction of the merest, aberrant, off-note.  Another thing life has to teach you is that the world is full of off-notes.  Nowhere does this hold truer than in the British Isles.  In some ways, it might be considered the perfect petri dish.  It has all the trappings of modernity, while still being hemmed in on all sides by the barren country, dark moors, and wild heaths.  Such areas still appear to hold a kind of enchantment on a lot of the people who live there.  

Some may call this superstition.  Perhaps it is.  The curious part is how it didn't stop at least one parliament from signing into law a statute that would protect the local fairy mounds from being bulldozed over by at least one incoming public works project.  It's all to do with what kind of a power such artifacts are believed to hold, and belief is a far more influential factor of modern life than most are willing to admit.  That's why there's still a lingering sense that if you were to venture out beyond the confines of the major metropolitan areas, pretty soon the influence from the gods of civilization begins to wain, and providence is then given over into the hands of more "elemental" forces.  

The people of Dungeoness are prone to such beliefs, from time to time.  There is still talk in that district of a series of strange occurrences that happened long ago.  It was about the turn of the century, and rumors of the War to End All Wars was beginning to cast its shadow over the land.  Some of the old timers who are still around like to claim that this was at least part of the explanation for the "curiosities" that soon plagued the area.  They are quick to point out how often moments of great disaster are foreshadowed by the arrival of various marvels, wonders, and terrors, both dark and light.  If there's any truth to such claims, then it just makes the various "happenings" about to be recounted all the more puzzling for the curious nature of the events as they transpired.  If these occurrences were harbingers of disaster, then they sure had a curious way of going about it.

Most everyone agrees it all began with the appearance of the strange looking ship off the coast of Dungeoness.  It couldn't be bothered to stay around long, because of the rapid way it was taking on water.  No one recalls if anyone of her crew was ever seen or heard from.  The ship itself was a peculiar looking vessel.  No one has an exact or clear memory of her colors.  Some described it as composed of in curious shades of red and yellow.  Still others said that it looked like gold, or that maybe the ship itself was covered in a weird, glowing light.  The more fanciful of the townspeople claimed that what they could see of the vessel (however much was left of it) put them in mind of the old barks that someone like the Argonauts might have used in their travels.  Still others wondered if they hadn't caught a fleeting glimpse of one of the wandering ships that belonged to the "Folken", as they were still called in that territory.  These latter witnesses were said to be inclined to "looking for signs and portents", and hence tended to be written off, for the most part.  No one could deny the ship itself, though.

They caught their first and final glimpses of her off the coast of Dungeoness, and there was nothing to be done.  It lasted less than five minutes before the barge had vanished, first to its upper hull, then to it's decks, and finally the last anyone saw of her was the gilded looking bow, as it slowly submerged beneath the waves.  There were rescue and salvage parties sent out, not long after.  However, the tide and the channel must have been in a tricksy mood, for there was nothing left to save or reclaim.  The wreckage has never been seen since, yet the memory still lives on.  That was the first peculiarity to occur in the district.  The second came not long after with the discovery of the odd looking box on the beach.  It's discoverer never knew where it came from, yet those who investigated the matter later all tend to agree that it was one of the few pieces left of that mysterious ship.

The box itself was an old leather case with strange looking stick figures in the shape of men and animals embroidered on the covering.  Inside, the case revealed a series of strange looking instruments, one of which might have looked like an astrolabe.  However, if this is what it was, then it matched no other known example of the device in the history of this world.  It was the most normal looking object which caused so much of the consternation that was to come, though.  Tucked away in the incomprehensible box was what appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary looking spy glass.  

It wasn't until you put it to your eye to examine people, places, and things in greater detail, that the object displayed its unusual qualities.  Nobody had ever seen or known a spy glass that could do what this remarkable specimen was capable of.  The person who discovered this remaining piece of wreckage was a young boy from a slightly well-to-do family that summered not far away.  He was the first one for whom the spy glass displayed its remarkable talents.  Being just a boy, he thought of all the fund that might be had with such a powerful talisman.  That's the point where everyone agrees that the marvelous troubles of Dungeoness really began in earnest.  

A Familiar and Effective Precursor.

One of the first things that strikes the reader is just how skilled Nesbit is on both a stylistic and narrative level.  Here, for instance, is how she begins her story.  "The ship was first sighted off Dungeness.  She was labouring heavily.  Her paint was peculiar and her rig outlandish.  She looked like a golden ship out of a painted picture.

'Blessed if I ever see such a rig - nor such lines neither,' old Hawkhurst said.

"It was late afternoon, wild and grey.  Slate-coloured clouds drove across the sky like flocks of hurried camels.  The waves were purple and blue, and in the west a streak of unnatural-looking green light was all that stood for the splendours of sunset.

'She do be a rum 'un', said young Benenden, who had strolled along the beach with the glasses the gentleman gave him for saving a little boy from drowning.  'Don't know as I ever seen another just like her.'

'I'd give half a dollar to any chap as can tell me where she hails from - and what port it is where they has ships o' that cut,' said middle-aged Haversham to the group that had now gathered.

'George!' exclaimed young Benenden from under his field-glasses, 'she's going.'  And she went.  Her bow went down suddenly and she stood stern up in the water - like a duck after rain.  Then quite slowly, with no unseemly hurry, but with no moment's change of what seemed to be her fixed purpose, the ship sank and the grey rolling waves wiped out the place where she'd been (23-4)".    

Those paragraphs could possibly stand as one of a handful of pitch perfect examples of a good opener.  Part of what marks it out as unique is the way the author has of being able to show off her considerable skills of description within an almost exact adherence to the laws of narrative economy.  Most of the paragraphs in that opening amount to less than five lines of sentence at a time, and the writer doesn't put any of them to waste.  Instead, Nesbit makes sure to pack each of these descriptions with as much of the right sort of words that would be sure to both keep the story moving, while also giving the readers a vivid sense of powerful imagery.  It's not an impossible skill (provided you've got the actual talent for it in the first place, and not otherwise), yet such abilities are rare enough so that when you do run across them, in the pages of any given book, they do tend to stand out.  And that's what happens here.  You get the sense that Edith must have known she was writing both under a deadline, and for a publication that would only accept a limited amount of column space.  So she knew every word had to count.

It's what gives the story its sense of narrative determination right at the very start.  The good news is that she proves more than capable enough of finding her way into an actual plot, while also remaining true to the strictures under which her story has to operate.  Better than style, however, is her way of capturing the right amount of opening action.  The whole thing starts on a moment of tense expectation, and it's relief to be able to report that Edith never really allows that note to let up until it's time, right at the very end.  The inciting incident is doled out in just enough snippets of information to act as an appropriate draw on our curiosity.  In fact, it sounds very much as if we've begun on an image that is right out of ancient myth.  We begin with the image of the mysterious sinking ship.  And it is this which helps to kick the narrative into gear.  It only lasts for just a single page, and yet Edith's skills are well honed at this point in her career.  We're given just enough description about the enigmatic vessel to detect the faintest aura of enchantment about it.

It has a discernible coloring, yet it's hard to describe.  There seems to be an aura about it, although we can't tell if this is just the ship itself, or if there is an actual luminous glow to the barge itself.  To top the whole thing off, Nesbit is even good enough to throw in a weird looking sunset, courtesy of the lighting department.  The whole opening scene is painted with all the vivacity of an Edvard Munch painting.  The whole thing just leaves the reader want to know more.  Which is really the one thing any good author is supposed to do, above all other requirements.  

There's the suggestion of a whole story that has just come to an end right at the point where Edith's narrative begins, and she does a masterful job of waking our imaginations, and letting them suggest all kinds of possibilities to us.  That's the good news.  The better news is that she doesn't leave off the necessary inspiration at the start.  From there, Nesbit transitions the reader from the setup to the main plot of her story.  The way she does this involves a display of what amounts to a knowing, wry whit that is one of her commonplaces as a writer.  What makes it work is the tacit acknowledgement of a sense of depth and a hidden narrative that the quality of her writing leaves us wishing for more of.

"Now I hope you will not expect me to tell you anything more about this ship - because there is nothing more to tell.  What country she came from, what port she was bound for, what cargo she carried, and what kind of tongue her crew spoke - all these things are dead secrets.  And a dead secret is a secret that nobody knows.  No other secrets are dead secrets.  Even I don't know this one, or I would tell you at once.  For I, at least, have no secrets from you (24)".  I've been told this is a form writing for kids that has gone out of fashion.  However, I'm not so sure.  There's just this weird, ironic charm about it, like the author is willing to let her child listeners in on the gag.  For what it's also worth, I get the sense that she's just as anxious to hear more about what remains unwritten as those of us in the audience.

The main plot itself concerns the discovery of a carrying case found washed up on the beach.  This is another moment where Nesbit's powers of description and inspiration are able to blend together in a way that makes the final product come off as seamless.  All you have to do is take a good look at the way she describes a peculiar looking box (an item that is implied to be all that's left of the mysterious ship) once it has been dug up by the main character.  "It was a square case of old leather embossed with odd little figures of men and animals and words that Edward couldn't read.  It was oblong and had no key, but a sort of leather hasp, and was curiously knotted with string - rather like a boot-lace.  And Edward opened it.  There were several things inside: queer-looking instruments, some rather like those in the little box of mathematical instruments that he had as a prize at school, and some like nothing he had ever seen before.  And in a deep groove of the russet soaked velvet lining lay a neat little brass telescope (26)".

It's at this point that I'm sort of curious to know just what kind of effect that entire passage has on anyone reading it?  I'll have to grant that it's just possible that a lot of people might dismiss it all with words like "quaint" or "cute".  To that reader, stories like this hold nothing of value.  Or at least none that they can see or make use of.  For those with a literary bent, however, Nesbit's words might just leave a different sort of ring in the mind.  Her use of description is simple, and to the point.  She doesn't, or maybe can't afford to waste time on further details.  A lot of this is down to the editorial restrictions the author was probably working under when she composed this story.  What's interesting is that even under a constricted format, Nesbit has found whatever is necessary to get not just the point across, but also her desired artistic effect.  The reader is given just enough of the right amount of detail necessary to whet the appetite needed to keep the pages turning in order to find out what happens next.

This seems to be the result of a careful trimming and cutting process.  Even if she can't spare us however much space as she might have liked, Nesbit nonetheless makes the paragraph do all the work needed in order to plant a very powerful suggestion in the reader's mind.  This is the sense of power and depth contained in a backstory that remains unspoken.  The concept itself is really just another literary device, part of the natural bells and whistles that make up the storyteller's toolkit.  However, even if it's just a prop, the truth in actual practice is that it's also the sort of literary device that the good writer will often make sure to handle with a bit more care and delicacy.  That's because this particular trope, and whatever images that wind up associated with it (whether a mysterious container, a piece of old parchment with ciphers on it, an alien artifact, etc) are meant to act as what can only be called "gateway devices".  They are there to grant the story its sense of depth, as I have said.  And while that is all they can do, that very task can be what makes the story, or else breaks the spell.  It depends on how good the writer is at using it.

There's a peculiar fascination that attaches to fairy tales dealing with lost objects.  The items in these kinds of stories are often mere MacGuffins.  However, when they're done right (if the author finds the right way to put them on the page) then the literary prop can offer up a power of suggestion which is able to take the reader's imagination, and carry it onward for a very long way.  The value contained in the best examples of this trope is when the lost object comes to stand as a symbol of both mediation and antiquity.  In this, it can be said to perform a double function.  As a prop in a play of fiction, the lost object does is job as a motivator.  As a symbol, however, it's responsible for the sense of significance.  It's able to add both weight and stakes to the narrative in which it appears.  That's because the object's role as an antique makes it a piece of a long-forgotten past jutting out into the present moment.  In doing so, it introduces a sense of novelty which might be described as the "mystique of the ancient".  

This is the same artistic effect that helps power a great deal of the plot in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The artist has stumbled upon a "device" which is able to both generate a sense of the "dark abyssm of time", while also being able to mediate, or form an effective link between the past and the present, one which allows the reader to enter into and enjoy the story in a way that also functions as a form of embracing the tropes, myths, and even the facts of history itself.  It's an artistic effort that Tolkien was able to pull off to great effect in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where characters like Bilbo and Sam form an excellent pair of guides into both the legends and actual details of antiquity.  Granted that Nesbit's ambitions are a lot less grand than those of Middle Earth, it's still interesting to note the skill with which she is able to pull off this same imaginative feat.  The fact that she's able to do this within the scope of a simple short story almost makes it more of an even greater accomplishment, in point of fact.  Having the wide canvas of a novel is almost the easy side of the street.  To take an epic concept and successfully compress it into the short writing format, on the other hand, is one of those skills of genuine talent that perhaps doesn't get as much recognition as it deserves.

Conclusion: A Promising First Glimpse of Future Greatness.

I'm not sure whether it's correct to say that there's anything original in the story Nesbit has to tell.  I'm also not sure that's anything to complain about.  At it's heart, the story is about two boys who discover the remains of the strange shipwreck, and the otherworldly consequences this leads to.  It is possible to claim that what happens next is a setup we've all seen before.  When the both of them discover what some of the contents of the mysterious box are capable of, it leads them to the slow realization that they have the semi-mystical equivalent of a time bomb on their hands.  They are therefore saddled first with trying to figure out if there's a right way to use such a device.  Then it becomes a question of whether or not it's possible to set right the damage the contents of the box have caused.  Some in the aisles might already be certain that the basic outline itself is familiar.  A handful of others might be able to take the notion a step further, and point out that it sounds very much like the plot of Jumanji.

If this is the case, then some may ask what's the point of even reviewing the story?  Isn't it something most of us have seen before?  I'll admit that's a typical argument that I've heard more than once before.  It also continues to be one that I reject in full.  The main reason for discounting that type of criticism is because it remains shallow at it's core, incapable of going beyond even merest surface glance, and hence incapable of truly seeing or reading any given text placed in front of them.  J.R.R. Tolkien himself explained the logic of my thinking here.  So it's best to let him tell it.  "They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built around the same folklore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are "the same stories."  We read that Beowulf "is only a version of Dat Erdmanneken"; that "The Black Bull Norroway is Beauty and the Beast," or "is the same story as Eros and Psyche"; that the Norse Master-maid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is "the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea."

"Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature.  It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count (Tales from the Perilous Realm, 331-2)".  It's a fine distinction that Tolkien has introduced, and yet I'm convinced its a useful one.  Turns out it can be a very handy way of dealing with readers who might insist that the main prop in Nesbit's short story (a "rare device" telescope with the ability to alter the layout of whatever landscape it looks upon) is the same thing as Tolkien's One Ring.  It's as impossible to deny that some in the audience will insist on the validity of this comparative criticism, just as the truth remains that the two stories (and their main props) have nothing in common.  Tolkien's Ring is able to corrupt the mind of the user, while Nesbit's telescope is able to rewrite the landscape in which her characters are standing.  The single commonality that both Ring and telescope have is the shared sense of magical properties, or qualities, about them.  Every other possible similarity between breaks down beyond that point.

There's really no other point of resemblance between them on the literal level.  It may be possible to claim that two separate authors have written stories with links on a thematic level, I suppose.  However, even here, the differences stand out more than the correspondences.  Tolkien's entire narrative stands as one big metaphor for the ways we, as human beings, have of either dragging ourselves down beyond the final rung on the ladder, or else of raising each other up to our highest potential.  Nesbit's story concerns itself with a seemingly advanced object, one who's properties are either magic, or a science so advanced that it's difficulty to tell if the distinction between technology and enchantment even makes a difference. The object at the core of her story remains a passive, neutral gent throughout.  The main concern of the plot instead centers around the advancement of human wisdom necessary to both understand and wield such devices.  At the same time, a corollary theme in the narrative may be that of learning how to take responsibility for yourself, and growing from mistakes.

This, in essence, is the challenge facing the two main leads of Edith's fiction.  They are two boys.  The first is Edward, from a reasonably well-off middle class family.  And then there's Gustus, from a lower class household of dockyard workers and fishermen.  The dynamic between the two characters is of the Lennon - McCartney type.  When the story starts, they are both mere children, one of whom has less in the way of future prospects than the other.  The rest of the story is of how their encounters with the telescope and the magic box all go on to shape and form their characters.  

It's a process or gauntlet which the two leads sort of kick-start on their own, without knowing quite what they're getting into.  It's also a setup that Nesbit is fond of returning to time and again in her fiction.  The main reason for this seems wound up with how she remained fascinated with the topic or question of character as an author, and all the ways in which it can be shaped and molded, whether for good or bad.  This may also account for why Edith was often so good at painting her ongoing cast of young adults in such vibrant three dimensions.  When you read about the children in Nesbit's stories, it always sounds as if we're dealing with real kids.

It's a general rule of thumb in her work that holds true here.  When we first meet Edward and Gustus, there's this off-the-cuff, free-flowing quality about them.  They seem like youngsters who are somewhere in the grey zone between childhood and the growing responsibilities of teenagers.  They are starting to have notions of who they want to be, and yet it all remains nebulous.  It's a commonplace of life that is often difficult to pin down on the page.  It's to Nesbit's credit that she is able to capture this quality of life, and dramatize it in a way that remains true to reality, while also making it work for the plot.  We get the sense of aimlessness in her children, without the hazard of directionless plotting.     

Reading is often just as much an art as writing.  It's an on-going fact I've grown to learn through a lot of hands-on experience, and I almost want to say it should be inscribed as a maxim.  One thing it's taught me is that you can't understand anything about a story on just a surface glance.  It's the sort of cold, hard, fact of life that tends to aggravate those who hold that reading and writing should be akin to rocket science, something that is basic and utilitarian.  The problem with such an outlook is that it insists on pretending a square peg is a circle, even when it's clearly nothing of the kind.  The whole ethos of Art in general trends toward the Romantic.  If the job of writing amounts to a form of work, then it's sort that to prefers remain unshackled from the laws of gravity.  That's the curious thing about it.  It always seems to act on its best behavior when soaring to incredible heights.  That's why I believe the one thing all the best writers have in common, throughout the ages, is that they know that a lack of realism is something to be celebrated, and not shunned.  They all seemed to have realized that the only way for Art to find its own dignity is when it allows for stories that try and reach the stars. 

This is also the kind of direction that Edith's narrative wants to take.  It's the sort of tale where flights of fantasy are the norm.  And yet the interesting part is the degree of an acute ethical slant at work throughout the piece.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the short story is just how well this sense of unbridled imagination is able to mix so well with an idea of common sense levelheadedness that the two wind up forming a seamless whole.  This results in elements of whimsy, such as in the following passages where Edward and Gustus use the contents of the box on a toy train:

"They had a look at it through the spy-glass, and it became a quite efficient motor; of rather an odd pattern it is true, and very bumpy, but capable of quite a decent speed. They went up to the hills in it, and so odd was its design that no one who saw it ever forgot it. People talk about that rummy motor at Bonnington and Aldington to this day. They stopped often, to use the spy-glass on various objects. Trees, for instance, could be made to grow surprisingly, and there were patches of giant wheat found that year near Ashford that were never satisfactorily accounted for. Blackberries, 43 too, could be enlarged to a most wonderful and delicious fruit. And the sudden growth of a fugitive toffee-drop found in Edward’s pocket and placed on the hand was a happy surprise. When you scraped the pocket dirt off the outside you had a pound of delicious toffee. Not so happy was the incident of the earwig, which crawled into view when Edward was enlarging a wild strawberry, and had grown the size of a rat before the slow but horrified Edward gained courage to shake it off.

"It was a beautiful drive. As they came home they met a woman driving a weak-looking little cow. It went by on one side of the engine and the woman went by on the other. When they were restored to each other the cow was nearly the size of a cart-horse, and the woman did not recognize it. She ran back along the road after her cow, which must, she said, have taken fright at the beastly motor. She scolded violently as she went. So the boys had to make the cow small again, when she wasn’t looking (36-7)".  The story also proves that it's not content to lose itself in the clouds, and ignore the consequences of certain actions.  This is best on display during the climax of the story, when the boys wind up catching themselves in a trap of their own devising when trying to use one of the box items to create a treasure for themselves.  Their schemes succeeds.  Now all they have to do is try and find a way out when the original exit is blocked.  It's the kind of situation where the morality is so self-evident that it could almost amount a parable from the The Thousand and One Nights.  

Much like that old collection of Middle Eastern folklore, "The Mixed Mine" is an often surprising and effective mix of occasional fantasy and common sense.  It situates the narrative in a world of marvels, and then allows us to see what kind of effect this template has on the vagaries of human nature.  In the best examples of this type of story, the paradoxical result is that it is the actual fairy tale which has a firm grasp of reality.  It's what gives a book like The Hobbit it's staying power, and it's on display her in Nesbit's vignette.  Her fortunes don't seem to have faired as well as that of Tolkien.  And that's a shame, because if this story is anything to go by, she is a very overlooked talent, possibly even one that's due for a rediscovery.  One of the final points of interest of her story is its place in the history of her development as an author, and it's relation to one of her best known works.

Edith Nesbit is what you might call a marginal household name here in the states.  If she's known for anything at all, then it might be for just a handful of titles.  One of them, which seems to figure most prominently in her reputation, is a book known as Five Children and It.  What makes it relevant for this article is the striking similarities that exist between the novel and the short story.  This a fact that sticks out a lot more for those who have read the longer work first.  It's something of an eye-opener to go from Five Children to the story of the "Mine".  It's like running into It's younger brother.  The reason for that is because it's just possible to make the case that what we have on our hands is a short story trial run for the narrative that later expand into the tale of the wish granting Psammead, the one who dwells in the gravel pits.  

A brief comparison should be enough to prove the family resemblance.  Both works have children as their protagonists.  The short story has two boys, while the later novel has three brothers and two sisters.  Each tale centers around an element of magic in order to set their respective dramatic events in motion.  The account of the "Mine" has the elusive box and its mysterious contents.  The adventures of the Five Children has the titular It as the focus of the novel's conjurings.  In each case, the main cast winds up learning that magic is often more trouble than it's worth, and the book and the short story both conclude with their characters having learned how to grow up in the course of dealing with a lot of failures and triumphs, stemming from an encounter with the otherworldly.  What you have, then, amounts to what might be called the prototypical Nesbit setup.  It's the one narrative trope she would return to time and again.  There just seems to have been something in the idea of troublesome magic, and the lessons it can teach that Edith found appealing.  If her readers were anything to go by, they all felt pretty much the same.  As the formula was put to good use later in The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet.

It's because of all this that I think it makes sense of view "The Mixed Mine" as a first hint at what would come later.  Even if this is the case, there is still one mistake that needs to be avoided, however.  A good way of explaining it is to bring Tolkien back into the picture.  Everyone knows, or claims to know The Lord of the Rings.  Some have claimed its the only work of literature most people are familiar with.  If that's the case, then maybe it helps explain why some many tend to look down their noses at a book like The Hobbit.  

Having read or watched LOTR is considered like a badge of honor, whereas The Hobbit keeps getting overshadowed by its more famous sequel.  I think this is a mistake.  I think it doesn't give or grant enough credit where it's deserved.  There's no intrinsic reason why the earlier book should be shunned for the expense of the later one.  It's also no use in trying to create a distinction between adult and child audiences.  Tolkien meant both books to be read by everyone, just as Lewis Carroll meant the same for his tales about Alice.  If you're not willing to let books like The Hobbit  have their rightful share of the honors, then somehow the picture just remains incomplete, and the judgment less than fair.  It's a mistake to be avoided at all cost.

That's sort of the best explanation I've got for why I believe a short story like "The Mined Mine" deserves praise and regard in its own right.  What it all amounts to is one of the great, unspoken, and unfulfilled rules of criticism and fan reception.  There are plenty of works out there that need to be judged on their own merits, and yet it's a task we keep failing to uphold.  It's the sort of thing where the more you notice, the sicker you get of the whole oversight.  It speaks of a snobbery that does no reader any good.  And it's a shame we continue to let stuff like this get in the way, because a work like Nesbit's story of the telescope is a worthy addition to the fantasy shelves.  

The pace is brisk and easy-going, the characters are dimensional, and overall, the story contains a very helpful sense of magic and mystery.  It has the sort of general atmosphere of palpable excitement that draws you in and holds your attention from the opening page.  I think a lot of the reason for this is because of the imagery Nesbit is able to draw on in order to tell her story.  A more exact way of stating it is that the whole draw of the work depends in large part on the content of the imagery, and what it says about the author.

We don't tend to think at all about fantasy writers older than Tolkien, and yet the fact remains he was never just a random occurrence, something like a freak storytelling machine that appeared out of nowhere, fully formed.  That may be how most folks tend to view him, yet it's far from the truth.  Even Tolkien himself was often at pains to make sure his readers knew that he was ultimately a product of the books that shaped him as an author.  And Nesbit seems to have been one of them.  Even when you read a relatively minor work like "The Mixed Mine", a sharp-eyed reader will be able to spot the bits and pieces of the tale that might have resonated with Tolkien's imagination.  The fact is that props like the odd box, and the unknown ship it came from, all sound very much like they could have been the products of what Tolkien might have referred to as an "elvish craft".  It just seems plausible that both he and Nesbit were drawing on the same traces of ancient folklore to tell their respective stories.  If there's any truth to this surmise at all, then it means that both Edith and Tolkien can be said to be writing in a tradition, as having their own, individual talents.  

They both seem to have taken a great deal of the inspiration from the surrounding local, English Countryside mythology of the Fair Folk.  It's the ultimate driving engine that Nesbit uses to power her own story.  Tolkien, meanwhile, tried to grab the whole thing and turn it into this grand, overarching scheme of things.  We tend to remember the latter (at least for the moment), yet the former doesn't deserve to be forgotten, either.  What Nesbit's fairy tale makes me realize is that not only was she working in the same wheelhouse as Tolkien, it also turns out that at her best, she is just capable of striking those very same notes of enchantment, the ones where it seems as if the author has opened the door, just a crack, onto an ancient treasure hoard; one of those grand old edifices, with the remains and artifacts of a lost time, beckoning the reader further up and further in.  

That is how Tolkien staked his claim to fame.  It seems that Edith Nesbit might have also done the same thing long before him.  The story itself is contained in a 1912 collection known as The Magic World, and yet I can't help thinking that it was written long before she ever wrote the first sentence of a book like Five Children and It.  The latter title is one of the handful that she remains known for to this day.  Some may claim that Edith's literary ambitions don't really seem to start exploring their full potential until they've reached the point of the longer, novelistic format.  I think the existence of a work like "The Mixed Mine" is enough to disprove such a limiting idea.  Already, even in the short story format, we have a narrative undergirded with a sense of the epic and the mythic.  It's the kind of situation where you can tell that the very plot itself is almost ready to break out of its boundaries and take things onto a greater canvas.  The good news is that this is a canvas that E. Nesbit proved more than capable of exploring well, and this simple short narrative will make a great introduction point for young and new readers who may be curious about her, and just need to know the right place to get started.

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