Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Princess and the Hedge Pig by E. Nesbit (1912).

The trouble with books is that they fall through the cracks.  Sometimes this is because either the writing, the story itself, or both are of such a low quality that it doesn't have much choice except to sink like a stone right out of the starting gate.  Those kinds of volumes are the ones that are forgotten with good reason.  What about the ones that don't deserve such as fate, however.  What about all well written stories by any fair number of competent to flat out good tellers of tales?  I wish I knew how many of us don't just read books, but also take the time to remember the actual contents of the volume we've just poured through.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the hypothetical number can be whittled down to something like 10 out of 90 percent of the populace at any given time in history.  I'm not real sure this is an age that encourages reading, much less critical thought.  And so reading has become an accidental specialist hobby.  Something that's always at the mercy of an unreliable pop culture memory.  We're no longer talking about bad books that deserve to be forgotten now.  Instead, it's more a question of good works never getting their fair dues, even if they have their moment in the spotlight.  As a result, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise if there's a lot of book titles and authors out there that slip through the cracks of memory.

A name like Chris Van Allsburg, for example, might have just the faintest hint of familiarity, yet odds are even most of us can never recall why.  We might pick up on some kind of vibe that tells us, "I know that person from somewhere, don't I?  He did..."? and that's about as far as it goes.  Not necessarily because that's outcome we're looking for.  It's just the best you can do once it hits us that we sometimes don't pay as much attention to good writing as we should.  As a result, names like Stephen King and R.L. Stine amount to household words, while writers like Allsburg or Richard Matheson are stuck as brief flashpoints of half-remembered familiarity.  There at the edge of our recollection for an instant, then gone without a trace.  It therefore falls to the more die-hard bookworms out there to remind everyone else that a writer like Allsburg was the man responsible for given us The Polar Express.  On a related (and ironic) note, however, how many people know Stephen King is responsible for the film Stand By Me?  Come to think of it, who wrote Jumanji?  This is what I mean when I say books are at the mercy of memory.  It's what happens when even good stories aren't given a chance to shine.

A talented scribbler like Allsburg is just one example of this phenomenon.  He's the case of a Name that's in danger of slipping into obscurity.  His achievements remain popular, while the creator himself seems perched on the tip edge of that precipice oblivion where pop-culture memory begins to lose its grip.  When that happens, it is possible to have a career resurrection.  However, that can take time and effort, though it is still not impossible.  All that's required is one of two things.  It's either the help of a site like this, which dedicates itself to re-excavating the forgotten great names of the past.  Or else the neglected writer can create their own comeback with a stellar literary performance that puts their name back on the top shelf.  Since I'm no storyteller myself, I'll have to just go with the first option.  Chris Van Allsburg is one of those names who might have to earn an article for himself on this site sooner or later down the line.  Right now, I'd like to focus the spotlight on another name that doesn't deserve to be forgotten.  If Allsburg remains on the tip of the tongue, then Edith Nesbit seems to be the kind of name where the average audience member has no choice except to ask me who or what on Earth am I even talking about?  I'm thinking, right now, of a children's author who should be rediscovered.

Perhaps the best way to describe her is that she stands as the literary great grandmother of guys like Allsburg.  She's the one who wound up creating all the templates and story devices that made works like Jumanji and The Polar Express possible.  It's a mistake to claim she did it all in a vacuum.  Coming of age in the same era that gave us the likes of Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling, I think it's fair to say that Edith had a bit of help in pioneering the children's story as we now have it to this day.  However, she seems to have been the great synthesizer the sub-genre was looking for.  She was the author who came along at the right place and time and began to help put the finishing touches on the mold that the Mowgli and Alice books would both belong and fit into.  In other words, she's the writer who helped define the nature of the modern children's story as we know it.  Perhaps the best testament to her half-forgotten status is the sketchy, patchwork quality to what little critical commentary there is on her efforts.  Which is quite the way to treat the co-founder of a literary tradition.  Every useful scrap of information about Edith and her art is fitful and incomplete.

A scholar like Marcus Crouch, however, is able to grab hold of at least one handful of truth when he explains that, "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman...(Being) content in the main to make good stories out of the recourses of her experience and her imagination, she managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns in modern children's fiction.  The three books about the Treasure Seekers are the form foundations of all our family comedies.  In her 'Five Children' stories she initiated the comedy of magic applied to the commonplaces of daily life, and in The Enchanted Castle she showed how poetic and comic fantasy might be blended.  Her Arden books are, with Kipling's, the pioneers of the 'time' element theme in historical reconstruction; and even The Railway Children...has...fostered a host of other tales of family fortunes and misfortunes (16)".

Perhaps a better way to illustrate Crouch's main idea might to highlight all the ways that Nesbit has managed to leave a series of invisible fingerprints all throughout some of the best regarded entertainment we still enjoy today.  How about if we turn to a list of beloved films from the 80s?  You know that stuff with films like Stand By Me, The Karate Kid, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club?  All of them can trace their DNA back to books like The Treasure Seekers.  What about that inexplicable yet somehow iconic run of Fantasy/Sci-Fi Adventure movies we had back then?  The kind that were often geared toward children, and yet wound up being fun for audiences of all ages, when they weren't (or maybe even because they in fact were) grade-A nightmare fuel, remember?  

It was stuff like Secret of Nimh, The Land Before Time, Labyrinth, An American Tail, and especially stuff like Gremlins and The Goonies in particular.  Not to mention cinematic adventure yarns like the aforementioned Jumanji?  Or how about a lot of the clever kids oriented Science Fiction flicks we had back then?  What about Flight of the Navigator, Explorers and Back to the Future?  What's interesting is that you can take the vast majority of elements that go to make up those films (even down to details such as character, theme, or plotting) and trace all of them back to works like The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet.  The commonality of all these books is their author, E. Nesbit.

I suppose a more simplified way of saying it is to claim that there is a very real sense in which Edith is E.T.'s long forgotten great grandmother.  The one element that all those 80s films just listed have in common is that, like Nesbit's stories, the plots tend to focus on a child or group of young adult protagonists going off and having adventures on their own.  Often times these adventures would center around encounters with the fantastic and the supernatural in the form of encounters with otherworldly beings and creatures.  At other times, they could involve trips through different historical periods, which could sometimes lead to an expansion of the main character's outlook on the world and their own place and context within a grander scheme of existence.  And when all else fails, you could get a series of good, slice-of-life stories about children slowly coming of age through the various inevitable adversities that most of us meet along the road of life.  These include moving to a new neighborhood, dealing with the regular passage of time, making and losing friends, dealing with bullies, or even just those one chance encounters that can still go on to shape your future in ways you couldn't even imagine at first.

While all of the scenarios I've just described applies to just about every 80s movie ever made, they can also be found in Nesbit books like The Wouldbegoods, The House of Arden, and The Magic City.  All of which is to say that when Marcus Crouch called Edith a trendsetter, anyone who bothers to pick up any of her Children's Fantasy oriented works and read them will soon begin to see that he's being dead serious.  All of the 80s movie tropes that we've come to love today got their initial start within the pages of Victorian children's novels, and E. Nesbit was the author who wound up planting all of the now identifiable flags and story markers that we have in turn inherited from her, and kept alive throughout the centuries.  In all of this respect, perhaps another good way to describe her is as a kind of gender-flipped version of Steven Spielberg, except she works in the book trade.  While such a basic introduction might give readers a beginner's idea of who Edith was, it still doesn't answer the most important question.  Is her work any good?  What do the stories of an old Edwardian kid's writer have to offer 21st century audiences?  I think a look at one of Edith's own short stories can helps us here.
A Story that is and isn't Familiar.

Stop me if you've heard this before.  Once upon a time there was a King and Queen, and one day they had a daughter.  She was a sweet tempered girl, even as an infant, and her proud parents were more than ready to dote on her.  They were also looking forward to throwing a party in celebration of the birth of the new Princess.  There was, one obstacle in the way, however.  

"Misfortune comes in many ways, and you don't always know beforehand that a certain way is the way misfortune will come by: but there are things misfortune comes after as surely as night comes after day.  For instance, if you let all the water boil away, the kettle will have a hole burnt in it.  If you leave the bath taps running and the waste=pipe closed, the stairs of your house will, sooner or later, resemble Niagara.  If you leave your purse at home, you won't have it with you when you want to pay your tram-fare.  And if you throw lighted wax matches at your muslin curtains, your parent will most likely have to pay five pounds to the fire engines for coming round and blowing the fire out with a wet hose.  Also if you are a king and do not invite the wicked fairy to your christening parties, she will come all the same.  And if you do ask the wicked fairy, she will come and in either case it will be the worse for the new princess.  So what is a poor monarch to do?  Of course there is one way out of the difficulty, and that is not to have a christening party at all.  But that offends all the good fairies, and then where are you (83-84)".  Right about now, you may be thinking that you've heard or seen this story before.

And in a way, you're right.  Any fan of the original animated film catalogue made by Walt Disney will tell you that the setup Nesbit has described is almost the exact same opening dilemma from the studio's 1959 adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.  In fact, it almost sounds like all of the original cast members are here, tucked away in an unassuming short story collection for kids.  You've the the King and Queen, the Princess, and the sense of familiarity doesn't stop there.  Let's go back to Edith's narration and see how many faces in the cast of characters you can recognize.  "The Queen’s plan was carried out. The cellars, which were really extraordinarily fine, were secretly decorated by the King’s confidential man and the Queen’s confidential maid and a few of their confidential friends whom they knew they could really trust. You would never have thought they were cellars when the decorations were finished. The walls were hung with white satin and white velvet, with wreaths of white roses, and the stone floors were covered with freshly cut turf with white daisies, brisk and neat, growing in it.  The invitations were duly delivered by the baker’s boy. On them was written in plain blue ink,

"The Royal Bakeries

1 loaf 3d.  An early remittance will oblige.’

"And when the people held the letter to the fire, as they were whisperingly instructed to do by the baker’s boy, they read in a faint brown writing:—‘King Ozymandias and Queen Eliza invite you to the christening of their daughter Princess Ozyliza at three on Wednesday in the Palace cellars.  P.S.—We are obliged to be very secret and careful because of wicked fairies, so please come disguised as a tradesman with a bill, calling for the last time before it leaves your hands.’  You will understand by this that the King and Queen were not as well off as they could wish; so that tradesmen calling at the palace with that sort of message was the last thing likely to excite remark. But as most of the King’s subjects were not very well off either, this was merely a bond between the King and his people. They could sympathize with each other, and understand each other’s troubles in a way impossible to most kings and most nations.  

You can imagine the excitement in the families of the people who were invited to the christening party, and the interest they felt in their costumes. The Lord Chief Justice disguised himself as a shoemaker; he still had his old blue brief-bag by him, and a brief-bag and a boot-bag are very much alike. The Commander-in-Chief dressed as a dog’s meat man and wheeled a barrow. The Prime Minister appeared as a tailor; this required no change of dress and only a slight change of expression. And the other courtiers all disguised themselves perfectly. So did the good fairies, who had, of course, been invited first of all. Benevola, Queen of the Good Fairies, disguised herself as a moonbeam, which can go into any palace and no questions asked. Serena, the next in command, dressed as a butterfly, and all the other fairies had disguises equally pretty and tasteful.

"The Queen looked most kind and beautiful, the King very handsome and manly, and all the guests agreed that the new princess was the most beautiful baby they had ever seen in all their born days.  Everybody brought the most charming christening presents concealed beneath their disguises. The fairies gave the usual gifts, beauty, grace, intelligence, charm, and so on.  Everything seemed to be going better than well. But of course you know it wasn’t. The Lord High Admiral had not been able to get a cook’s dress large enough completely to cover his uniform; a bit of an epaulette had peeped out, and the wicked fairy, Malevola, had spotted it as he went past her to the palace back door, near which she had been sitting disguised as a dog without a collar hiding from the police, and enjoying what she took to be the trouble the royal household were having with their tradesmen. Malevola almost jumped out of her dog-skin when she saw the glitter of that epaulette.  

"‘Hullo?’ she said, and sniffed quite like a dog. ‘I must look into this,’ said she, and disguising herself as a toad, she crept unseen into the pipe by which the copper emptied itself into the palace moat—for of course there was a copper in one of the palace cellars as there always is in cellars in the North Country.  Now this copper had been a great trial to the decorators. If there is anything you don’t like about your house, you can either try to conceal it or ‘make a feature of it.’ And as concealment of the copper was impossible, it was decided to ‘make it a feature’ by covering it with green moss and planting a tree in it, a little apple tree all in bloom. It had been very much admired.  Malevola, hastily altering her disguise to that of a mole, dug her way through the earth that the copper was full of, got to the top and put out a sharp nose just as Benevola was saying in that soft voice which Malevola always thought so affected,—‘The Princess shall love and be loved all her life long.’

‘So she shall,’ said the wicked fairy, assuming her own shape amid the screams of the audience. ‘Be quiet, you silly cuckoo,’ she said to the Lord Chamberlain, whose screams were specially piercing, ‘or I’ll give you a christening present too.’ Instantly there was a dreadful silence. Only Queen Eliza, who had caught up the baby at Malevola’s first word, said feebly,—‘Oh, don’t, dear Malevola.’ And the King said, ‘It isn’t exactly a party, don’t you know. Quite informal. Just a few friends dropped in, eh, what?' ‘So I perceive,’ said Malevola, laughing that dreadful laugh of hers which makes other people feel as though they would never be able to laugh any more. ‘Well, I’ve dropped in too. Let’s have a look at the child.’ The poor Queen dared not refuse. She tottered forward with the baby in her arms. 

"‘Humph!’ said Malevola, ‘your precious daughter will have beauty and grace and all the rest of the tuppenny halfpenny rubbish those niminy-piminy minxes have given her. But she will be turned out of her kingdom. She will have to face her enemies without a single human being to stand by her, and she shall never come to her own again until she finds——’ Malevola hesitated. She could not think of anything sufficiently unlikely—‘until she finds,’ she repeated——‘A thousand spears to follow her to battle,’ said a new voice, ‘a thousand spears devoted to her and to her alone.’ A very young fairy fluttered down from the little apple tree where she had been hiding among the pink and white blossom.

"I am very young, I know,’ she said apologetically, ‘and I’ve only just finished my last course of Fairy History. So I know that if a fairy stops more than half a second in a curse she can’t go on, and some one else may finish it for her. That is so, Your Majesty, isn’t it?’ she said, appealing to Benevola. And the Queen of the Fairies said Yes, that was the law, only it was such an old one most people had forgotten it. ‘You think yourself very clever,’ said Malevola, ‘but as a matter of fact you’re simply silly. That’s the very thing I’ve provided against. She can’t have any one to stand by her in battle, so she’ll lose her kingdom and every one will be killed, and I shall come to the funeral. It will be enormous,’ she added rubbing her hands at the joyous thought.  

‘If you’ve quite finished,’ said the King politely, ‘and if you’re sure you won’t take any refreshment, may I wish you a very good afternoon?’ He held the door open himself, and Malevola went out chuckling. The whole of the party then burst into tears. ‘Never mind,’ said the King at last, wiping his eyes with the tails of his ermine. ‘It’s a long way off and perhaps it won’t happen after all.’  But of course it did (ibid, 86-91)".

The True Art of the Subversive Fairy Tale.

Like I said, the first thing Edith's story reminded me of was the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty.  In fact, the resemblances between that movie and "The Princess and the Hedge Pig" are so striking that I've sort of begun to wonder if it's at all possible that Walt might have cribbed at least the initial inciting incident for the opening of his film.  I don't know how strange a claim that is to make.  Though I have discovered for a fact that it wouldn't be at all surprising for Walt to do something like that.  It turns out the ruler of the Mouse Kingdom was never averse to taking inspiration from the written word if he realized it could be an asset in the making of his animated features.  This is something Kathy Merlock highlights in the introduction to her edited collection of scholarship, Walt Disney: From Reader to Storyteller: Essays on the Literary Inspirations.  It's here that she notes, "Disney enjoyed reading, and he understood the elements of a good story.  This insight into narrative structure provided the basis of Disney's success in his films, and, later, his television series and Disneyland theme park.  As Disney once told interviewer Ted Sears, "I honestly feel that the heart of our organization is the Story Department.  We must have them all worked out."  

"Not surprisingly, books provided important source material for some of Disney's best-known films, both animated and live-action, and his cinematic versions had a remarkable impact on popular reading, especially for children.  Many of the tales Disney chose to film went on to become the most read books in America, eventually becoming literary classics (1)".  I think Merlock has done us old school Disney fans a bit of a service here.  Because it really does seem that the one element which keeps getting lost in the shuffle of commentary on Walt's endeavors is his skills as a reader of good literature.  Turns out that's not something even his most die hard fans have bothered to associate with him.  Even if the proof of this is sometimes staring them right back in the face with movies like Peter Pan or Mary Poppins.  Perhaps this remains the final unexplored aspect of his career.  The final frontier of the old kingdom being its use as a storehouse of sometimes great literature.  All this sounds like a great topic to discuss another day, however.  Aside from all that, the main point for this article is the sometimes downright eerie levels of family resemblance to be found between Edith's short story and Walt's animated film.

This can be traced out in just how many of Nesbit's plot beats are copied in the finished movie.  There's the setup of a royal family wanting to celebrate the birth of a child while hoping to avoid the attention of the wrong company.  Each story features a series good fairies who are invited to the christening of a new born baby girl.  Even down to one of the characters materializing in a shaft of light from a high window.  Last yet not least is the almost copy and paste nature of the Princess having a series of gifts bestowed upon her by her elemental guests.  This plot point even appears to have been copied up to the youngest spell caster being the one to grant the main character her one wish or gift that proves vital in averting the worst possible outcome.  Then, of course, you have to stop and consider just how alike the two wicked fairies are, even down to their very names.  It's not too great a stretch of the imagination to go from a title such as Malevola to Maleficent.  Because of all these moments that jump out at the reader, it's difficult not to come away with the impression that you've stumbled on a lost discovery.

"The Princess and the Hedge Pig" was a children's short story gathered together along with a handful of others for Nesbit's 1912 collection anthology, The Magic World.  Disney himself, meanwhile, was born in 1901, making him either twelve or eleven years old when Edith released her book.  It also means he would have been about twenty-three when Edith finally passed away in 1924.  Walter Elias Disney, therefore, can be said to have lived during the final years of the great Victorian Romantics such as Nesbit, Kipling, Twain, J.M. Barrie, and Conan Doyle.  Twenty-three years is more than enough time to have your Imagination come under the influence of all of these creators.  To have your basic outlook on life molded by them, and in turn reflect that influence back to a worldwide audience in a newly created medium of animated cartoons.  It's easy for me to imagine Disney picking up his own personal copy of Edith's Magic World and falling under her spell.  Then, in turn, reading it to his own children as a father later on, and the text leaving one of those either buried or surface influences that Walt would later go on to use as a springboard for his twentieth animated feature.  If any of this is true, then I don't think you can call it plagiarism.  This is just the normal case of one artist being inspired by the work of another.

While it's neat to point out all the similarities that exist between Edith's short story and Walt's movie, it also should be kept in mind that there comes a point at which both narratives diverge into their own thing.  Nesbit's story branches off in its own direction once you get past the shared setup.  It's also sort of the point at which the source material begins to outshine the movie, if I'm being honest.  It's still interesting to note how well the opening act matches up to Walt's movie, though.  Because in a way it kind of serves as a template that you can measure Edith's story against.  To start with, rather than sending his daughter away, and destroying every sowing spindle in the kingdom:  

"The King did what he could to prepare his daughter for the fight in which she was to stand alone against her enemies. He had her taught fencing and riding and shooting, both with the cross bow and the long bow, as well as with pistols, rifles, and artillery. She learned to dive and to swim, to run and to jump, to box and to wrestle, so that she grew up as strong and healthy as any young man, and could, indeed, have got the best of a fight with any prince of her own age. But the few princes who called at the palace did not come to fight the Princess, and when they heard that the Princess had no dowry except the gifts of the fairies, and also what Malevola’s gift had been, they all said they had just looked in as they were passing and that they must be going now, thank you. And went (91-92)".  It starts to get less familiar from here on in.  Just to recap, we have what amounts to a rough draft sketch of the opening to the Disney version, and yet as things go on, there's no spinning needle, and the curse placed on the main character is way different.  Edith's version of Maleficent's evil spell comes about this way.

"And then the dreadful thing happened. The tradesmen, who had for years been calling for the last time before, etc., really decided to place the matter in other hands. They called in a neighbouring king who marched his army into Ozymandias’s country, conquered the army—the soldiers’ wages hadn’t been paid for years—turned out the King and Queen, paid the tradesmen’s bills, had most of the palace walls papered with the receipts, and set up housekeeping there himself.  Now when this happened the Princess was away on a visit to her aunt...half the world away, and there is no regular post between the two countries, so that when she came home...and arrived at her own kingdom, she expected to find all the flags flying and the bells ringing and the streets decked in roses to welcome her home. Instead of which nothing of the kind. The streets were all as dull as dull, the shops were closed because it was early-closing day, and she did not see a single person she knew (92)".  And so now we come to the two major differences between Nesbit's short story and the Mouse House movie.  Not only are certain characters and plot threads never picked up again (a topic we might have to circle back to, later on), the most notable aspect of Edith's story is how the title Princess remains an active player in the story.

Throughout the narrative's runtime, Liza is a girl who maintains a constant sense of agency when it comes to determining the actual shape and events of the plot.  It should be noted this is something even Walt struggled with, and yet this problem is nowhere evident in Edith's version of the legend.  Instead, what the reader is given amounts to kind of a breath of fresh air.  Yes, Ozyliza counts as a Strong Female Character.  The difference, in contradistinction to the current futile efforts to checkmark this trope at the Box Office, is that Edith knows what those words mean.  As a result, this means she doesn't get caught up shooting herself in the foot.  There's no sense of trying to impress us with a false idea of female empowerment which just rings hollow, and serves to shackle women more than it promotes them.  Instead, this version of Not Sleeping Beauty is able to first work her way out of a hostile environment that used to be her home, and then locate and reunite with her exiled parents.  It's here that Nesbit's particular brand of satirical wit is able to shine through in a way that will most likely be able to sound a winning note to 21st century audiences who are familiar with the cliches of folklore.

Edith writes of how Ozyliza fairs after leaving her own kingdom, "looking everywhere for her father and mother, and, after more adventures than I have time to tell you, she found them at last, living in quite a poor way in a semi-detached villa at Tooting. They were very glad to see her, but when they heard that she meant to try to get back the kingdom, the King said: ‘I shouldn’t bother, my child, I really shouldn’t. We are quite happy here. I have the pension always given to Deposed Monarchs, and your mother is becoming a really economical manager.’ The Queen blushed with pleasure, and said, ‘Thank you, dear. But if you should succeed in turning that wicked usurper out, Ozyliza, I hope I shall be a better queen than I used to be. I am learning housekeeping at an evening class at the Crown-maker’s Institute.’  The Princess kissed her parents and went out into the garden to think it over. But the garden was small and quite full of wet washing hung on lines. So she went into the road, but that was full of dust and perambulators. Even the wet washing was better than that, so she went back and sat down on the grass in a white alley of tablecloths and sheets, all marked with a crown in indelible ink (97-97)".

I don't know why, but there's something about the way the writer draws her characters, and the situation they find themselves in that just makes it all work.  I think part of the reason for this might be because of the clear fun Edith has indulging in a bit of droll role reversal.  We are treated to a picture of the members of a Ruling Class reduced to the level of near paupers, and rather than feeling tragic, she's able to paint the scene in all the right broad strokes that let's us know it's okay to share a bit of good natured laughter at the event because we're sort of meant to.  It all stems from seeing a group of stuck-ups brought to a clear and hard won sense of humility after a lifetime of shoddy national management.  This is a theme that can be found running through all of Nesbit's Fantasy fiction.  She was blessed with a deft hand for taking well aimed and executed jabs at the economic and social inequalities of the Victorian Age in which she was born.  Nor is this a case of biting the hand that fed her, either.  Instead, it's really more a case of following in the literary footsteps of writers like Swift, or Charles Dickens.

One of the things that marks Edith out so well in the field of Victorian Romanticism is that she was one of the first major women writers who was unafraid to poke the British Empire itself, and point out how the monarch never really wore any real fancy clothes to begin with.  A lot of that is on display with Ozyliza and her family.  Yet what marks out even this bit of satire is that the author is willing to extend an olive branch to her targets.  Her indirect belief stated throughout the short story seems to be that even fools can make a crooked path straight, if they are willing to make such choices, and live with them.  With this idea in mind, it tends to make sense that Liza is of a better, more enlightened character than either of her parents.  She's more willing to acknowledge that she's been a participant of a poorly handled monarchy, and that maybe she should have even spoken up when certain policy disasters could have been averted.  What makes Liza such a strong character, even as a Princess, isn't how perfect she is.  Instead, it's the story of a flawed person who nonetheless has a great deal of contrasting character strengths, and who is ultimately willing to use those positive traits to both better not just her situation, yet also herself as well.  It's this greater perspective on human nature that marks out Edith's as the smarter example of how to draw well crafted, three dimensional woman in imaginative fiction.

Needless to say, the Princess winds up being able to save the day, and reclaim her throne and kingdom.  The way she goes about this is perhaps the one plot element to leave spoiler free.  Suffice to say, this is where the other title character, the Hedge Pig comes into play.  The good news is I was able to come away entertained from this one.  And all of it has to do with both Edith's skills as a writer, and the way she chooses to approach her material.  The content of her best work is comprised of all the most famous or prototypical characters, settings, creatures, items, and events from the world of folklore.  In other words, Nesbit's natural playing field is in the realm of myth.  Her particular talent in this domain lies in finding all the right obtuse angles that will give her work its own peculiar identity.  This is the part that's surprisingly difficult to explain.  There's a quality to Edith's work that so peculiar that the trouble is knowing how to describe it.  You can try and point to any one element, yet it's not a real explanation.

For instance, you can highlight how Edith's main character works as a subversive riff on the traditional fairy tale, or even Disney Princess formula.  However, this is just one element of the writer's toolbox, and isn't enough of an explanation on its own.  Ozyliza, for instance, is the kind of Fantasy character who is now considered the most popular way of handling female characters in a Fantasy setting, yet her entire narrative overall seems to belong more to the world of the Brother's Grimm.  Nesbit populates even her imaginary realms with characters whose personalities resemble more of the people you could meet just about anywhere in real life, rather than the abstracted, ethereal personalities that dot the landscape of Spenser and William Morris.  She's even willing to play fast and loose with the precise nature and location of her secondary worlds.  One minute Liza's kingdom sounds like the kind of place that can only exist in storybooks.  The next minute she's living in a real life district of South London.  The Princess is the victim of a curse, like Sleeping Beauty, yet her approach to solving her problem always tends toward the practical, and commonsense, solving the issue by becoming a governess.

That last plot point, for instance, might help bring us closer to a real definition of Edith's fairy tales.  While the hero resorts to the stereotypical trope of using a disguise to win back her crown, there's this lingering sense that Liza has a learned a certain comfort in living among us commoners.  The fairy tale goal of reclaiming the rightful heritage still remains, and is achieved in the end.  However, the key fact about this ending that Edith highlights isn't the accomplishment itself.  Rather, her focus remains on the Princess's character, for lack of a better word.  Liza may be a member of the Grimm's Stock Company, and yet it's clear by the time the credits roll that we're dealing with a changed trope.  You can't shake the idea that Liz might now be just as comfortable living in a reasonably cozy flat in Kensington Garden, or Soho Square; even with both her realm and family restored to her.  It's here where I think we can get the closest to an accurate description of what Nesbit is up to with her particular brand of Fantasy.  She takes as keen an interest in the magic, enchantment, and adventure of secondary worlds as Tolkien did with his.  It's just that she tends to use them as reflections of the more modern sensibilities and dilemmas of her characters.

This seems to account for a lot of the contemporary feel of her best fairy tales.  They manage to take place in what is ostensibly a realm of myth, while also managing to somehow make it all seem grounded in the concerns of everyday reality.  It's not hard to imagine a current day version of Liza, for instance, supplementing her meager exile's income by taking a temp job in the tech sector somewhere.  Thus treating the audience to the deliberate satirical dissonance of say, catching Snow White or Sleeping Beauty hunched over a computer at a desk working on a software troubleshooting headache.  It's the kind of setup you expect more from a show like Disenchanted, or even a Fractured Fairy Tales segment straight out of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  And perhaps it marks Edith Nesbit out as a writer who achieves the rare feat of being a story teller whose fiction is both ancient and contemporary all at once.  She writes with a deft humorist's hand, and this gives all of her best works its clear, buoyant air of irreverence mixed well together with a sense of childlike wonder that accompanies a lot of the best fairy tales.  What this leaves us with is the picture of an author who might have to be described as a trail-blazer of sorts.  Her ability to apply a twist of satirical humor to the prototypical setup and tropes of the Fantasy genre might qualify her as Shrek's long forgotten grandmother.  At the same time, it also points out the ways in which Edith can be described as still way ahead of her present inheritors.  And I think the fortunes and maybe even the hidden historical meanings of the Shrek films can help here. 

The initial Shrek franchise is built on the premise of mocking not just the structure and tropes, but also the entire existential framing of (not just Disney, in and of itself, but also, in addition) what might be termed the underlying philosophies of fairy tales in and of the themselves (or at least as much of it as artists and audiences were capable of grasping, or thinking they understood).  By contrast, Puss in Boots seems very much like a film trying to find its way back to the very same roots it once tried to reject.  This gives me a notion that I'm somewhat curious about.  I think it helps to remember that the initial Shrek films came out at the same time period that saw the beginnings of powerhouse cable series like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and last yet not least, Breaking Bad.  It may sound counter-intuitive, yet adding the original adventures of the Big Green Ogre to that roster might just help to grant a better sense of perspective on the kind of mindset that was animating all of these otherwise disparate endeavors.  All of the cables series were dark, nihilistic explorations of the breakdown of the American psyche throughout the various social strata of society.  If you put the adventures of Walt, Tony, and Don together, it's almost like watching the same character lose their minds up the ladder.

Now I'm starting to wonder if it perhaps makes sense to view the escapades not just of Westeros, but also of the Far, Far Away as this same obsession with the nihilistic upending of story conventions and their frameworks as part and parcel of the same drive that created shows like The Wire.  Except now we get a chance to see what results it produces in the Fantasy genre, both for adults and, ostensibly, kids.  If there's any merit to the idea, it still helps to notice the shift that's taken place since then.  I guess the polite way to sum up a lot of difficult recent history is by saying we've had plenty of opportunity to see what happens we you try to apply the kind of Breaking Bad philosophy to real life current events.  That way lies the madness of January 6, and the like.  Therefore perhaps this helps explain a lot of the reasons for why our pop-culture mindset seems to be trying to make a kind of desperate transition away from the gritty realism of a Boardwalk Empire back to the kind of places dreamt of by Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas.  If there's any truth to these further surmises, then what it tells me is the story of a society that is near ready to try and see if it can return to an enchanted frame of mind.

We appear to be trying to make our way back to a form of outlook somewhere beyond disenchantment.  Granted, it seems clear this desire has met and continues to meet with a great deal of obvious struggle in recent years.  The best witness of this being the misguided attempt to tack on the Breaking Bad mentality into settings where it doesn't belong.  If two philosophies just can't mix, then it's obvious that one or the other will have give way sooner or later.  That's almost like basic science 101.  For my own part, I think current events have left me at the point where I'm ready to wonder if it's still possible to live long prosper again.  A film like Puss in Boots could signal at least a tentative step in the right direction.  And it could be possible that a writer like Nesbit is just the writer to help us achieve such a goal.  The way this could come about is by recognizing how her fantasies can speak to our own age once again.  It's no lie to claim that her stories contain the literary genetics for a story like Shrek's.  At the same, focusing in on just the snark and satire to the exclusion of all else is kind of self-defeating.  It sort of misses the forest for the sake of just a few trees, and those aren't even the main features.

Nesbit was the kind of writer who was always willing to hurl a well deserved barb at more than one target or two.  Nor was she afraid of taking multiple swipes at people or topics that she felt had earned it.  At the same time, it's a mistake to claim that this was all that her repertoire amounted to.  It seems as if not only does an extreme, narrowisitc focus on the nihilistic aspects of life, and the desperate need to "get back at them", lead to often unhealthy outcomes.  It also sells the talents and capabilities of a writer like Nesbit a bit short as well.  It runs the risk of having her accomplishment of being one of the first women authors to create genuinely strong female characters (girls who didn't stay confined to the damsel in distress role, and who, like the title character of today's article, took an active role in being the heroes of their own story) ignored entirely.  It also doesn't take into account the artist's larger thematic goals as a writer of Fantasy.  The truth is Nesbit is the kind of writer whose work is both able to anticipate, and at the same time surpass the kind of entertainment provides by of the Shrek films.

Her work is always reaching higher than any of the jokes or gags you can see in any of the Far Away installments.  Granted, this is also the part where the greater complexity of an artist's work becomes difficult to sum up in just one article.  That's more of the proper thing to excavate one review of her stories at a time.  If that sounds like too much work, the only defense I've got is that the best writers are worth it more often than not, and Edith sure as hell qualifies in this case.  So while I can't hope to sum up the meaning of her artistry all at once here, I can at least point toward various ideas and literary inspirations that come close to her overall meaning.  One of these artistic sources turns out to be none other than Charles Dickens.  He's helpful in excavating part of Nesbit's meaning not because he's is anywhere close to being the key the unlocks the nature of her art for others.  It's more to do with him being able to help us get a better read on Edith's thought process in general, and how this can apply to the story of Princess Ozyliza in particular.  Besides, it's kind of fitting for this specific time of the year.  

Here is where I'm indebted to the work of Jan Susina.  In a collection dedicated to the themes of Nesbit's Fantasy fiction, she notes how a constant vantage point of Edith's work is "the technique of "using the child's viewpoint to pierce the disguising forms of adult conventions and pretensions", and how this method of satirical attack "was acquired from Dickens.  The juxtaposition of the contemporary world and the magical" which Edith uses with a curious, yet seamless trademark flair in the story of Princess Liza and her Curse, "can also be traced back to" literary conventions found in the author of the Christmas Carol (157).  Susina suggests that what Edith learned from Dickens is what later became part and parcel of her work for young adults.  Dickens taught her how to write like a subversive in a way that would be able to go over the heads of mature readers, while her true message would plain to children.  It was from the writer of Oliver Twist, in other words, that Edith learned she could smuggle in messages about challenging unlawful authority figures into her books in a way that would talk up, instead of down to kids, while also doing so in a way that protected them from the possibility of abuse.

That's a pretty heavy burden and/or subject matter for any children's writer to tackle.  And the worst part was Edith lived in a society where such matters were in fact discouraged from the conversation of "polite society".  In fact, as a woman Edith would also have found herself plenty of opportunity to be on the receiving end of such culturally sanctioned oppression.  Dickens was the first author to challenge this social vice clamp by directly addressing the topics of domestic and social class abuse in the full-length novel format.  He was a trailblazer in that sense, yet the irony is that even by the turn of the century, Edith was still forced to tip around eggshells in order to address the same issues in her own books.  That she was able to accomplish this feat at all; with a lighter seeming hand than that of a work like Great Expectations; and still be able to be a financial success at it is something of a minor miracle all its own for the early 1900s.  What united them both, however, is the part that's difficult to describe.

The best description I've got is to label it as a peculiar, yet familiar sense of shared idealism.  In fact, it's very much as Susina describes it.  Both authors agreed "that they must "educate the grown-up people" and that they need to "throw our thoughts into something educational for the grown-up people hinting to them how things ought to be.  Let us veil our meaning under a mask of romance (158)".  This is not the same thing as lecturing or hectoring.  Instead, it's more like playing a game.  The contest involves seeing how far you can unmask the hypocrisies of the so-called "grown-ups" in the room without getting caught.  I guess another way to put it might bet to ask whether or not it's possible to school Walter White?  That's a risky proposition under any circumstance.  Yet it's one that Dickens and Nesbit were willing to take upon themselves.  In order to play this game, each author found themselves resorting to the use of the tradition of make-believe in order to achieve their goals.  Edith did it by creating entire fantastical otherworlds which she then let loose on the world of the everyday.  Or else, as in the case of "The Princess and the Hedge Pig", finding ways of playing around with the Brother's Grimm formula.   

As a result, Nesbit is able to write a fairy tale which counts as one of the first examples when a Princess figure is able to find her own voice in the narrative.  Another clue to the ultimate meaning of such exercises is once again provided by Dickens, who in a similar offering "describes the role-reversing country where "the grown-up people are obligated to obey the children, and are never allowed to sit up for supper." Throughout, Dickens' children sit in cool judgment of distant adults and engage in constant rebellion of adult authority (ibid)".  This is all very much in keeping with the kind of stories Edith liked to tell.  In that sense, it's not incorrect to claim she was in a conspiracy of sorts with the author the Christmas Carol against the "adults".  Their targets seemed to be shared.  And it's no surprise to discover that none of them have changed all that much from then to now.  It's all very much the same greed, prejudice, and hypocritical pretension that we still deal with today.  The only thing that's changed is I think we might be in danger of losing sight of how to handle these matters in a fictional setting.

I almost want to say it's like we're in danger of confusing the Imagination in general, and Fantasy in particular, as a foe, rather than a natural friend and ally in all these endeavors.  It's like we're forgetting how writers like Nesbit, Norton Juster, or even Jane Austen would treat prejudice with a well balanced approach of satire and entertainment.  Even Mark Twain seems to have known better than to make a "mad dash" into the fray like a bull charging its way through a minefield.  Anyone is welcome to try it.  Though you're not gonna hit the target that way.  In fact, that's pretty much a great tactic to defeat your own noble efforts.  Writer's like Edith just seemed to have displayed a level of intelligence about these matters that I think we need to learn how to recollect if we want our stories to have a resonant value in this contemporary age.  Something also tells me that we need to find out how to remember that fairy tales can be our most natural allies in struggles like this.  It's something that Edith also held in common with Dickens.  And I think Susina makes a valid point when she connects Nesbit's work to a number of sentiments that Ebenezer Scrooge's creator made in a non-fiction essay about the value of Fantasy.

"In "Fraud on the Fairies", Dickens argues the importance of fairy tales as children's literature and insists, "In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected...a nation without fancy, without some romance never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the Sun (158-59)".  This same literary idealism appears to be what underlies even a forgotten short story like Edith's.  Just like Dickens, she seems to have held that the "literature of childhood nursed the imagination and softened dehumanizing toil.  What Dickens most valued in that literature was its ability to nurture the imagination.  Without imagination (or "fancy" as Dickens often called it) human beings could not be truly human (3)". This is the closest I can get right now to a definition of that elusive quality of subversive enchantment that hallmarks all of E. Nesbit's output.  It's what allowed her to re-write the conventions of a fairy tale for modern audiences while at the same time honoring all that came before.  She never talked down to any of her readers, while encouraging her audience to try and make the world a better place.  She's one of the handful of writers who helped bring the genre of myth into the contemporary world while also knowing how to reach back into the ancient wells of creative potential and inspiration that served as the beating heart of human mythology.  This then, is as good an overall snapshot of Edith's achievement I can give in such a short frame of reference.

It's all probably best on display in her Five Children trilogy, more than anywhere else.  Though this shouldn't be any reason to slight her lesser known work.  If anything, it just serves as all the more reason to dive back into the vault of time and dig up all of her other stories that never got to have their day in the spotlight.  This proves to be one of the more rewarding tasks of literary excavation.  Because Nesbit's talents as a writer mean that both reader and critic can count on her to toss a greater number of hidden gems our way, more often than not.  The good news is this also proves to be true in the story of Ozyliza and her Army of A Thousand Spears.  It's not an epic work, by any means.  And none of Edith's books are ever going to match the scale and atmosphere of Middle Earth.  However, her stories don't need to reach that high in order to arrive at the their creative peak.  Tolkien wound up scaling the top of Everest, while Nesbit found her home in the Alps.  Both ranges are dignified in their own ways.

Conclusion: A Winning Spin on a Familiar Yarn.

The secondary landscape Edith is able to give us in Liza's story manages to do several things at once.  It's familiar and cozy, while also containing enough hints of larger vistas waiting to be explored just out of sight.  The author may have been writing a short story, yet the reader also gets the sense that it could have branched out into the more familiar epic scale as that found in Tolkien or the Grimm Brothers at any moment.  It's possible to say that we've seen this type of fairy tale kingdom before, in a sense.  Yet that just helps add charm to the proceedings.  Part of the reason that cozy familiarity is there to begin with is to help invite both the new and seasoned reader into the pages of the tale.  Besides which, if you go back and pay close attention, you'll see that Nesbit takes special care to neither over-describe or under-describe the details of her secondary world.  The narrative description of both Liza's kingdom and the other realms and forests that she travels through are all laid in an almost naturalistic sparseness.

This may have been somewhat deliberate on the author's part.  However, I think it's just a case of the Imagination providing as much economy of detail for its story, and no more.  Edith doesn't need to provide a detailed description of the Towers of Gondor in order to make her narrative work.  All that's needed are just a few sprinkling of details here and there.  The reader is given as much as they might need in order to get a sense of what Liza's home is like, and then the story and its writer let the reader's own Imaginations go to work on the material.  This is one of those tales that tries to get the mind of the reader to take part in visualizing its setting and cast.  It may take a moment to realize this, yet it should soon become apparent that this could be a case of Edith encouraging her child readers to try and use their own minds to help bring the story to life.  The main stage of the narrative may sound like something out of a stock company.  However, that's just because its meant to talk up, not down to the reader.  We're prompted to learn to help tell this story to ourselves.  It makes for a kind of pedagogical bent to the action, yet it's never didactic, and instead is seamlessly enveloped in the design of the plot.

It allows us to take a more active enjoyment of the story of a Princess cast out of her own realm, and her journey to reclaim her rightful throne in a way that manages to get us more invested in the pictures the words on paper can conjure in our heads.  Beyond this, what stands out the most to me remains the uncanny resemblance this work bears to Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.  The short story's setup sounds more or less like an initial rough draft for the film's beginning.  The major differences between the two fables stems from how each wrap up their respective narratives.  Now if I'm being honest, here is the part where I think Edith manages to give us a better finished product than even Disney himself could manage.  Say sorry, yet I'll swear that's the truth.  The main reason for this comes down to the fact that Nesbit managed to uncover a story idea that allowed her Princess to take an active part in solving her own dilemma.  Walt, meanwhile, was stuck having to take the title character plain out of 
commission (however temporary) in order to remain true to the source material.  The worst omission Walt made in that whole film is that he couldn't seem to find a good way of fleshing out Aurora herself before the story's main set piece rolled around.  Instead, it's like other critics have said.  She and the Handsome Prince are both left as a pair of blank, underdeveloped cut-out figures, or animated chess pieces.

It might have kept the action moving, yet it's just not enough to create an engaging story with characters you can root for, much less take an interest in whatever happens to them.  Liza, by contrast is taught by her parents how to fence, fight, and strategize in anticipation of having to meet a future challenge.  That's the first big divergence between Edith's story and Walt's, and yet it's also perhaps the most significant.  Rather than being sheltered from an impending trouble, Nesbit allows her heroine to be made well aware of it.  It means that when it all begins to go condition red, Liza is no one's pawn.  She may be the victim of a curse put on her by an evil fay, yet unlike Aurora, she refuses for one second to let it determine who she is, or how she means to live her life.  In comparison, Walt seems to have made the dull choice of never even letting his main character known completely what's happened to her at any point in what is supposed to be her own story.  This makes it a very easy judgment call far as I can tell.

It's sort of a no-brainer that Edith is going to win in a toss up contest between her story and Walt's film.  It's not just because of her skill in finding what were then new trails to blaze for the standard tropes of the Fantasy genre, but most importantly in the way this allowed her to discover a crucial direction to take her narrative that allowed it a greater sense of dramatic tension and interest.  Strange as it may sound, here's the truth.  In a competition between one of the most lavish and painstaking entries in Disney's animated catalogue and a simple, overlooked short.  It's the short story that comes off as more polished and professional.  The results may strike an odd note to some listeners, yet I have no reason to complain myself.  In fact, the only real criticism I can toss Edith's way is that there is one conflict in the story that remains curiously unresolved by the time the credits role on her own efforts.  This may be the one instance where I'll have to grant Walt at least one token point in his favor.  Unlike Edith, Disney made sure to address the heart of the conflict in a way that seems to have escaped the creator of The Railway Children.  It would have been nice to see Ozyliza take on the wicked fairy like in the movie.

Still, this is a minor nitpick, at best.  On the whole, "The Princess and the Hedgepig" succeeds at being exactly the kind of story it set out to tell.  It's a charming fairy tale with a bit of satire thrown in.  Put them all together and what you get is the kind of story that enchants with its relating of adventure in a storybook realm that most of us have some knowledge of, one way or another.  Along the journey, the author just happens to toss in a few words of encouragement to all the little girls in her audience.  It's the kind of story that knows what female empowerment really is, and it never panders to any of its readers.  Instead, it's just this nice, cozy, and challenging little read that is always going to be a good option for this time of the season.  It's also one of those short stories that is always in danger of falling through the cracks of time.  It's a well told tale that deserves its moment in the spotlight.  I just hope some of what I've written here will help others to reconnect with the magic of E. Nesbit's fairy tales. 

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