Edward Eager's Chivalry: Hidden Anti-Modernist Symbolism in Children's Literature?
At a glance:
“It is one thing to play with a toy castle and wish you were back in the golden days of chivalry, and it is another thing to be really there, and have one of the greatest villains in all legend stand glaring at you and breathing the hot breath of wrath in your direction . . ."
As a child, my heart and imagination were utterly captivated by the fantasy novels of Edward Eager. In particular, I found myself drawn to his Knight’s Castle. My own partiality indeed remains evident, for this volume, despite my great care in reading, remains the most worn of the series. I had probably read it literally a dozen times! Yet, when I returned to the book as an adult, I found greater meaning sprinkled throughout its pages. Within this 1956 novel may be found a profound yet witty and playful criticism of modern society and reaffirmation of chivalric values.
The Old One: The Spokesman for Times Past
The Old One, a toy soldier “silver” with wisdom comes to life to guide not only four children’s adventures, but the reader, as well. He is always in the background when the olden days of chivalry come to life, like a play critic watching a theater production from a distance, often limiting his communication to facial gestures. However, when he does speak, usually in modern times, it is with a critical eye on the changes of time. They resemble brief rants. Yet, despite his very blunt and honest approach, the novel is too imaginative and compelling to come off as overly didactic. The Old One states, when Roger first feels him grow warm in his hand:
“Modern inventions, industrial revolution, rush, rush, rush, choo-choo, crash, bang! A castle that stayed put was good enough for me, aye, and my forefathers before me, and when we sallied forth ‘twas a gallant steed under us, aye, and a trusty sword in hand! By my halidom!”
He calls for a return to a simpler, more romantic time, or at least the incorporation of some of that time’s chivalric elements in modern-day society. The remembrance, as he would put it, of “the good old rule” in the midst of “newfangled fads and fancies.” The reader gets the sense that the Old One is the spokesperson for the narrator—the voice of the author, Edward Eager, who had been captivated by wondrous earlier tales and enjoyed partaking in the ‘simple things,’ from gardening to bird watching.
The Instant Gratification of Modernity and Authentic Humanity of Chivalry
Just as the Old One represents the allure of an earlier time, Eliza and Jack, the cousins of the main character, Roger, symbolize the “rush, rush, rush” of modern society.
Although the transformation of the toys occurs once every third night, Eliza wants to rush ahead. This is the impatience brought on by new technology; Eliza is accustomed to instant gratification with TVs and other technological developments. Yet, now, in the 2000s, we would consider that time to be one of little ‘instant gratification’ when compared to our own society of fast-paced social media and cell phones that were never content to be just phones. Jack summons taxis in a “grown-up fashion,” and doubts the existence of magic until he finds himself in Torquilstone. He is never seen without his camera, yet finds that the magic of times past cannot be captured by modern technology, for the pictures that he takes of Robin Hood and battles of old do not come out. This may be viewed symbolically, for the greatest Truths cannot be revealed or captured through conventional means.
Jack’s purpose in joining the three children in the third adventure is to “examine the facts,” the skeptic who can only see what is directly in front of him. However, he is soon caught up in the mystifying power of days past. Eager seems to propose that no one can truly resist the delight of ancient times, of knights and chivalric glory. Even Jack finds himself playing with Roger’s toy knights when the latter is asleep and thereby cannot observe him, “as though he were a boy of eleven, and not a man of nearly 13.” Such is the depiction of another profound philosophy: that much is lost when a childlike nature is forgotten; in effect, maturity must also embrace the wonder of youth to truly deserve that name.
This is illustrated further when it is revealed that the power of toys is drawn from the imaginations of children. If “the words of power” are stated—namely, that the soldiers are only “lead soldiers” or the dolls “just a lot of dolls”—the adventure at hand ends. In other words, if traditional chivalric virtue and childlike wonder are disregarded, then the greatest adventure cannot be lived out in the real world. For, it is that imaginative power and chivalry that break through the cold machinery of "progress" to demonstrate an authentic humanity.
The Perils of a Lost Knight and Forgotten World
These sentiments are heightened in Eager’s story when two worlds combine. With The Magic City by E. Nesbit as a guide, Ann and Eliza transform the ancient world into a modern-day city, to disastrous results. Ann, Eliza, and Roger arrive to find the magical Torquilstone shaking with the “beastlike roar” of “traffic” from the “motorized vehicles from Eliza’s toy-chest” and modern buildings “with glass and chromium, and glaring with electric lamps and neon signs.” Even a “factory whistle scream[s]” as “more knights and ladies emerge…for lunch hour, reading comic books and movie magazines.” These modern conventions may reflect a criticism of the rising consumerism of the time, but they can also be viewed as symbolic. That is to say, progress is not always “progress.” As case in point, it is discovered that the now-modern knights and ladies from Ivanhoe are no longer on quests, but “out joyriding” and the castle guards idly playing gin rummy. This reveals the danger that the loss of the chivalric mentality, a noble mentality of honor, might pose. As the new version of Rebecca states, “Everybody [ is ] rushing and nobody [ is ] getting anywhere!” Eager illustrates that the ‘buzz’ of a busy life does not make that life complete.
Ivanhoe himself has not been immune to the new ways and becomes absorbed in scientific matters while Rowena toasts marshmallows with his rusting helmet and eats chocolate cherries. Science and faith-filled values may, of course, align. But it is understood that Ivanhoe has traded a more balanced, deeper approach for a narrow focus. He has lost the chivalry that many more have abandoned today, as symbolized by the rust and reappropriation of his helmet. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
Although Eliza initially claims that they did a “noble deed” by bringing to Torquilstone the “comforts of modern civilization,” she finally admits, in observance of the constant car crashes, “Maybe we improved them too quickly.” Although this may be viewed simply as a reflection of Star Trek’s The Prime Directive—that less technologically advanced societies should not be exposed to advancements until they are ready—it also seems to serve as the reinforcement of an earlier point: If chivalry is lost in modern days, as exemplified by the rude slang delivered towards Roger by a “knight” he runs into, technology must not stand alone to create the ideal society. In this new world, “Roger,” who had been proclaimed a hero with elfish magical powers after aiding the Saxons against the Normans, has become “just a word you use at the end of conversations,” an “old myth” that no one believes. The enchantment of wonder and romance is therefore lost. SPOILER: It is the necessary rescue of Rebecca from Brian de Bois-Gilbert that brings Ivanhoe back to the yeomanly talk and way of life. Further exposure to the mixture of modern and ancient times ultimately causes Eliza to proclaim, “Down with progress. Bring back the horse.”
Now, did the author (and, in turn, the character of Eliza) truly wish to rid the world of all technological progress, including cars?
Unlikely. Yet there is more to “bringing back the horse” than the surface level meaning.
Like other byproducts of commercialism, technology is not disregarded in this novel as irrelevant. It must, however, be “a bright-colored moving tapestry” marked by romanticism. During his studies, the scholar-turned Ivanhoe developed the prototype of a flying saucer. When it is tested with the aim of rescuing Rebecca from imprisonment in the Dolorous Tower in the Outer Wastes, the romanticism of the past is reflected in the technology of the future. The adventure of discovery now coincides with the vision of chivalric glory: “ 'The moon!' breathed Ivanhoe in such a tone as Columbus might have used on a certain famous occasion.” This fantastic journey reflects the depiction of a later medieval battle, for “there raged such a conflict, on that dark heath, as has seldom been seen outside the pages of romantic fiction.” Likewise, it is through the lens of the movie theater, through the “glorious Technicolor of times past,” that all four children become especially drawn to the nobility of the medieval period in history.
When Peer Pressure Undermines the Human Spirit
At the beginning of the book, Roger receives a castle of knights and his sister Ann a dollhouse. However, their cousin Eliza defies such behavior by scorning dolls, thereby leading Ann to feel less comfortable playing with them. In fact, not only does Ann refrain from playing with the dolls, but she helps Eliza alter some of the dolls’ property and relocate these items to the castle. While it may be argued that Ann is the heroine of the story who understands the ways of the Old One deeply, her reaction to Eliza here highlights the societal pressure that young people still face today. In literary form, the consequences of this peer pressure are displayed to dramatic effect. The “giant” dolls with “china-like perfection” become villainous, holding others captive because Ann and Eliza violated the established rules of toys (read: humans).
Such a defense of “rights” in contrast with the cry for change may also be connected to the children’s fourth visit to this magical land, where Prince John, who wears a “peculiar cap” and is addressed with a “peculiar salute” by “oddly uniformed” knights, represents Hitler and Nazism. Jack wonders if the “terrible new ideas…just sort of leaked in from the outside world,” for, “goodness knows there’s enough of them around!” Yet, once again, the future is not completely condemned. Indeed, Roger’s original toy soldiers, from modern G.I.’s to Spanish War veterans, are the “snowbound sleepers,” who, led by their owner, SPOILER: save the day. Honor is therefore found in some aspects of modern life. However, the ultimate ‘happy ending’ to the story occurs when SPOILER: Ivanhoe and friends “return to save [their] merrie land from these degenerate games” and the dolls’ belongings are likewise returned, re-establishing the ‘code’ of toys and of personal liberties.
A Code of Conduct for Children
In Knight’s Castle, the ‘code’ of toys is intermixed with a ‘code’ of conduct for children. It reflects the educational practices of the 1950s, for teachers were seen as responsible for instilling good values in children, such as generosity, kindness, and the importance of family and working together. Moral lessons are learned through the adventures of Knight’s Castle and directly discussed at the end when the four children evaluate those adventures. Eliza never got “her own” adventure because the “magic” wished to teach her to “not be bossy,” while Ann “learned to be brave and think for herself.” Jack became less of a skeptic who relied only on the scientific precision of technology and William S. Gray’s readability formula, and Roger learned more wisdom and courage. The hardship brought about by the Depression and war encouraged self-reliance and a certain degree of independence. In addition to the chivalric and family values inherent, this is reflected in Roger’s concern for his sister’s well-being when she is captured by the Normans, and in the self-reliance needed in the pursuit of these dangerous adventures. Truly, all four children learned the wisdom of the Old One by growing as individuals in a quest that both praised and criticized what they knew as ‘home.’
A Golden Age Laid Eternal
King Richard states at the conclusion of the cousins’ adventures:
“History no longer hath meaning for us now. And what is even better, after this no terrible ideas from the world outside can penetrate here. Time standeth still from now on, and the golden age of chivalry endureth forever.”
As illustrated in Knight’s Castle, a modern society of ‘wonders’ can easily lose its sense of Wonder, its glimmering surfaces scratched away when faced with the depth of the Golden Age of timelessness. If left unchecked by a greater Truth, “degenerate times” may develop in such a society. Yet that hope does not have to be forgotten. The world of "progress" may be awakened by a call to the days of the romantic past. As the final battle of the snowbound sleepers reveals, not all notions of noble deeds have been lost.
And so shall they remain if we hold them dear.
As the Old One declared, “I could not love sleep half so much loved I not honor more!”
Knight's Castle by Edward Eager
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