Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 23, 2010

Classic Friday: Half Magic

Half Magic, Edward Eager, 7 vols. (1954-1962)

“Be careful what you wish for” is a truism that has become boring and irritating in its omnipresence in our lives. Eager’s books are clever explorations of what making careful wishes might actually require, and he wrote his series long before that tiresome truism made it into the vocabulary of everyone’s boss and parents.

The first book takes place in the 1920s, when four siblings find a magic coin. It takes them a while to realize 1) that it’s magic and 2) that its magic requires some very careful planning and phrasing of all wishes.

Of course there are instances of someone saying in frustration, “Oh, I wish you’d …” and then living with the consequences. Fortunately, the wishes all expire after a certain amount of time, so the children only need to get through others’ confused responses to whatever odd thing has come out of a careless wish. And they do manage to have a great deal of fun along the way.

Although the characters and periods change, the other books work along similar lines, with magical books, lakes, wells, and creatures leading the heroes and heroines into adventures with dragons, knights, historical figures, and other stock of fantasy writing.

This series is easy-on-the-emotions stuff, compared with the life-threatening gothic fantasy currently popular. No one has to battle monsters who might actually kill and then eat him, no one has to save the world from utter destruction, no cities go up in flame just because one of the characters passed through on her way to meeting an ancient god.

But that’s the attraction of the series for me. The magic is almost silly in its tameness. What’s more, the characters aren’t ADHD or orphaned or frustratingly, stubbornly blind to the advice of others. They argue, but the way that siblings argue (at least, as I remember it from my own youth). Here’s how Eager introduces us to two of the children in the first book:

Katharine was the middle girl, of docile disposition and a comfort to her mother. She knew she was a comfort, and docile, because she’d heard her mother say so. And the others knew she was, too, by now, because ever since that day Katharine would keep boasting about what a comfort she was, and how docile, until Jane declared she would utter a piercing shriek and fall over dead if she heard another word about it. This will give you some idea of what Jane and Katharine were like.

In a few words, Eager has shown us Katharine’s prim vanity, as well as Jane’s tendency to exaggerate. These are kids I can believe might have existed, making the stories just a bit more true-to-life.

This kind of fantasy is a great anti-irritant for the overwrought plots in today’s books (but don’t get me wrong–I enjoy most modern fantasy as well, as long as no human falls in love with a vampire). I hope there are plenty of Eager fans out there (sorry for the pun, but I couldn’t resist), wishing for twice as many books (and then realizing that the rules of Half Magic apply, and they’ve already gotten what they wished for).

Half MagicKnight’s CastleMagic by the LakeThe Time GardenMagic or Not?The Well-Wishers, Seven-Day Magic



  1. […] on a regular basis: Le Guin’s Earthsea series, Benson’s Lucia books, Eager’s odd-ball magical world, Montgomery’s famous red-headed […]

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