Fridtjof Nansen's Farthest North undoubtedly influenced E. Nesbit.  A chapter from The New Treasure Seekers - 'The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant'  - has Oswald and Dennis [nicknamed Denny or the Dentist] emulate Nansen's march for the Pole with Johansen.  This does not take place through immaculate snow, however, but in the maze of dark passages beneath an old house:

'The stair was of stone, arched overhead like churches - and it twisted most unlike other cellar stairs.  And when we got down it was all arched like vaults, very cobwebby...  There was a beer cellar, and a wine cellar with bins, and a keeping cellar with hooks in the ceiling and stone shelves - just right for venison pasties and haunches of the same swift animal.

Then we opened a door and there was a cellar with a well in it.

'To throw bodies down, no doubt,' Oswald explained.

They were cellars full of glory, and passages leading from one to the other like the Inquisition, and I wish ours at home were like them...'

Denny slips and falls off a pile of beer barrels and discovers a small passageway...

'It is like coal mines,' he [Oswald] said, beginning to crawl on hands and knees over what felt like very prickly beach, 'only we've no picks or shovels...'

'This is a very glorious adventure.  It is, isn't it?' inquired the Dentist in breathlessness, when the young stomachs of the young explorers had bitten the dust for some yards further.

'Yes,' said Oswald, encouraging the boy, 'and it's your find, too,' he added, with admirable fairness and justice, unusual in one so young.  'I only hope we shan't find a mouldering skeleton buried alive behind that door when we get to it.  Come on.  What are you stopping for now?' he added kindly.

'It's - it's only cobwebs in my throat,' Denny remarked, and he came on, though slower than before.

Oswald, with his customary intrepid caution, was leading the way, and he paused every now and then to strike a match because it was pitch dark, and at any moment the courageous leader might have tumbled into a well or a dungeon, or knocked his dauntless nose against something in the dark.

'It's all right for you,' he said to Denny, when he had happened to kick his follower in the eye.  You've nothing to fear except my boots, and whatever they do is accidental, and so it doesn't count, but I may be going straight into some trap that has been yawning for me for countless ages...'

So they went on and on, crampedly crawling on what I have mentioned before, and at last Oswald did not strike the next match carefully enough, and with the suddenness of a falling star his hands, which, with his knees, he was crawling on, went over the edge into infinite space, and his chest alone, catching sharply on the edge of the precipice, saved him from being hurled to the bottom of it.

'Halt!' he cried, as soon as he had any breath again.  But, alas! it was too late!  The Dentist's nose had been too rapid, and had caught up the boot-heel of the daring leader.  This was very annoying to Oswald, and was not in the least his fault...'

They emerge into a pitch-black room...

'The light of the torch, I mean match, now revealed to the two bold and youthful youths another cellar, with things in it - very dirty indeed, but of thrilling interest and unusual shapes, but the match went out before we could see exactly what the things were.

The next match was the last but one, but Oswald was undismayed, whatever Denny may have been.  He lighted it and looked hastily round.  There was a door.

'Bang on that door - over there, silly!' he cried, in cheering accents, to his trusty lieutenant; 'behind that thing that looks like a chevaux de frize.'

Denny had never been to Woolwich, and while Oswald was explaining what a chevaux de frize is, the match burnt his fingers almost to the bone, and he had to feel his way to the door and hammer on it himself.

The blows of the others from the other side was deafening.

All was saved.

It was the right door.

'Go and ask for candles and matches,' shouted the brave Oswald.  'Tell them there are all sorts of things in here - a chevaux de frize of chair legs, and - '

'A shovel of what?' asked Dicky's voice hollowly from the other side of the door.

'Freeze,' shouted Denny.  'I don't know what it means, but do get a candle and make them unbarricade the door.  I don't want to go back the way we came.'   He said something about Oswald's boots that he was sorry for afterwards, so I will not repeat it...

They wait for rescue in the dark...

'...I once read about two brothers confined for life in a cage so constructed that the unfortunate prisoners could neither sit, lie, nor stand in comfort.  We can do all those things.'

'Yes,' said Denny; 'but I'd rather keep on standing up if it's all the same to you, Oswald.  I don't like spiders - not much, that is.'

'You are right,' said Oswald with affable gentleness; 'and there might be toads perhaps in a vault like this - or serpents guarding the treasure...'

Denny shivered, and Oswald could feel him stand first on one leg and then on the other.

'I wish I could stand on neither of my legs for a bit,' he said, but Oswald answered firmly that this could not be.

And then the door opened with a crack-crash, and we saw lights and faces through it, and something fell from the top of the door that Oswald really did think for one awful instant was a hideous mass of writhing serpents put there to guard the entrance.

'Like a sort of live booby-trap,' he explained; 'just the sort of thing a magician or a witch would have thought of doing.'

But it was only dust and cobwebs - a thick, damp mat of them.


Then the others surged in, in light-hearted misunderstanding of the perils Oswald had led Denny into - I mean through, with Mr. Red House and another gentleman, and loud voices and candles that dripped all over everybody's hands, as well as their clothes, and the solitary confinement of the gallant Oswald was at an end.  Denny's solitary confinement was at an end, too - and he was now able to stand on both legs and to let go the arm of his leader who was so full of fortitude.

'This is a find,' said the pleased voice of Mr. Red House.  'Do you know, we've been in this house six whole months and a bit, and we never thought of there being a door here...'

'Nansen is nothing to you!  You ought to have a medal for daring explorations,' said the other gentleman, but nobody gave us one, and, of course, we did not want any reward for doing our duty, however tight and cobwebby.

The cellars proved to be well stocked with spiders and old furniture, but no toads or snakes, which few, if any, regretted.  Snakes are outcasts from human affection.  Oswald pities them, of course...'



The passage refers to the account in Farthest North of Nansen and Johansen's epic journey over the ice towards the North Pole and their wintering in the low roofed hut, too low to stand upright, on Franz Josef's Land.  Nesbit here seems somehow to have detected a greater gulf between Nansen and Johansen than either of their books admit.  [Cheveaux de frize - Iron spikes set in pointy timbers to repel cavalry, or set into the top of a wall to make it more difficult to climb.  'Frize' is pronounced something like 'freeze' a deliberate clue to an Arctic connection?]


The Connection between E. Nesbit and J.R.R. Tolkien

Unlike J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien seems never to have publicly acknowledged any debt to Nesbit.  Was this because she had no influence on his writing?

There is no record of Tolkien reading E. Nesbit’s books in his youth - however, his mother gave him ‘plenty of story books’.  He would have been the right age to read Nesbit’s stories as they were published.  While he makes no mention of Nesbit, his favourite authors included George MacDonald and Andrew Lang.  Both wrote of magic and myth, Lang retelling traditional folk tales.  Of special interest was Lang’s version of the Norse tale of Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir in his Red Fairy Book [published 1890].

Dragons fascinated the young Tolkien.  The Book of Dragons, Nesbit’s collection of short stories, was published as a book in 1900, the year in which he had his eighth birthday.  Tolkien’s early enthusiasm for language is signalled by his writing a story about a ‘green great dragon’ [i.e. a ‘great dragon’ which happened to be green] when he was aged about seven.  He subsequently debated the nuances of this use of language after his mother adjusted the word order to ‘great green dragon’.  By chance, a passage in Nesbit’s Book of Dragons can be misread in a similar way:

‘...nothing was left her... except the great dragon proof tower that her grandfather, St. George, had built...’

Here one assumes that it is the tower that is ‘great’ and not the dragon - although the young Tolkien, if he read the passage, would understand the alternate interpretation.

Even if, by some mischance, Tolkien was unlucky enough not to read the books of E. Nesbit in his childhood, he certainly read them as an adult.  C.S. Lewis gave books by E. Nesbit to Tolkien’s children after 1925, when the family moved from Leeds to Northmoor Road in Oxford.

Several of Tolkien’s stories, written after 1925, show Nesbit’s influence, both stylistically and through plot and character.  Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham was written in the late 1920’s.  Nesbit’s The Book of Dragons is said, somewhat cautiously by Scull and Hammond, to possibly have contributed to the character of Chrysophylax in this book.  However, we can be rather more precise in identifying the source and range of Nesbit’s influence.

Chrysophylax has a character similar to Smaug, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Sly, avaricious, rich, inquisitive and very capable of killing.  Like Smaug, he has a noble turn of phrase.  However, Chrysophylax is smaller, less well armoured, and rather more timid than Smaug.  He has, perhaps, the character of Smaug when he was a younger, less powerful, dragon.  Many of Nesbit’s dragons have similar attributes, but most of Nesbit’s dragons are silent protagonists, with the notable exception of the armoured dragon in ‘The Dragon Tamers’. 

Nesbit’s dragon is slightly less mentally nimble than Tolkien’s Chrysophylax.  However, her hero, a ‘self-made man’, John the blacksmith, has a very similar character to Tolkien’s Giles the farmer.  Both are reluctant heroes who ride their luck.  They are both self-possessed enough to outwit their more powerful adversary.  Both defeat their opponents through good fortune and good equipment:  ancient manacles and chain in the case of John and an ancient sword in the case of Giles.  They tame their dragons rather than kill them and the dragons have to bargain for their release.  Both men are robbed of their reward by the ruler of the land:  the mayor or the king.  However, the Blacksmith’s son and Giles himself eventually become rulers of their little domain through quick-wits and the gold provided by their respective dragons.


It is likely that Tolkien provided a deliberate, and typically subtle, link to the short story that inspired his own expanded tale:  The subtitle of Farmer Giles of Ham is ‘The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame...’  ‘Tame’ is the root word in Nesbit’s title, ‘The Dragon Tamers’.  Tolkien explains the use of the title, ‘Lord of Tame’, as a contraction from ‘Lord of the Tame Worm.’  A worm being another name for a dragon.  The singular title, ‘Lord of the Tame Worm’, is therefore virtually identical in meaning to Nesbit’s title, ‘The Dragon Tamers’.  Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham is clearly a reworking of the themes and characters of Nesbit’s The Dragon Tamers, with a rather subtle acknowledgement of the fact.

Roverandom was told to Tolkien’s children in1925 and probably written down in late 1927.  The story was devised to console his son, Michael, for the loss of a toy dog while on holiday during September 1925.  The narrative tells of a real live dog turned into a toy by a sorcerer.  The toy dog is then lost on a beach, but meets a ‘sand-sorcerer’ who turns him back into a live dog and who then has episodic adventures on the moon and under the sea.

Nesbit undoubtedly influenced J. R. R. Tolkien’s Roverandom.  Tolkien quoted from her directly in this story.  Roverandom includes a major character taken directly from Nesbit:  in Tolkien’s earliest surviving manuscript, the sand-sorcerer, Psamathists, is called a Psammead.  Psammos is Greek for ‘sand’.  Tolkien’s sand-sorcerer’ lies buried in sand and has long ears, rather than the long horns, of Nesbit’s original.  Both Psammeads are crusty eccentrics and often pedantic in their use of English.  The Psammead is an invention of Nesbit, a character from her Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet.  Tolkien’s brief tale reads like an extended Nesbit short story.  Perhaps a travel story such as 'Whereyouwantogoto' in Nine Unlikely Tales for Children [1901] combined with one from Wet Magic [1913].  The intrusion into Roverandom of a little science-fiction in the form of a trip to the moon, where Nesbit would have had time-travel, adds to the similarity.  However, the particular reference to Psamathists being a Psammead was excised by Tolkien from his later drafts and did not figure in the posthumously published version except as a note from the editors.

Nesbit’s influence on the character and structure of these two short books by Tolkien, Farmer Giles of Ham and Roverandom, is very clear.  Nesbit’s style is matter-of-fact and unpretentious.  However, she was well-versed in introducing the fantastic into every-day life in such a way that the reader can accept the conjunction without question.  Often she uses the voice of a sceptic to comment on the action, but uses this device to reinforce the narrative.  Tolkien’s early stories carry off the same conjuring trick. 

Nesbit’s books generally reveal their origin as part-works.  There is an episodic feel to them - and also to Tolkien’s early books.  This characteristic is much less obvious in The Hobbit, which Tolkien began to tell to his children around 1928-30.

Siegfried or Sigurd in Norse legend defeats a dragon, bringing to mind Bilbo’s actions in The Hobbit.  However, Bilbo Baggins is no big bold hero in the bloodthirsty Norse tradition.  Although he causes the dragon’s downfall by finding a weak-spot, it is left to someone else to deliver the fatal blow.  Away from Norse legend, there are many stories of dragons.  Again, Nesbit probably influenced several important areas of plot within Tolkien’s later writing.  One of Nesbit’s dragons had


‘a broken spear sticking out of his side, so some one must have had a try at baggin’ him, some time or other.’ 

A dragon with a weak spot rather like Smaug.  Surely, this reveals where Bilbo Baggins’ surname arose?  The origin of Bilbo’s name is unknown and has been much debated.  Note, however, that Tolkien's aunt had a farm at the end of a track which was known as Bag End.  Tolkien wrote a short story while he was at Leeds in the early 1920’s about a dragon who meets a ‘Miss Biggins’.

Central to The Lord of the Rings is the ring of the title, which confers invisibility.  Such rings have a lengthy pedigree in literature.  However, the properties of Nesbit’s ring in The Enchanted Castle seem closest to those of Tolkien’s ring.

The earliest record of a ring that rendered the wearer invisible is recounted by the Greek philosopher Plato [who lived around 400 B.C.].  He tells of a shepherd, Gyges, who was in the service of the King of Lydia.  Gyges finds a magic ring on a perfectly preserved corpse in a cave and discovers that the ring turns him invisible at will.  However, Plato recounts that no man can resist the power given by the ring.  Indeed, the shepherd is corrupted - using the ring, he kills the King and woos and marries the Queen.

Several later authors have written of rings with magical powers including invisibility.  Andrew Lang included an Estonian folk tale, ‘The Dragon of the North’ in The Yellow Fairy Book.  This tale includes dragon-slaying and talking birds as well as a magical ring.  The ring here is said to be that of King Solomon.  It confers several magical attributes, including the ability to become invisible.  Unusually, this ring also enabled the building of houses and the breaking down of walls.

'No mortal is able entirely to understand the power of this ring, because no one thoroughly understands the secret signs engraved upon it.  But even with my half-knowledge I can work great wonders...  If I put it on the third finger of my left hand I am invisible...  I can in a single moment build houses or anything I desire... as long as I wear the ring on the thumb of my left hand, that hand is so strong that it can break down rocks and walls...  The ring formerly belonged to King Solomon, the wisest of kings, during whose reign the wisest men lived. But it is not known whether this ring was ever made by mortal hands: it is supposed that an angel gave it to the wise King.'

The ring in this story may have directly influenced Tolkien’s version of a magic ring, but while it possesses many [or more] of the properties of Tolkien’s ring, it does not cause adverse affects on the wearer.  It is likely to have influenced E. Nesbit’s ring in The Enchanted Castle - her ring shares the unusual ability to build and break down walls. 

Unlike Lang’s ring, but like Nesbit’s ring, Tolkien’s ring has negative effects on the wearer and those nearby.  This property is central to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, as it is to The Enchanted Castle.  Just like Nesbit’s ring, and probably unlike any other, Tolkien’s ring makes an invisible person’s shadow visible.  The Enchanted Castle is also a great story that plays upon the reader’s perception of reality.

Tolkien did acknowledge Nesbit in private.  He wrote to C. A. Furth, at his publishers in 1939, remarking that Nesbit is ‘an author I delight in’.  Note Tolkien’s use of the present tense.  This high praise, written two years after The Hobbit reached publication, implies that Nesbit’s books were not just a childhood fondness of his.  By 1939, he is a mature and successful author who appreciates her style and wit.  This letter did not appear in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien [1981]; it was published as recently as 2006. 

Oddly enough, apart from cryptic clues hidden in the narrative, Tolkien nearly gave a public ‘pat on the back’ to Nesbit.  Early drafts [1938] of his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ praised the ‘triumphant formula that E. Nesbit found in the Amulet and the Phoenix and the Carpet’ - but this comment did not make it into the final draft, and again was not published until 2006.  Andrew Lang’s writing figured largely in Tolkien’s essay, but Tolkien objected to Lang’s bias towards children.  Perhaps the reference to Nesbit was removed for similar reasons?

It may be that Tolkien dismissed his comment on Nesbit because in the late 1930’s he was starting the process of writing a fantasy for adults - The Lord of the Rings.  He says, in ‘On Fairy Stories’, that


‘It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy-stories...  I think this is an error...  It is true that in recent times fairy-stories have usually been written or ‘adapted’ for children...  It is a dangerous process...’

Most of Nesbit’s tales were not traditional, they were of her own creation, as were Tolkien’s own books - unless the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf are considered as fairy-tales.  Tolkien’s special place in literature relies, to a great extent, on his establishing a huge body of his own invented historical background and invented language to supplement his professional interest in the Sagas and Anglo-Saxon literature.  This background was then used as part of the process that he called ‘subcreation’.  Like Tolkien, Nesbit is known for the believability of many of her own stories.  While many of their books were ostensibly written for children, both Nesbit’s and Tolkien’s writing was enjoyed by adults such as Rudyard Kipling [in Nesbit’s case] and Arthur Ransome [who was an enthusiastic supporter of both authors].

There is a personal connection, at one remove, between Tolkien and Nesbit.  While at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, Tolkien was taught by Richard Reynolds.  Reynolds was President of the Literary and Debating Societies, important to Tolkien’s later years at the school.  Reynolds was also a member of the Fabian Society and became a close friend of Edith’s.  She dedicated The Incomplete Amorist to him in 1906, and he married her niece in 1910.  He drove Tolkien to Oxford in 1911, at the start of his first term.  Tolkien stayed in touch, sending poems for comment, and an early version of The Silmarillion to his former teacher.  There is, however, no record of Tolkien ever meeting Nesbit.

The role of E. Nesbit as a major influence on Tolkien’s books has been neglected by Tolkien’s biographers.  Humphrey Carpenter only mentions her in passing in his biography [1977].  Tom Shippey, in J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century [2000] finds no place for Edith Nesbit.  These biographies were, however, published before 2006.  In that year, Scull and Hammond produced The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, containing Tolkien’s previously unpublished comments about Nesbit’s books.  Even this does not seem to have made much of an impact:  the Companion and Guide itself runs to over 2,000 pages, but, apart from reporting his statements, does nothing to reassess her influence.  We might hope for more from the massive J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia [2007] but again this generally repeats the bare facts as before.

While I trust that I have shown that E. Nesbit was a major influence on Tolkien’s writing, she has been an almost invisible presence to Tolkien’s biographers.  I hope that this piece may begin to rectify the omission - she may be invisible to the critics, but definitely there - and casting a long shadow.

Tolkien and Nansen



It has been established that Nesbit's writing influenced J. R. R. Tolkien's books.  He quoted directly from her and, on the Tolkien page of this website, I have suggested that Nansen similarly influenced him.  Nesbit included travels via underground passages on two occasions where her characters mention Nansen.  This is a very similar device to that used by Tolkien.  Perhaps we may see here, in Nesbit's interpretation of Nansen and Johansen's sledge journey from Farthest North, the precursor to the passage in The Hobbit which relates how Bilbo and the dwarves escape from the elves of Mirkwood.  The dwarves are incarcerated in underground cellars which contain barrels which are cast down a well. 

Earlier in The Hobbit in order to escape bad weather in the mountains the treasure hunters shelter in a cave.  Whilst sleeping the goblins seize them. [See Nansen's account of the 'cave of the Seven Sleepers' within In Northern Mists.  and The Hobbit, chapters four and  five.  The captured dwarves and the hobbit together numbered fourteen - twice the traditional magic number, seven.  Gandalf escaped capture.]. 

In The Lord of the Rings Frodo and his companions travel through the mines of Moria - having failed to cross the mountains through something approaching an Arctic blizzard.  The narrow stone bridge in Moria where Gandalf the Grey fell is undoubtedly a descendant of those described by Nansen in Eskimo Life and again within In Northern Mists

Nansen's sledge expedition with Johansen, as with Nesbit's version, above, may have a repeating echo in the latter part of Frodo and Sam's weary journey to Mount Doom.  It would perhaps be going too far to regard Frodo as entirely a tortured Fridtjof, and Sam is perhaps too friendly and kindly for a Johansen, rather more like his Lapp namesake, Samuel Balto.  Perhaps Samuel Balto, Bilbo in The Hobbit, becomes demoted to Samwise in The Lord of the Rings?  However, just as Sam cared for the physically injured Frodo, so did the patient Johansen care for Nansen during the latter part of their trek over the ice.  Of course the ambient temperature in Tolkien's Mordor was somewhat higher than in Nansen's Arctic.  Perhaps more like the temperture Nansen encountered in the Caucasus.  It should also be remembered that Tolkien said that Sam Gamgee was a reflection of the soldiers he met in the trenches in the First World War.  It is conceivable that Frodo's walk into the heart of enemy territory echoes the long walk of the Second World War infantry, from the Normandy beaches to Berlin.  A walk which ended, finally, the wars with Germany.

Randel Helms regards The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as variations on a theme.    He sees, however, differences in motivation of the characters within the two stories.  Correspondingly, there are differences in the motives and emotions revealed by those taking part in First Crossing... and Farthest North.  In the former the Lapps are the only characters whom Nansen portrays as showing fear and a negative reaction to the adventure.  They joined the expedition because of drink and peer pressure; their only motive for completing the journey [apart from clinging on to life] was the handsome profit which enticed them in the beginning.  In Farthest North Fridtjof Nansen himself goes some way to show the turmoil and periods of despair with which he was afflicted.  Here Nesbit departs from the Nansen of Farthest North and Tolkien' Frodo.  It would be too much to expect Nesbit's narrator, Oswald, to admit to any personal fears.  Nesbit vests overwhelming dread with Denny instead, and Denny takes on the role of the Lapps in Nansen's narrative.
The short story ‘The Ice Dragon...’ constitutes the only occasion when Edith Nesbit wrote exclusively about the Arctic.  However, the subject of Polar exploration managed to creep into many of her other books.  There are at least five specific separate references to the North Pole, e.g. from The Phoenix and the Carpet - ‘…lets go to the North Pole’.  Or The Amulet - ‘Lets go to the North Pole’.

She also makes four references to the Arctic, two to Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, two to dogs and sledges.  We do not have to look far for her inspiration, as we also find one substantial reference to a Viking, two to Norway, and three to Fridtjof Nansen.

An example from The New Treasure Seekers, Chapter 6 - ‘The Intrepid Explorer and his Lieutenant’:

‘Nansen is nothing to you!  You ought to have a medal for daring explorations...’


Nesbit must have had her reasons for using Nansen as a role-model for her characters rather than the hundreds of other potential heroes, most of them English, from whom she could have chosen.  Among them were any number of fighting heroes, from Admiral Lord Nelson onward, but often it is the Norwegian explorer Nansen who is selected.  Certainly Farthest North came out in England shortly before Nesbit’s early successes, and Nansen was the ‘man of the moment’.  Nansen is the only explorer mentioned by name in Edith Nesbit’s books.

Here are some examples, all from The Wonderful Garden [1911]:

‘Bother marrying’ said Charlotte briefly.  I don’t mean to marry anyone.  I shall be an Arctic explorer, and sail in the cold waters of the North.’

‘Now look here,’ he said at breakfast, ‘suppose we go and discover the North Pole’

‘Who shall we be..?’

‘I’ll be Nansen,’ said Charles.  I wish we had some Esquimo dogs and a sledge.’



You will have noticed Charlotte’s feeling that there is a choice to be made between marriage and exploration - a plea for equal opportunities for women.  Nesbit was very much alive to the changes taking place in society around her, and reflected these discords in her books.

Had ‘The Ice Dragon…’ tale been written 50 years earlier we would expect it to end with a traditional moral.  After being disobedient and walking on the wet grass, not to mention bringing home a strange dragon, George and Jane would be suitably punished, even possibly eaten by the dragon.  But Nesbit allows her children to walk on the grass and get wet feet - the only result being their getting cold.  This is no accident.  At the end of 'The Mixed Mine' from The Magic World:

‘There is no moral to this story, except...  But no - there is no moral.’

Or from Nine Unlikely Tales:

‘You are intelligent children, and I will not insult you with a moral.  I am not Uncle Thomas.  Nor will I ask you to remember what I have told you.  I am not Aunt Selina.’  [Nine Unlikely Tales, Ernest Benn, 1960, page 84.  An early Nesbit, first published in 1901].

In fact it is just the opposite - Nesbit is undermining those in authority who demand absolute obedience from children.  She is parting company from those writers of the 19th century for whom an imaginative child’s story is incomplete without a strictly delivered barefaced moral.  The exceptions, indeed, are mainly those writers who treated children as acting like miniature adults, such as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island.

Nesbit voices her philosophy through the halting words of one of her characters in the Treasure Seekers books:

‘What I mean to say is that when a thing is quite sure to be right, it’s not so - well - I mean to say there it is, don’t you know; and if it might be wrong, and isn’t, it’s a score to you; and if it might be wrong and is - as so often happens - well, you know yourself, adventures sometimes turn out wrong that you didn’t think were going to, but seldom, or never, the uninteresting kind and -’

This should be compared with Charles Kingsley’s admonishing phrase, ‘as old as the difference between right and wrong...’ from The Water Babies, 1863.

Critics have seen in E. Nesbit’s writing that she focuses on the childhood activity of ‘play’.  This is fairly obvious to anyone who reads her work.  Play, now considered to be central to the emotional development of children, began to be accepted during the late nineteenth century. Before that time children were often expected to act as  prototype adults and play was sometimes considered  to border on insanity.  It is possible to argue that the reverse is now the case and that the childhood activity of play is now carried over into many adults lives.  Sports such as football, golf or bowling are popular with a wide range of westernised individuals. Perhaps if there were more play there would be less anti-social behaviour? Despite this concentration on the childhood imagination and play, Edith Nesbit has been accused of addressing her adult readers above the heads of her child readers, e.g. her characters arguing about 'gender roles' which actually reflect arguments regarding the role of women in the adult world.

But in the next passage we can see that Nesbit’s characters go further than simple play and address their peers directly in a language that they, and all Nesbit's readers, can understand.  They do not simply ape the actions of their elders, they achieve the impossible: the simultaneous exploration of the Arctic and the search for the source of the Nile.  In doing so they  attack the perceptions and authority of adults.  As we have seen, they have a philosophy [of sorts] to back up their actions.  It is not that Nesbit is inciting children to deliberately misbehave but she has no objection to them following the course of their imagination and allows play to run to its logical conclusion...  Perhaps what we witness here is an early recognition of the ‘rebellious teenager’ if not the total liberation of children from a world of arbitrary adult rules?  It is, after all, the continual striving to bend the rule which brings about the great discoveries of the next generation.  Nevertheless, as we shall see, Nesbit allows that there is some risk.

It is interesting to speculate on whether this rejection of authority bolstered Nesbit’s choice of Nansen as role-model.  Nansen wrote that he rejected all advice in his crossing of Greenland from East to West when he set off in the face of almost universal criticism.  On this and his later Fram expedition, where again the experts were against him, he should have foundered in his attempts, only surviving to say he was sorry to his advisors - if he were going to produce the expected ‘moral’ result following the pursuit of his own line of logic in opposition to the accepted dogma.

This can all be summed up by a glorious passage from The Wouldbegoods which was first published in instalments in the Pall Mall Magazine and Illustrated London News in 1900 - 01.   In his First Crossing of Greenland: Nansen wrote:  “Some authorities criticised especially the unpardonable rashness of destroying the bridges behind you...”  Note the references to Fridtjof Nansen’s book and his ‘burning of bridges’ in the passage below:

‘Being Beavers, or The Young Explorers (Arctic or Otherwise).

...let me to my narrating.  I hope you will like it.  I am going to try to write it in a different way, like the books they give you for a prize at a girls’ school - I mean ‘young ladies’ school’...  Here goes -

‘Ah, me!’ sighed a slender maiden of twelve summers, removing her elegant hat and passing her tapery fingers lightly through her fair tresses, ‘how sad it is - is it not? - to see able-bodied youths and young ladies wasting the precious summer hours in idleness and luxury.’

The maiden frowned reproachingly, but yet with earnest gentleness, at the group of youths and maidens who sat beneath an umbragipeaous beech tree and ate black currents.

‘Dear brothers and sisters,’ the blushing girl went on, ‘could we not, even now, at the eleventh hour, turn to account these wasted lives of ours, and seek some occupation at once improving and agreeable?’

‘I do not quite follow your meaning, dear sister,’ replied the cleverest of her brothers, on whose brow -’

It’s no use.  I can’t write like these books.  I wonder how the books’ authors can keep it up.

What really happened was that we were all eating black currents in the orchard, out of a cabbage leaf, and Alice said -

‘I say, look here, let’s do something.  It’s simply silly to waste a day like this.  It’s just on eleven.  Come on!’

And Oswald said, ‘Where to?’

Alice... said -

‘Why not go and discover the source of the Nile?’

Of course Oswald knows quite well that the source of the real live Egyptian Nile is no longer buried in that mysteriousness where it lurked undisturbed for such a long time.  But he was not going to say so.  It is a great thing to know when not to say things. 

‘Why not have it an Arctic expedition?’  said Dickie; ‘then we could take an ice-axe, and live on blubber and things.  Besides, it sounds cooler.’

‘Vote! Vote!’ cried Oswald.  So we did.

Oswald, Alice, Noël and Denny voted for the river of the ibis and the crocodile.  Dickie, H. O. and the other girls for the region of perennial winter and rich blubber...

You may think it but the work of a moment to fit out an expedition, but this is not so, especially when you know not whether your exploring party is speeding to Central Africa or merely to the world of icebergs and the Polar bear....

It was, as I have said, a blazing hot day, and there were differences of opinion among the explorers about what eatables we ought to have taken...

So it was rather a gloomy expedition that set off that bright sunny day to seek the source of the river where Cleopatra sailed in Shakespeare (or the frozen plains Mr. Nansen wrote that big book about)...

Dickie cried, ‘A camp! a camp!’ and we were all glad to sit down at once.  Not at all like real explorers, who know no rest, day or night, till they have got there (whether it’s the North Pole, or the central point of the part marked Desert of Sahara on old-fashioned maps).

The food supplies obtained by various members were good and plenty of it.  Cake, hard eggs, sausage-rolls, currants, lemon cheese-cakes, raisins and cold apple dumplings.  It was all very decent, but Oswald could not help feeling that the source of the Nile (or North Pole) was a long way off, and perhaps nothing much when you got there.

So he was not wholly displeased when Denny said, as he lay kicking into the bank when the things to eat were all gone -

‘I believe this is clay: did you ever make huge platters and bowls out of clay and dry them in the sun?  Some people did in a book called Foul Play, and I believe they baked turtles, or oysters, or something, at the same time.’

He took up a bit of clay and began to mess it about, like you do putty when you get hold of a bit.  And at once the heavy gloom that had hung over the explorers became expelled, and we all got under the shadow of the bridge and messed about with clay...

It is harder than you would think to make huge platters with clay.  It flops about as soon as you get it any size...

When we’d made a lot of things we set them in the sun to dry, and then it seemed a pity not to do the thing thoroughly.  So we made a bonfire, and when it had burnt down we put our pots on the soft, white, hot ashes among the little red sparks, and kicked the ashes over them and heaped more fuel over the top.  It was a fine fire.

Then tea-time seemed as if it ought to be near, and we decided to come back next day and get our pots.

As we went home across the fields Dickie looked back and said -

‘The bonfire’s going pretty strong.’

We looked.  It was.  Great flames were rising to heaven against the evening sky.  And we had left it a smouldering flat heap...

With one accord we turned back.  We all felt the feeling - the one that means something fatal being up and it being your fault.

‘Perhaps,’ Alice said, ‘a beautiful young lady in a muslin dress was passing by, and a spark flew on to her, and now she is rolling in agony enveloped in flames...’

But when we got in sight of the scene of our pottering industry we saw it was as bad nearly as Alice’s wild dream.  For the wooden fence leading up to the bridge had caught fire, and it was burning like billy oh.

Oswald started to run; so did the others... 
[When they] arrived at the site of the conflagration... he said, ‘Dickie, soak your jacket and mine in the stream and chuck them along.  Alice, stand clear, or your silly girl’s clothes’ll catch as sure as fate...’

Then the brave Oswald advanced warily to the end of the burning rails and put his wet jacket over the end bit...  The burning wood hissed and smouldered, and Oswald fell back, almost choked with the smoke...  At last all was safe; the devouring element was conquered...

Alice said -

‘Now we must go and tell.’

‘Of course,’ Oswald said shortly.  He had meant to tell all the time.

So we went to the farmer who has the Moat House Farm...  When we had told him he said -

‘You little -’ I shall not say what he said besides that, because I am sure he must have been sorry for it next Sunday when he went to church, if not before...

Really great explorers would never be discouraged by the ‘dare saying’ of a farmer, still less by his calling them names he ought not to.  Albert’s uncle was away so we got no double slating; and next day we started out again to discover the source of the river of cataracts (or the region of mountain-like icebergs).

We set out heavily provisioned with a large cake Daisy and Dora had made themselves, and six bottles of ginger-beer.  I think real explorers most likely have their ginger-beer in something lighter to carry than stone bottles.  Perhaps they have it by the cask, which would come cheaper; and you could make the girls carry it on their back, like in pictures of the daughters of regiments...

The stream was broad and shallow at this part, and you could see the stones and gravel at the bottom, and millions of baby fishes, and a sort of skating-spiders walking about on the top of the water.  Denny said the water must be ice for them to be able to walk on it, and this showed we were getting near the North Pole.  But Oswald had seen a kingfisher by the wood, and he said it was an ibis, so this was even...

Oswald said...’Lets be beavers and make a dam.’

And everybody was so hot they agreed joyously, and soon our clothes were tucked up as far as they could go and our legs looked green through the water, though they were pink out of it.

Making a dam is jolly good fun, though laborious, as books about beavers let you know.

Dickie said it must be Canada if we were beavers, and so it was on the way to the Polar system, but Oswald pointed to his heated brow, and Dickie owned it was warm for Polar regions.  He had brought the ice-axe (it is called the wood-chopper sometimes), and Oswald, ever ready and able to command, set him and Denny to cut turfs from the bank while we heaped stones across the stream...

When our beaver task was performed we went on, and Dickie was so hot he had to take his jacket off and shut up about icebergs...

And then we saw a thing that was well worth coming all that way for; the stream suddenly disappeared under a dark stone archway, and however much you stood in the water and stuck your head down between your knees you could not see any light at the other end.

The stream was much smaller than where we had been beavers.

Gentle reader, you will guess in a moment who it was that said -

‘Alice, you’ve got a candle.  Let’s explore.’

This gallant proposal met but a cold response.

The others said they didn’t care much about it, and what about tea?

I often think the way people try to hide their cowardliness behind their teas is simply beastly.

Oswald took no notice.  He just said, with that dignified manner, not at all like sulking, which he knows so well how to put on -

‘All right.  I’m going.  If you funk it you’d better cut along home and ask your nurses to put you to bed.’

So then, of course, they agreed to go.  Oswald went first with the candle.  It was not comfortable; the architect of that dark, subterranean passage had not imagined anyone would ever be brave enough to lead a band of beavers into its inky recesses, or he would have built it high enough to stand upright in.  As it was, we were bent almost at a right angle, and this is very awkward if for long.

But the leader pressed dauntlessly on, and paid no attention to the groans of his faithful followers, nor to what they said about their backs.

It really was a very long tunnel, though, and even Oswald was not sorry to say, ‘I see daylight.’  The followers cheered as well as they could as they splashed after him.  The floor was stone as well as the roof, so it was easy to walk on.  I think the followers would have turned back if it had been sharp stones or gravel...

It was jolly to be in the sunshine again, I never knew before how cold it was underground.  The stream was getting smaller and smaller.

Dickie said, ‘This can’t be the way.  I expect there was a turning to the North Pole inside the tunnel, only we missed it.  It was cold enough there...’

So we sloshed along, scratching our legs with the brambles, and the water squelched in our boots...  We did not follow the stream any more.  It was only a trickle now, so we knew we had tracked it to its source...  Oswald bravely sought to keep up Dickie’s courage, when he tripped on a snag and came down on a bramble bush saying -

You see it is the source of the Nile we’ve discovered.  What price North Poles now?’

Alice said, ‘Ah, but think of ices!  I expect Oswald wishes it had been the Pole, anyway -’

Oswald is naturally the leader, especially when following up what is his own idea, but he knows that leaders have other duties besides just leading.  One is to assist weak or wounded members of the expedition, whether Polar or Equatorish...


Following further misadventures, the expedition returns home by road...

Perhaps you will think this was the end of the source of the Nile (or North Pole).  If you did, it only shows how mistaken the gentlest reader may be.

The wounded explorer was lying with his wounds and bandages on the sofa, and we were all having our tea, with raspberries and white currants, which we richly needed after our torrid adventures, when Mrs Pettigrew, the housekeeper, put her head in at the door and said -

‘Please could I speak to you half a moment, sir,’ to Albert’s uncle.  And her voice was the kind that makes you look at each other when the grown-up has gone out, and you are silent with the bread and butter halfway to the next bite, or your teacup in mid flight to your lips.

It was as we suppose.  Albert’s uncle did not come back for a long while...

He came in, and his face wore the look that means bed, and very likely no supper.

He spoke, and it was the calmness of white-hot iron, which is something like the calmness of despair.  He said - ‘You have done it again.  What on earth possessed you to make a dam?’

‘We were being beavers,’ said H. O., in proud tones.  He did not see as we did where Albert’s uncle’s tone pointed to.

‘No doubt,’ said Albert’s uncle, rubbing his hands through his hair.  ‘No doubt! no doubt!  Well, my beavers, you may go and build dams with your bolsters.  Your dam stopped the stream; the clay you took for it left a channel through which it has run down and ruined about seven pounds’ worth of freshly-reaped barley.  Luckily the farmer found it out in time or you might have spoiled seventy pounds’ worth.  And you burned a bridge yesterday.’

We said we were sorry.  There was nothing else to say, only Alice added, ‘We didn’t mean to be naughty.’

‘Of course not,’ said Albert’s uncle, ‘you never do.  Oh yes, I’ll kiss you - but it’s bed and it’s two hundred lines tomorrow, and the line is - ‘Beware of Being Beavers and Burning Bridges.  Dread Dams.’  It will be a capital exercise in capital B’s and D’s.’

We knew by that, though annoyed, he was not furious; we went to bed.

I got jolly sick of capital B’s and D’s before sunset on the morrow.  That night, just as the others were falling asleep, Oswald said -

‘I say.’

‘Well,’ retorted his brother.

‘There is one thing about it,’ Oswald went on, ‘it does show it was a rattling good dam anyhow.’

And filled with this agreeable thought, the weary beavers (or explorers, Polar or otherwise) fell asleep.’

So, the first novelist who positively identifies herself as influenced by Nansen's writing was Edith Nesbit.  She was the pre-eminent children's author, writing before the turn of the century until the start of the First World War.  She was active at the time when the Arctic competition was filling the newspapers.  Her only rival in children's literature was Rudyard Kipling, but he had written most of his well-known books [for example The Jungle Book] by the end of the nineteenth century, with the exception of Puck of Pook's Hill which came out in 1906.  Kipling wrote to Nesbit to say how much he and his family enjoyed her books, and Nesbit refers to Kipling by name in her books.  Nesbit suddenly stopped publishing children's books in 1914.

Why Nesbit should choose Nansen as her great role-model can only be the subject of speculation.  Nansen was widely admired at the time she was writing.  However, she mentions Nansen’s name in The Wonderful Garden [which came out in 1911 - the same year that Nansen’s In Northern Mists was published in Britain] while ignoring Peary and Cook who were battling for the Pole and consequently also in the newspapers at the time.  She causes one of her characters to mention Nansen’s books themselves and [this is the point] here is an explorer who is also a distinguished author.  But if Nansen has the ability to express his own philosophy through his books, then Nesbit must share it.  Nansen, while writing severely factual books, also deals with contrasting viewpoints, with myth and magic and dreams.  This is the essence of a great deal of Nesbit’s writing - alternate realities or the confusion of reality with enchantment.


Born in 1853, Edith’s father died before her fourth birthday.  The family then moved constantly, living in several locations in France.  When they moved back to England they settled in Halstead, Kent which later inspired her book The Railway Children [1906] which has been filmed several times.  As a teenager, Nesbit was inspired by William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.  Her best known books are perhaps The Story of the Treasure Seekers [1898] and The Wouldbegoods [1899], Five Children and It [1902], The New Treasure Seekers [1904]. 

Nesbit stopped writing for children at the outbreak of the First World War which coincided with the death of her first husband.  She remarried in 1917, living the latter part of her life in some poverty, on Romney Marsh in Kent.  She died in 1924.

Among the authors who acknowledge her influence are J. K. Rowling and C. S. Lewis, who mentions the Bastable children from The Treasure Seekers books in The Magician's Nephew
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