The Twelve and the Genii

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CARNEGIE MEDAL WINNER – 1962

The Twelve and the Genii

by Pauline Clarke

(published in the U.S. under the title: The Return of the Twelves)

Age: 8+

Interests: fantasy, toys come to life, little people, history, siblings, family

Faber and Faber: 1962

185 pages

Also by this author: Torolv the Fatherless, Smith’s Hoard, The Boy with the Erpingham Hood, The Two Faces of Silenus

Other books about ‘little people’: The Borrowers, Mistress Masham’s Repose, The Little Grey Men

8-year-old Max discovers a set of wooden soldiers in his family’s new home in the English countryside, c. 1960. Over time he realizes that, when they think nobody is looking, the twelve soldiers come to life. Through great patience Max is able to win their trust. They think of him as a great magical genie, and he assists them from time to time in their expeditions and adventures. He does realize, however, that it is best to allow them to “do things their own way”, slow and laborious as it may be.

Max eventually lets his older sister Jane in on his secret. Their older brother Philip knows something is going on, but sibling squabbles prevent their trusting him. The children meet a neighbour, the Reverend Howson, who their parents say is a big “brontyfan” (which Max at first thinks has something to do with dinosaurs). Through Howson they learn about the famous Brontë siblings who lived nearby, in particular about a set of soldiers they owned and made up stories about. It seems that Branwell Brontë, lone brother to his more famous sisters, pretty much willed the toys to life through his vivid imagination. The children soon determine that their soldiers are the very ones the Brontës used to own. When a collector advertises in the paper that he will pay a very large sum for the missing soldiers, Philip writes to him immediately. Word gets out in the tiny community, and rumours begin swirling about Max and his soldiers. Desperate to keep them out of the collector’s hands, and worried that someone else might try to steal them for the reward money, Max and Jane decide the soldiers should go to their original home, which is now a Brontë Museum. Since the Twelve must “do things their own way”, the tiny men set out on a dangerous cross-country trek to get there. Max and Jane get Philip onside and the three anxiously oversee their travels until the Twelve arrive at last at their new home.

What may sound like a standard modern-children-come-across-something-magical tale, this story stands out for a few unique aspects. One is the link made to the Brontë family, and the real stories written by Branwell and Charlotte about their toy soldiers. Another is the very thoughtful way the author handles the subject of toys-come-to-life. The point-of-view of the little people is very skilfully imagined, as well as their limitations in understanding the larger world around them. It is very natural that the abilities of the gigantic children would lead the soldiers to view them as supernatural genii. As well, Max is an extremely sensitive child, immediately understanding that the little men need to trust him totally and also that it would injure their pride if he did everything for them.

Another interesting aspect is the causality between the child’s imagination and the experiences of the soldiers. The imagination and genius of the Brontë children is what made them come to life in the first place, and it seems natural to Max that when he imagines what happens to them, that is indeed what happens.

“It did not seem odd to Max that what he had imagined about Stumps was really true, because this was exactly how games you made up worked. Of course they were true. In your mind.”

The relationship between the siblings is very much in the style of E. Nesbit stories – they argue and scold, alliances are formed and broken, but in the end they find a common cause and manage to work together. The great care that the author takes in creating the world of the little men, and the great care that the children take in their dealings with them is what raises this story above the everyday.

This is a charming, old-fashioned story with links to real-life literary history. The children are believable and fully rounded, as are the eccentric personalities of the various tiny men. A slower pace and gentle plotline makes it a good read-aloud for younger children as well.

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.