Suppose you were to mash up three of the greatest of all children’s fantasies: J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone.” This may be hard to imagine, especially for an adult, but something like E.A. Wyke-Smith’s “The Marvellous Land of Snergs” would be the result. Deliciously irreverent in its narration, silly and spooky throughout, and charmingly illustrated by Punch artist George Morrow, this neglected masterpiece remains as winning today as when it was first published in 1927.
Wyke-Smith opens with a description of Watkyns Bay, where scores of children can be glimpsed playing on the sand and in the water. Actually, they can’t be glimpsed because not a single ship, with one exception, has ever entered the bay. Any vessel attempting to do so encounters contrary winds and dangerous waterspouts, these barriers having been set up by the S.R.S.C., the Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children.
That sounds dire, but Miss Watkyns — assisted by Miss Gribblestone and Miss Scadging — takes the greatest care in only removing children not wanted by their parents or parent. Sylvia, for instance, had been totally ignored by her beautiful socialite mother, even when the little girl fell seriously ill. Joe was physically abused by his cruel father, a circus performer. But once this pair are whisked away by the S.R.S.C., they quickly forget about their unhappy former lives. So do all the other boys and girls.
Whisked away? When the first group of children are secretly assembled on Hampstead Heath, Miss Watkyns gives the word “and away they all went on a high wind.” On rare occasions a child is sent back to England, but this can only occur when the moon enters the right quarter. Are these elderly spinsters then fairies? Witches? Angels? Watkyns Bay itself resembles a year-round summer camp, with communal dormitories and simple uniforms. Time there seems to have slowed almost to a stop.
Still, accursed ships are apparently unaffected by magical barriers, for up the bay from the S.R.S.C’s headquarters one finds the encampment of Captain Vanderdecken, a.k.a. the Flying Dutchman. Having been blown ashore, he and his surprisingly jolly crew aren’t in any hurry to get back to the open sea, where they had been sailing since the 17th century. They prove unexpectedly important to the story.
Inland from the two shore settlements is the kingdom of the Snergs. Even further away lies a realm shrouded in mystery, said to be ruled by a cruel tyrant and inhabited by ogres and witches.
Uh, Snergs? “The Snergs are a race of people only slightly taller than the average table, but broad in the shoulders and of great strength. Probably they are some offshoot of the pixies who once inhabited the hills and forests of England.” They are also, according to Tolkien, the partial inspiration for hobbits. The Snergs live “as long as oaks,” hunt with bows, occasionally do some construction work or manual labor for Miss Watkyns and pass much of their time in feasting. “The King presides at the head of the table, with the best people on either hand, and there they sit in the mellow evening light and tell tales of the brave days of old and listen to the sound of harps.”
An idyllic paradise then is Watkyns Bay — at least until daredevil Joe, egged on by that minx Sylvia, flings a brick into the Vanderdecken stew pot. “Speaking of the act entirely apart from its moral aspect,” observes our narrator, “I may say that it was a good shot.” In punishment Joe is confined to the Turret Chamber, but instead escapes with Sylvia’s help and the two run away to find adventure. Soon hungry and disoriented, the pair are rescued by Gorbo, reputedly the most foolish of all Snergs. He escorts them to King Merse II, at least partly hoping to be awarded the coveted Order of the Brazen Nutmeg. Naturally, the children’s arrival calls for a celebration: “The people had not had a feast for more than a week and it came as a welcome change.” Over the wine a young Snerg “who had a really fine tenor voice sang, ‘Give me thy gold, I ask no more,’ very movingly.”
The next morning, Gorbo escorts the children on a tour of a dark forest where the twisted trees grow thick and close together. Soon lost, the despondent trio chance upon a big tree with a strange door high up in its trunk. When they pull on its handle, the door swings open easily — and the real adventures begin.
Here’s just a short list of what Gorbo, Sylvia and Joe encounter: underground passageways, caverns of giant mushrooms, an ogre who has given up eating children and become a vegetarian, the timorous knight Sir Percival, a court jester whose japes always fall flat and two assassination plots against King Kul I, who reportedly loves to chop the heads off children. “Of course, you haven’t heard about the infants’ class at the Sunday School,” explains the witch Mother Meldrum. “However, don’t let’s go into disagreeable details.”
Eventually, Mother Meldrum promises to show everyone the way home if Gorbo brings her six lively mandrakes. “It’s rather a swampy place where they grow, but you won’t mind that. If any things come and look at you, don’t be worried, but don’t speak if you can help it because it’s best not to.” Gorbo asks, “What sort of things?” The witch replies, “Well, mostly things rather like people, only with . . .”
I’d better stop there. A marvelous summer treat, “The Marvellous Land of Snergs” goes mysteriously in and out of print, but the best modern edition, from Old Earth Books, features an excellent introduction by Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson. Try for that one, but read any edition you can find.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By E.A. Wyke-Smith