Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Magic Fishbone - Charles Dickens

Author: Charles Dickens
Date: 1867
Setting: England in the 1860s
Availability: Read The Magic Fishbone on line, free

Story: Alicia, age seven, is the oldest of 19 children. She lives with her father, King Watkins I, and her mother the Queen. Alicia takes care of all the Princes and Princesses, and they all take care of the baby. The King works in a government office where payday is never often enough! One day he stops at the fishmonger’s to buy some salmon and meets the Good Fairy Grandmarina. Grandmarina instructs him to tell Alicia to save the fishbone that is left on her plate after the salmon is eaten and to polish it till it shines like mother-of-pearl.

If she saves that fishbone until just the right moment, and then makes a wish, her wish will be granted. But she must use it at the right time.

Alicia does save and polish the fishbone, and keeps it in her pocket. She then proceeds to solve the many day-to-day problems of a household with so many children. As each difficult situation arises, she considers using the magic fishbone, but always decides that she can “snip and stitch and cut and contrive” to find a solution. Until one day...

Commentary: This was one of my favorite stories as a child, but it is not well-known. Although it is clearly for young readers, it was written when children’s stories were not reduced to vocabularies of 100 words. Any adult will be quick to catch the meaning behind the story: that we can usually solve the problems that face us, and only need to call in special help when we have truly done all we can on our own.

Children find the reprimands of Grandmarina to the “King” delightful- even the King can’t get away with being foolish when confronted with a fairy. To an adult reader it might seem that Alicia doesn’t hold out long enough before using the magic fishbone, but to a child, her ministrations to the household are quite extraordinary. Alicia’s eventual decision to use the magic fishbone is not a selfish one.

The real is whimsically mixed with the pretend in a way that only children accept without question. The illustrations by S. Beatrice Pearse are wonderful- some are line drawings and some in full color. Dickens attributed the story to a seven-year-old, Miss Alice Rainbird, but common belief is that she was a literary device, not a real girl.

Author info: Charles Dickens 1812-1870, is known for his novels that eloquently called for social reform without being political. He called upon detailed recollections of people and places from his life for many of the settings. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and other works are still highly acclaimed and read 150 years later, making him one of the truly classic authors. He is known for Gothic settings, intricate and odd characters, and ironic humor. His works are often satirized, because the characters are so easily turned into "cartoons."

Unusual Words:
quarterday- a quarterly payday

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 7

1 comment:

  1. Yes, little Alicia is a literary device, as you very well said! No other words could have better highlighted Dickens's artistic manner of writing. The book is apparently for children, like "Alice in Wonderland"(God,it is only now that I notice the resemblance of the two names!) or "Gulliver's Travels". In fact, it is (also) meant for grown-ups. The story is pervaded with delightful peculiarities: the King and the Queen have 19 children, so the eldest is only 7. (I wonder how many pairs of twins and groups of triplets there might have been. Joking!)The King is "Under the Government"and suffers because he is ill-paid.When the baby of the family gets hurt, the reader must know that "twice seventeen make thirty-four eyes" were staring at him in terror. The names are also suggestive: the fairy's is GRANDMArina,so being regarded not only as an entity with supernatural powers, but also as a Grandma that takes care of children and gives them good advice. The Prince's name is Certainpersonio, which shows he was not really important (see his clothes and activity) until Grandmarina took care of this. Finally, Princess... sorry, I mean The Princess Alicia marries him even though she is only 7. And the poor dog dies choked on the fishbone, which is more like a horror story event. My mother used to read this story to me when I was 5 or 6 and now, after many years, I came on line to find this brilliant story that I've been reading with different eyes.


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