A Little Happier: A Story That Moved Me as a Child, and Moves Me Still as an Adult

I love children’s literature, and one reason I love those books is that I remember them so well. As a child, I read my favorite novels over and over, and so I just recall them more easily than books that I love just as much as an adult, but haven’t committed to memory. I love Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead (Amazon, Bookshop), but I’ve read it only twice; I’ve read Irene Hunt’s novel Up a Road Slowly (Amazon, Bookshop) ten times. So these novels are more present in my mind.

In particular, I’ve read and re-read the novels of Edward Eager. I can’t describe how much I love these books. It’s interesting: Of all the writers I’ve read, I think—I hope—that Edward Eager has had a big influence on my own writing. He has a clarity, and humor, and an ability to mix high and ordinary language, and to make allusions to literature, in a way that has delighted me my whole life.

I love all his novels, and one of my favorites is the 1954 Half Magic (Amazon, Bookshop), about a family of four children who has a series of magical adventures after they find an ancient talisman that grants wishes. The twist is that it grants half a wish – so if you wish to go to a desert island, you end up in the desert. So the four children have to figure out how to make their wishes properly, and they take turns making wishes, and hijinks ensure.

Because I simply can’t resist, I’ll read from the very first page of the book.

It began one day in summer about thirty years ago, and it happened to four children.

Jane was the oldest and Mark was the only boy, and between them they ran everything.

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.

Martha was the youngest, and very difficult.

One of the children, Katharine, makes her wishes to take them back to the days of King Arthur, to see a tournament and go on a quest and do a good deed. The children go, and they mix it up with Sir Lancelot and Morgan le Fay and others. They cause a fair amount of disruption with their adventures, and the great enchanter Merlin uses his magic to command them to appear before him.

They explain what they’d wanted to do, and how they came to be there, and he prepares to send them back to their own time and place so they can’t make any more trouble in his time. But Katharine protests that she didn’t do the good deed she’d wished for.

And this is what Merlin tells her. I was deeply moved by this passage even as an eight-year-old, and I’m even more deeply moved by it now, as an adult.

Here’s what the passage says.

“But what about the good deed I wished?” said Katharine. “None of the ones I tried worked out!”

“My child,” said Merlin, and his smile was very kind now, “you have done your good deed. You have brought me word that for as far into time as the twentieth century, the memory of Arthur, and of the Round Table, which I helped him to create, will be living yet. And that in that far age people will still care for the ideal I began, enough to come back through time and space to try to be of service to it. You have brought me that word, and now I can finish my work in peace, and know that I have done well. And if that’s not a good deed, I should like to know what is.”

The children’s adventures didn’t go the way they expected, and yet a good deed came from it. Sometimes, trying to do a good thing is good enough, even if we fail in actually accomplishing it.

LATEST EPISODES

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

DISCOVER MORE

Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.