Saturday, 29 January 2022

The Carved Lions (Book Review)


The Carved Lions
by Mrs. (Mary Louisa) Molesworth - 1895
(79 pages)

Recently, Meike (Librarian) blogged about another title - Christmas Tree Land - by Mrs Molesworth (1839-1921) - a classic English author of children's stories, previously unknown to me. Meike's review of that book made me wonder a bit if maybe her works could have inspired C.S. Lewis when writing his Narnia series. So I looked up some more of her titles, among which I found The Carved Lions (in the public domain and free for Kindle). Having read it, I'm still wondering... If C.S. Lewis did read this book in his childhood (and he could have - he was born in 1898), I suspect he may have felt (like I do) that there were elements in it that could have made it a good fantasy book - but weren't (in that respect) quite used to their full potential...

Reading it 125+ years after it was written, and as an adult, to me the the story feels "uneven". The narrator in the book is an old woman looking back on her childhood (so the events meant to have occurred in the early 19th century rather than towards the end of the same century). Geraldine and her brother were quite happy living with their parents in a village. They were not exactly poor, but also not rich. ("It never entered my head that there was anything to be ashamed of in living in a small house and having only two servants.") Her brother (a couple of years older) went to school but Geraldine was home-schooled by her mother. Sometimes she wished she could go to school to.

One of both children's favourite things was to accompany their mother when she had some errands in the village. At the entrance of one shop there were two huge carved lions, looking very life-like. Geraldine and her brother used to imagine (or pretend) that these could come alive, and carry them off on adventures.

"A little way in from the front entrance to the shop --- stood a pair of huge lions carved in very dark, almost black, wood. They were nearly, if not quite, as large as life ---"

Then suddenly there is a big change in their lives. The children's father gets a job abroad (which it seems he has to take for financial reasons). His wife has to go with him; but for reasons to do with climate and whatever, they can't take the children. 

So the children are both sent to boarding schools - Geraldine to one for girls in the same village where they lived. Apart from her parents going away, she is actually kind of looking forward to this - hoping to make some new friends.  But the school turns out a huge disappointment to her. And here the story goes off into lengthy descriptions of the school, the teachers, and her growing unhappiness. Until one day she runs away, in the hope of finding someone who might be able to help her get news of her parents. It turns out she doesn't remember the streets of the village as well as she thought, so she gets lost - but eventually ends up at the shop with the lions, so exhausted that she falls asleep next to one of those. 

And then the lions come alive, and wonderful things start happening... Or... do they?
(Spoiler alert for the next paragraph)

Next thing, Geraldine wakes up, and finds herself in a strange bed, surrounded by faces she does not know. It turns out the owner of the shop found her sleeping next to the lion, and had taken her in. She has contracted a bad cold from being out in bad weather, and has to stay in bed for a while. However, it all turns out for the best. Various misunderstandings get sorted out, and she ends up not having to go back to the school, but gets to stay with nice people (including a girl her own age who also likes the carved lions); until eventually her parents come back from abroad.

The book is quite short (79 pages). It has been called the author's masterpiece by some; but as I already said, to me it feels uneven, with some parts of it full of details, but others only very hastily sketched, and the fantasy parts not allowed to mix too much with "reality".

The idea of the carved lions coming alive and letting the children ride on their backs to a faraway place still reminds me of Narnia, though. ;-) 

(Remains to be seen how well I'll remember the book in a couple of years or so - that's usually the best way to tell the quality of a story in the long run!)


  1. I have not read this one yet, and after your review I don‘t think I will. But I agree that it is entirely possible that the story influenced, at least in a small way, the Narnia books. Apparently, Mrs Molesworth‘s books were very popular in their time, and many children who later became authors must have known them.

    1. Meike, I can kind of see why she was called "the Jane Austen of the nursery", though. Had I read this book in my childhood I think I might have returned to it. (For some reason, I never came across the Narnia books until I was in my twenties, so wouldn't have had those to compare with back then!)

  2. PS. Having some doubts about the "spoiler paragraph" above. I don't normally like to include the ending of a story in a review... For now I'm letting it stand here (knowing this blog doesn't have all that many readers anyway), but adding the review to Amazon, I cut that paragraph out.

  3. Have not heard of Mrs Molesworth before, and as a child I didn't read the Narnia books, not sure if I'd even heard of them. It's surprising that I didn't, because if I wasn't drawing and painting, I had my nose stuck in a book. I must have been one of the few children who didn't resent being given a book token or a book, as a birthday or Christmas gift!
    I'm not sure (given my advanced years), that I'd enjoy reading children's literature now, though I do have "War Horse" on my Kindle. When I bought it I didn't realise it was aimed at young adults.

  4. CG, I never heard of the Narnia books in my childhood either but was recommended them up in my twenties and "fell in love" - I even wrote an essay about them at university (English lit). I still enjoy rereading certain favourites from my childhood and teens - and in this century I fell in love with the Harry Potter series as well. I think I'm more into fairy tales the older I get, actually! ;)

  5. Great review. I expect that some parents of young children may be looking for this to share with developing, creative minds. Good literature is good literature, aimed at children or not.

    1. Thanks David. There's a lot of classic literature available as free or almost free e-books these days and that's a great way to give some 'oldies' a chance. If one doesn't like them at least it hasn't cost one anything (except a bit of time) to check them out - and occasionally one may find a real gem among them!


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