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Half Magic

May 10, 2020

9780786279524-usThe demand for grocery pickup times has eased to the point where I no longer have to make use of my periodic insomnia to reserve a time, but I’ve begun to think of ordering as learning to use Half Magic, as in the book by Edward Eager.

For a few weeks it was hard to get lactose-free milk; when I ordered one I got zero. So then I tried ordering different brands with different percentages of milkfat and twice as much as I needed and ended up getting almost enough. But then one week, ordering twice as much as I needed did not produce the hoped-for half magic; I got almost as much as I’d ordered. Tortillas were like this, too. After two weeks of getting half of what I’d asked for, I asked for twice as much as I needed and then got all of it. Grocery store ordering clearly does not work by the rules of Half Magic.

The rules are fairly simple and part of the fun is seeing the children figure out how they work. The first thing Jane wishes, before she knows her wishes will come half-true, is for some excitement, but after the excitement it’s scary:
“Is Jane magic?” Martha whispered to Katharine.
“I don’t now. I think so,” Katharine whispered back.
Jane glared at them…
“Are we magic, too?”
“I don’t know. I’m scared to find out.”
Jane glared. Once more silence fell….
“Will we be burnt as witches?”
Jane whirled on them furiously.
“I wish,” she started to say.
“Don’t!” Katharine almost screamed, and Jane turned white, shut her lips tight, and started walking faster.

The narrator explains that “when you have magic powers and know it, it can be a fine feeling, like a pleasant tingling inside. But in order to enjoy that tingling, you have to know just how much magic you have and what the rules are for using it. And Jane didn’t have any idea how much she had or how to use it, and this made her unhappy.”

Before they figure out how to use the magic, the children get the benefit of their mother’s experience (she takes the magic coin with her—for that is what it is–and when she wishes she were home, she ends up half-way home). Like the ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the magic coin has a way of hopping out of peoples’ pockets or wherever they’ve put it to keep it safe and ending up in another person’s possession, so when they make a wish it is unexpectedly granted, like when the youngest child, Martha, says to the cat “oh dear, if you could only talk,” and then for a while the cat can half-talk: “Purrxx….Wah oo merglitz. Fitzahhh!”

At the point when all the other children have just about figured out how the magic coin works, one of them who doesn’t know he has it, Mark, goes past a neighbor’s yard and “he wished, as he’d often wished before, that just for once the iron dog in the yard would be alive.” When he looks at it “he thought he heard a faint muffled bark, and it seemed as though the iron tail had tried to wag.” Then when he gets to a deserted school playground “he almost—but not quite—wished it were time for school to begin again; so all the kids would be back.” At that moment the other children find him and ask “what have you been doing?” His answer is “I was just wishing we were all on a desert island.” When he finds himself on sand and asks what happened, Jane replies “you just got half a wish….Desert, yes. Island, no.” So we see that it’s tricky to know which half of the wish will be granted.

The children also learn how to put things back to rights, like the iron dog. Mark wishes
“that this dog…may be twice as alive or un-alive as it wishes to be.”
Immediately the dog stopped trembling and stood still and cold as iron (which it was again).
“Wouldn’t you think it’d rather have been real?” said Katharine in wonder.
“I guess iron things are happier being iron,” said Mark, who had learned a lot in one day.

It’s not as simple as they think, however. When Martha wishes “that Carrie the cat couldn’t talk any of the time” the cat says to her “well, you certainly messed that up….Now of course I can’t talk half the time but the rest of the time I can talk perfectly plainly, not that I want to, of course, but here I go, talk, talk, talk, and here I will go for the next thirty seconds, and then thirty seconds of silence I suppose.” Jane tries, saying “I wish that Carrie the cat may in future say nothing but the word ‘music.’” Immediately “sick!” said Carrie the cat. “Sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick.” Then finally Mark says “better let me…I’ve had practice….I wish that Carrie the cat may be exactly twice as silent as she wishes to be.” That works, as “without so much as a look of gratitude at Mark for restoring her to normalcy, she hurried off after a passing robin.”

Our cats, Tristan, Pippin, and Melian, have not yet noticed that on my recent grocery order I asked for one bag of cat food and got zero. With any luck they won’t notice because next week the Half Magic will work and I’ll order two to get one.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2020 9:07 am

    I like the sound of Half Magic; it has a sort of Diana Wynne Jones feel about it. I sympathise about the groceries. Not getting what you ordered is really annoying. What I find even worse is when they substitute something for what I’ve ordered with something that I’m not allowed to eat in the first place.

    • May 11, 2020 8:11 am

      I don’t mind most of the substitutions; they’re trying, and I appreciate someone else making those choices, since there’s nothing Ron and I aren’t allowed to eat, just a few things we avoid (dairy for me, salty foods for him).

  2. May 10, 2020 11:27 am

    I like your real-world application 😄 This sounds like an Enid Blyton story.

    • May 11, 2020 8:06 am

      I’ve read a few Enid Blyton stories but I much prefer Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, whose mantle he assumed.

  3. May 10, 2020 12:20 pm

    I’ve been avoiding the grocery orders. Figuring out the times and how to formulate my order to get what I need is much more stressful than going to the store and seeing what’s there. I’m not particularly at risk, so it works out OK. Store visits require a different sort of formulation, understanding what I might run out of in the next two weeks and balancing that against what the store does and doesn’t consistently have.

    • May 11, 2020 8:09 am

      Going into a store in central Ohio–with almost no one wearing a mask and people coming right up to me when I can’t move out of the way very fast– is much more stressful for me, so I will continue to use the pickup service, as I have for the past three years.

  4. lemming permalink
    May 10, 2020 12:28 pm

    Speaking as an English major, I am confident that the cat might only wish to say, “Purrxx….Wah oo merglitz. Fitzahhh!”” The humans neglected to specify a language.


    Half Magic sounds like a great panacea right now. People will be asking me for white elastic and they will get half of what they want.

    • May 11, 2020 8:13 am

      Yes, there could have been more fun with language if this had been a book for slightly older children.
      Half elastic doesn’t sound like a big problem until there’s only enough for one ear loop!

  5. May 11, 2020 7:56 am

    Ahahahaha I love Carrie the cat and her half-talking! She’s so great. And don’t they at some point end up hanging out with polar explorers? It’s been a while since I read those books so my recollections are foggy.

    • May 11, 2020 8:05 am

      That’s in Magic by the Lake. Most kids introduced to one of these books will want to read the whole series, of course.

  6. May 11, 2020 10:25 pm

    Oh this is a fun book, and the cat parts were my favorite. I never did go back to read more of the series yet, though. Hope that cat food comes in soon! 🙂

    • May 12, 2020 8:12 am

      The idea of a cat talking is generally horrifying; I know what mine would say if they could speak, and none of it is anything I want to hear (complaints about the service and the weather, comments about where I should settle myself and how I should arrange my arms and legs for cat comfort).
      We own lots of childrens’ books, so what I used to do when my kids were younger was read them the first of a series and then leave the next ones lying about.

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