Top critical review
The magical ring and what it did
Reviewed in the United States on September 2, 2017
E. Nesbit had that rare ability to dig up magical fantasies in all sorts of mundane places, and produce fantasy adventures that kids would actually want to have.
And nowhere is this more evident than in "The Enchanted Castle," a charming little wisp of a story about four children and their adventures with a magical ring that keeps causing all sorts of problems -- and no, I'm not sure why the book is named after the castle and not after the ring. Nesbit's writing adds a lot of dimensions to the story, both horrifying and enchanting, which makes up for a distinct lack of world-building and plot.
Kathleen, Jimmy and Jerry are three siblings on vacation, under the authority of a French governess who more or less lets them do what they want. One day they decide to go exploring around the village where they are staying, and uncover a secret cave that leads to the Enchanted Castle, an idyllic country estate covered in statues and hedges. Before long, one of the boys wakes a Princess from her enchanted slumber, and she shows them the magical jewels that she owns, including a magic ring.
Well, it turns out that the Princess is actually the housekeeper's niece Mabel, but the ring is actually magic -- it turns Mabel invisible for the better part of a day, and even when she gets it off, other people discover what it's like to be unseen. But it turns out that the ring has all kinds of magical effects that make it a pretty dangerous tool, including bringing the cobbled-together dummies known as the Ugly-Wuglies to life, allowing the kids to see the statues come to life, Jimmy is aged into Scrooge McDuck, and random wishes are granted.
"The Enchanted Castle" is a story that is entertaining despite a lack of... well, story. The plot is essentially that the kids just sort of bumble from one ring-related magical situation to the next, doing their best to keep the mayhem out of the eyes of the adults (although only with mixed success). It's only in the last few chapters that any kind of background or explanation for the magic is given, and it's almost as an afterthought -- it's as though Nesbit belatedly realized she had to wrap things up.
As a result, the assorted stories are wisps of entertainment (except the rather racist "conjurer" segment) that just sort of float by, following the kids as they make mistakes and uncover the nature of the magic ring. A lot of the whimsy of the book is reliant on Nesbit's luscious descriptions of the Enchanted Castle's grounds and buildings, including the hauntingly exquisite descriptions of the Grecian statuary coming to life on the hillsides. On the flipside, the whole Ugly-Wuglies story is uncanny-valley nightmare fuel, courtesy of her writing style.
The kids are classic Nesbit -- they're vaguely upper-crust, excessively British and prone to bickering with one another as they hurtle through their adventures, but fairly good at keeping their nerve unless animated composite dummies are involved. And despite their initial manipulations of Mademoiselle, Nesbit also follows their growing friendship with their French governess and their discoveries that she is not merely a generic grown-up, but a person with her own history and experiences and intelligence. In fact, she's the impetus for much of the climactic confrontation, despite her inexplicable use of "thee."
Without much of a central plot, "The Enchanted Castle" is amusing for the experience of reading it -- like a bunch of childhood fantasies come to life. Just don't expect much substance under the magical whimsy.