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September/October 2018
 
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Curiosities

A Prisoner in Fairyland, by Algernon Blackwood (1913)

Remember "The Starlight Express"? Not the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, nor Michael Swanwick's story from last year's September/October issue which cleverly appropriated the phrase. We must go back, beyond Algernon Blackwood's 1913 novel A Prisoner in Fairyland, which first captured the idea, to the 1870s and Blackwood's childhood at the Manor House in Crayford, Kent. His father had bought an old railway carriage and installed it at the bottom of their garden. Algie fell in love with it and his imagination escaped to the stars. Thus was born the Starlight Express.

The idea returned with A Prisoner in Fairyland. In 1909 Blackwood had written The Education of Uncle Paul, where the title character travels with his nephews and nieces in their dream worlds. There, Uncle Paul writes Aventures of a Prisoner in Fairyland. Four years later Blackwood wrote that book.

It deals with a retired businessman who visits his cousin in Switzerland and finds himself adventuring with his cousin's children. But this time it's different. The world is troubled and people have become "wumbled," meaning confused, uncertain. The children decide they must unwumble everyone by sprinkling stardust around the world. The stardust collects in the Star Caverns beyond Orion, and they get there by the Starlight Express.

The book's core message—how through love and goodness people can rediscover themselves and reconnect with life—struck a chord with the nation and, despite the book's length, it went through many reprints. It was adapted as a stage play—The Starlight Express—with incidental music by Sir Edward Elgar, performed at Christmas 1915. During the dark days of the First World War, it gave people hope.

—Mike Ashley

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