The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall

the-gammage-cup-by-carol-kendallGenre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: Harcourt
Published: 1959
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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A rising tide lifts all boats, they say. The rising tide caused by the phenomenal success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has indeed lifted the boats of many writers of children’s fantasy. One of the oddest cases is perhaps Carol Kendall, and her book The Gammage Cup. This is hardly an unsuccessful book: it was first published in 1959, and it was a Newbery Honor Book. It was reprinted at least as recently as 1990. But when a writer sued J. K. Rowling over supposed similarities between her obscure 1980s books and the Harry Potter books, notably including the use of the word “muggles”, some unexpected attention was paid to The Gammage Cup. For it turns out that long before either J. K. Rowling or her suer, Carol Kendall used “Muggles” in this book. To be sure, Muggles in The Gammage Cup is a character name, but nonetheless, Kendall’s book is certainly proof enough that the word has a long history in children’s fantasy.

Harcourt is reissuing this novel again in 2000. I will confess that I had not previously heard of it, despite having read a great many children’s fantasies, and for that matter a great many Newbery Award and Newbery Honor books. But I’m glad to have seen it now. It’s a decent book, very readable, displaying a nice touch for the cute turn of phrase, and with several clever notions. That said, it’s a fairly minor book: pleasant enough but no patch on Alan Garner, or Lloyd Alexander, or Susan Cooper, or even J. K. Rowling.

The story is set in a small village in an idyllic valley. Centuries before, the Minnipins fled their drought-ridden land, as well as the evil “Mushrooms”, and found their way to this valley. Now their past is all but forgotten. The townspeople of Slipper-on-the-Water live comfortable, complacent, and mostly conformist lives. They remember the centuries-past exploits of the great Fooley, who took a balloon over the mountains to their old land, and returned with some relics. Fooley’s descendants, the Periods (called so for a cute reason I’ll not reveal), are the leaders of the town. Everybody wears green cloaks, and paints their doors green, except for a few outcasts, called “them”.

The main character is Muggles, a woman who runs the local museum (mostly housing artifacts Fooley brought with him from over the mountains). She is dangerously close to being one of “them”, because though she wears a green cloak she sometimes belts it with an orange sash. As the story proper opens she notices something strange happening in the nearby mountains, and two of “them”, the idler and poet Gummy, and the historian Walter the Earl, seem to be involved. Muggles is drawn closer and closer to “them” as the rest of the town, led by the Periods, whips itself into paroxysms of ultraconformity, in an attempt to win the “Gammage Cup”. Finally Muggles and her friends are outlawed, even as they become convinced that the whole valley could be in great danger from over (or through) the mountains.

The story is throughout pleasantly and cleverly told, and the characters, particularly Muggles and her friends, are well-depicted. It is very tempting to try to think of the book in allegorical terms, not necessarily to its benefit. Read in this way, the book is clearly a warning against 1950s conformist tendencies. It’s also a warning against the threat from “outside the valley”, and this is one way the book falls down. This threat is seen as completely unhuman, and worthy simply of killing. In the context of the book this is no doubt the only option, but it made me feel a bit queasy.

The Gammage Cup is certainly a very enjoyable book to read. But it falls some way short of excellence. I’m glad to have it still in print, but it stands at best in the second rank of the great children’s fantasies.

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