This was a really tough assignment for me. I am not quite sure that these are my top five favorites. You see, I have so many favorites of so many different styles that it’s quite difficult to narrow them down. My brother and sister kept suggesting many of the stories which I read often and which I consider some of my favorites, but I do not know if they are of the specific caliber to rank in my top five. Those which I would list in my top five have many of the same characteristics as each other, so I have left some of them out so as to get more variety. So as you read my list, please understand that I have many favorites besides these and some of those favorites might outrank some of these favorites, but they didn’t make the list for reasons which even I don’t quite understand.
When my brother recommended Sir Walter Scott to me a few years ago I did not take his advice very seriously. After all, it was summer and I wanted some light reading–and while I typically enjoy old English, it did not seem to fit my definition of a summer novel. A few months later I picked up Ivanhoe, devoured it, and turned my attention to a more obscure gem called The Talisman. Filled with intrigue, romance, murder, secrets and disguises, this unpretentious story deserves more credit on its dustcover than the simple, “written by the author of Ivanhoe.” I found it more enthralling, less cliché and more tortuous than the beloved classic.
I often wonder what makes a story such as The Talisman so enchanting. Perhaps its idealistic setting of King Richard’s crusade against the Saracens adds to the thrill, the more so because the laws of chivalry and Christianity played such a part in the tale. Far as our society may fall, something within our human nature regards this chivalry as something good, right, noble. In Scott’s little-known classic, it becomes the backdrop to an intriguing tapestry of honor versus false knighthood, open battle and murderous plots, and, of course, true love placed just beyond grasp by a promise. It has all the romance attendant upon a tale of the crusades combined with a plot full of riveting surprises.
Several years ago we read this book out loud together as a family, and it has remained one of my very favorites ever since. The story centers around a young orphaned girl with a bitter heart and follows her in her salvation, her struggles against sin and her earthly trials. While many of the books from Lamplighter Publishing seem to follow this pattern, please understand that this story is something special. As you read through it you become aware of several threads running through that weave over, under and around until they become quite tangled. Yet at the end these threads straighten themselves out, leaving a truly masterfully woven tale. The characters feel very real, some of them with hidden hurts and all of them with edges rough enough to render them believable. But my favorite aspect remains the ending. In my opinion, unless a story is cliché already, it should not end “happily ever after.” Please do not get me wrong–I do like happy endings! I just feel that if a story is bittersweet, the ending should be also…that it should leave the reader feeling nearly satisfied, but not quite. The Lamplighter has the perfect close to a beautiful story. And further I shall not say, lest I give it away.
This story I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with. I love the drama and scope of it, as well as the twisting paths that the story takes. E. D. E. N. Southworth excels at developing rich, multilayered characters with hidden pasts and brilliant futures. As with The Talisman, chivalry and romance lie at the heart of this tale in the form of Ishmael Worth, an upright young man with a rags-to-riches life story. Herein rests my fascination and my dislike. While I am drawn to the glittering ideal and inadvertently cheer the hero on, I also find his character just a little too perfect, a little too pure to believe–and, as it claims to tell a true tale, Ishmael falls slightly short in my opinion in this regard. In spite of this, it remains one of my favorite stories. Partly, I believe, this is because of the side-stories woven into it which both intrigue and amaze me. As you can probably tell by now, I love tales which work like jigsaw puzzles with multiple unconnected and mysterious pieces which click together at the end to form an incredible mosaic. These pieces are what put Ishmael into the category of a forgotten classic.
The Horse and His Boy
When I was younger The Chronicles of Narnia comprised most of my reading repertoire. I think I read through the entire series at least three times, not counting the times that I went back and read just my favorite parts of my favorite books. The funny thing about this system is that back then The Horse and His Boy was probably my least favorite book in the series. It just didn’t seem to fit with the other six books and it did not, as the name falsely implied, center on horses–something quite unforgivable to my horse-obsessed self back then. Now this story stands out to me for the same reasons that once turned me off. Its backwards title advertises the way that C. S. Lewis has (or had) of putting things so familiarly and yet so intriguingly. This skill combines with an interesting plot seen from a unique perspective in The Horse and His Boy. In every other Narnia story, with the exception of The Silver Chair, the heroes stand tall, confident, assured…like heroes typically do. In this story the main character’s imperfection allows readers to relate to him while the unusual backdrop of Lewis’ Eastern-influenced imaginary land of Calormen provides this tale with a unique twist completely different from the other Narnia books.
As practically everyone who knows me can testify, I adore Winnie-the-Pooh. Not the Disney version–they just took out all the funny parts and made it only enjoyable for those under the age of eight. The Winnie-the-Pooh that I love spans the years, endearing itself to children of all ages. Because Winnie-the-Pooh was originally a set of stories that A. A. Milne told to his son it appeals to young children. The stuffed-yet-somehow-alive animals who come to Christopher Robin for advice play seamlessly with a child’s imagination, following him into dreamland with the gentle touch of intuition.
So how does it reach out the same feeling and emotion to adults? Perhaps by acting as the door to the childhood that has passed. No one can read Winnie-the-Pooh without remembering the flights of fancy which once thrilled them to the core. A. A. Milne combines this imagination with cleverly worded phrases and creative capitalization to fashion a truly artistic story. For example, in the seventh chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, Milne writes this:
“The word ‘lesson’ came back to Pooh as one he had heard before somewhere.
“‘There’s a thing called Twy-stymes,’ he said. ‘Christopher Robin tried to teach it to me once, but it didn’t.’
“‘What didn’t?’ said Rabbit
“‘Didn’t what?’ said Piglet.
“Pooh shook his head.
“‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It just didn’t. What are we talking about?’”
Anyone with an appreciation of the English language will realize and delight in the fact that Milne just plays with the words, stretching them and manipulating them for the sheer joy of it. While a child may take the story as a fascinating extension of his own imagination, an adult will understand the beauty of the sentences as well as enjoy the trip back to childhood. It is a book which grows up with you…a classic.