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Literature / The Castle in the Attic

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It's William Lawrence's 11th birthday. The housekeeper, Mrs. Phillips, who has always taken care of him, supported him, taught him of goodness and nobility and chivalry, and looked out for him while his parents are busy working—even been a spotter for him in his gymnastics routines—is going away. She's homesick for England, believes he is old enough to take care of himself, and thinks he needs to get close to his parents again instead of depending too much on her. Being young, he doesn't take it she gives him a going-away present, a fantastically realistic stone and wood castle which has been passed down through her family for generations. Though he sees it as a bribe and wants to hate it, he can't. One night he goes up to the attic to play with it, and "introduce himself" to its lone toy soldier, the Silver Knight.


But when he picks the figure up in his hand, he becomes real and alive...

A beloved children's classic by Elizabeth Winthrop in the same vein as The Indian in the Cupboard and Bridge to Terabithia, The Castle in the Attic tells the tale of William, a boy with "a gentle heart" that turns out to be his special gift, and how when he discovers the toy soldier in his model castle is actually Sir Simon of Hargrave, a knight par excellence, he becomes drawn into a world of magic, danger, and fantasy where only he can help bring down Alastor, the Evil Sorcerer who is responsible for Simon's banishment and much worse besides. Oh, and Mrs. Phillips has a role to play too...

Though filled with genre tropes and in many respects formulaic, it is notable for its realistic narrative and dialogue, memorable characters, charming feel, and genuinely exciting adventure. The author has a definite artistry in her language that draws young readers in and even can still enspell older ones returning to it after many years. It is not surprising the book was a Children's Choice book and a winner of several awards such as the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award and the California Young Reader Medal. Even Madeleine L'Engle and Lloyd Alexander recommended it.


A sequel, The Battle for the Castle, was written almost ten years later, concerning William returning to Simon's kingdom, this time with his friend Jason in tow, where they encounter new characters and have to face off with a darker, more insidious, and disturbing evil than the wizard.

The sequel is more of a straight-up adventure story, but does have the same type of cross-cultural charm in the first book, as the modern-day William and Jason interact with the medieval citizens and both are exposed to things far outside the world they know.

This book contains examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: Unusual names such as Calendar, Alastor, Gudrin, and Tolliver are contrasted with Dick the apple tree man and Brian the sentry.
  • And I Must Scream: While those who are frozen in lead have their world go black and remember nothing until they are freed, the process of petrification itself is described in horrific and excruciatingly painful terms. A case could also be made for Calendar's cat, although since it is technically free to move this might be more a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Badass Boast: "I am the boy in the legend, Alastor. I have come to take back the Silver Knight's kingdom...I'm here so that lady can go free."
  • Backstory: Twice, when Sir Simon relates the story of how Alastor came to power, and when Dick tells William of what has happened in the kingdom since Simon was banished.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Alastor's spell of choice, when he doesn’t simply turn people to lead; both Dick and Calendar’s cat suffer this.
  • Big Bad: Alastor
  • Cats Are Mean: Completely averted. While the neighbor's cat does try to pounce on the shrunken Mrs. Phillips, it is only acting on instincts, not portrayed as evil. And Calendar’s cat, while transformed into a dragon, only slays those who approach the castle thanks to the spell; once freed, it is perfectly nice and harmless. It also proves rather good against the rats in the sequel.
  • Chekhov's Skill: William's gymnastics, and his musical ability.
  • Chess Motif: William gets the idea for shrinking Mrs. Phillips when he holds a pawn in his hand.
  • The Chosen One: William, who for some inexplicable reason is the only one whose touch can restore the leaden to flesh.
  • Evil Chancellor: Alastor was this to the old king.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Alastor.
  • Face–Heel Turn/Reverse Mole: Calendar.
  • Fisher King: When Alastor takes over the kingdom, the crops stop growing, animals get sick and die, cows don’t give milk, the wells run dry, and the land around the castle becomes barren and desolate (though this latter is due to the dragon). The instant he is defeated, life and abundance and plenty return to the land.
  • For the Evulz: Seems to be why Alastor does anything, whether it is to gain power and control over others, boredom, malice, or out of wicked delight.
  • Genre Blind: Simon, who seems to think he can sword train and thus defeat a wizard who has Baleful Polymorph and Taken for Granite spells. Also Alastor himself, who not only seems unaware of the Prophetic Fallacy but never foresees anyone figuring out how to defeat his dragon, that someone whose life he had ruined by banishing their beloved lord might turn on him, or that someone might not be laid low by the mirror.
  • The Hero's Journey: As usual, Winthrop uses this to great effect since it is a fantasy book, but also subverts or alters the design a little along the way.
    • Begins in William's house (and in fact almost the entirety of the story which isn't in the fantasy world takes place here).
    • Simon, The Herald, brings the Call to Adventure which William initially refuses, then accepts.
    • He receives the Supernatural Aid, the token, from Simon who is also The Mentor.
    • He literally crosses the threshold when he goes over the drawbridge, though the journey through the forest could also be interpreted as this.
    • There is no Can't Refuse the Call Anymore, unless you consider William having been shrunk and leaving his world behind to be a form of death, but he certainly has the Road of Trials—see The Three Trials, wherein he encounters The Shapeshifter (Dick, against his will), the "Leave Your Quest" Test (literally in the form of the forest's temptations, but a number of people try to convince him not to face the wizard), and in the castle itself, the Goddess in the form of Calendar (as the Crone).
    • Night Sea Voyage: William has to get into the castle not only to defeat the Big Bad and save Simon, but to retrieve the token which will set him and Mrs. Phillips free.
    • Timeout: occurs when William has his quiet moment with Brian, then sits in his cell with his recorder and asks Mrs. Phillips for help, to guide him in what he now has to do.
    • Apotheosis: William comes to realize his smallness is not a weakness, and that despite his gentleness and kindness he is "a squire with the heart and soul of a knight", partly due to the chivalry Mrs. Phillips taught him but also due to his innate worth and goodness. Realizing this and believing in himself enables him to win by outwitting the wizard, turning his seemingly loyal handmaiden against him through The Power of Love, and then conquering him with his own magic. The only ‘sacrifice’ as such he makes is when he dares to look in the mirror, only to have the above apotheosis proven to him. It was all a Secret Test of Character.
    • Refusal of the Return/The Return: Subverted. While he is asked to stay, could even become a squire and then a lord with his own squire, William refuses, instead being eager to go home and doing so, both to help Mrs. Phillips and because of what he has learned about himself. His subsequent return is then peaceful and uneventful due to the destruction of the evil magic.
    • Freedom to Live: This is what William grants to Mrs. Phillips and himself by bringing back the Ultimate Boon, the other half of the token (marked with keys, no less, which is lampshaded by William).
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: In the end the Big Bad is defeated by this three times over, since he not only falls prey to his own mirror and the lead token, but he is first brought down by William using the tumbling routine he demanded, from someone the wizard had welcomed into his own court.
  • Idiosyncratic Chapter Images: Most of the chapters are headed by an image of the Janus token which turns things small. When the time comes for the wizard's defeat, it changes to the token which makes them big again (thus freeing them), and the very last chapter has both tokens together.
  • I Have No Son!: The old king was manipulated into declaring this toward Simon, thanks to Alastor.
  • Inherently Funny Words: In-story version, Stow-on-the-wold, England.
  • The Jester: William literally becomes one, Muggins, in order to infiltrate the wizard's castle, but also acts as one in a traditional and literary sense, being much wiser than his lord, commenting upon his failings (at least in his head) and eventually being Alastor's downfall. Another actual one, Deegan, is encountered in the sequel, and hews to the trope even more.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Quite literally in Simon's case. A good example of this would be that although he quite clearly develops tender feelings for Mrs. Phillips if not falls in love with her, and spends a great deal of time alone with her in the castle, he never once takes advantage of her.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Both heroic and villainous flavors. Because William is "compassionate to the needy" and helps Dick the apple tree man, he is given the secret for how to defeat the dragon. Alastor, meanwhile, falls prey to the very twisted and horrific magic he himself had used so many times on others.
  • Lawful Stupid: Simon again, sadly. As Mrs. Phillips puts it, "He's a good man with a big heart, but he lacks imagination. My dear husband, Alfred, was the same way. He would attack one problem over and over again like a baby butting its head against the side of its crib."
  • Living Toys: Initially it seems the story will play out this way, a la The Indian in the Cupboard, but once William devises the idea to shrink Mrs. Phillips, and then follow her, this is quickly dispensed with in favor of a fantasy quest.
  • MacGuffin: The magic token, which must be recovered in order for William and Mrs. Phillips to get home again. It becomes this again in the sequel, when Deegan steals it for the fool's competition, thus trapping William and Jason in Simon's world.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: The tokens—one side makes you small, the other side restores you to your normal size. The third, lead token is Exactly What It Says on the Tin, turning people into lead statues, though its reverse side also has the ability to teleport them away. How this causes Simon (and Alastor) to end up in William's castle is never made clear, but it is still consistent in this function. While we never see any other spellcasting, merely the results (Dick, Calendar's cat, the enchanted forest), they all are some form of Functional Magic.
  • Magic Mirror: Alastor has one of these.
  • Magic Music: Played with. William's recorder has no magic whatsoever, but its music serves to calm both the beasts of the cursed forest and William's own fears when he confronts the dragon.
  • Manly Tears: What William eventually concludes, that crying does not invalidate one's bravery and so is acceptable behavior after all.
  • The Masquerade: Before William enters the world of the castle himself, the story concerns keeping the existence of Sir Simon a secret from his best friend and his family, with the requisite number of close calls.
  • Meaningful Name: William (as in, the Conqueror), Elinor Phillips (as in, Aquitaine), Alastor, Calendar (who waited for many years for her lord to return), Simon.
  • The Mirror Shows Your True Self: One of the primary weapons of the evil wizard Alastor is a Magic Mirror with this power. It eventually gets turned around on the villain himself, with fairly satisfying results.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Alastor.
  • No Ontological Inertia: The instant Alastor is defeated, the spells on Calendar's cat and the forest are broken and the blighted land is restored to verdant bloom—except for the leaden people, who must be restored individually.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Extremely different—you can be bathed by their fire unharmed so long as you stare into their eyes and never look away, but said eyes contain horrific visions designed to make you avert your gaze. And they are vulnerable only in the thigh, which once stabbed will place them under your control. Justified by it being the subject of a Baleful Polymorph whose rules were set by the twisted Big Bad.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: "When the lady doth ply her needle/ And the lord his sword doth test/ Then the squire shall cross the drawbridge/ And the time will be right for a quest."
  • Prophetic Fallacy: The legend above the castle gate says a boy will go with Simon to help him reclaim his kingdom. Alastor eliminates Tolliver along with Simon and so thinks he has removed the threat, never considering there might be more than one boy traveling with or loyal to Simon...
  • Red Baron: The Silver Knight.
  • Rule of Symbolism: All over the place. The main bit of Functional Magic the plot revolves around, a pair of tokens which can shrink and enlarge living beings, bears the face of the god Janus who looks both ways in time—and he literally has two faces, a sneering one with staves to represent punishment and a smiling one with keys representing freedom. The token which turns people to lead, meanwhile, is marked with the symbol of Saturn. This token, being a disk, could also be considered a coin, fitting since lead comes from the earth... Mrs. Phillips is given the task of weaving the story of William's destiny on a tapestry. The song which William plays to get past the dragon is the Battle Hymn of the Republic (he is even said, when walking into the fire, to be walking into Hell). The crime which gets Dick put under a Baleful Polymorph, the kind of tree which must be climbed, and the key which can free him, all revolve around...apples. And of course there is the mirror, complete with what Alastor sees in it, and the Fisher King aspect of the story.
  • Shown Their Work: The author clearly knows her fantasy tropes and the Hero's Journey, but she also did research on gymnastics, castles, and mythology.
  • Spanner in the Works: William himself.
  • Stay on the Path: The only way to get through the forest surrounding the kingdom. Made harder as the forest itself is enchanted to lure travelers off the path with illusions of exits and lost friends.
  • Taken for Granite: Well, lead anyway, but otherwise this trope. Complete with horrific Transformation Trauma.
  • The Three Trials: Before reaching the wizard's castle, William must 1) make it through the cursed forest without being driven mad by the noise, following the temptations which try to lead him away, or even take his eyes off the path; 2) help Dick the apple tree man defeat his curse; and 3) overcome the guardian dragon.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Simon. Though in his defense, he did not quite walk up to the wizard and strike him with his sword, yet he should have guessed that fear or greed might compel people to betray him to Alastor before he could get close enough to defeat him. Made worse by the fact that both William and Mrs. Phillips realize Simon's flaw, but he is too stubborn and convinced of the rightness of his cause to listen to them. To his credit, he realizes this after William frees him...though he doesn’t seemed to have learned his lesson much in the sequel.
  • Trapped in Another World: Happens twice, to William and Mrs. Phillips in the first book due to not having the second token, then to William and Jason in the second when Deegan steals it.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: William's selfish decision to shrink Mrs. Phillips and keep her in the castle is immediately and vigorously denounced by both Simon and Mrs. Phillips. William is suitably chastised and stricken with guilt, and spends the rest of the book trying to make amends.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Played with. To anyone who willingly undergoes the magic of the tokens, they return from the world of the castle the instant that they left, no matter how much time is spent within. Someone changed unwillingly, however, has time pass for them on the inside just as it does on the outside.

The sequel provides examples of:

  • Almost Dead Guy: The wounded fisherman who brings back news of the rat horde, then expires.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-universe example: Is Calendar a genuinely prophetic seeress who has visions of the future, or a madwoman who needs to be locked away in a convent?
  • The Bait: What Dick comes up with as a plan to save the people of the castle—sending them off to safety while he, Brian, William, and Jason stay behind for a Last Stand against the rats. William improves the plan, somewhat.
  • Big Bad: The Rat King.
  • The Cassandra: Calendar, at least in retrospect. Not helped by the fact she was sometimes both a Fainting Seer and a Talkative Loon.
  • Culture Clash: Jason and William bring their bicycles along, and have to explain to the medievals what these "metal horses" are. Played for Laughs at first, but eventually both Tolliver and Gudrin learn to ride them, the former extremely well, thus proving they are not, in fact, Medieval Morons. The Anachronism Stew this generates is actually quite tolerable, especially once everyone starts accepting the bikes as just another kind of transportation, and leads to quite the Funny Moment during the jousting scene.
  • Curse: The return of the Ghost Ship seems to bring with it a poisoning of the ocean, bad luck for the fishermen, and even causes unexplained disappearances.
  • Dark Is Evil/Light Is Good: Shadows give the Rat King his strength, size, and ability to mind control his horde; sunlight not only defeats him and breaks his spell, it burns him and turns him back into a regular rat.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Though some of this is noticeable in the first book, William really comes into his own in the sequel. Most likely because he seems to have a partner-in-crime in Jason.
  • Double Speak: In the sequel, to continue hiding The Masquerade from his dad:
    Mr. Lawrence: Where's that one knight you used to have?
    Mr. Lawrence: Did he win?
    William: Yes. With a little help from a friend.
  • Foreign Queasine: Averted. In the first book, everything at the feast (except possibly the boar’s head and squirrel stew, and even those might be better than they sound) seems quite delicious. And in the second book, while Jason isn’t sure at first, William finds he can eat everything and enjoy it as long as he "didn’t know what it was".
  • Foreshadowing: William's mother mentioning the rat holes in the attic in the sequel...implying just where the Rat King and his army came from.
  • Ghost Ship: Complete with a cargo of skeletons, drifting against the current or not even moving at all, being a disturbing variation of the Clingy Macguffin, and stuffed to the brim with a horde of rats. Nightmare Fuel incarnate.
  • Giant Space Flea from Nowhere: The Rat King not only comes out of nowhere (aside from some early Foreshadowing) but his creation, source, and motivation (other than "kill all humans") is never explained. William theorizes it could be a case of As Long as There is Evil or an Evil Power Vacuum, but in the end the reader is left with a very unsettling lack of resolution. Whether this is a way to avoid pat endings and obvious answers or is meant as a Sequel Hook remains to be seen.
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: William sending Tolliver on the bicycle to bring back Sir Simon and his knights and Deegan and the tokens.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: William is jealous of Jason's athleticism, strength, height, and the sort of dad he has, but when they get to Simon's castle Jason is in turn jealous of his heroism and genuine knowledge of the world and history (mocking it as being too "teacherish"). This may explain why he seems all too eager to accept adulation as William's good friend and even become something of a braggart about his skills which serve him so well as a squire. Of course by the end Jason has come to appreciate William's strengths and admit his own weaknesses, while William has realized (again) he may not be as weak as he thinks he is.
  • Heroic BSoD: Dick has one once he witnesses the true threat of the Rat King and his army.
  • He's All Grown Up: Jason, described as having grown much taller and, thanks to his health-and-exercise-nut father, much more muscular.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: William's rather darkly humorous request to "breathe, blast you, your stupid ship is burning, wake up and watch it" when he is giving Gudrin CPR after her near-drowning.
  • Hypnotic Eyes: The Rat King has these, enabling him to use Mind Control not only to turn the horde of rats into a Hive Mind of cannibals but to also sap the wills of humans who meet his gaze.
  • Kill It with Fire: Gudrin's solution to get rid of the Ghost Ship. It doesn't work...or rather, it works too well.
  • Little Miss Snarker: Gudrin, with a little Mystical Waif thrown in.
  • Magnetic Hero: William seems like this even in the first book, with how he is able to get information from Dick, befriend both Brian and Calendar (the latter who was either lost in despair or genuinely The Mole, depending on interpretation), and sway the somewhat insolent Tolliver to his side just by mentioning the Silver Knight. He is even more so in book two, where Dick's Simple Plan (and Heroic BSoD) causes William to have to take over...and thanks to his previous track record in defeating the Big Bad (and simple competence), Brian and everyone else follow him implicitly. Comes close to being The Captain and The Kirk.
  • Mars-and-Venus Gender Contrast: Gudrin contemptuously believes this applies to William when he begs off hearing her list of medicinal remedies as something "boys just aren't interested in"—until he explains to her it has nothing to do with disparaging "women's work" and everything to do with having a mother who’s a doctor and has overexposed him to the field.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Gudrin's plan to destroy the Ghost Ship and break its Curse releases the Rat King and his horde to march on the castle.
  • No Hero to His Valet: How Jason treats William when he first starts hearing all the tales of how he defeated Alastor and everyone in the land honored him. Subverted once he gets to actually see Simon and his people's genuine praise and hero-worship, and eventually completely undermined by the end when William saves the day and he acknowledges his bravery despite not having jumped the trains. He'll still see him as just his best friend, though.
  • Not a Game: William at first has to deal with Jason not understanding this; his lecture regarding it (after Jason thoughtlessly uses the token to shrink Deegan) is very effective, as well as showing he's much more mature and awesome than he gives himself credit for.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: The dismissive attitude of both Simon and Dick regarding Gudrin's warnings, vouching for her grandmother Calendar's prophecy, and the idea of there being a threat at all is a bit grating, particularly since this is Simon's second time being Too Dumb to Live. They learn their lesson in the end.
  • Personal Gain Hurts: Averted. William tempts Jason into going to Sir Simon's world with him, so that he'll have hours, weeks, even months of training, only to come back in an eye blink and suddenly be ten times better than his father at biking and athletics. He does exactly that, and suffers no ill consequences for it.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: "Two squires shall cross the drawbridge/ Shall put themselves to the test/ Knights know much of battle/ But the maiden knows the rest."
  • Retcon: Instead of throwing both Alastor and the tokens over the side of the ship on her way to England, as she promised she would, Mrs. Phillips sends the tokens back to William for his twelfth birthday. This is never explained, except that she had a feeling he would need them.
  • Rite of Passage: "Jumping the trains." William eventually discovers, and proves to Jason, that there is more than one way of doing this.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: While at first it seems like this is due to the magic token in some way (it is even hinted at through Foreshadowing that they may come from the holes in the attic walls), the Rat King and his horde actually are unusually large due to some mysterious darkness or shadow they are imbued with. The tokens are considered as weapons at one point, but not as a means of restoring the balance between the rats and the two differently-sized worlds. In any event, the Rat King at least is described as "six feet tall, as big as a man and walking on its back legs".
  • Selective Obliviousness/Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: William flirts with this idea in the sequel, trying to convince himself the adventure of the first book never happened, and/or that he had "outgrown the castle". He doesn't fool anyone, least of all the reader.
  • Ship Tease: There seems to be some of this going on behind William and Gudrin.
  • Sidetracked by the Analogy: Happens when William, fed up over being a small, shrimpy boy, complains about being "too short" for basketball, jumping, and life; his father then replies, "I never heard of anybody being too short for life". The fact this statement sounds almost like an Ice-Cream Koan doesn’t help any, and William informs the reader that his father has problems like this a lot during conversations and debates.
  • The Siege: The climax of the second book, where William, Jason, and Gudrin join Dick and Brian to hold off the rat horde while holed up in the dungeon, hoping Tolliver on the bicycle can reach Sir Simon and bring back his army (and Deegan and the tokens) in time to save them. And it is surprisingly exciting and suspenseful.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Both Simon and Dick have this attitude toward Gudrin. Thankfully they get better.
  • Take Up My Sword: Simon has Jason do this, at least temporarily while he is away.
  • Tempting Fate: "Of course his old friend, Sir Simon, wouldn't go off and leave them if there were any real danger."
  • Values Dissonance: invoked In-story, Dick (and to some extent Sir Simon as well) have definite ideas about the usefulness, purpose, and place of women which clashes with William's beliefs (and Jason's). This plays into why Calendar and Gudrin are treated as The Cassandra (and in the latter's case, Not Now, Kiddo), as well as their Stay in the Kitchen mentality and a belief that women shouldn't even be educated (though to be fair this last is couched more as a rueful joke). They both get better, thankfully, with a great deal of Simon's change surely being due to the willful Mrs. Phillips.


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