Review: Mopsa the Fairy by Jean Ingelow

Mopsa the Fairy CoverMopsa the Fairy is the 1869 children’s novel by British poet and novelist Jean Ingelow. It tells the story of ten-year-old(-ish) Jack who discovers a nest of fairies and is flown to Fairy Land by an albatross.

It was interesting to me to read this text straight after George MacDonald’s Phantastes (review of which can be found here) as Ingelow was directly influenced by MacDonald, and Mopsa the Fairy, like Phantastes, is a pre-fantastic text about the protagonist stumbling into Fairy Land. Most fascinatingly of all for me personally is, that despite these similarities, I enjoyed Mopsa the Fairy despite not having liked Phantastes. in this review I’ll do my best to tease out why that is.

One of the biggest reasons for why I enjoyed Mopsa the Fairy over Phantastes is that Ingelow does a much better job at world-building. The lands and people that Jack encounter feel real, with an independent existence from jack. This reality makes them much more wondrous to read about, and makes you want to find out more. What adds to this feeling is that the people and lands that Ingelow conjures up are so wonderfully weird – there is nothing mundane at all about them. In this regard it is easy to see the influence that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books had on this novel.

Another strength of Ingelow’s novel is the main character. While Jack is certainly not a complex character, he does have some character to him (unlike the protagonist in Phantastes). This level of characterisation is fine for this genre: both because it’s a children’s story, and because as a trip to Fairy Land, most of the attention is on the people and the lands that Jack encounters.

Another strength of this novel (especially in contrast with Phantastes) is the writing style. Ingelow writes with great flow and clarity, which is especially appreciated when the things that the writing describe are so strange.

The one element that I perhaps enjoyed most about this story is the ending – skip this paragraph if you wish to not be spoiled. In specific, I enjoyed the tone of the ending, which is complexly melancholic and bittersweet. Despite Jack succeeding in his task, the chapter is named ‘Failure’, and that’s the mood that Jack is in, realising that he has to leave Fairy Land. What adds to this melancholic feeling for the reader is that it is implied that once Jack gets back to the real world, he quickly begins to lose his memories about what happened. I love this tone, and the skillful way in which Ingelow has wrought it, because it is a striking departure from the fairy tales it draws influence from, giving the genre nuance and emotional depth.

In short, Mopsa the Fairy is a perfectly enjoyable pre-fantastic novel about a trek into Fairy Land, and is the book that I would recommend for others seeking that type of novel.

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