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Four English children, two boys and two girls, travel to the countryside to stay with an elderly chaperone. There, thanks to a bit of magic and the curiosity of the youngest sister, the quartet is sent through a Portal to another world, where they have all sorts of adventures...

No, this isn't Chronicles of Narnia, despite the similarity in set-up, though it may possibly be an Homage. A children's fantasy book by Margaret J. Anderson, it tells the story of Andrew, Elinor, Ian, and Olivia ("Ollie"), and how when their parents decide to go on vacation in France and leave their children with their aged Aunt Grace in Scotland, magical adventures befall them thanks to a key and the ancient ruin of Smailholm Tower. Lessons are learned, though not as many as would be expected for a children's story written in the 70's, and stronger family bonds are formed, as the children slip back and forth between the past and the present (and even the future).

For its time the writing is surprisingly good, with a great deal of research and care, believable characterization, some poignant and effective moments, humor, and an unusual approach to Time Travel that not only plays with genre tropes but leaves the reader with a slightly unsettling scenario that truly makes one think. Has become something of a Cult Classic due to its age and out-of-print status.

Contains Examples Of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Averted in the past--the adults there aren't useless, just rather busy and distracted with important things like ambushes, invaders, and battles, so can't be bothered to pay attention much to the children. Played straight in the present, where Aunt Grace really isn't of much help with Ollie, and the lady at the bookstore simply stands by and makes snarky commentary about the kids supposedly bullying their younger siblings instead of trying to help.
  • After the End: It turns out the future the kids visit is this scenario, albeit one which takes place after global warming and the energy crisis instead of nuclear war.
  • An Aesop: Surprisingly, not too many of these crop up, with the author allowing the work and its events to stand and teach lessons by example instead of being explicitly stated. One of the few that is pointed out, aside from the horrors of war, the loss of the past, and the dangers of depending too much on technology, is this one from Vianah:

 Vianah: I am sorry that they [her people] cannot meet you...They see the people of your time as grasping and thoughtless. They see greed as the cause of the breakdown of the Technological Civilization. But perhaps we look at the remains of your civilization as you, Andrew, looked at our town of Kelso. Without the people, you miss the meaning and the purpose. You have put my needs before yours. We thought that was only learned recently, and I am not sure my people know it now, or I could let you stay.

  • Arbitrary Skepticism:
    • Elinor seems to suffer from this for most of the children's adventure in the past, although it does ultimately sink in that what she's seeing is real.
    • Oddly, Andrew himself seems to almost indulge in this when, after finding out they've just returned the same moment they left due to Year Inside, Hour Outside, he believes everything they experienced was "just an illusion". This time it's Elinor who calls him on it, via what has happened to Ollie-Mae. In Andrew's case however, this may have been more due to him not wanting to face the terrible things he'd witnessed.
  • Big Badass Wolf: Andrew has to fight one to protect Mae.
  • Blind Seer: Though not blind, Anna is otherwise this trope.
  • Call Back: After the children spend all summer teaching Ollie. "Andrew had no time to be bored." See Foreshadowing below.
  • Character Witness: Mae becomes this to the Laird and his men, when they capture Andrew.
  • Child Prodigy: Ollie was a very precocious reader for her age; after her jaunt into the past, this has to be re-taught to her.
  • Commander Contrarian: Elinor again. When in the past, all she ever wants is to come back to the present, no matter how much Andrew enjoys the exciting adventures, Ian likes playing with the other kids, or the fact they might be leaving Ollie behind. Similarly, when they go to the future, as soon as they figure out they're not in the past and won't be finding the "real" Ollie, Elinor again wants to head home. But as soon as Andrew appeals to her sense of charity via the old blind Vianah needing their help, she changes her mind and agrees to stay. Then, when they go to Kelso and discover they are in a future After the End, Andrew is frightened and immediately wants to go home...only to have Elinor think the place is beautiful and peaceful and want to stay. It'd be annoying, if the irony and slight bit of Laser-Guided Karma to Andrew weren't so delicious.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong / Not Now Bernard: Ian, much of the time, particularly on matters of magic and Time Travel.
  • The Constant: Smailholm Tower. In an unusual variation, it is also the "time machine", as it were. The interesting implication of this is that the key can only take time travelers to a time period where the tower exists, not before its construction or after it collapses.
  • Crows and Ravens: Before the children go to the past, a dark omen of sorts occurs in the form of a starving black bird trapped in the tower, and falling to its death after they startle it from a window ledge. Later, when the children are returning to the present, another such bird swoops down on them right as they are turning the key.
  • Determinator: James II is characterized this way.
  • Distracted By the Shiny: How the children get Ollie-Mae to give them back the key--by trading her Ian's colorful marbles. A case could be made that her taking the glowing key in the first place was itself an example of this trope, since she surely could not know the significance of it.
  • Distressed Damsel: Sadly, Elinor is this for much of their time in the past. Mae is too, during the wolf fight, but that's justified since she's only a little girl.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Ollie dreams of Smailholm Tower even before they first see it.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Aunt Grace is a hilarious example of this.
  • Expy: The four children are in many ways quite similar to the four Pevensies of Narnia. At the start, Andrew is dismissive of his younger siblings and not particularly excited about their stay in the country, and he is also the first to adapt very well to the past and become immersed in the time period and even a warrior mentality, like Peter; Elinor is the one most skeptical about the reality and acceptability of the adventure, as well as the Team Mom, like Susan; Ian is very much resentful and jealous of his youngest sister; and Ollie herself is the one whose recklessness and eager curiosity leads them into the past in the first place. However, they all eventually grow beyond these roles, with Andrew rejecting the past world for the present, Elinor becoming stronger and more willing to believe in the impossible, Ian not betraying them like Edmund did, and Ollie ends up losing herself and has to be taught and bonded with her siblings before she can recall who she is--which may perhaps be a commentary on Lucy's being thought mad and how incredibly willing she was to believe and immerse herself in Narnia.
  • Exty Years From Now: Averted. The author is very careful not to state exactly how far in the future the children travel, with the book Andrew finds making mention of it being the twenty-second century but being no more specific than that.
  • Fish Out of Temporal Water: Played straight, averted, and inverted. When the children go to the past, Ian and especially Elinor do not feel like they belong at all, with Elinor constantly complaining of only wanting to get back to the present as soon as possible. Andrew, however, fits in almost right away thanks to some handy archaic clothing and a mercy mission to save the people of Smailholm, befriending Mae, proving himself to the Laird and his men, learning much of history from Cedric, and even witnessing the Battle of Roxburgh. When they all return to the present, it is Ollie, in the mentality of Mae, who is instead completely out of her depth and has to be instructed and helped to become part of that world. Interestingly, she isn't able to fully accept who she is and where she belongs until after another trip where they're all in the wrong time, in the future.
  • Foreshadowing / Dramatic Irony: At the start of the story, Andrew is positive that the whole summer will only be "boring". How wrong he is is proven later through the Call Back mentioned above. Also, Mae watching him hide the key in the rabbit burrow.
  • Green Aesop: Rather ahead of its time, too, seeing as environmental concerns were not as strong in the 70's as the 90's and beyond. Also unusual in that with the Cold War still in full swing, most Speculative Fiction writers (even children's authors) tended to focus on nuclear war as the danger to be warned, however, it is global warming, climate change, the energy crisis, and not being good stewards of the planet that are underscored.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ian, toward Ollie.
  • In the Past Everyone Will Be Famous: Averted. Other than King James II, who is only viewed from afar, no one of historical significance appears in the story, with all the characters the children meet being original characters, or at most archetypes and positions likely to be expected in the time period. The exception might be the Laird of Smailholm who may have been a real person, but since none of the children had heard of him prior to their adventure, meeting him doesn't fully hew to this trope either. Sir Walter Scott is mentioned as having stayed at Smailholm Cottage, but this tale seems to be included simply for historical flavor (and accuracy--not only is this story true, Scott wrote of the tower, including it in his poems The Eve of St. John and Marmion).
  • I Just Want to Be Special / Jumped At the Call: Cedric. And he pays for it.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: After jumping down through the magical time mist inside the tower:

 Ian, to Vianah: We live around here. We just dropped in, you might say.

  • I Want My Jetpack: Very much Andrew's reaction to discovering the future is not that of The Jetsons. Made more intriguing (and amusing) by the exact predictions he makes for the twenty-second century.

 Andrew: By the twenty-second century, every house should have its own computers and robots and maybe people would talk by telepathy.

  • Look on My Works Ye Mighty and Despair: Inverted; the people of Kelso in the future, though disapproving of the greed which they believe led the Technological Civilization to its doom, very much admire the buildings, monuments, and other remnants of our world left behind and are quite interested in studying and understanding it, as well as doing their best to preserve and make new use of it in their world. At the same time, they are determined not to let history repeat itself. On a more meta level, Smailholm Tower itself seems symbolic of this, since it remains even centuries in the future and, in the belief of the author, will "still stand when our knowledge and skills are but a chapter in the course of the history of man"--i.e., a sign of the wonders and glory of man, rather than of pride and hubris.
  • Lucky Seven: Anna is the seventh child of a seventh child.
  • MacGuffin: The key, particularly after it vanishes and the children have to scramble to find it, hoping they won't be trapped in the past.
  • Mind Screw: At the heart of the main conflict driving the plot--who is Ollie? Did going through the mists of time merge her with a girl from the 1400's? Was there never a Mae, and time shifted around her to account for her? Did something happen to the real Mae? Or if it is Mae the children take back to the present, where did Ollie go? Did taking her along leave Muckle-mooth Meg without a daughter? Which memories are real? How did they come back, or did they? Some of this is never actually resolved.

 Andrew: That doesn't make any sense.

Elinor: Does any of it?

  • Never Split the Party: Fear of this trope drives much of Elinor's contrarian demands of Andrew. To a point she is right to worry, as during their time apart Andrew is almost killed by a wolf and could easily have died at Roxburgh Castle, while her attempts to search for the key almost get her and Ian shot by arrows. But in the end, splitting up never seems to truly endanger them much.
  • Nobody Calls Me Chicken: Andrew seems to suffer from a bit of this, in the scene where Anna asks him to climb down the backside of Smailholm Tower and he goes after she says Mae is not afraid to do it, as "if she meant to imply that he was afraid".
  • One-Woman Wail: Literal example from Hannah, whose husband died in the English attack.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Inverted and averted--when Mae is brought to the present she still retains her Scottish accent, and the children try to teach her to lose the accent with no success.
  • Portal Slam: Variation: since it isn't possible to Portal Slam against a portal which consists of simply opening a real door, the children are instead kept from traveling through time by the need to warn the men of the English ambush, then by the key's disappearance. Although the magic of the key comes and goes, this turns out to be a Red Herring and not a Chekhov's Gun, as it seems that once "unlocking" a time period, the key remains ready to use until the bearer returns to their own time. Something of a They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot moment, although subverting reader expectations here was also clever.
  • Portal to the Past: Smailholm Tower again, though it's also a Portal To The Future.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Anna's prediction is that "four would come" with a silver key, and that their coming would spell the end of an age. This is literally true, but also symbolically, since their arrival coincides with the English ambush and the attack of James II on Roxburgh Castle--a battle which, despite the king's death, does mark a critical turning point in the battle for Scottish independence from England. See also Rule of Symbolism.
  • The Resenter: Ian again.
  • Rousing Speech: The Laird gives one just before the men go off to join the king at Roxburgh.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Ian describes how they managed to Time Travel by usage of the key metaphor: "We unlocked the past." Muckle-mooth Meg also relays part of Anna's prophecy as "you will mark the end of an age with the turn of a key". Another notable moment is when the children first see Smailholm Tower, washed in a shower of rain and illuminated by a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds..."and for a moment, the children felt the magic in its shimmering walls." (Also counts as Foreshadowing, naturally.)
  • Sacrificial Lamb / Sacrificial Lion: Cedric, depending on how much you think he got characterized before his death.
  • Secret Keeper: A case could be made that Aunt Grace is one of these. She certainly seems to know more than she's telling about the Tower, even if she isn't specifically aware of its magical Time Travel properties...

 "It has a sort of power over people..."

"Go by yourselves, and perhaps--if you let it happen--you'll find out many things. The walls themselves have a story to tell."

"Seeking the solace of the tower walls, was she? I have done that myself."

"They never give any part of themselves when they look at these old places."

 Mrs. Elliot: They've learned to appreciate each other.

Aunt Grace: Perhaps they have learned more than that.

 Ian: The key's not shiny anymore. It lost its magic.

How much easier to be seven years old and accept magic.

  • The Slow Path: Apparently, this is what happened to Aunt Grace after she fell asleep in the Tower as a child and was so difficult to rouse "because the people wanted her to stay". She lost the memories of her life before then, because that part of her stayed behind to grow up and become Vianah. One can hope the same thing happened to the part of Ollie that was Mae, so that Muckle-mooth Meg didn't have her only child taken from her by the Elliots.
  • Stable Time Loop: While the trope itself does not explicitly appear, Fridge Logic makes one wonder--if the children had never gone back in time, would Cedric never have died? Meaning that whatever descendants he had suddenly vanished in the present? (There'd be no way of knowing really.) Or was it predetermined they would go back and Andrew would make the choice he did, because it had already happened? Or would Cedric have decided to go to the battle anyway? Similarly, would Vianah have survived anyway until her people returned, if the children hadn't shown up to help bring her food, or did they change the future by saving her? In short, it's not clear whether For Want of a Nail or In Spite of a Nail is operating here.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: In one of Elinor's few Crowning Moments Of Awesome, when Andrew decides he is going off to Roxburgh with the Laird and his men, but Elinor must stay behind.

 Elinor: You're not going to leave me here waiting again.

Andrew: Well, you can't come. It's just men.

Elinor: That's no argument. I can do anything you can do.

Andrew: But this is the fourteen hundreds. Girls didn't fight in battles.

Elinor: How about Joan of Arc?

Andrew: You're no Joan of Arc. Not in your jeans and a blanket.

Elinor: You don't look like a warrior either, in that dumb brown dressing-gown. Who ever heard of going to war in a dressing-gown!

    • Interestingly however, when the children are later preparing meals for Ollie-Mae so they can teach her table manners, it is Andrew who operates the little camp stove, and never once does he suggest Elinor should do it because she's a girl. (She is even rather suspicious who will make the "elaborate lunches", suggesting she expected such a turn of events.) Apparently he learned his lesson!
  • Such a Lovely Noun: In order to compel Andrew's obedience in taking a message to the Laird and his men, Anna implies this trope.

 Andrew: But how do you know you can trust me?

Anna: The others--Elinor and Ian--are staying here...

  • Time Travel Tense Trouble: Skirting the boundaries of this trope: When Ollie is trying to explain to Vianah that she is from the far past, while Vianah is assuming all the children are from one period which is the past to her. (And everything that has happened to them has been over the course of a few days from their perspective but not those whom they meet.)

 Vianah: You talk of things of long ago.

Ollie: It's not all long ago.

  • Translation Convention: An odd example of this. The children are all from modern England and speak English. As soon as they arrive in the past and begin speaking, the people of the time recognize their language and respond in kind. This is not indicated to be a magical property of the Tower, particularly since Andrew can understand and be understood while away from it. Thanks to the Scottish having to interact with the English a great deal, they would know the language, and fifteenth-century English was not that different from twentieth-century (Middle English was already fading into Modern by that point). Yet not once does anyone comment on their language, whether to believe them English spies (a possibility which does cross Elinor's mind) or wonder about their education (from the monks at the Abbey, for example). Some of this may be due to Anna's mysterious prophecies about them, but even so... Made worse by the fact that there are at least a few instances where one of the children listens in on a conversation where those involved would surely have been speaking Scottish--if not out of habit then because they didn't consider the information important or any of the kids' business to know. And while it's possible language doesn't change for the next several centuries (but unlikely), it also seems odd Vianah can understand them just fine, and that Andrew can read the books about the cataclysm (though those would have been written closer to the modern era). Hmmm...
  • Viewers are Morons: Repeatedly applied in-story to the tourists who come to visit Kelso and especially Smailholm Tower, even to the point where they are mocked by the children for thinking there's "not much to this place". Granted, even in its ruined state it seems a bit ignorant to assume there was never any significance to it, and dismissing it does come across as insulting. But it isn't as if they can tell what role it used to play merely by looking at it, let alone know about the Time Travel aspect. Still, the statement that the tourists had "brought with them to Smailholm Tower the interest and imagination they would take to all the other places on their tour", that they "look at a lot of places and never see anything" sadly has some Truth in Television in it.
  • War Is Hell: After initially thinking War Is Glorious, this is what Andrew comes to realize after experiencing battle and Cedric's death. Although the Aesop may be partly lost, since he still is glad that Cedric was on the winning side.
  • What Year Is This?: Andrew tries not to invoke this trope with Cedric, and then ends up not having to when he volunteers the information.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Happens twice, from different points of view among the children. When Andrew goes back to get the key from the door, while the others are waiting in Anna's cottage, he is strongly tempted to escape back to the present--and the key even starts to turn in the door, before he wrenches it free and hides it instead. This act, he thinks, "took more courage than all the adventures and battles which were to follow". Later, when he finally returns from the Battle of Roxburgh, ready to go home, he cannot find the key, Elinor, or Ian and assumes they left without him. When he is reunited with them again, he learns they were indeed tempted to do so, but couldn't find the key either. Whether they too could have resisted if they had found it will never be known.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Whenever the children return from traveling through time, they find themselves outside the tower door at the exact time they left.
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