Tis the time of year when many people are thinking about the toys they want to buy for their children, so this week I’m recommending a novel about a very special group of toys – twelve wooden soldiers that the Reverend Patrick Bronte gave to his son Branwell in 1826. Pauline Clarke’s almost forgotten children’s Classic, `The Twelve and the The Genii’ was inspired by what happened when Branwell and his three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne began to play with the soldiers and write stories about them. This novel was first published in 1963, when it won the Carnegie Medal. In America it was known as `The Return of the Twelve’ and the book has been reprinted several times under both titles. Old or new paperback copies are quite easy to find but do get an edition with the charming original illustrations by Cecil Leslie.

The story is set in England around 1960 when the Morley family has just moved to an old farmhouse in Yorkshire. In their first week, eight year-old Max Morley finds twelve old wooden soldiers under the floorboards in the attic. Soon Max has a thrilling secret. He knows that when they think no-one is looking the soldiers can move and talk. Max manages to be patient enough to get the toy soldiers to trust him. Their leader tells him that his name is Butter Crashey and asks if Max is one of the Genii. The soldiers remember being named and sent on adventures by four powerful Genii called Branii, Tallii, Emmii and Annii who wrote about the Twelve in a book called `The History of the Young Men’. Max declares himself to be their new protector and lets his sister, Jane, in on the secret so that she can be a Genii too.

When the local vicar, Mr Howson, calls on the family, Max hears about the famous Bronte sisters who once lived at nearby Haworth Parsonage with their brother Branwell. He also learns that an American professor has just published a letter offering a large reward for any of the original wooden soldiers played with by the Bronte children. Max and Jane get to know the Twelve as individuals but unfortunately their older brother Philip has already written to the professor to tell him about Max’s soldiers. Max is determined that the soldiers shan’t be taken to America and the Twelve make their own escape plans. Can they find the way to their true home even though everyone in the district is searching for the valuable toys?

`The Twelve and the Genii’ is a short book full of big ideas. It can be read on a variety of levels and it asks a number of interesting questions: Is it harmful for children to play with toy soldiers or does it teach them that `struggle and adventure against enemies are part of the pattern of living’ ? Where do creative ideas come from, and should cultural artefacts be bought and sold or do they belong to everyone? On one level, `The Twelve and the Genii’ is simply a fine example of a sub-genre that is particularly strong in British Fantasy – stories about tiny people. Mary Norton’s five  books about `The Borrowers’ and T.H.White’s `Mistress Masham’s Repose’ are examples which spring to mind. For such stories to be convincing, the author has to be able to imagine the world from the viewpoint of someone very small and understand the obstacles they would face. Clarke is very good at doing this. Journeys down a staircase, up a sink or across a field become major expeditions. The book is full of wonderfully precise detail, such as the soldiers’ footsteps sounding like `a thrush breaking a snail shell’ , the `faint, crackling, whisking sound which was their talk’, and the way that one of them marches over a white fur rug `like a man over a snowdrift, sinking up to his knees, and often falling flat on his face’. Max feeds the Twelve on bread crumbs, with cake crumbs for dessert and – because they are adults –  tiny drops of his father’s sherry.

Like the book I recommended for Christmas reading last year (`The Mouse and His Child’ by Russell Hoban), `The Twelve and the Genii’ appears to be a story about lost toys. Yet when Max introduces his sister to the Twelve, he is  anxious that she shouldn’t treat them like toys and try to play with them. Being the youngest and smallest in his family gives Max empathy for the plight of the vulnerable soldiers. He is the most powerful being in the Twelve’s world but his role is to protect without interfering. Max realizes that wise Butter Crashey, gallant Stumps, melancholy Gravey, clever Sneaky and the rest are `all different, like real people’ and must be allowed `to do things their own way’.  It’s a good lesson in how we should all behave to those who are weaker than ourselves.

The magic in the book is of a subtle kind. Sometimes the soldiers are just painted wood but when they are alive, their blurred features become sharp and detailed. At first, Max thinks that the soldiers `woke up’ because he beat on an old Ashanti drum. Then he notices that the soldiers are having adventures which he has imagined for them. It becomes clear that the soldiers were first brought to life by the fierce imaginations of the four Bronte siblings, who as well as playing at being Genii (djinns) were also geniuses.  It is left to the reader to decide whether young Max’s vivid imagination has re-awoken the Twelve. His love and respect for the brave little solders do seem to sustain them as they march through a world full of dangers.

Jane Morley thinks that Charlotte Bronte’s `Jane Eyre’ is `the best book I’ve ever read’ and it’s certainly in my Top Ten great novels, along with Emily’s `Wuthering Heights’. The kind and intelligent Mr Howson (this isn’t the sort of children’s story where all the adults are idiots or villains) tells Max, Jane and the reader, a lot about the way the Bronte siblings developed as writers. We may think that it is a new thing for girls to like `action toys’ but the Bronte sisters weren’t the sort of girls to play at dressing up dolls. When the wooden soldiers arrived at Haworth Parsonage, each child chose and named one. Charlotte called her soldier after her hero, the Duke of Wellington, while her brother Branwell rather pointedly called his after Wellington’s arch-enemy Napoleon Buonaparte (but later changed the name to Sneaky). Then the four children made up adventures for their soldiers set in invented countries, which qualifies the Brontes to count as Fantasy authors. They wrote these adventures down in tiny hand-made books. You can find an example in the picture library on the excellent website for Haworth Parsonage, which is now a museum (www.bronte.org.uk).

A huge amount has been written about the Bronte sisters but this novel is unusual in focusing on Branwell, the brilliant brother who never fulfilled his early promise and died young. Max comes to believe that he is good at `playing Branwell’s game’.  The American professor hopes that finding the long-lost soldiers might `add much to our understanding of the thwarted genius of Branwell’. Mr Howson notes that Branwell’s satirical stories about Sneaky/Buonaparte show that this was a boy who was `already full of huge dreams’ but fascinated by the `evil success’ of the conqueror of most of Europe. Clarke delicately suggests that sensitive, stubborn, quick-tempered Max has much in common with the ill-starred Branwell. You may end the book hoping that Max will grow up to be more stable and successful than the first owner of the Twelve. Until next week….