[Editor’s Note: “Lessons from Toyland” is a holiday essay to be published in three installments: Part I, December 22; Part II, December 26; and Part III, January 2, 2022. Many thanks to the imaginative author for this Christmastide contribution.]

Part II

By E. Wesley Reynolds, III

Rocking Horse, c. 1900. Smithsonian American Art Museum

There are Shepherds and Shepherdesses in Toyland, all of delicate porcelain, for to be a shepherd in Toyland is a great honor. Like the porcelain courtiers, all done up in bows, frills, lace, and all the trappings of the Ancien Régime, shepherds wear the dress of Van Dyke’s Continental style. They don the doublet more honestly and simply than the finest cavalier, and shepherdesses sometimes wear velvet and silk frocks. With them, we flute and dance around the maypole. We skip and run with the new lambs. We follow the Graces into their secret coverts and find there sweet smelling herbs. At court, it is the Ballerina who, with a grace and poise found only at Versailles and Vienna, takes us through the marble halls, through golden doorways, and under crystal lights. But the Shepherdess is the lady-in-waiting of the country. It must be the shepherds and shepherdesses who do all the scything and milking in Toyland. We find that they are there in the late afternoon to sit and laugh with us on top of a haystack.

Laughter is much to be had in Toyland. Jack-in-the-Boxes surprise us when we visit the King; they are the court jesters. Acrobats called Dancing-Men, the Marionettes, and Puppets provide for us an endless pantomime of comedic opera in every fashion.[1] Wound-up gymnasts and ballerinas chase us with their quick, jolty arms and legs and their perfectly balanced steps. Spring-wound glockenspiels and key-turned music boxes send out, from behind little wooden doors, harried villagers, laughing milkmaids, disappointed huntsmen, old men smoking meerschaum pipes, cuckoo birds, hatching chicks, lowing cattle, and any number of scenes which remind us that life in Toyland is always free of care.

Then there are the miscreants, the workers of mischief in Toyland, who draw us away from the pleasures of pasture and court for a time to recover lost gold or sail the high seas. They are all of them mustache-twirlers in splendid attire who, for some reason or other, have fallen out of favor at court. They are mercenary, but never discourteous. Indeed, sometimes they are courteous to a fault, considering the freedom of Toyland “bad form.” These schemers make it their chief occupation to snatch, steal, and stow away precious articles and even important people when no one else is looking. They hide in forests, in old abandoned mansions atop stormy hills, or go to sea and take up piracy. Their biggest mistake is in summoning a gaggle of buffoons who know less about the business than they do, and who always seem to bungle it. Then, when they are found out, as they so often are, they offer us the choice of giving chase or making war. It is up to whoever happens to visit Toyland at that particular day. So we choose whichever we wish and have a marvelous adventure that ends in the recovery of some treasure, or the postponement of the game until next we visit.

Is Toyland a game? No, but it has many aspects that resemble games. There is the fun of winning and the fear of losing. There is the thrill of hide-and-seek; the search-and-find. There is the use of the ball and racket, the racing horse, the endless array of color and alphabet puzzles, and the hopscotch sort of way everyone in Toyland carries themselves. But then we often do not stick to the conventional rules; we mix-and-match, and I cannot help but think that somehow we are advised to do so by our fun-loving friends in Toyland who are too free to be caught doing one thing in only one way for very long. Of course, we do play games in Toyland, mostly cards, chess, ninepins, and races, but not grown-up sports. No, sport and play are two very different things, as any child knows. Play is closer to dance and the chase than it is to the formal game. It is more sprightly, after a fashion, requiring all the beauty and grace of the court and open field.

Toyland is a Kingdom, though some toy-folk prefer councils to royal edicts. We are ennobled in Toyland, not empowered. Toyland is not a republic, not a democracy, and certainly not a commune or utopia. There are no political opinions, no need for political economy, for the chief pursuit in Toyland is adventure and not some vague and unattainable pursuit of happiness. Toy-folk jest at politics, and draw on political satire rather than real political debate.[2] Satire is at least witty and spirited, though ultimately foolish in the real world without play. Play is the art of casting ourselves and others into archetypes, to dress them up in the most customary attire of their rank.[3] Rank itself is only a list of characteristics assumed by the dramatis personae of Toyland. Those of lesser rank are no less worthy than those of higher rank in Toyland. For sailors are only those who ardently love “the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking and a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.” Kings are those who are ever-wise, queens are those who are continually matronly, soldiers are those who love the march, sprites are those who love the dance, dolls are those who hope to please and are pleased with pleasing others. Courtly form in Toyland is simply the art of assuming archetypes in accord with all others in the Kingdom. It is the orbit which separates the good from the bad in Toyland.

Dress-up is the art of assuming one’s character in conventional fashion. It is the courtly play of the Kingdom of Toyland. Hence it is that dress-up is always the first and most fundamental way to play. Dress-up is the one feature that separates play from entertainment. We become rather than spectate.[4] Whether in the mind or in deed, we assume the characteristics of the rank we wish to fill. Our person is our own, but our archetype is assigned to us by nature and by well-fashioned good taste. We assume a specific mode of being when we dress up. And we always decide upon our mode out of a spontaneous and uncontrived longing for a specific place, or epoch, or quality, or activity, or feeling. We hear the clarion call of the waves and we don the sailor’s cap. We see the deer leap into a glade and we throw on our leathern huntsman’s jacket. We hear the tinkle of silver and see the glitter of glass, and we at once assume the stately etiquette and ruffles of the court (clothes we consider uncomfortable and confining when once the royal ball and all its courtiers suddenly vanish and we are left to ourselves again). We hear the clash of steel, and we immediately dress in our armor. We see a flash of light and hear the report of a gun, and at once we put on our heavy coat and scurry into our ranks (half out of our old fear of thunder and half out of a desire to make fire altogether at once). We are transformed by the enchantment of Toyland when we dress up, and there is no way to contrive to be something that is not naturally and suddenly awakened inside of us. Pretense is often discovered to be false in the state of pretend. Every child has experienced this when some adult suddenly bursts into their play and condescends to misunderstand all the actors at play. It has rightly been said, “All the world’s a stage,” and we “are merely players.”

I had almost forgotten how to play had it not been for dress-up. Adults everywhere are to be found dressing up, though children do it better, having the instinct of good taste brought on by initial colors, designs, and patterns that we older folk take for granted all round us in good art, older buildings, and in nature. Children instinctively understand the epoch in which their adventure takes place; they know that if they are seeking for treasure they are in the golden age of sail and dress accordingly. Still, dress-up is the one facet of play that lives in all of us. It is what connects us to our first memories of nature and man, and gives form to the expression of ourselves in our dreams, if nowhere else. What we often lack in the waking world is the good taste required to match our characteristics to the appropriate manner. That is why the Kingdom of Toyland is there. A little more imaginative use of beauty and a memory for how we once dressed in Toyland will suffice to reinvigorate our tastes.

There are two chests in the nursery; the toy-chest and the dress-up chest. The first beckons us into Toyland, the second fashions us into the manners and customs of the world we are about to inhabit. In this dress-up chest are folded an assortment of old-fashioned attire for our use. There are hats and capes, dresses and necklaces, crowns and ribbons, swords and shields, and any number of ruffled shirts, doublets, and bodices. There are shoes high-heeled and buckled, seven-league boots, satin slippers, silk stockings, and leather-laced boots. The three most common hats are the tricorn, the feathered bycocket, and the maiden’s bonnet. The great ladies of Toyland favor the pointed hennin, the tiara, or the elaborate headdresses of Versailles. Doublets and knee breeches transform us into buccaneers or cavaliers or courtiers. An embroidered bodice belongs to a great lady, while a wool bodice or frock apron brings us out again into the open field and the smell of hay. It should be noted that dress-up is about only the basic accoutrements necessary to connote a change in character, fashion, and manners; they are not fully finished costumes. The enchantment of Toyland finishes the transformation. All the gaudy eccentricities of the magician’s costume or spy and detective gear are meant purely for the magic show and the spy game. They are not real play in Toyland, though they have their charms. Dress-up is about becoming, not about showmanship.

Another way to play is by building or contriving; that is, arranging, hedging, and ordering the world around us according to a certain use or fashion. We first begin to do this when we make castles out of building bricks and designs out of colored ribbons. Then, with Peter and Wendy, Thumbelina, or Mr. Badger, we play house. We make some little corner of this world safe and comfortable to return to when we tire of adventures. But playing house is also an adventure, for there is the excitement of spreading out the sheets over us into separate rooms, securing the roof from falling down (and it always does at least once), arranging the furniture, giving gifts, taking tea, and sharing stories. Sometimes we are roosting in the trees with the hanging stars all round us, or else low in the ground where we can smell moss and good earth. Here, we find the Permanent Things of life: friendship, kinship, and domus. The family hearth and the nursery are much closer than most parents realize, and when a home loses its hearth, it is usually rebuilt inside the nursery by children at play and their compatriots from Toyland.

When we play house we become confectioners extraordinaire and amuse ourselves planting orchards, collecting honey, making pies, and baking cakes. The sweets of Toyland are the most famous in the world. Peppermint is the strongest flavor. Gingerbread is ranked second best, and from peppermint and gingerbread we build little homes in miniature to rival the best dollhouses of Toyland. Then there are gumdrops, flummeries, and sherbets, ices, sugars, and creams to cool and soften our palates. After we are full of all these good things, we find our little corners and go to sleep, for bed is always a part of playing house.

The third and final method of play in Toyland is the excursion. It takes three forms, the quest, the chase, and the dance. The excursion should not be confused with the occasion. We dress up for both, but the occasion is a formal event, like the coronation ball, the wedding, or the feast, whereas an excursion is an informal adventure, like the battle or the treasure hunt. Adults often confuse travel with excursion. To those who are unaccustomed to Toyland, travel is exciting for its own sake rather than for the adventure afforded by the pleasures of the place to which we are going. This is the fatal flaw of the amusement park. For this reason also the fantasy and science fiction of today is obsessed with portals, doorways, and machinery, but in the old fairy stories they are almost nonexistent, irrelevant, or only used by the evil ones. With travel, speed is everything, but speed is never the ultimate end of an excursion, though we often prefer to feel the wind in our hair as we haste to an adventure. The worst nightmare in all of Toyland is to go faster and faster forever. It is akin to falling in dreams.[5] If speed were ever loosed full upon us, we would surely perish. The horse would have no place in Toyland, even as it has no place in our world, for we have long lost sight of the nobility of such creatures.

E. Wesley Reynolds, III, PhD, is Director of the Wilbur Fellows Program at the Russell Kirk Center, Instructor of History, Northwood University, and author of the forthcoming book in January 2022, Coffeehouse Culture in the Atlantic World, 1650–1789 (Bloomsbury Academic).


[1]. With the decline of pantomime and courtly jest in the nursery, stuffed animals came to replace the jesters. Lovable as they are, they are not to be confused with the enchanted beasts of Toyland, who are either fearsome or mild.

[2]. London was the city which mastered this art, and the London wits are greatly admired among toy-folk going to market. I have heard snatches from the politer parts of A Tale of a Tub and Tom Thumb for instance. “Whig” and “Tory,” “Court” and “Country” are only expressions of personal disposition in Toyland and are not of any real political weight. In fact, the word Party has become synonymous with Humor.

[3]. Archetypes differ from stereotypes. Through archetypes we aspire to be worthy of other peoples and lands; through stereotypes we debase them.

[4]. Play is fundamentally different in kind from our media-driven entertainment. In film, we spectate. In a computer game, the dress-up is already achieved for us. In sport, we have our assigned number of plays. Dress-up permits us to orchestrate archetypes and freely give voice to our desire for adventure. We dress as sailors, knights, courtiers, and any other number of archetypal characters. True, we follow fashion, but only fashions that hold the essential characteristics of whomever we wish to become.

[5]. “I rushed to the side of the boat, intending to fling myself on shore; but the wheels, as they began their revolutions, threw a dash of spray over me, so cold—so deadly cold, with the chill that will never leave those waters, until Death be drowned in his own river—that, with a shiver and a heartquake, I awoke. Thank heaven, it was a dream!” So ends Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Rail-road.”

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