Castle in the Attic

by Elizabeth Winthrop. Novel. 192 pages. Grades 3-6.
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Teacher's Guide

cover art

This is a quest fantasy with the added fillip of miniaturization. Mrs. Phillips, William's governess and friend since the day he was born, is leaving the household to return to her home and family in England. As a parting gift, she presents William with a detailed and wonderful miniature castle which was her childhood toy. She also gives him the Silver Knight with instructions to meet him "on his own". The miniature knight, Sir Simon, is alive and enlists William in his fight to regain his kingdom. To keep Mrs. Phillips from leaving him, William miniaturizes her with a medal which Sir Simon had wrested from Alastor, the wizard who robbed him of his kingdom. William must, in turn, be made small to help Sir Simon win back his kingdom and to regain the respect of Mrs. Phillips. He defeats Alastor by using his own inner strengths and returns to restore Mrs. Phillips to her rightful size (and she returns the favor). They bid each other a fond farewell with Mrs. Phillips aware that her job of raising William is done and with William newly aware of his skills.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • The fantasy must be grounded in reality in order for us to "get into it". Sometimes the author accomplishes this with attention to detail, sometimes by showing us the real world that surrounds the magic, sometimes by giving us very believable characters. Which techniques did Elizabeth Winthrop use? When, if ever, did she stretch your credulity too far?

  • Could the theme of the book be Sir Simon's words, "The weapons you need to fight the battle are inside your own heart?" Can you find other statements which might be the theme?

  • Some of the rules of chivalry that Sir Simon teaches William are proved within the story. Which ones did the author use for her plot?

  • Alastor's final undoing is the look in the mirror. He sees a locust. Why?

  • What objects are passed on in your family?

  • What could have been the jobs of the people made into lead?

  • What happened to the other knights? How did this one happen to survive?

  • For something to ponder: Why doesn't Mrs. Phillips' touch bring wizard to life? Will another's touch bring him to life? Is it because she's an adult? Is it that only one person can bring them to life the way there is only one person who can remove the sword from the stone?

  • She says "That's all I ever was. Your spotter." Does she mean just in gymnastics?


  • It is said that a good fantasy is one in which the story is very believable once you have accepted a few rules of magic or fantasy which operate within the plot. Other than that, the story should be quite realistic. In this book, Mrs. Phillips says, "There are rules in the world of magic just as there are in our own world. Everything has its place. Directions must be followed. Each person is given the right weapon." Prove the truth of her statement using details from this story.

  • Fill in a chart such as the following for this quest and for other literary quests:
    |          |           |             |                   |             |
    |  Book    | Character |   Quest     | Tasks or Barriers | Skills Used |
    |          |           |             |                   |             |
    |          |           |             |                   |             |

  • Find out what such castle words from this book mean : portcullis, armory, allure, scullery, buttery, minstrels, chapel, troubadour and jester.

  • Talk about men and women's roles in quest stories. In this story, the characters stay well within traditional roles. Are there quest stories such as The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch (Firefly, 1980 ISBN 0-920236-16-2) in which the females are the adventurers and males wait at the hearth encouraging them on?

  • In this book, Mrs. Phillips is filling in for busy parents in the raising of their child. In that way she is comparable to Ida Early and Mary Poppins. Are there others?

  • There is a touch of mythology in the story: the medal bearing the image of Janus and Saturn is also involved. Investigating the background of each of those figures would make an interesting research project. Would the plot have changed if there were other gods involved?

  • Over the doorway of the castle is a riddle which is important to the story. Find the ways in which the conditions required are met for the quest.
    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.

  • Mrs. Phillips knew what was happening from the tapestry but says, "I know the bare outlines. Now I want to hear the details." Talk to someone who does needlework about what he/she gets from that statement.

  • Find out about tapestries. Look at pictures of the Bayeaux Tapestries.

  • Find armor in a museum and examine it.

  • Can you find other miniature worlds and people in literature?

  • Design and construct your own castle.

  • Compare this to other time fantasies.

  • Design and make your own coat of arms. What events in your family history would be represented?

  • Do the gymnastic movements that William does.

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Related Books

  • Donald Carrick's Harald and the Giant Knight (Houghton, 1982 ISBN 0-89919-060-X)

  • Pauline Clarke's Return of the Twelve (Dell, 1986 ISBN 0-440-47536-8)

  • William Mayne's Earthfasts (Peter Smith, 1990 ISBN 0-8446-6430-8)

  • Compare this with other quest stories such as the Prydain Cycle Books by Lloyd Alexander and The Hobbit.

  • Read some of the King Arthur stories that Mrs. Phillips might have read William such as Robin Lister's The Legend of King Arthur, illustrated by Alan Baker (Doubleday, 1990 ISBN 0-385-26369-4) and Robert San Souci's Young Merlin, illustrated by Daniel Horne (Doubleday, 1990 ISBN 0-385-24800-8).

  • Read about castles like this one in books such as Castle by David Macaulay (Houghton, 1977 ISBN 0-395-25784-0) and John Goodall's Story of a Castle (Macmillan, 1986 ISBN 0-689-50405-5) and Castle Builder by Dennis Nolan (Macmillan, 1987 ISBN 0-02-768240-4).

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