As is often the case in folktales or fables, many of the characters of Kneeknock Rise are rather silly in their fears and beliefs, but the power of the novel is such that even as readers are led to chuckle about the silliness of the townspeople, they are forced to wonder if they, and all human beings, are not a little like them. Despite Egan’s “scientific” debunking of the myth of the Megrimum, the people choose to believe in the monster, preferring to continue their apparently foolish rituals of lighting candles, hanging onions, and carrying wishbones for protection instead of being delivered from fear. The fable suggests that the need for belief in human beings is so powerful that people will sometimes deny reality and invent a system of belief.
Yet, if it makes such thought-provoking suggestions about the nature of human faith, the novel also suggests much about the power of peer pressure in shaping the collective beliefs of a community, an issue that is of extreme importance to young people. The novel hints at the fact that a number of individuals may indeed know the secret of the Megrimum but demonstrates that it is extremely difficult for anyone to disagree with public opinion and remain in the town. Uncle Ott, who knows the secret, must leave and wander the countryside in order to have a chance at happiness.
Many writers have retold folktales or have written fantasy novels for readers in this age group, and some authors, such as Robin McKinley in Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast (1978) or Jane Yolen in Briar Rose (1992), have chosen to adapt a traditional tale to another plot and setting. Natalie Babbitt, however, is notable for her particular mode of fantasy in which she uses the narrative strategies of folklore and fable to craft fantasy novels that raise large moral questions, questions that seem even more mysterious and compelling to readers because they have the feel of legends and stories from an oral tradition. Although Kneeknock Rise was designated a Newbery Honor Book in 1971 and was received warmly by reviewers, it is probably less well known than Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1975), a fantasy novel that similarly explores moral issues as it presents the story of a family that has discovered a spring whose water produces eternal life. In both of these novels, it is clear that Babbitt’s gift in fantasy is to invent compelling worlds that make readers think seriously about what individuals can give one another in community and about what it means to be human.