Tis About Lit and Reading It

Category Archives: Diana Wynne Jones

“And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

–      Little Gidding, (No. 4 of Four Quartets), T S Eliot.

In August, I wrote a post about Hexwood describing my reaction to the book. Although I found it brilliant, my minuscule mind could not yet comprehend the enormity of Wynne Jones’s genius.

My professor (who shall not be named) is a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan so I suppose some of her insights may have rubbed off me and made me even more in awe of Wynne Jones’s awesomeness.

(Oh dear I have ended my first two paragraph with Wynne Jones’s awesomeness and have yet to substantiate it).

I’ve personally grown more interested in Wynne Jones again, having enjoyed her Chrestomanci series and Howl’s Moving Castle when I was a kid. Of course, being a child, I never drew any literary allusions to Eliot and the like. And I don’t suppose Wynne Jones even intended for her child readers to makes parallels. However, Wynne Jones has always written clever children’s stories that deserve its plaque of honour next to Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss.

This post shall be about the Bildungsroman in Hexwood. For those who are not familiar with the term, a Bildungsroman is “a novel of formation or development”. Several examples of the Bildungsroman would be the Harry Potter series, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and arguably, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now if you think that the word “Bildungsroman” is a difficult word that literary critics have conjured to bamboozle people then I suppose you are right (to an extent). But I rather like the word because it produces a nice ring in your mouth.

More than that, it also exemplifies many themes of fantasy novels. Fantasy novels are always about a good guy and a bad guy and how the good guy triumphs over the bad guy. The bad guy always has insurmountable odds of winning while the good guy flounders. And in the end, the good guy’s uh.. goodness conquers.

Anyways, the Eliot quote was never meant to bamboozle you either. If you think about the quote, we do end up at the end of our life, we do somehow end up where we start: the belly of the ground. We move from dust to dust (If you find that familiar, it’s because it’s a Biblical principle). It is also an uncanny experience. Being submerged in a familiar setting that seems unfamiliar to you. An interesting experiment you could try out would be entering your home through a visitor’s eyes. It will startle you more than you think.

Back to the novel.

Hexwood’s in media res beginning and irrational flow of the narrative does point towards an ‘epiphanic’ realization at the end of the novel. When the characters are submersed into the Wood’s magic, they only realise the extent of its real magic for the first time at the end of the novel. In many similar ways, the characters’ peregrination in the Wood is not based so much on vanquishing the corrupt forces of evil (Reigners), but rather, it focuses on the journey of apprenticeship that the characters go through.

The *peregrination in Hexwood closely resembles a game that consists of characters that transit from childhood to adulthood. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jones uses a “role-playing game” (340) as a pretext for the novel. At the back of our novel, a single quote (ibid) from the novel is used to describe Hexwood. The structure of the quest in Hexwood is such that the Bannus’ real purpose in placing them in the Wood was “designed to end in [the Reigners’] death[s]” (364), it intended for these characters to go through the process of maturation again. And of growth.

For example, characters like Vierr(ann), Hume and Martin perceive their world as children. It is no coincidence that they are children at the beginning of the novel and only return to their adult form when they attain some level of understanding. This is significant because Jones draws our attention to their journey of apprenticeship.

Interestingly, the Reigners are depicted as adults, but Jones does not necessarily vilify adulthood. But rather, “adulthood” should be interpreted as a state of maturity (also physically translated at the end of the novel).

So what about Mordion? It can be argued that his perception of himself as a cold-blooded killer is important. As an adult, he does not quite view himself as a human. So Mordion’s journey to “humanity” needs to be considered on multiple levels. It’s always interesting to have someone like Wynne Jones subvert the typical conventions of fantasy. (ie. Someone who looks like a dark lord is not necessarily the dark lord).

Interestingly, Vierran, Hume, Mordion, Arthur and Fitela gaining the title of “Reigners” at the end of the novel also effectively corresponds with the victory at the end of a video game.

Magic is not the primary navigation tool for the characters’ peregrination in the Wood. While vanquishing the Reigners does remain as the purpose of the Bannus and the respective characters, Wynne Jones very cleverly minimizes the arbitrariness of magic and instead places a higher emphasis on magic’s manipulative power and the excessive nature of greed associated with it. (Yes, I will make a point about it). Thus, effectively presents the different conflicts that simmer beneath the surface of order.

Firstly, have you noticed that dinner/eating scenes in movies are always great for character analysis? Its significance is something I’ve only recently taken into serious analysis.

For example, if you look at the following scene:

Reigner Three took care to be sure that Vierran was indeed lying on her bed, watching something called Neighbours on the flat, flickering entertainment box, and then made her way to join Reigner One in a place called The Steak Bar. Here they were served what seemed to Reigner Three a singularly ill-tasting meal.

“This is a hovel,” she told Reigner One in their own language. “I warn you  – I am not pleased!”

“Neither am I.”

Reigner One moved his prawn cocktail in order to inspect with wonder the picture of astagecoach on the mat beneath. “You were not supposed to bring Vierran, my dear. There was a moment when I was quite angry. You see, as ithappened I had just dispatched all her family here along with the other disaffected House-heads. My aim was to isolate Vierran on Homeworld in order to breed her to the Servant when we bring him back.”

They paused while a rather obtrusive waiter took away their prawn glassesand brought them steak, chips and coleslaw.

“I apologise about Vierran,” said Reigner Three. “What is this white stuff that looks like cat sick and tastes like cardboard?”

“An aberration,” said Reigner One, “made of cabbage. Cabbage is a vegetable that came to Earth from Yurov along with the earliest convicts…”  (245-6)

It is also the voracious greed of Reigner One which causes his death and destruction. By assuming the form of a dragon, Reigner One imitates the act of devouring. And it is perhaps this bestial instinct that hastens the end of his long reign of tyranny. Of course, we learn of the Reigners’ tyranny at the beginning of the novel, Ann learns of Mordion’s purpose to take down the Reigners and his power struggle with them (48-51).

By juxtaposing the carnivorous tyranny of the Reigners against the (good) characters’ hunger (or quest) for truth and knowledge, communion becomes the site of harmony or discord. The former corresponding with the Bannus’ intentions.

At the same time, Wynne Jones is probably trying to link to the Arthurian Legend of the Round Table, a portrait of communion (376-377). Eating, after all, is a sign of communion. However, this communion can only be made whole by the congregation of sensible people (no power struggle), giving way to harmony.

Of course, using the castle as a fracturing of the site of communion was quite ingenious if you think about it. What does one think of when you think of “communion”? Of course, we think of the Christian communion but we also think of Arthur and his knights. Something a bit like this:

Yes? No? Okay, you can contest that bit with me in awhile.

Lastly, one should never forget that the Wood is also a spatial extension of their peregrination on Earth. The strength of the theta-space in the Wood is not founded on the exclusion of the Reigners, but instead is established (and eventually sustained) by the inclusion of people like Mordion, Vierran (Ann), Arthur, Martin (Fitela)  Merlin (Hume). In other words, its theta-space is composed of people from all walks of life (and time); the latter is crucial to our understanding because it adds to the depth and breadth of its development, it is significant of the pluralism of the future Homeworld.You know, it has just occurred to me that the “Homeworld” represents a kind of utopia and is also the place where the new Reigners return to after they go through this entire fiasco on Earth. That’s just my take though.

But if you consider the word “nature”, it naturally produces naturalness that is morally strengthening and virtuous, a far cry from what it was during the Reigners’ reign. Technology has always been perceived as anathema to nature (Yes? No?).

“I think what the Wood is trying to tell me is that it requires its own theta-space permanently, so that it can be the great Forest all the time, without having to rely on humans.” (376, underline mine).

In many ways, the Wood is rather like a Bildungs-tree. The Wood has its own character and personality and grows to understand what it means to use magic. The slightly unexpected request of the Wood at the end of the novel is interesting. From the beginning to the end of the novel, Wynne Jones emphasises the interactive nature of the Wood. While the Bannus has used it as a site of destroying the Reigners, the Wood is not as passive as that. Rather, it uses the layer of dead Reigners (figuratively) and decomposed dead land, quickened by magic, for it to grow into a “great Forest all the time, without having to rely on humans” (376). The name “Hume” (Merlin), I think, is not accidental. It is a double entendre for “human” but also for “humus”, the layer of rotting leaves and fallen blossoms and decomposing dead wood that provides nutrients for plants (and similarly, the Wood) to grow.

“There are two – no, three – sorts of paratypical field here. There’s the one the Bannus makes. there’s the one the wood makes, with its attendant nature magics, and there’s also pure mind magic, though I think the three interact quite often.” (106-107, underline mine).

Thus, the interaction between the Bannus, Wood and people foster a sort of harmony reinforced (and made possible) by the combined timeless  experiences (also not confined by space) they go through.

In the end, the transcendence of time and space seems to only bind the Wood’s power stronger. More importantly, however, is that Hexwood seems to align itself to the idea of “returning full circle”. For at the “end of all [their] exploring,/[they do indeed] arrive where [they]  started.” Jones does not purposely arrange the beginning and end of the novel such that they (more or less) “arrive where [they] started”. But rather, it is narratively (literally and metaphorically) whole, binding the entire novel together.

I’m not quite sure if I’ve quite convinced you of the power of this fantasy novel but does make subtle critical comments about the genre of fantasy altogether.

*I didn’t quite intend for the word “peregrination” to bamboozle you but I thought it more precise than “journey” or “development”. This definition is not particularly accurate but if I were to give you the OED definition, it would be “The course of a person’s life viewed originally as a temporary sojourn on earth and hence as a spiritual journey, esp. to heaven.”

“The British Romantic conception of the vampire is… indebted in particular to the writings of George Brodon, Lord Byron, and to the cult of the Byronic Hero which the poet actively fostered around his behaviour.” – The Handbook of the Gothic, edited by Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 2nd Edition.

No shocker there about vampires being fantastic lovers then. After all, Lord Byron was the literary Casanova of his day (the kind who probably seduces both wo/men with sexy poetry, prose in his wonderfully sexy voice).

Of course, the Byronic hero helps reinforce the idea of vampires being sexy. As The Handbook of the Gothic also writes in its glossary on Vampires, blood is quite irrevocably tied to semen. So yes, there is something quite sexy about blood (apparently).

Personally, I don’t quite find it sexy. Especially if you have nose-bled for almost more than half of your life. Nose-bleeding is not at all appealing. Just rather disgusting.

For my Science-Fiction and Fantasy project, I have decided to focus on Victorian monster mash-ups. Not that I particularly wanted to. Especially since it sounded rather juvenile and not like the “Austen purist” that I am.

Quite frankly, I was desperate and time was running out. Of course, re-reading Ford’s Jane Bites Back did have a hand in forming any vague notion of a s/f project. It really was quite bizarre and I was anxiously anticipating the academic anvil to befall this crazy, pop-culture of a project.

(I can’t resist: Alliteration!)

My e-mail conversation with the prof went like this:

Nicole >> Prof

Dear Prof ___

Many (very sincere) apologies for not getting back to you about my project, the reason lies in being unable to decide what to do for the project and what to do it on! I was wondering if you could tell me if not doing a project on recent monster mash-ups (ie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) would be advisable? Sorry, I’m feeling a little lost so I thought I would take a stab at something.

Prof >> Nicole

Funny that.  I had just put aside Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the other one to give away as prizes some other week….

do you have the second one?

Nicole >> Prof

Uh second one? As in Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters? Or Dawn of the Dreadfuls?

Prof  >> Nicole

S and S and S

Nicole >> Prof

Oh no, sorry I don’t own a copy of S & S & S.

Um is my project viable?

Prof >> Nicole

What do you want to do with it?

Nicole >> Prof

Oh I was thinking of investigating some of the Jane Austen monster mash-ups OR the other monster mash-ups by Quirk Books in relation to speculative fiction- like how there is a mix between alternate history and speculative fiction. Why the fascination with Jane Austen and monsters? I’ll try to narrow it down though.

Does it have to be an argumentative essay/project? Or can it be an in-depth expository project?

Prof >> Nicole

Yes that sounds ok.  It can be expository, though a modicum of argument is also good!

And you can have the copy of S and S and S.

I almost fell off my chair reading the last line. She is such a dear.Thus, giving birth to my project on Austenesque Monster Mash-Ups or it may change to Victorian Monster Mayhem.

I haven’t quite decided, though the present-day reader may find “Victorian” and “Austenesque” quite interchangeable these days. The Victorian era only started after Austen’s death, at least according to Wikipedia.

So far, I have compiled a list of books that would be of interest:

Alexia Tarabotti series by Gail Carriger

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith

Dreadfully Ever After by Steve Hockensmith

Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters by Jane Austen and Ben H Winters

Jane Bites Back, Jane Goes Batty (Michael Thomas Ford)

Jane and the Damned by Janet Mullany

Basically, quite a lot of fantastic, mainstream novels. My literary tastes are slowly eroding and dying inside me thinks.

But also quite excited at the same time. What do you think?

P.S. As the Internet isn’t as much of a private space as I would like it to be, I have just decided to name all my Lit profs “Profs”. Originality at its height.

All I did was ask you for a role-playing game. You never warned me I’d be pitched into it for real! And I asked you for hobbits on a grail quest, and not one hobbit have I seen! – Hexwood, Diana Wynne Jones.

As a loud and proud Austen (and Shakespeare) reader, not many of my friends know about my side interest in fantasy literature.

I do not proclaim this loudly for several reasons. It would make me look like a bigger nerd than I already am. Secretly, I am a louder and prouder Austen fan because it makes me look like a sophisticated and chic geek (ironic as it sounds).

Thus, I am also somewhat an avid closet Diana Wynne Jones (and J K Rowling) reader. The Castle and Chrestomanci series *literally* enchanted me. Since I pride myself to be a DWJ fan, it is rather strange that I have not encountered Hexwood in my reading history.

Unfortunately, Hexwood has been out of print for a long time. The local libraries require me to reserve the book from the repository book collection. No wonder it’s a literary recluse.

I’m not quite sure how to sum up the synopsis of Hexwood because one gets rather confused since the plot and story twists and turns too much that I don’t think I can do justice to it. Thankfully, if you (like me) have done Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, confusing plots may bamboozle you for awhile though will also endow any reader with the patience to keep on reading. Ah one of the many rewards of reading the 500 page Tristram Shandy.

However, if you are in desperate need of reading the synopsis of Hexwood, I suppose Wikipedia offers a good enough summary of it.

Written in Jones’ typical style, I suppose that the characters of Mordion and Ann Stavely still bamboozle the mind as Jones has a fascination with time and space. The sci-fi elements of war, time and space are explored though I have to confess to being really bamboozled.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I’m not sure how I am supposed to go about analysing this lovely book and tearing it apart with what drone-like professors do to tear them apart. Not that I think my prof is a drone. Teaching a module entitled “Science Fiction and Fantasy” surely implies that she has a wonderful sense of humour and bearings.