Most days a flock of goldfinches come to our birdfeeder, close to the kitchen window. Unlike the blue tits, who are snatch-and-flee artists, they are happy to keep on patiently snaffling sunflower seeds. They are a joy to behold, a flash of colour with their red masks and their black and yellow gold wing markings contrasting with beige bodies.
In German the bird is known as a distelfink or ‘thistle-finch’ as it is partial to thistle seeds and teazels. Presumably because of this association with prickly plants the goldfinch is symbolic of Christ’s Passion, especially recalling the crown of thorns.
At present the bird appears in news items because of the recent movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, itself based on a famous painting. This is just one of many good reasons to discuss the songster’s appearance in a miniature portrait, one I usually make a point of viewing in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Lucy M Boston: The Children of Green Knowe Illustrated by Peter Boston
Puffin Books 1975 (1954)
It’s the Christmas holidays and a young pre-teen called Tolly has gone from his boarding school to spend a few weeks at his great-grandmother’s mansion called, mysteriously, Green Noah. Appropriately the countryside is in flood from winter rains, leaving the house like the Ark perched on Mount Ararat. But from the first Tolly will find this the most magical of visits, as does a first-time reader such as myself.
Why does this children’s novel, the first in a series, evoke such admiration and loyalty from its fans? I suspect it’s something to do with the author who, like the aged relative in the tale, is able to invoke the wondering mindset of the young, to evoke the no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality that sensitive youngsters inhabit, and to convey all that to the reader.
That fluid boundary has something to do with the sense of drifting through time that The Children of Green Knowe sets out to create, now intensified by the nostalgia — real or imagined — the reader may feel for a way of life long gone, one which existed in the postwar years but, as with all past eras, is now like a foreign country.
Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.
This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.
Jean of Jean Lee’s World, who introduced us to one of the scariest aunts in fantasy literature
people, too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; Tweeted/Facebooked links to our posts; and included pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs
our readers across the globe
and, finally, a nod of appreciation to Lory of Emerald City Book Review, who 5 years ago started this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction, yet willingly relinquished the chains so that Lizzie and Chris could have a turn — MANY THANKS, LORY!
For anyone who just can’t get enough, here are the links for the Witch Week Master Posts from earlier years.
When their father, a travelling minstrel is killed, three children involved in rebellion and intrigues inherit a lute-like cwidder with more than musical powers.
— From the first edition of Cart and Cwidder, Macmillan 1975
You’ll by now be aware that Witch Week takes its title from a novel of the same name, ostensibly for children, by Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011. So it seemed apt to have as this year’s novel for discussion Cart & Cwidder, the first volume in a fantasy quartet set in a polity called Dalemark. In fact the very first Witch Week featured The Spellcoats, another Dalemark novel in which the principal villain is actually identified.
Three of us have had a detailed online chat about this — an edited version is offered below — but a number of you have also taken up the challenge of reading it beforehand so that you could join in today’s conversation, and you are very welcome to add your comments below. The participants in the online chat were Laurie Welch (red), Chris Lovegrove (green), and Lizzie Ross (blue). Our comments coalesced around topics such as magic, historical setting, bildungsromans, zeitgeist, and of course villains!
Jean Lee is a blogger, author and massive fan of Diana Wynne Jones.
Jean was an obvious choice, therefore, for inviting to participate in this event as one of DWJ’s books was the principal inspiration for it, and we’re very grateful she responded so enthusiastically!
She has chosen to focus on one of Jones’ most sinister figures, Aunt Maria from Black Maria (1991), published as Aunt Maria in North America.
Firstly, dear readers, I am honored to be here with you during this most magical Witch Week. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite writers for many reasons: her arduous childhood, her steel resolve, her motherly devotion, and her bottomless love for sharing the gift of storytelling with others. While others wrote what she called “Real Books,” books that described real-ish kids in real-ish situations going through all the real-ish problems that kids deal with in real life, Jones stood firm on the position that Real Problems can be solved with Unreal Books. The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a lovely example of a blended family coming together when a magical chemistry set forever alters the “chemistry” of their lives (ba dum CH!). Indeed, Jones has never been one to shy away from the tough conflicts that can arise inside the family unit. Heavens, in Charmed Life Gwendolyn doesn’t just kill her own parents but her kid brother Cat, multiple times. Divorce, too, impacts characters such as young Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and Mig in Black Maria. Polly and Mig both learn who truly cherishes family … and who doesn’t.
Which brings us to the sweet old lady that is Aunt Maria.
As Kipling wrote, “The female of the species is deadlier than the male,” and that may well prove to be the case in the Bard’s work as Sari explores some especially wicked wives, dastardly daughters, and murderous mothers.
My official introduction to Shakespeare happened during a high school English class reading. Our teacher must have been a frustrated actor because he didn’t just read the play, he entertained us students with a one-man production of Macbeth!
While I found his antics highly engaging, the play didn’t resonate with me; at 17 I could not connect with a murderous medieval king. It was not until our teacher began to talk about the madness and death of Lady Macbeth that I began to see value in the play (Act V).
Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
The queen cannot cope with her role in the death of King Duncan and the aftermath of this vile act. She sleepwalks, looking at her hands, sometimes attempting to wash them, all the while wondering if she will ever be the same; we learn the answer a few lines later, Lady Macbeth has killed herself.
The thought of doing something so damning as to stain one’s soul petrified me. I vowed right there and then that I would never do something that I would regret to the point that I would have to ask if my hands ne’er be clean. This bargain I made with myself led me to study and appreciate Shakespeare. It would make sense, as it was one of his plays that helped shape teen Sari into young adult Sari.