Crisis at the University


Diana Wynne Jones
Year of the Griffin
Gollancz 2003 (2000)

university’s
challenging, no matter what
universe you’re in

Year of the Griffin is set in the same universe as The Dark Lord of Derkholm and their common source The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but, bar a few cross references, works equally well as a standalone. Set eight years after Dark Lord, the story is centred on the young griffin Elda who is in her first year of University. Yes, a student griffin. At a university for wizards. You just know that things aren’t going to be straightforward. And so it proves: one cohort of student freshers find that their expectations of university are disappointed, their families or communities back home are, to say the least, unsupportive; and yet, despite all the obstacles and challenges (and there are many) they – Felim, Ruskin, Claudia, Olga, and Lukin, as well as Elda – start to grow and develop both as magic-users and as individuals. But don’t go expecting a re-run of Hogwart-style wizarding wheezes; the overall moods and outcomes are all rather different.

polyhedronThere are lots of images of circularity and sphericity here, compounded by the fact that none of the images are perfect. Take the Year of the title: we never actually witness the end of the year as most of the action is set in the autumn term. There are lots of references to oranges, but mostly always to mention the fact that they come apart in segments. One of the students frequently becomes protected by an accidental spell taking the form of a barrel made up of books, appropriately enough for a learning institution, which only evaporates when the danger has passed. A group of students, along with Professor Corkoran (the name no doubt inspired by the unfortunate captain of HMS Pinafore), heads off in a spherical space vehicle for the moon (though they inexplicably find themselves on Mars); sadly, they haven’t thought things through and the lunar module, designed to be life-sustaining, threatens to end their existence.

The circular theme is reinforced by David Wyatt’s splendid but initially enigmatic cover illustration for the original Gollancz paperback: it shows a golden griffin through a round window (one of her feathers is in the foreground), which we eventually realise is part of a barrel viewed from above (or below, it’s ambiguous, despite the darts sticking in its side); there’s also a visual example of a wizard’s attempt to enclose oranges in a metal shell (don’t ask why) that effectively renders them cannonballs, unfit for their original purpose. Why the recurrent fallible examples? Maybe because nothing ever turns out perfect in this story. (Except the ending, perhaps.)

Then there is the young griffin, Elda, who contrary to the sound of her name is the youngest in a family of humans and test-tube beings. Part-lion, part-eagle, part-human, Elda pitches in with a bunch of other misfit students who are all also escaping from the expectations of their families or communities. In fact, Year of the Griffin is, underneath the joyous storytelling, inventive fantasy and punning witticisms, a critique of a number of social institutions in this, our own world. Foremost of the critiques is that reserved for the corrosive effects of conformity, whether imposed by traditions, laws or sheer ignorance. Typical is the attitude of academia at the university, which suppresses creative thinking and practical magic in favour of dry rote-learning and limited outcomes. A graduate of Oxford University, with a partner who is Emeritus Professor of English at Bristol University, Jones will have been well aware of the politicking that goes on in academia the world over, the inevitable conflicts between research and teaching needs, the financial considerations that underpin every decision and policy, and the human weaknesses to which all scholarship is prey. No surprise then that the Wizard University is riddled with accidents waiting to happen. And that they do.

Bar a couple of excursions, pretty much all the action takes place within the confines of the campus. At times this can be claustrophobic, but the students are often able to escape to the world of books or seek companionship amongst like-minded magic-users. In fact, Year of the Griffin is an almost Shakespearean comedy (‘comedy’ in all senses of the word) which, barring the calls of Morpheus, I could hardly put down over the period of just a few days. Why Shakespearean? Well, typically for Shakespeare, young male and female protagonists frequently get hitched by the end of the action (as in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado and so on), frequently with multiple pairings on the cards. Secondly, things don’t start to go right till at the end, when often a ruler steps in to call a halt to the mayhem and gives a judgement (Wizard Policant, aided by Chancellor Querida, fulfills this role). And thirdly, magic, or the pagan past, often is a crucial part of the story to emphasise that this is hyper-reality.

No apologies are needed, I believe, for such an extended (if obviously incomplete) commentary on what some might argue is just an adolescent fantasy novel. But Diana Wynne Jones hardly ever wrote a straightforward story in her preferred genre: her young adult fantasies nearly always work on several levels rather than just as a superficial narrative. As the mythical griffin was regarded as the guardian of gold, so Year of the Griffin conceals real treasures between its covers.

Revised May 2014

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