Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books, 2001 (1975).
A ‘dogsbody’ is of course a common way of describing a drudge, a Johnny Factotum, the office boy who makes the tea, the hapless school student on work experience. And there is a drudge in this story: Kathleen, who fulfils the role of a Cinderella under the thumb of a surrogate stepmother.
But the title of this novel is also the starting point for the notion that a celestial being can inhabit the body of a dog, and that is the main trigger for this story. The most famous celestial body with a canine association is the so-called Dog Star, Sirius, so the question is, how does Sirius come to be incarnated in a puppy just about to be drowned at birth?
I love the way that Diana Wynne Jones novels work: the way you can identify with one or more of the main characters, the way that each story arc leads to a resolution of sorts, the way disparate ideas come together in poetic and perhaps meaningful names and images and incidents.
In Dogsbody — a relatively early work in her writing career — all three features are present. Jones had a long-lived Labrador called Caspian — named perhaps from the Prince in the Narnia tales? — whose apparent intuitive intelligence inspired both the dedication (“For Caspian, who might really be Sirius”) and the impetus for the tale, the first chapter of which she wrote in a white-heat when she should have been entertaining her mother-in-law.
Kathleen, who adopts Sirius and calls him Leo, is a young Irish girl whose father is imprisoned during the Troubles; in this young girl, a book-lover but an outsider, and therefore a victim who gets picked on, we can see the author portraying aspects of her own childhood. The family Kathleen is fostered with — the distant father, the domineering mother, the brothers who alternately tease or support Kathleen — is vaguely reminiscent of the dysfunctional family that Jones herself grew up in, though her sisters were hopefully less fickle then Basil or Robin Duffield.
Sirius, reborn in this world of 1970s Britain, gradually overcomes his amnesia and comes to a realisation of his celestial nature. Why was he exiled to earth? Sol, the Earth and the Moon all seem to know before he does: he is on a quest for a mysterious object called the Zoi which he was somehow instrumental in sending to Earth. And he is in a race to find it before others more sinister than him. To me the Zoi is clearly derived from the Greek, ζωή (“life”), suggesting some kind of vital spark, a life force, without which his sphere of influence in the universe — the solar system that the Dog Star, brightest star in our sky, was responsible for, along with a white dwarf companion — will suffer, along with our own system. Sirius’ search for the Zoi, which serves as the story arc, is a classic Quest story, in which he is aided by various Helpful Companions and in which we hope he Overcomes the Monster, another basic plot, which threatens to cause utter chaos.
A kind of deus ex machina appears towards the end of the tale, a personage who has been prefigured in one of the books Kathleen has been reading: in one of the Welsh medieval tales called The Mabinogion she will have encountered the god of the underworld called Arawn, who may or may not be akin to the ancient horned Celtic god Cernunnos. A truly terrifying chthonic creature, he is not subject to the same laws as celestial beings. He is at one point specifically identified as Orion, the hunter whom the constellation Canis Major accompanies in the heavens, and this Arawn / Orion /Cernunnos correspondence provides one of the pivotal scenes in the closing chapters.
These triggers for Jones’ imaginative fireworks are not the only attractions of the novel, of course. You do feel justifiable anger as Kathleen is bullied, and heartbreak as she is subjected to loss. But we mustn’t forget that Dogsbury is told from the viewpoint of Sirius the dog, and the author’s novelistic descriptions of how his canine nature conflicts with the growing cognisance of his real nature is cleverly done.
To purloin an astronomical term, the conjuctions that occur between different ideas are finely balanced with how we need to gravitate towards real human beings and real human emotions. It’s all done in quite a satisfying and, dare I say it, heavenly fashion.
7 thoughts on “Heavenly conjunctions”
You make me want to drop everything and pick up Dogsbody again. This book is really a small wonder.
It’s certainly a book I shall be hanging on to for a reread, not least because the author signed it for a previous owner.
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Love this review of my very first DWJ book.
I was really sad that she passed away before writing another Howl book.
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Thank you, I should really reread it soon, but I’ve a few others of hers to not only reread but also review. At least she’s left a fine body of work for us to enjoy again and again.
Forty years ago I “taught” “Dogsbody” to a class of 11-year-olds who were not familiar with the term. Not sure why I picked it as generally fantasy does not appeal to me. I suppose I wanted to make sure they were introduced to a wide range of fiction and for some reason, I had read the book and – unusual for me – had found it wonderful. Last year I attended a reunion with some of these students. It’s what they remember most about our time together! (“Dragonslayer” also featured.)
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What lovely memories, Josie! I’m in touch with a handful of former students too who, luckily, remember me with the same fondness as I have for them.
Yes, fantasy — like many another genre — is not to everyone’s taste, and I have to confess that not all fantasy appeals to me; but Jones somehow senses that its stock in trade is composed of symbols that work on many levels, and she combines those with aspects that reflect her own life experiences. All of which (to me at least) gives to her fantasy a very human quality compared with some other writers who seem merely to recycle well-worn tropes and clichés.
I’m just in the process of reviewing her later novel Hexwood, but will leave you to judge whether it would appeal to you as much as Dogsbody!
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