Diana Wynne Jones House of Many Ways
Many of the pieces in Reflections, the collection of writings by and about Diana Wynne Jones, address the question authors often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? And of course there is no single simple answer. She does however offer this suggestion, in an item entitled ‘Some Hints on Writing’:
When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out.
With House of Many Ways I found it hard to force a plan onto a review, so adopting Jones’ modus operandi for this commentary seemed an appropriate way to go about it. The beginning has been taken care of, and the conclusion is virtually foregone, and now it’s time to move to the images that arise almost unbidden from a second reading of this fantasy. Many of them involve snapshots of the author herself.
Diana was both dyslexic and left-handed, and both these issues come out in the story. One protagonist finds distinguishing left from right a problem and so ties coloured threads to his fingers, a strategy that doesn’t always work out. Another protagonist is shown plans of the different ways in the house but the first is “the most confusing map I ever saw in my life!” while the second, with “swirling lines on the piece of paper … seemed easier”. It struck me that drawing a mindmap with swirly lines or even collaging a mental scrapbook page of the themes and memes in House of Many Ways might be a good key to making sense of the very varied ideas she presents and help with trying to explain them (see the photomontage above).
Let’s start with the main protagonists. One is the young Charmain Baker (whose father is, naturally, a baker). Throughout the book she is constantly being called ‘Miss Charming’ — which is rather sweet, except that she isn’t always diplomatic or even sweet-tempered. Before we assume that this is a totally misplaced epithet we discover that she has natural magic ability, at last rendering ‘charming’ rather appropriate rather than a misnomer. The other main protagonist (the one with directional issues) is Peter Regis, a wouldbe apprentice wizard with whom Charmain is determined not to get on. Charmain resents Peter’s intrusion into her new life at Great Uncle William’s cottage which she has been expected to house-sit, however weird a place it is. And she is determined not to let Peter get in the way of her new occupation of sorting through old documents for Adolphus X, the King of High Norland, in the library of the Royal Mansion.
You’ll have gathered that this is a world similar to but not the same as ours. The action takes place in place called High Norland, with neighbouring states called Montalbino, Strangia and Ingary. The latter country — with a name at once reminiscent of both Hungary and England — is south of High Norland and has given its name to a series featuring a wizard called Howl: previous titles in the trilogy were Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air. Strangia suggests both somewhere strange and the region straddling Austria and Slovenia called Styria, in which John Ruskin’s literary fairytale The King of the Golden River was set. Finally, Montalbino (“white mountain”) while contrasting with our own Montenegro also reminds us of the snowy Alps, particularly Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco in Italy). We’re firmly in a region that is both Anglophone and yet central Europe, and High Norland brings to mind Switzerland, particularly when we have gnome-like creatures constructing a cuckoo-clock on one point in the story.
Charmain’s Great Uncle William is Wizard Norland. At the start of the tale he is due to disappear from the narrative: his bossy niece Sempronia tells us “He has a growth, you know, on his insides, and only the elves can help him. They have to carry him off to cure him…” (Less than two years after this novel appeared it was announced that Jones had lung cancer, from which she was to die in March 2011, and this detail in House of Many Ways is either very prescient or Jones knew early on that something was badly amiss.) William’s illness has meant that Charmain is called upon to be his house-sitter, and she soon finds out that this dilapidated single-storey cottage surrounded by hydrangeas is not what it seems. The title of the book has a very biblical or Taoist ring to it, but it exactly describes what to expect: as with Dr Who’s Tardis time and space are distorted within it. As one exits a door, turning in a different direction or walking backwards through the portal leads to different passages, rooms or even the past. Labyrinthine scarcely begins to describe the House, and even with Peter’s coloured threads as clews (the name given to the ball of thread Ariadne gives to Theseus to follow out of the Minotaur’s maze) Charmain and Peter are always in danger of losing their way in the magical labyrinth.
Another theme that runs through the book is food — how to get it and how to deal with it. Charmain at first gets pastries and pasties from her parents before it turns out the house provides meals when asked, though not always in the form one expects. Later, hot buttered crumpets and cakes feature, heaven for the child in many of us. Charmain enjoys her comfort food almost as much as she enjoys reading, another link back to Jones’ own childhood where she was literally starved of books, surviving on shared literary rations with her sisters and coping by making up her own stories. Reading matter in the wizard’s house includes spell books such as The Boke of Palimpsests (‘palimpsest’ describes a manuscript where previous writing has been erased to allow new text to be inserted). It is this Boke that leads Charmain into real trouble and precipitates much of the action of the tale.
The Lubbock is perhaps one of Jones’ most frightening creations. What to call it? An insect humanoid? A human insectoid? It’s almost as terrifying as the creature in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and made more abhorrent by its ability to produce offspring called lubbockins via human hosts. The lubbockins are exploitative, a human characteristic that for Jones was a real bête noir. Luckily, lighter relief is provided by kobolds, the traditional gnomes of Central European folklore, who mostly live underground and here make wooden objects (including the aforementioned cuckoo-clock and a sled which is later used by Matilda, the Witch of Montalbino — rather like the sleigh that Jadis, the White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, travels around in like the Snow Queen).
The final animal that Jones introduces into her story is “an extremely small and ragged white dog” called Waif. This dog, as we are told by Jones’ son Colin, is modelled on his own dog: Jones, herself a dog-lover, liked to feature them in many of her books, beginning with her early fantasy Dogsbody (1975). But Waif is more than just a dumb creature — she is magical, almost elemental, rather like a cross between the cat Mogget and the Disreputable Dog of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (with which Jones was probably familiar). As Colin Burrows says, “My old dog Lily is effectively the hero of House of Many Ways,” and there is more to her than meets the eye.
We come now to the figures that link all these Ingary books, namely Wizard Howl Pendragon, Sophie Hatter and the fire demon Calcifer. Howl originally came from Wales (Jones’ own father was Welsh) where he was known as Howell Jenkins; but then, travelling through a magic portal, he became a wizard in Ingary, where he met Sophie Hatter. By the time of House of Many Ways Howl is nowhere in evidence (to the dismay of many young female fans) but a lisping and annoying child Twinkle is, along with Howl and Sophie’s noisy toddler Morgan. Happily, Sophie is still the lovely bumptious individual we know from before — she “says a bad word” at some point, to which Twinkle says, “Naughty-naughty!” — chivvying her charges and fussing around, because somebody has to. And, of course, we have the famous perambulating Castle, powered by the fire demon, which unlike the marvellous creation of the Miyazaki film is black, foursquare and slightly sinister.
Jones is known for her endings, which are often criticised for being a little pat and where time appears to stand still while the principal players get to their positions. In Reflections Charlie Butler points to “the The Importance of Being Earnest-style multiple revelations of identity and relationship that feature in several of her final chapters” in which all is explained and loose ends firmly tied. Here I’m also reminded of the denouement of, say, a classic detective novel where the perpetrators are publicly confronted with their wickedness; and in fact before the chase arrives in the hall of the Royal Mansion somebody shouts “Not in the library!” and everyone veers away from the traditional venue where the detective unmasks the villain.
I started off by mentioning how Jones got inspiration from tiny, bright pictures which begged to be linked somehow to the opening and conclusion of a book, and I hope to have thrown some light on this process in House of Many Ways. Now may be a good point to mention the line drawings of Tim Stevens that adorn several of her fantasies and which appear here as chapter headings. Not everyone is good at imagining characters and settings, and Stevens’ illustrations help remedy that deficit with what appear to me as faithful and sympathetic interpretations. They have a classic look to them which perfectly captures the traditional character of many of Jones’ fantasies.
Repost of the October 2013 review