Intimations of mortality


Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)

This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series.

Christopher Chant’s ownership of nine lives makes him something special in the world into which he is born, but it is a destiny which he is reluctant to inherit. He discovers he is a nine-lifed enchanter, with the ability to move between parallel universes (Related Worlds in the terminology of the book). Like many another Chosen One he finds that he is a de facto orphan (his parents show little interest in or care for him, rather like Diana’s own parents in our own world) but also that the fate of the established order is threatened unless he can assume his responsibilities (when all he wants to do is to have friends of his own age and to play cricket). What child really wants to have responsibilities, let alone their world’s future fate, resting on their shoulders?

Christopher’s response is, of course, to eventually respond appropriately, though his sudden maturity and ability to command after a long period of petulance is the only weak point in the plotting. Other than that this is a wonderfully engrossing read, shot through with humour, memorable characters and, yes, intimations of mortality, set in a period with a late Victorian feel but which is obviously contemporary with our own world in the late 20th century (when Christopher briefly visits it and finds himself caught up in the horror of modern traffic).

Conceits, puns, childish whimsies, fairy-tales, observations on the absurdities of social conventions, these and other archetypal Jones motifs appear in their usual profusion to make this simultaneously an easy read but one which remains in the memory. Where else would you find a temple girl with the sacred title of Living Goddess who has chosen for herself the name of Millie, after a leading character in a book series which could have been written by Enid Blyton?

First published in 1988, this was the fourth title in the Chrestomanci series but in terms of chronology it is the first in that it describes the childhood of Christopher before he gets to become Chrestomanci. This name (possibly derived from Greek, meaning ‘useful divination’) refers to the official who supervises the use of magic in World 12A; to assume this office the individual has to be a nine-lifed enchanter, just like Christopher.

First published March 2013, this reposted review is of the first of the Chrestomanci books in chronological sequence. All but the last of the series have been reviewed and will be reposted. The second of the books to feature a young Christopher Chant is Conrad’s Fate. Next follows Charmed Life with a grown up Christopher but introducing a young Eric Chant.
The Magicians of Caprona despite appearing as a standalone title is still part of the Chrestomanci worlds, as is Witch Week.
A short story collection called Mixed Magics includes episodes from different moments in the chronology, leaving just the final title — and virtually the longest instalment in the series — The Pinhoe Egg.

11 thoughts on “Intimations of mortality

  1. I hadn’t thought about how the horcruxes are similar to Christopher’s lives being kept in different things, but of course it is! I remember being amused and delighted by Millie’s fascination with the boarding school books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought I’d sent a reply earlier on my phone, Marisa, but it seems to have disappeared somehow! The gist of what it said was that my better half has a couple of boarding school novels on her shelf which I hope to read sometime (Elinor Brent-Dyer’s The New House at the Chalet School and Enid Blyton’s Summer Term at St Clare’s), not just to get a feel of what Millie was supposedly modelling herself on but because I feel to need to expand my reading range.

      The split soul (yes I know that Christopher doesn’t technically split his soul like Voldemort) is to me very similar in feel to the Slavic tale of Koschei the Deathless. He hid his soul inside a needle in an egg, itself in a duck hidden in a hare, all in a chest buried under an oak tree on the island of Buyan (summary from Wikipedia) — all very horcrux-like. The island of Buyan (also spelt Bujan: the ‘j’ is doubtless a ‘y’ sound) appears in on of Joan Aiken’s retellings of Slavic tales in The Kingdom Under the Sea (reviewed here). In a way, Christopher’s soul is split several ways, with his body being the object in which each soul resides. Gabriel de Witt’s souls of course feature in Stealer of Souls, poor things.


      1. I shall look up the Joan Aiken! I remember loving the Chalet school books as a kid; I also read both the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers books, but in Malay as my school library only had translated editions. Thinking of Koschei the Deathless, I’m reminded of a book by another of my favourite authors, Catherynne Valente, who wrote “Deathless” which is based on that tale/myth. I’ve yet to read it, but it’s waiting on my TBR shelves…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in awe of multilingual speakers, proficient in several tongues: Malay, English and, I’m assuming, Japanese, and maybe more, Marisa! All I can muster is English and some rusty French, and a passing acquaintance with Italian, Welsh and a smattering of Latin and Ancient Greek from school days — enough to resemble erudition but a bluff that’s soon called. But even as English becomes more and more the lingua franca polyglots will always have the advantage over monoglots like me.


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