Fun is a serious business


Diana Wynne Jones Mixed Magics Collins 2000

Publishers and booksellers think they know their market when it comes to the fantasy novels of Diana Wynne Jones and her ilk: young readers aged 9 to 12 or, at a pinch, young adult or teens for her more ‘difficult’ novels. This despite the fact that her fans range upwards in age to other adult fantasy writers, filmmakers, academics (and not just in the literary field — I knew a professor of sociology who rated her highly as a writer) and, of course, bloggers of all ages. Those who treat books merely as commodities — and there’s no denying that the publishing business exists to be commercially successful — often fail to recognise the reach of an author’s readership except when (as, say, with Philip Pullman and J K Rowling) it becomes as plain as the noses on their faces; they then respond with ‘adult’ editions, which sport less garish covers to go on genre shelves — or even under General Fiction — and receive notices in the review sections of broadsheet newspapers.

This long preamble (and it gets longer, I’m afraid) is a prelude to lauding this collection of light fiction, short stories related by Jones and also related to each other by common themes. These themes include the premise that magic works but must be regulated, as all power must surely be, by a government-appointed ombudsman with the authority to intervene when that power is misused. (No faceless bureaucrat this, by the way, but an eccentric yet efficient enchanter with the title of Chrestomanci.) Another theme, touched on by a couple of stories, is that moving to another place will rarely be a solution to your problems if you don’t fundamentally change yourself. A third overarching theme is the act of creation — is what the artist conceives or the thinker imagines purely abstract, or does it ever exist in any concrete sense? Powerful thoughts, these, to exercise any mind let alone the young minds of the predetermined market. And there is now another conundrum to consider before the review proper begins.

There are two main modes of thought regarding reading a sequence of novels where dates of publication and internal chronology don’t coincide. One is to read them by date of publication, which can lead to confusion, the other is to adhere to chronological order, which can ruin later plot surprises and character revelations. (Famously The Chronicles of Narnia, the C S Lewis’ fantasy books published in one volume, has been criticised by fans for adopting the timeline approach.) Or you can read them in an order of your own choosing, or according to whenever you manage to acquire individual titles.

The same dilemma can apply to the late Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. As books were successively published the time frames shifted so that fans might initially be confused, whereas newcomers might accept each title as a puzzling standalone. One solution to the dilemma could be to read them all first in publication order, and then re-read them in chronological order for pleasure (or for review, as I’m doing now). Another reader might devise an entirely different re-reading sequence according to personal preference, and Jones herself suggested a reading order with only two titles stipulated at the beginning.

All of the books are linked by the figure of Chrestomanci, who may be a main focus of the story, make a fleeting appearance or function as a deus ex machina, setting things to rights. (Imagine him as a tall, dark and handsome Sherlock Holmes in dressing gown and top hat.) I’ve already looked at five novels, beginning with The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) and Conrad’s Fate (2005), both set in Chrestomanci’s youth. Next came Charmed Life (1977), when he appeared as his idiosyncratic adult self, followed by The Magicians of Caprona (1980) and, probably, Witch Week (1982).

The next volume I’d like to look at is Mixed Magics, and here we immediately run into a problem which will upset both parties intent on their particular order of reading. Mixed Magics is in fact a collection of short stories, some verging on novellas, published at different times over a period of nearly two decades. ‘The Sage of Theare’ was first published in 1982, and then re-appeared with ‘Warlock at the Wheel’ in 1984 before its 2000 outing here in Mixed Magics. ‘Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream’ was first published in 1986, while ‘Stealer of Souls’ re-appeared as a standalone for World Book Day 2002, two years after this collection. With this convoluted timeline of inter-related stories newcomers to the Chrestomanci series might experience slight confusion on occasion, but as with much of Diana Wynne Jones’ output my advice would be to go with the flow. Here I deal with the stories in published order rather than in the order presented in Mixed Magics, with comments on how they fit in with the series’ timeline.

The Sage of Theare (1982)

 ‘The Sage of Theare’ started because I remembered, or thought I remembered, a story by Borges being read on the radio, in which a scholar arduously tracked down a learned man but never quite found him. I started having dreams about it — strange circular dreams in a strange city where gods took a hand — and the dream person never found the wise man he was looking for. In order to exorcise the dreams, I wrote the story.

This is quite the strangest of the Chrestomanci stories. It involves “a world called Theare in which Heaven was very well organised”, with a pantheon very reminiscent of Ancient Greek goddesses and gods. Many years ago I wrote the music for a school musical called Thera, where an updated Greek pantheon interacted with mortals. Quite obviously I chose this name because there was an actual island called Thera (modern Santorini) which, devastated three thousand years ago by a volcanic explosion, may have inspired aspects of the Atlantis story. I also chose it because it was an anagram of Earth, underlying the satirical nature of much of the production. This reasoning may also partly account for Jones’ Theare, where she indulges in some philosophical musings of a satirical nature: for example, the young protagonist, Thasper, has a eureka moment looking into a shaving mirror: The gods need human beings in order to be gods! Would they exist if people didn’t believe in them? Would the world dissolve into nothingness if the gods twinkled out of existence? The volcanic island of Thera may also be referenced by Jones in the recurring images of buildings in flames and mentions of water-dragons, the two elements of fire and water that suggest the contradictory nature of Theare itself.

Thasper’s search for the Sage of Dissolution is very Borgesian. The process is very much the looking for geographical patterns, as in ‘Death and the Compass’; the circular images (the sphere Thasper is contained in, the Half Moon Inn, the pattern made by house fire locations) also hint at Borges’ obsession with labyrinths (as in ‘The Circular Ruins’); while the unknown Borges story which inspired Jones in the first place must surely be ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’. In this fiction an Islamic student traipses across India searching for a mystic known as Al-Mu’tasim who he hopes will have the answers to his questions. Unlike the student, Thasper can’t achieve enlightenment without help; he needs Chrestomanci because the gods are clumsily trying to circumvent their own prophecy concerning the young man, which may end in the destruction of their world.

Warlock at the Wheel (1984)

‘The Sage of Theare’ spreads over a period of some twenty-two years, its denouement taking place no earlier than the events in Charmed Life since it involves the brief appearance of Eric ‘Cat’ Chant. ‘Warlock at the Wheel’ is also set after the same novel, the climax of which involved many magic users losing their magic powers. Here Jones is in humorous mood, with the Willing Warlock (who appeared in Charmed Life) desperately trying to regain his magic by reverting to his criminal ways. Crime, as we are always told, doesn’t pay, no more so than in the Warlock’s case, and his fruitless search for money and motorcars on his own world and in one resembling ours is told with a light touch and even some malicious glee. A lively child and a rather large dog feature, as does Kathusa, Chrestomanci’s agent on our world.

Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream (1986)

Jones must have had an obsession with travelling fairs. They appear at the climaxes of Eight Days of Luke (1975) and Fire and Hemlock (1985), and one appears here too. As well as the obvious excitements and experiences of the fairground she must have relished the elements of make-believe and illusion that they incorporate, elements that story-telling epitomises. But Jones again uses a sense of fun to make serious points in this tale.

Carol’s father knew Chrestomanci when they were boys at school, and calls in on Chrestomanci on holiday in the South of France to solve a problem with his daughter. The little madam has been hugely profiting, with the aid of her ambitious mother, from her ability to not only dream to order but to make those dreams manifest in saleable products (precursors of the memory-retaining Pensieve familiar from the Harry Potter universe). The problem is that she is unable to produce her hundredth dream so now Chrestomanci is expected to find a solution. Curiously, he discovers that it’s a question of industrial relations, the revelation taking place in that fairground setting. As with the gods that humans create in their own image, are the figures we conjure up out of our dreams incorporeal or do they exist in reality? Do they have free will and can they act independently? In this metafiction Jones uses dream narratives to comment on the nature of the storytelling process and whether the teller tells the tales or tales issue unbidden from us.

I always wondered about Carol’s surname. It looked vaguely Irish, almost like O’Neil, and I’ve seen commentaries that even present it as though it was Irish. Of course it’s Jones playing with words again: from a Greek root, the surname appears as an element in the Oneirocritica, a treatise on the interpretation of dreams by the 2nd-century author Artemidorus.

Stealer of Souls (2000)

A young Italian, Tonino Montana, makes a brief appearance at the end of ‘Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream’. We first met him in The Magicians of Caprona, and the last we heard of him he was coming to be a pupil at Chrestomanci Castle somewhere in southern England. We now hear what happened when he was first introduced to Chrestomanci’s extended family after the events in Caprona, just before Carol Oneir comes into the picture. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances Chrestomanci’s nephew Cat is put in charge of looking after Tonino, and it’s clear he’s unhappy about no longer being the youngest in the entourage. Cat’s despatched with Tonino to the aged Gabriel de Witt, previous holder of the Chrestomanci office. Gabriel is also a nine-lifed enchanter, but his lives are leaving him one by one, and he’s fearful of one Neville Spiderman. (I’m sure Jones conjured this name from Neville Spearman, publishers of books on reincarnation and spiritualism as well as flying saucers and the occult in general.) He is right to be fearful of Spiderman because when Tonino and Cat set off on their return journey they are kidnapped and locked in a cellar full of junk and cobwebs.

What has happened to Gabriel’s ‘lives’ or souls and what have they to do with Neville Spiderman? Will it involve reincarnation of a sort and the occult? We soon find out as horror and humour succeed one another. I liked the way those lost souls were depicted — very dreamlike in a way — and I was amused to find that Jones ended the story with the promise of a villa holiday in the South of France, which is just where ‘Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream’ ends and which itself ends the collection.

* * *

I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of space on what appear to be slight and amusing children’s stories, but I make no apology for it. As I understand it, Johan Huizinga postulated in Homo Ludens that ‘play’ preceded and produced culture rather than that play is a function of culture. You might think that the fun and games Jones exhibits in her books are a frothy by-product of our culture; I would argue instead that the ideas she so entertainingly plays around with — about greed, antisocial behaviours, a lust for absolute power, the capacity to believe that our creations are our masters — are what help to sustain our human culture. Fun, in other words, is a serious business. And it’s not just for kids.

Review first published September 2013

17 thoughts on “Fun is a serious business

  1. I must get hold of at least one – you have stirred my interest.
    The age-grouping of novels is a most inexact science. I have found some of my own stories appeal to adults and the (supposedly) too-young alike. I hate having to define my novels on the ‘Children, YA, Adult’ spectrum for this reason. Nor does ‘Fantasy’ always sit comfortably.


    1. I agree totally with your disenchantment with definitions that exclude. For this very reason I never tag my reviews ‘young adult’ or ‘children’s book’. I do use ‘fantasy’ but I’ve argued elsewhere that in truth most fiction is fantasy.

      I see also that most publishers have stopped sticking categories on the back covers of their paperbacks (thriller, crime, SF etc). Perhaps they’ve realised that a large proportion of their readers are quite discerning and well able to pick up a book, read the description or browse a few pages before making up their minds. Also that much fiction crosses genres or is simply uncategorisable.

      But I still use cover art as the main guide to whether I would like it or not, which has occasionally been a mistake.


      1. Covers are a whole new topic. I personally don’t like the minimalistic style now in vogue. I love the sort of detail on a cover which gives an accurate indication of the contents – the earlier Pratchett covers are perfect. In contrast, I hate the covers which have little or nothing to do with the story. You get the feeling the designer hasn’t even read the blurb, much less skimmed the book.


        1. I know what you mean. The edition I used when I reviewed The Bourne Identity was completely off-beam as far as the cover was concerned.

          1. It showed a man emerging exhausted but conscious out of the sea onto a beach.
          Bourne was rescued unconscious from the sea by boat crew.
          2. In the background there is a helicopter and at least one armed man in a motor boat.
          There was no helicopter, and the vessel was an ordinary fishing boat.
          3. The man, though tired, appears to be unharmed.
          Bourne had a serious head injury.

          The image, as far as I can work out, has been spliced together from stock photos. The design team should have been carpeted or sacked.


  2. These do not sound like children’s books. I must try The Sage of Theare. I love the epiphany “The gods need human beings in order to be gods! ” This is the idea behind Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Have you read it? In it we meet gods who are fading because no one worships them anymore. It is my favorite Gaiman book.


    1. Interesting you should mention Neil Gaiman, Sari, as he was a very vocal fan of Diana Wynne Jones ( has some background). As American Gods was published in 2001, there is likely to have been some crossover ideas from Mixed Magics, though ‘The Sage of Theare’ had already appeared many years before.

      I’ve a copy of American Gods waiting on a pile in the attic so can’t speak knowledgeably about it, but Gaiman does acknowledge a sort of link, not with ‘The Sage of Theare’ but with Eight Days of Luke (which I’ve yet to review). His comment is here:


      1. Chris, thanks! Guess I better move Diana higher up on authors to read. The praise Gaiman gives her is very sweet.
        If I read Eight Days of Luke first will I be lost or can it be a stand alone?


        1. Eight Days of Luke is definitely a standalone, unconnected with the Chrestomanci series. Quite a few of her series started off as an idea with mileage in it and then just grow’d, but Eight Days wasn’t one of them. Though she did return frequently to the idea of gods as squabbling siblings, as in The Gift, one of her last novels.


  3. Sounds like a perfect set of books for Felix, who has just finished the Hobbit and needs something completely different. Thank, Chris – as always a compelling signpost to an author I have not read before.


    1. I do hope he enjoys them! As the protagonists are all young he should find it easy to identify with them. And there are castles and wicked uncles and greedy moppets and … magic, of course.


  4. One of the things I most like about Diana Wynne Jones’ books is her ability to say serious things in a not very serious way. I hadn’t caught the Borgesian searching in The Sage of Theare, mostly because I haven’t read much Borges, but even the apparently lighter stories, such as Warlock at the Wheel, say important things and aren’t completely frothy. My favourite in the collection is The Stealer of Souls, partly because it’s so creepy, and partly because I really like the way Cat and Tonino are forced to work together.


    1. If we’re talking favourites, Ela, then Stealer of Souls is also mine, followed by the hundredth dream story. The Sage of Theare was my least favourite but a closer second reading has meant it competes with Carol Oneir now!


  5. Pingback: Mixed Magics | Tales of the Marvelous

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.