Diana Wynne Jones The Pinhoe Egg
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (2006)
The last of the Chrestomanci books written by Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg was also the longest and, arguably, the most complicated in terms of plot. Unlike some of the novels preceding it Chrestomanci doesn’t just have a walk-on part at the end but takes on the most integrated role in proceedings since Charmed Life, the very first Chrestomanci story of all. The story actually centres on young Eric ‘Cat’ Chant, who lives at Chrestomanci Castle near Helm St Mary, and his contemporary Marianne Pinhoe, who lives about ten miles away in Ulverscote. Marianne’s grandmother appears to lose her mind in a blast of magic — did I mention this is a fantasy? — and poor Marianne’s long-anticipated summer holidays start to disappear over the horizon as her extended family gets drawn into a feud with a neighbouring village. Not only this but her family also fear the attention of Chrestomanci, the ‘Big Man’ at the Castle, whose job is to monitor any misuse of magic. And it turns out a whole lot of misuse of magic is going on.
As well as the last of the Chrestomanci books this was the first of the series where I felt you could draw a detailed map of the localities and how they related to each other; which, in fact, is just what I did. This gave the characters a landscape in which to work and interact, and helped to make the story more grounded, as it were, than some of the others in the series. This was, for me, also one of the richest and most satisfactory of the stories, as well as one of the longest, and helped to further enrich the sequence as a whole. True, some readers have been overwhelmed by what seems a cast of thousands — at a conservative estimate six ‘family’ members at the Castle , their staff of over two dozen, at least forty named villagers (a thousand appear in the final battle) and a handful of assorted non-humans. But rather than being a turn-off surely such complexity, requiring close attention to and engagement with the text, is something to celebrate rather than criticise? There is certainly no let-up in the expected drive of her story-telling.
The joint fulcrums on which the story turns are personified in both Marianne and Cat, the latter a nine-lifed enchanter who is likely to become the next Chrestomanci. The general assumption that children should be seen and not heard is not one that Diana Wynne Jones subscribed to, and so both youngsters have to struggle against not being believed by adults by becoming more brave and assertive. Being gifted magically they recognise each other’s innate abilities, and by working in tandem have the opportunity to avert the dangerous situation that all and sundry find themselves in. Things are particularly hard because there seem to be outside forces operating that prevent the truth from being investigated, let alone revealed. Is that truth being hidden by dwimmery, a state brought about by an Old English word implying an illusion brought about by sleight or magic?
The Pinhoe Egg is a novel that reveals more the more you enquire. The author explains in a note that she could only get started on the book by imaginatively exploring the countryside around Chrestomanci Castle and the villagers who lived there. Many of the names of villages and families are genuine, and Jones clearly delved around in her memories and her extensive learning to retrieve them. The Pinhoes for example live in a village called Ulverscote. There is in fact a real village called Pinhoe on the outskirts of Exeter, where a great battle was fought by Danish Vikings and King Ethelred’s army in the 11th century; the settlement, in hilly country, has a name probably derived from Celtic pen and Old English hoe, meaning ‘top of the hill’. As it happens, the village inhabited by Jones’ Pinhoes is called Ulverscote, close by Ulverscote Wood and situated on an eminence. The ‘cote’ element could denote ‘cottage’ or Welsh coed (‘wood’), while the first element seems to imply a personal name like Ulf, an old Scandinavian name meaning ‘Wolf’. Is it beyond the bounds of reason to suggest that ‘Ulverscote’ was concocted partly from a memory of the real Wolvercote, on the outskirts of Oxford? After all, Jones went to Oxford University, where she attended lectures by Tolkien, and the man himself was buried in Wolvercote cemetery. Yes, Wolvercote was before the 12th century originally the cottage of a certain Woolgar, not Ulf, but I am also mindful that in Charmed Life Cat’s home town is noted as … Wolvercote. In a lively and creative mind like Diana’s all these associations could easily have been tangled together, partly consciously, partly subconsciously; as a reader it is not necessary to know that these associations are possible but it certainly adds to one’s appreciation if historic events, etymologies and personal experiences are woven together in an artful and satisfying way.
With exactly 400 pages in the paperback edition it’s neither possible nor desirable to give a detailed plot description, so instead I’ll draw attention to a few other aspects that struck me in this reread. Fot example, Jones slyly alludes to the fairytale trope of seven sons, but despite Marianne’s father being one of these boys she herself is no seventh son of a seventh son; instead, she is the only girl amongst thirteen cousins — a fact which helps cement her unique magical status. Another theme that Jones harps on about is bigotry. Though there is a church and a Reverend Pinhoe in evidence, we are never anywhere told the precise religion of this fantasy world; however that doesn’t stop the rival Farleigh family, equally witches and magic-users, from inveighing against “ungodly abominations”, an all too familiar rant in our own world. There’s a confusing backstory of an orthodox religion but this seems to predate ‘the Romans’; whether these are ‘our’ Romans or a closet reference to Roman Catholics is unclear, and may be the sort of typical obfuscation that Jones tends to throw into her novels from time to time.
The final aspect I want to explore is the place The Pinhoe Egg has in the series’ chronology. Luckily Jones gives us some clues. It’s been almost a year since the moment in Charmed Life when Cat accepted he was a nine-lifed enchanter. So we have a fairly tight timeline between the 1977 title and this last in the series published nearly three decades later, all linked by the character of Cat (and Chrestomanci, of course). Since I’ve reviewed all these at some time or another I won’t give full details, but the sequence is Charmed Life (when we first meet Cat) followed by the short story ‘The Sage of Theare’ (where Cat puts in a brief appearance). The young Italian Tonino (who appears in The Magicians of Caprona) meets up with Cat in another short story ‘Stealer of Souls’, and both feature again in ‘Caroline Oneir’s Hundredth Dream’. This last short story ends with the Chrestomanci ‘family’ on holiday in the South of France, from which they return in time for the start of The Pinhoe Egg. As always, most of these tales can be read as standalones, but those readers wanting continuity in their series reading could do worse than read the stories in this order.
You will by now be wondering what the egg of the title is. This appears as a result of “a promise I made to my sister” (Ursula, perhaps) “that I would write more about such things”. What this spotted mauve egg contains is a surprise I leave to the reader to discover for themselves, but it is a creature that traditionally guards gold. And while I feel the egg itself is a bit of a McGuffin I suppose the story itself, in a way, is the gold.
The Pinhoe Egg completes the Chrestomanci sequence of novels. There will sadly be no more as Diana died in March 2011. Since then DWJ fans have nominated every March as DWJ month, reading or rereading and discussing aspects of all her novels. In a follow-up post (in what’s left of this month) I hope to expand a little on the series and the world she has created. Aficionados may be interested in a Wiki site which concisely cross-references many of the places and personages in the novels.