This is a repost of a review first published 26th March 2014
and republished here to mark #MarchMagics and #DWJMarch,
a celebration of all things Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett
Diana Wynne Jones The Islands of Chaldea
completed by Ursula Jones
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2014
Fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones would have been 80 this year. Since her death on March 26th 2011 some fans have designated March as Diana Wynne Jones Month — by reading, reviewing and discussing her novels they felt that this would be “a way to turn mourning to celebration on the anniversary of Diana’s death”. The third #dwjmonth (also tagged #dwjmarch) is being observed as I write [March 2014].
This year was extra special: her final novel, completed by her sister Ursula (an author in her own right), was published just in time for a celebration of the woman and her work. As a result of suggesting — rather cheekily, I thought — that I was Diana’s “greatest fan”, I was lucky enough to win one of ten copies offered in a competition by her British publishers. As always with posthumous novels the worry is, will this work be up to her usual standard, or will disappointment cloud the reputation that she painstakingly established for herself?
We find ourselves in on an alternate Earth, one of the author’s Related Worlds which are similar to but not the same as our own, chiefly because magic is always prevalent. The Islands of Chaldea (the real Mesopotamian polity of Chaldea was famed for its magicians) are Skarr, Bernica, Gallis and Logra, loosely based on Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. The four countries, as well as being separated from each other by water, are further divided by a magical barrier that has for some years closed Logra off from the other three islands. On Skarr lives Aileen, a potential young Wise Woman who despairs of inheriting the talents that she is supposed to develop. Unexpectedly she is sent, with her Aunt Beck, idle princeling Ivar and servant Ogo, on a journey to Logra via Bernica and Gallis, to help resolve the situation and to fulfil a prophecy. We sense the classic premise of the lowliest achieving greatness through discovering and using innate gifts and skills.
Aileen, with green eyes and hair “the colour of toffee”, is also the narrator, diminutive in stature but growing in maturity. She describes how she is sent with some odd companions and a disreputable crew to achieve an ill-defined quest, in which barriers galore — and not just the magical one — are placed in the way of success. First they arrive on the tiny island called Lone, where they encounter a rather peculiar creature. Next, they cross over to Bernica where they acquire another companion and another creature, as green as our own Emerald Isle is supposed to be. (There’s an episode here involving humans turned into donkeys that recalls Petronius, Shakespeare, Kingsley and Collodi, who also riff on the theme.) They somehow get to Gallis where more companions join them, and yet another creature puts in an appearance. Then they have to find a way to surmount that final obstacle to reach Logra where, if the pattern holds, we must expect another beast to present another crucial piece of the puzzle. Will solutions be forthcoming?
Such a bald outline in no way does justice to the author’s narrative skill, especially in her ability to recapture a young person’s tone in relating a story. In addition, for those in the know, there is the delight of discovering how much she has drawn in the myth, legend and folklore of the British Isles to almost, dare one say it, make a political statement about individual cultures coexisting within shared traditions. And, in answer to the common question she got asked — “Where do you get your ideas from?” — her usual inventiveness is displayed in the way, magpie-like, she has picked up various shiny objects to line the nest of her story.
Let’s start with the animals. The red winged lizard that appears in this story is associated with Gallis, not surprising as the emblem of Wales is a dragon. Less obvious is the talking green parrot that Aileen and her companions discover in Bernica (this name derived, of course, from an old name for Ireland). A green bird would be appropriate for Ireland, but why has the author hit on a non-native bird? Perhaps the legendary island called Hy Brasil to the west of Ireland suggested to her the modern country of Brazil, through which flows the Amazon; and in its jungles are the medium-sized green birds, good at imitating speech, called Amazon parrots.
The third of the four animals is a large cat, no ordinary beast this but one which can disappear at will, rather like the Cheshire Cat. With its ‘long legs [and] small head’ I wonder if a European lynx is meant rather than the Scottish wildcat, even though Aileen hails from the Chaldean equivalent of Scotland. The lynx apparently survived in Britain into the Dark Ages, and may have furnished a basis for the lions encountered in Arthurian legends as the Welsh Cath Palug (“clawing cat”) and the chapulu of French Alpine lore. I think what confirms this for me is Aileen’s nickname for the cat, Plug-Ugly. The Land of Lone where Plug-Ugly is found could represent the Isle of Man, but Jones has also woven in strands from folktales about the sunken land of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the Welsh Lowland Hundred that disappeared in Cardigan Bay as the result of human error.
And the fourth animal? Surely Diana drew on the traditional symbols of the four evangelists for inspiration here, coming up with the bull, symbol of St Luke, to represent Logra. (The parrot derives from St John’s eagle and the cat from St Mark’s winged lion; only the dragon deviates from St Matthew’s man, though both of course have wings. Ultimately the four creatures derive from the cherubim who according to Ezekiel supported God’s throne, appearing as man, lion, ox and eagle.)
Helpful Companions are the staple of traditional fairytales, where they aid the hero or heroine in accomplishing impossible tasks. Often they collectively form a group of seven, as here, and without them Aileen wouldn’t be able to achieve her quest. For example, Aileen’s Aunt Beck has the gift of visions; a wonderful character who must surely have been drawn from life, she unfortunately suffers from what appears to be a stroke — though of course, this being a literary fairytale, this affliction is the traditional ‘fairy stroke’, the result of a malevolent spell, rather than the more lasting physical ailment that we know by the name. Meanwhile the Bernican monk called Finn is the owner of the wonderful parrot which gives more appropriate advice than is usual for these talking birds. Riannan from Gallis has the ability to sing spells, rather like her counterpart in Welsh tales who converses with birds, while her brother Rees infuses mechanical inventions with magic. And Ivar and Ogo have their own significant roles to play too.
Fairytales have their villains, and here the baddie is someone whose name aptly includes a Germanic element which means ‘rule’ or ‘power’. We must be very grateful to Ursula Jones for finding a way to successfully resolve the very complex plot from a clue presented early on in Diana’s incomplete manuscript. Ursula doesn’t say what this clue is but I suspect it’s the handing over of a purse, supposedly “for expenses” but of course nothing of the kind. I haven’t yet spotted where the transition to a different author is, though I sense a change in style and pace around Chapter Fourteen. What is definitely Diana’s contribution, however, is the introduction of a hot-air balloon into the plot. Bristol, where she lived, is host of a spectacular International Balloon Fiesta every summer, and she would have been very familiar with the sight of Montgolfier balloons floating across the river Avon and over Clifton.
The Islands of Chaldea is a love-letter to Britain, a hymn to hope and a celebration of true magic, which is the life of the imagination. While fans may regret her passing, whether as friend or author, this final novel is a fitting addition to the canon and one to be grateful for now that it has been completed in style.
Finally, I’d like here to report on a coincidence, if coincidence it is. Diana Wynne Jones and I shared a regular correspondent, the late Bill Russell. Bill, a professor emeritus of sociology, was president of the Pendragon Society, an Arthurian group for which I edited the journal. In spring 2005 I published an article I’d put together called ‘A Concise Arthurian Bestiary’ listing a number of creatures associated with Arthurian legends and folklore, including cat, dragon and parrot. Now Bill was in the habit of sending some of his complimentary copies of Pendragon to other correspondents, and as I’d included his review of Diana’s Hexwood in the same issue I suspect there’s every chance that he’d sent a copy of this to her. It’s distantly possible that her choice of featured animals in The Islands of Chaldea was influenced or at least confirmed by the mention of cat, dragon and parrot in the bestiary article – though admittedly more likely that Diana was already familiar with their associations.