Good things come in threes

Snettisham torc, Norfolk, 1st century BCE (image: Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, slightly edited)

Diana Wynne Jones: Power of Three
Harper Trophy 2003 (1976)

Another wonderful offering from the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three is an early-ish fantasy but one which displays all her trademark tics: a tricksy plot with an ending which has you rereading the last few pages wondering what has just happened (and how), a self-doubting protagonist with talents largely hidden from them, and a narrative that — while riffing on traditional themes, tropes and traditions — still manages to read as a one-off original.

We begin the novel assuming this is high fantasy: a seeming pastoral medieval community that is also au fait with magic, with some individuals able to divine the future, find distant objects and gifted with the power of suggestion. As we delve further we realise that it’s quickly morphing into so-called low fantasy with the modern age beginning to impinge, first at the fringes and then at the centre.

Underlying this is the growing sense of triadic groupings, as suggested by the book’s title: three siblings; Three Impossible Tasks, in the best fairytale tradition; three peoples (humans, the Dorig and the Giants); three powers (the Sun, the Moon and the Earth); and over all these, the Old Power, the Middle and the New. It all makes for a heady concoction, with a twist about a third of the way in.

Ayna, Gair and Ceri are the children of Gest of Islaw and Adara of Otmound, living in the earth mound of Garholt. Their lives are proceeding much as children’s do, some ups, some downs — but in the background there is trouble brewing, trouble that seems to have been exacerbated by an incident involving Orban, the brother of the children’s mother. When he was young he killed a young Dorig, but not before an awful curse involving the Old Power, the Middle and the New was laid on a golden collar or neck-ring, what we know as a torc.

Before even the children are born their future mother Adara can only be won by Gest achieving Three Impossible Tasks set by Adara’s father; these are solving riddles, obtaining a Dorig’s torc without killing him; and moving a massive boulder from a haunted mound to another mound. Folklorists, medievalists and lovers of fairytale will recognise these kinds of tasks set by prospective fathers-in-law keen to see off potential suitors. But it is the manner in which Gest completes them that ultimately has repercussions that threaten the lives of his children and his people.

To discuss more of the plot would give away too many spoilers so I will resort to discussion of incidentals that have particularly intrigued me. First is the author’s invention and use of names. These have a sufficient unfamiliarity to sound foreign to English-speaking readers while yet retaining a general Northern European feel. Indeed, some names reminded me of Celtic forenames (Ayna seems close to Irish Áine, for example, actually pronounced something like ‘Onyeh’, and Ceri, pronounced ‘Kerry’, is a common name for both girls and boys in Wales). Their father Gest (probably with a hard ‘g’ sound) puts me in mind of Lady Charlotte Guest who produced one of the first translations into English of the Welsh native tales called the Mabinogion; in fact one of those tales, Culhwch ac Olwen, is the epitome of tales of impossible tasks, this time with the suitor hoping to marry a giant’s daughter.

The choice of names for the mound dwellings in this novel are also revealing of the way Jones thought through the nomenclature for her fiction. For example, Beckhill means ’eminence by the stream’, Islaw incorporates hlaw, the Old English for a burial mound or barrow, and Garholt includes holt meaning a burrow for an otter or similar burrowing animal, all entirely appropriate for moorland interspersed with streams, scrubland and marsh.

There’s more. Considering the times the author lived in and her personal circumstances I find more clues embedded in the matrix. The author lived in Oxford until the mid-seventies, and the western end of the Berkshire Downs — the Lambourn Downs — is the chalky upland in the south of Oxfordshire, quite probably an area she knew well. This is doubtless why Oxford gets its mention here. Also, across central and southern England there are several examples of medieval moated sites, and for the Moat House in the novel the author may well have drawn on her knowledge of some of those in the area around Oxford (of which there are a few, such as Gaunt House at Standlake, some inhabited and others in ruins).

Gaunt House, Standlake, Oxfordshire (https://moneyweek.com/425725/properties-with-moats/)

In addition, the issue of deliberate flooding of the moor in Power of Three is one that was in the news in the sixties and seventies. The community of Capel Celyn in North Wales was devastated by the decision to build the Llyn Celyn reservoir to serve the people of Liverpool and the Wirral, and the flooded valley of the Tryweryn is commemorated by a constantly renewed slogan painted on a rock face south of Aberystwyth stating Cofiwch Dryweryn (‘Remember Tryweryn’). Such strong nationalist feeling in Wales was reignited with the militant burning of English holiday homes in the late seventies and eighties. All this pent-up anger and suspicion I’m convinced fed into a major strand of this novel, the mutual hostility between people, Dorig and Giants because of a proposed reservoir.

Schematic map of places in Power of Three

Yet underneath the themes of curses, enmity, magic, literary triads and so on beats a living human narrative. This is a tale of a child who doubts his worth, of sibling loyalty, of fear of disappointing one’s parents, of bullying and betrayal and of the menace of an unjust authority. This is a story of jaw-jaw rather than war-war, of talking peace rather than the blind cycle of vendetta, and of considered evolution instead of violent revolution. It also explores issues around feeling overweight, and about blindly following cultural precedents and social prejudices, for example.

While the solutions that conclude the novel might seem a little pat, even confusing, there is no doubt in my mind that Power of Three has a sense of organic growth, with beginning, burgeoning and end following one another in a constantly renewing cycle: this is a universal tale while still being rooted in a very English landscape.


A sympathetic discussion of this novel, by Kristen Meston is here.

This post ends my first ever participation in Wyrd and Wonder, an event dedicated to fantasy of all kinds and lasting all through the merry month of May

16 thoughts on “Good things come in threes

  1. What a great review. I love the line ‘but in the background there is trouble brewing’; that is so symptomatic of Diana Wynne Jones’ work. This was the first of her novels that I read, probably thirty or more years ago and I really must go back and read it again.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much, Ann, I’m really pleased you appreciated it. Where indeed would we be without trouble brewing in the background of a DWJ novel! What’s interesting here is that the inciting incident — the point in a plot where it all kicks off, as you’ll of course know — isn’t delayed till after much scene-setting and character introduction but is there at the start, like the opening pre-credit sequence to a James Bond movie. We don’t get to meet the three siblings till after this, quite bold for a children’s book at the time, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sandra — though I’d originally hoped to have got through one or two more titles this month than I have, I’ve nevertheless been pleased with my choice of works by what are effectively mainstream authors: Le Guin, Rowling, Moorcock, Jones and — a relative newcomer — Caldecott.

      Unusually for a children’s/YA book this particular piece has a rare amount of psychological subtlety, especially when many such offerings assume a clear divide between good and evil. Worth a look if you ever come across it!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. earthbalm

    ” A tricksy plot with an ending which has you rereading the last few pages wondering what has just happened (and how)” sums up Diana Wynne Jones perfectly. Great post again Chris.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hah! Thanks, Dale. Many of her endings are a little bit like Bilbo’s statement to fellow hobbits at his birthday party:
      “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
      As DWJ went to Tolkien’s lectures at Oxford she may well have absorbed an ambiguity lesson or two!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Good things come in threes — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  4. I found a lovely signed copy of this in a charity shop last year, and you have just reminded me I haven’t read it yet. I think that might be the perfect thing to do with my day off tomorrow. Thank you. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Mmmmm….anytime you talk about DWJ it’s like a cozy blanket hug with a cup of coffee in my blog-reading time. Love it! And her work with numbers is worth a fresh study for me, to boot, as it plays into that Beauty’s Price story of mine. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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