Titian’s Prometheus (Prado, Madrid)

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Homeward Bounders
Illustrated by David Wyatt
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1981)

“Are you one? Do you call us Homeward Bounders too?”
“That is the name to all of us is given,” he said to me sadly.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought I’d made it up.”

Jamie Hamilton is twelve going on thirteen, living in a past which we can establish is 1879. But when, in exploring his town, he comes across a mysterious building where cloaked and hooded figures flit about his curiosity get the better of him and, by intruding on them, he becomes an outcast from the life with which he has grown familiar.

And it is all the doing of Them, as he soon terms those figures, games players who decide the fates of individuals, societies and worlds. As a ‘discard’ from the game They play he is forced to be both bystander and wanderer as he is thrown from one world to another without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

Words like bounds, unbound, boundary and bounders are key aspects of this unusual children’s fiction: what they signify are the artificial limits placed on one’s actions and imagination by an arbitrary authority. At one level it may seem to be a deeply pessimistic story but at another it celebrates looking and feeling different and even suggests an individual really does have choices when it comes to deciding the direction their future might take.

“There are no rules,” is iterated at least twice, “only principles and natural laws.” What this means is that it is legitimate to ignore any rules promulgated by an illegitimate authority; what matters is that individuals shouldn’t behave as if in a moral vacuum. It’s hard not to see The Homeward Bounders as an angry cry against a controlling impersonal power, whether that power is corporate, political or fundamentalist.

For Jamie finds that his world and many others are controlled by inhuman creatures (‘Demons’) who play war games with the lives and environments of humans: with computers and boards and dice they decide the fate of billions. As a so-called ‘random factor’ can Jamie start to change this intolerable situation? He is in a good position, for he is not the only ‘discard’: he gets to meet and team up with Helen and Joris, other Bounders like him, plus to understand he is like those others who seem to stand outside of time and history — the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus; the Flying Dutchman; and the Titan who calls himself Foresight, who is in fact Prometheus.

This is a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel in that there is a narrative drive constantly pushing forward, with quirky if imperfect characters; and yet it’s also charged with complex ideas and myriad influences. A couple of examples here with suffice. In the use of the term Uquar I sense the influence of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’: Uquar is not only reminiscent of the name Uqbar (a world with stone mirrors) but also “the history of the universe” which we’re told “is the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a demon.” Borges’ narrative of the alternative world of Uqbar gradually infiltrating another, with its mirrors and godlings and demons, has so much in common with Jones’s novel.

In addition, there are symbols galore in her fantasy, the principal one being the anchor-and-chain. This last is of course the Christian symbol of hope, or as is suggested here, “Hope is the forward-looking part of memory.” But the problem in the novel is that the Demons who play games with humanity’s fates use hope — for ordinary humans and random factors alike — as a “false promise” whilst knowing their promises will never be fulfilled. Yet when the tables are turned the Demons are “bound to hope” they themselves will survive. And here we have the return to the idea of binding and restricting: They‘re bound to hope; Prometheus is bound to the rock; Jamie and his fellow Bounders (“those who act beyond acceptable human behaviour”) engage in the old English tradition of Beating the Bounds, the frontiers that keep and define its inhabitants.

David Wyatt’s illustration of Joris wearing the Shen symbol

So what is there to counteract the anchor as a false promise? Jamie, Helen, Joris and their friends find some protection in a sigil which they call Shen. In David Wyatt’s illustrations this sign, with its pictographic appearance, is clearly derived from the simplified depiction of an anchor, with the curved flukes above the crosspiece of shank and stock instead of below.

But here’s the thing: Shen is actually the name of a Chinese pictogram, the meaning of which variously includes deity or nature spirit, even the human spirit. This fantasy seems to be presenting a narrative in which a way to combat coercive control is oppose it with the human spirit; but for that opposition to have some chance of success it must be energetic and above all persistent.

Is there a happy ending? Yes and no. Evil, whatever form it takes, is never entirely vanquished, so there is no final epic battle to round off the tale. But the ending involves the protagonist refusing to be a victim and making a choice to be what he is.

There is much more one could say about this complex fantasy but this is not primarily a novel of ideas. As recounted by Jamie himself we see everything through his eyes, and yet we don’t sense that he’s an unreliable narrator; instead we hear about his failings and failures as well as his strengths and successes. The other Homeward Bounders are equally individual and all, it turns out, have their part to play as the story rushes to its climax.

As I’ve found out, The Homeward Bounders repays rereading in order to give some of its complexities, not so apparent the first time around, a chance to reveal themselves in all their subtlety. But that doesn’t stop it being a gripping read on a first encounter.

As I’ve implied, there’s much more to explore and speculate about, but that will have to wait for another post. In the meantime this is a contribution towards March Magics, an annual celebration of the genius of both Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.

8 thoughts on “Unbound

  1. Great post, Chris. Homeward Bounders is one of my favorites. I’ll probably pick it up in a week or so. I read the Borges story, I don’t know, a year or so ago, and Uqbar rang a bit of a bell, but I didn’t think about this and a possible connection. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jean! As with many of my reviews and posts I’m floundering in the dark — not having access to an academic library — so I just throw these ideas out as possibilities. I’ve just today put up a further discussion of The Homeward Bounders with what is claimed to be my ‘final’ thoughts on it, but one should never say anything is final where books are concerned!


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