Beating the Bounds

Physics building, Royal Fort House and Gardens, Bristol (photo: Ben Mills)

Even if your patience hasn’t worn too thin you may nevertheless be glad I’m planning to make this a last discussion post about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Homeward Bounders (1981).

If you’ve arrived new to the wider discussion, my review of the fantasy is here, some observations about the author’s intentions here, and possible links with another novel, Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, can be found here.

But (as usual) my thoughts may well be rather too eclectic, so I humbly apologise if my speculations prove a tad over-enthusiastic. If you’ve read the novel you may more easily follow my line of argument; if not then just enjoy the ride! (But beware, there are massive spoilers.)

Blaise Castle, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

First of all DWJ indulges in a bit of misdirection. Many of the characters at the start and finish of the novel have typically Scottish names: Jamie Hamilton, obviously, but also his brother Rob and sister Elsie. In addition there is the Macreadie family, and references to pink granite buildings.

But I rather think that DWJ is basing Jamie’s hometown on Bristol in England, where she moved to in 1976 and where she died in March 2011. What she calls the Old Fort, from where the soi-disant Masters of the Real and Ancient Game operate, seems to me to be a composite of two buildings. One is a Gothick folly called Blaise Castle — which got name-checked in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey — and the other is the University of Bristol’s Physics Building, adjacent to the Georgian mansion called Royal Fort House and its surrounding gardens. Like the Old Fort Bristol’s Blaise Castle is triangular, while the 1929 Tudor Gothic Physics Building sits by the Royal Fort gardens partly bounded by a red sandstone wall, similar to the Old Fort. ‘Real’ is explained as an old name for ‘royal’ — and of course that’s what it means in Spanish — but there are additional issues about whether whether the Old Fort is more ‘real’ than Jamie’s world.

The school Jamie attends is a lesser rival of the rather posh Queen Elizabeth Academy, which may have been suggested by the private school in Bristol called Queen Elizabeth Hospital where the scholars dressed in Tudor gowns. Finally, the author refers to a canal which is carried high above the town on arches; I rather think she was inspired by Bristol’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge but substituted an aqueduct structure to conceal the town’s identity.


Let me now talk about terminology. The novel uses words in distinctive ways from what one might expect. A bound has been defined as being “the limit or furthest point of extension of any one thing” but, here, bounds are forces that keep the Homeward Bounder in one world for a while, sometimes even called traverses. A boundary, which usually indicates a “mark indicating a dividing line”, in the novel turns out to be a portal to another world (think customs post) — something like a ring of posts, a clump of trees, a temple, a stone circle or even an anchor needs only to be entered or touched for the Bounder to be transported to a new world.

Now, Bounder. The phrase homeward bound was clearly an inspiration for the author (as Paul Simon was inspired for his song of the same name) and has a positive ring to it. But Homeward Bounders like Jamie have no real hope they will ever return home: the negative connotation of the archaic epithet bounder as a dishonorable cad originated in the belief that they somehow stood outside societal norms and expectations. In this latter sense the Games Masters’ outcasts, Their discards, are indeed bounders. But also the fact that they ‘bound’ from world to world via the novel’s Boundaries qualifies them as Bounders.

DWJ will also have known of the custom of Beating the Bounds, certainly from its observance in Oxford where she used to live as a student and for a while after her marriage. The ritual involves what’s described as a ‘formal perambulation’ around parish boundaries to reestablish their legal existence on Ascension Day (usually in May). Landmarks are beaten, signs chalked, and individuals may even be given ‘the bumps’ on parish boundary stones. I have no doubt that Jones would have been fully aware of the tradition of defining the limits of parish bounds.

Painting by Titian of Prometheus bound

Then there is the word ‘bound‘ as past participle of the verb ‘to bind’ which opens up a whole new set of associations. The image of the Titan known as Prometheus bound to a rock by chains, to have his liver pecked at by one or two birds of prey is one that Jones conjures up in the novel. Debbie Gascoyne emphasises that DWJ had made an in-depth study of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound long before she came to write The Homeward Bounders and that its influence can be seen throughout her novel with the theme of hope as a false promise (as here in the Epilogue):

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy power which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

Cleverer minds than mine — ones who have actually read Shelley’s verse drama — underline Shelley’s espousal of the concepts of free will and benevolence, of idealism and hope in opposition to oppressive powers. Instead of Hercules rescuing Prometheus from his chains, as was in the traditional narrative, Prometheus is unbound at last when Jupiter falls from power.

In Jones’s novel Prometheus is finally freed when Jamie has relinquished all hope that he will return to his own world at the time he left it, when he voluntarily choses to be a scapegoat so as to ensure the demonic powers-that-be no longer remain in absolute control.

There is only the vaguest suggestion that DWJ may also have had Shelley’s young wife Mary in mind, whose Frankenstein, you’ll recall, was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Victor Frankenstein is horrified at his Creature to whom he’d brought the spark of life; unloved and abandoned, the Creature wanders the earth like a Homeward Bounder, a titan of a figure, cheated of a companion, malevolently stalking the one who’d set down the rules for his existence. Whether ‘the modern Prometheus’ is Mary Shelley’s Creature or his Creator is uncertain, but one has not a little sympathy for the outcast discarded by Victor like an unwanted plaything.

Might we see in the frontispiece for the 1831 edition a hint that the Creature, depicted prone on the floor of Victor’s laboratory in the position the tortured Titan, is that Modern Prometheus?

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of ‘Frankenstein’

Then there is a notional boundary that Jamie has to pass: the interface between being 12-years-old and thirteen, from being a pre-teen to a teenager. When Jamie the youngster realises, on Sunday 13th July 1980, that after travelling though a hundred-odd worlds he has at last arrived Home a hundred-and-one years too late, he has an unwelcome epiphany: his biggest hope — that he will return Home in this infernal cosmic game — is completely dashed.


These are just a few of the many tropes that The Homeward Bounders includes, but I want to allude to just a few more literary memes and themes. I’ve noted that the novel can be seen as a retelling of Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet; there are indeed five ‘children’ (Jamie, Helen, Joris, plus Adam and his older sister Vanessa) but you may remember that Nesbit’s story mostly featured just four youngsters (Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane) plus the Psammead, with a scholar tagging along. If the older Konstam of Jones’s novel is the equivalent of Jimmy the scholar, who then corresponds to the grumpy sand fairy?

I believe that it’s Helen who corresponds to It (the Psammead): not only is she similarly cantankerous, it’s not always possible to see her eyes behind her veil of hair, while the very hairy Psammead had eyes on stalks. What Jamie calls her deformity, what in past times would’ve been called a withered arm, is concealed by her ability to transform it into an ordinary-looking limb and even into a weapon to attack the so-called Real Place of the Demons, perhaps akin to the special powers of It.

Helen belongs to a group of fictional protagonists who bear an injury, a wound or some visible difference, a sign that they have suffered in order to bring succour to their world. Harry Potter with his lightning scar, disfigured Hester in Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines, Will Parry’s lost fingers in The Subtle Knife, even Prometheus marred by eagles or vultures: they all bear a mark of Cain for some infringement of The Rules, whether that infringement is by them or by some other individual.

Nesbit’s novel and Shelley’s drama aren’t the only literary references, of course: the carnival in Chapter 6 features a white rabbit straight from Alice in Wonderland; the House of Uquar in Helen’s world of Spithicar (a compound of Sparta and Ithaca, I think) is, as I’ve proposed, an echo of the Worlds in Borges’ short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’; and I’m sure there are others that I’m not aware of but are embedded in the text.

* * * * *

I’ve tried your patience long enough. Maybe I’ve done enough to convince you that, if you haven’t yet read The Homeward Bounders, it does merit your closer perusal.

7 thoughts on “Beating the Bounds

    1. I’ve seen suggestions that this novel was one of the first stories, if not the very first, to treat with the notion of the multiverse (or, as she called it, Related Worlds). Whether that’s true or not I can’t help being reminded more of the later His Dark Materials than of fantasies like the Narniad or the Alice books. I think you’d enjoy this one, Ola!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You can never try my patience when it comes to reading DWJ! Beating the Bounds sounds oddly familiar to me–not that it’s a Midwest thing, but it sounds like something I learned from Terry Jones, one of his documentaries, maybe. I think it was Medieval Lives? He was talking to a villager, and I think they walked together “Beating the Bounds.” Oh! And wasn’t this a thing in Enchanted Glass, too? The two protagonists had to redefine their land, which inevitably shows the problems going on with all the dopplegangers and the…darnit…was it the Green Man? No. Darn, it’s been a while since I read that one. Maybe I can get Blondie to read that one, as it’s definitely one of her funnier tales…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And now I want to reread Enchanted Glass! I just checked (we had a conversation about it in my review post) and yes, I’d forgotten about Beating the Bounds there! The tradition is about establishing your own territory, I believe, and when we had an old farmhouse with nearly four acres of land we used to regularly walk around the field perimeter, partly for enjoyment (we had it as a wildflower meadow) and partly to ‘lay claim’ to it because of nasty former owners who had retained an adjacent field. (Not quite ‘the farmer and the cowman’ from Oklahoma! but you get the picture!)

      OK, I’ll make sure I bother you with more DWJ in the coming months!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay, more DWJ!!!! I’m thinking of reading one aloud to the kids since we’re, you know, stuck together for the next 3 weeks. Enchanted Glass would be a good one, but maybe Eight Days of Luke would be better…or I just dig Howl’s Moving Castle out because I love it xxxxxxx

        And your boundary thing reminds me of Bo grumbling how he wants to install fence posts around the yard to keep our neighbors from annexing the little hill by our house. Maybe we should beat our own bounds, lol!

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        1. Hah, as senior citizens over 70 we’ve been told to self-isolate for three months. That’s a lot of books! DWJ may feature… At least we’re in a tiny market town so we can get out for walks into the countryside. No bounds to be beaten though, but I think you all should! 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2020 – Book Jotter

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