Master of mischief

Diana Wynne Jones:
Eight Days of Luke
Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)

Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.

Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.

After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.

I’m partial to fiction that not merely retells old myths and legends but also transposes them to modern times to give them an added relevance. It’s no real surprise to find that Diana Wynne Jones has taken the Norse pantheon and placed them in a suburban setting somewhere in the English West Midlands. When readers encounter Mr Chew on a Tuesday, Mr Wedding on a Wednesday, and Mr and Mrs Fry on a Friday they can hardly not notice something significant going on.

And in Luke we spot Loki, the trickster of the old northern traditions who, in some accounts, is associated with fire, creates mayhem amongst the goddesses and gods, is imprisoned underground and, because of serpents dropping their venom on him, writhes enough to shake the earth.

Nevertheless it takes David some time to work out Luke’s real identity, even when the boy says he comes from the tip of South America (the closet reference is to Tierra del Fuego, the ‘land of fire’) and reappears, like a genie from a bottle, every time David lights a match. He also fails to note connections between local placenames and myth: Wallsey as Valhalla, Thunderly Hill associated with Thor, Ashbury as the site of the ash tree Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

David is a typical protagonist from the author’s early novels, a boy who despite his inclinations puts himself out for others. For example, “The trouble was that David, particularly in the holidays, was so used to feeling guilty that he had come to ignore it whenever he could.” Later though, when with some younger kids, he “thought he would never again despise them, or anyone else, for being stupid” after they were able to achieve something he couldn’t.

Jones, like E Nesbit, was able to remember how she felt as a child, and in David (and his alter ego Luke) she imbued aspects of her own unusual childhood; she also drew on her son Colin — to whom the novel was dedicated, and who was 10 when Jones was writing the book — for David’s obsession with cricket. While David is an orphan with horrible relatives (his cousin Ronald Price, and Ronald’s parents Bernard and Dot) the only sympathetic character is Ronald’s wife Astrid; with her distinctly Scandinavian name (it may mean ‘fair goddess’) she becomes a surrogate older sister and, as an inveterate smoker, possibly a stand-in for Diana herself.

The notion of someone like Loki chained and tormented by creatures for his appropriation of fire is a theme Jones was to use again half a dozen years later in The Homeward Bounders, this time with Prometheus; the anchor symbol in the later novel is even prefigured by Thor’s hammer in the earlier. In both novels the young male protagonist was to release the god or demigod before taking on a responsibility which would have once been beyond his capacity.

It may seem that I’m endowing Eight Days of Luke with more seriousness than it warrants, but in truth it is quite light-hearted in places, with more inherent humour than I’ve indicated. Mean people get their come-uppance, divine personages display ambiguous morality, passers-by pass by — Jones observes them all with a shrewd eye alert to any hint of ridiculousness, much as any youngster subject to arbitrary adult power would attempt to reduce grown-ups to size. This renders her story properly subversive, a quality which will be appreciated by children of all ages.


A submission for March Magics, celebrating all things to do with Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, and for 2020’s Wales Readathon: Diana was half-Welsh, her father from Pontarddulais near Swansea, her mother from Yorkshire.

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18 thoughts on “Master of mischief

  1. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2020 – Book Jotter

    1. I’m assuming this confusion comes from Wagner: I read that he conflated Loki/Loke with Logi/Loge, therefore trickster with fire-God, in the Ring Cycle, a conflation that makes his character the equivalent of Prometheus who stole fire from heaven and was then subjected to a similar punishment by the gods. DWJ does refer to the murder of Baldr but only in passing: I rather think it suited her purposes to retain the late association of fire with her Loki.

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      1. That makes sense, I’m not very familiar with the Wagner version. And of course it would be easier to write him as an at least partly sympathetic character (which I guess he is?), if his crime is stealing fire.

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        1. I watched the Ring Cycle on a black & white TV many, many years ago, and only one opera, ‘Das Rheingold’ live in the theatre, so it’s all rather hazy to me now. But Wikipedia tells me this is so, and who am I to argue! Jones attended lectures by Tolkien when at Oxford, so she may have garnered the supposed connection from him.

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  2. It must have been great fun spotting all the mythological references when reading the book. I imagine though that it can be enjoyed just as much by someone who doesn’t know the story of Loki

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    1. Absolutely, Karen. And this is the virtue of writers like DWJ whose work can be enjoyed at several levels (or, if I’m not implying a hierarchy of imaginative ideas, in several areas): the child as emerging hero in an adult world, getting the better of an abusive household, a mystery to be solved or intuited, a cast of curious characters, negotiating the interface between the mundane and the mythological, and so on.

      The author is specific about identifying the Norse pantheon in the final reel (as it were) but leaves the reader to come to a realisation of the mythic substrata with plenty of clues around days of the week, homonyms, and associations like Thor’s hammer, or Odin’s ravens and single eye.

      By the way, Neil Gaiman was a fan of her writing but confessed that he wasn’t aware that American Gods may have unconsciously borrowed aspects of Eight Days of Luke, especially the reappearance of Norse gods in a country not in Scandinavia. Actually Hilda Lewis’s children’s novel The Ship that Flew preceded both: it also had the Norse gods reappear in a modern Britain, and that was back in 1939.

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        1. I’m reading a fascinating study about fantasy, medievalism and children’s literature under the influence of the Oxford ‘School’ of fantasy, Tolkien and Lewis and their successors under the curriculum they established, namely Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper and others. Maria Sachiko Cecire’s Re-Enchanted is dense but very insightful, especially with regard to the wider context as well the nature of fantasy in children’s experience.

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  3. What a fascinating post, Chris. I really like the sound of this book, and I love having a ‘key’ to unlock my reading. I seem to have had a significant gap in my youthful reading choices.

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    1. Thanks, Cath, glad it has intrigued you! Even before I’d finished it the first time the clues were evident: pity early US readers, their covers gave the game away with a picture of Thor in the background shouldering his hammer.

      Being one of the first handful of novels she wrote there are some curious attempts to convey swearing and, of course, one of the characters smokes (though she’s told at one stage it’s a disgusting habit) — so it feels only slightly dated without lessening its impact.

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        1. Sometimes it works, luckily! Kate Atknson’s Transcription had an enigmatic pink flamingo on the bluish cover whose significance didn’t become really obvious till near the end, and thus a good example of a design hinting at a plot point without giving it away.

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            1. The name of the protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, may well be a reference to Robert (‘Roddy’) Armstrong, the civil servant notorious for the Spycatcher trial in the 1980s when he was accused of issuing a ‘bent untruth’. I used to sing alongside him in the tenor section of an a capella group but, needless to say, never talked to him about it.

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