Once and Future

There and Back Again Lane, Clifton, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

Archer’s Goon
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1984).

Written and published during the Reagan-Thatcher years, when it felt as though some of the world at least was taking a dangerous lurch towards an confrontational and authoritarian triumphalism, Archer’s Goon explores some of that state of affairs in what presents merely as children’s fantasy.

It’s 1983, and the Sykes family find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy of squabbling siblings who plan to ‘farm’ the world; can Quentin Sykes, the father and a struggling author, stand up against the malevolent forces who besiege the family house and seek to use the power of the written word for nefarious purposes?

Or is the situation more complex than at first appears, and will the Sykes’ household of parents, son, daughter and student lodger each find they have a role to play, where their decisions and actions have unexpected consequences and their relationships be revealed as contrary to appearances?

Park Row, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

The scene is hardly set in an urban family home when the author throws in the inciting incident: a intimidating pinhead giant is sitting sprawled out in the Sykes kitchen and won’t leave until he’s given the “two thousand” due to a certain Archer. Known simply as the Goon because of his menacing persona the required payment turns out to be 2000 words from Quentin, due “every quarter day”, a task originally devised to deal with Quentin’s writer’s block which bad followed on a successful first novel. But Mr Sykes is adamant that he won’t replace the missing words with a new set, leading to the inevitable impasse.

It turns out that seven individuals, siblings all, are vying for total control of the world, having already farmed out among themselves various bits of city administration. It’s up to 13-year-old Howard, his younger sister Anthea (known as “Awful”), the mum Catriona and student Fifi (who must be a nod to the Fiona to whom the novel is dedicated) to discover how to resolve matters. And it’s urgent: the siblings have laid siege to No 10 Upper Park Road with music torture and continuous road excavations in an attempt to convince Quentin to yield up his 2000 words.

The rest of the plot is far too convoluted to briefly summarise, nor is it desirable to indicate how it may ultimately resolved; all we’re aware of is that it’s up to Howard, who dreams of designing spaceships, to investigate — with both help and obstacles from Archer’s Goon — and that the teenager is somehow key to all the mysteries.

There are two essential approaches to a Diana Wynne Jones novel: to go with the flow or to puzzle out the significances of what she presents, preferably in retrospect following a second or third reading. Here are some indications of the inspirations I think I’ve detected in this novel:

  • Much of the action takes place in a town not too dissimilar to Bristol, the author’s home town, clues coming from (for example) street names like Corn Street, Zed Alley, Woodland Terrace, and Park Row (disguised as Upper Park Street).
  • Hints as to the identities of the seven magical siblings come from the mention of sun, moon and star, and the link of Archer with Alpha Centauri, all suggesting astrological and zodiacal significances.
  • Time travel is a constant theme in the author’s novels (most obviously in titles like The Time of the Ghost and A Tale of Time City) and so it proves here.
  • Creative subjects, in the form of literature, music and the arts vie with science and technology, to the ultimate detriment of the latter, in philosophical terms at least.
  • Fairytale elements abound, principally seven siblings (with the youngest being special) as also absent parents, and hints of other fantasies (The Hobbit, Arthurian legends), with underground sequences hinting at mythology.
  • Finally, I should like to indicate how much words have an import beyond their superficial appearances, and that one should beware of McGuffins.

Above all, one should continuously refer back to the Author’s Note which holds clews to several of the strands in the novel: its ten points include helpful and memorable hints such as “Music does not always soothe the troubled breast,” “All power corrupts, but we need electricity,” and “One black eye deserves another.” And if you have problems envisaging the action, the inside and cover illustrations by Paul Hess for this edition may be of some benefit, unless you’ve already seen the BBC TV serialisation of the novel from 1992. I now look forward to a future third reading, if that’s any indication of how much fun is to be had here.

No 14 of my 15 Books of Summer

6 thoughts on “Once and Future

    1. I think this is one of her best! You really have a treat in store for when you do read it. Chris, you did a great job of bringing out its relevance and making it sound tempting to new readers without spoilers. Plus I always love your inside info on Bristol. Someday when I can travel again I really hope I can visit and do a DWJ tour.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think Lory’s probably right, Karen, though each DWJ I read I think of as one of the best at the time of reading it! And thanks, Lory, I did try hard not to give away crucial plot twists—though there will be spoilers in my follow-up post when I finally complete it. She does include a lot of Bristol locations and/or vibes in her later novels, and of course Essex and Oxford in her earlier work.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. You’re not the only one to miss the significance of a lot of her novels the first time round, fun though they are—I spotted the odd Bristol link for example a score of years ago but this time it was like watching a separate film with the same title because the images were all different and pieces fitted together in ways I didn’t recognise! A completely new experience, then, but if I was still somewhat bamboozled it was less so than before. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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