As above, so below

Horned deity, Gundestrup cauldron

Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins, 2000 (1975).

In Diana Wynne Jones’s novel Sirius – the name in Greek means ‘scorcher’ – is the so-called ‘luminary’ of Alpha Canis Majoris, the brightest star of the constellation Canis Major. Known as the Dog Star it’s the principal body in a binary star system, its companion being a white dwarf, a degraded star the size of Earth.

But in this tale Sirius and his fellow luminaries are akin to the gods of classical myth: more than mere personifications of stellar bodies they are tutelary spirits who guard or protect the entities they’re named after. With each jealous of their place in the celestial hierarchy all indulge in Byzantine diplomacy, calling each other Effulgency while firmly asserting what they see as their rights and privileges.

Sirius, however, is in trouble: accused of killing a fellow luminary after a loss of temper, and then losing an object called the Zoi, he is condemned to be incarnated as a puppy, on Earth, which is where the Zoi appears to have ended up. And more is to befall him: having been born in a dog’s body as one of a litter of mongrel puppies to a pedigree bitch he, together with his siblings, is destined to be placed in a sack and dumped in a river. His earthly sentence seems about to end just as soon as it has begun.

Orion the hunter (centre) accompanied by Canis Major

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”


What I get out of revisiting a book I once enjoyed is not just more of the same but also the sense of it not being exactly the same as I remembered it. So when I first enjoyed Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Dogsbody I thought that I’d got a handle on it and that my review essentially said all I’d wanted to say about it.

But a recent reread confirmed Herclitus’s dictum: this time Dogsbody was not the same book, largely because I was not the same man. What I’d comfortably taken, using the fantasy’s title as a clue, as effectively a retelling of the Cinderella story, plus a few additional mythic echoes, I now found was more complex and perhaps profounder than I’d suspected. But complex and profound though this may be there was still the same mischievous spark of humour that I remembered from before.

Fate takes a hand and Sirius’s death sentence is commuted to becoming the pet of one Kathleen O’Brien. She it is who is the Cinderella figure who is forced to act the part of a drudge in the Duffield family, having been taken in by her mother’s brother; her father is an Irish Nationalist who has been imprisoned as a terrorist in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and Kathleen has no one else but the Duffields to look after her. Having rescued Sirius, whom she calls Leo, Kathleen’s only consolation in her life as a dogsbody is the rapidly growing puppy which, naturally enough, causes the expected mayhem, therey eliciting the extreme displeasure of her uncle’s wife.

The plot, convoluted enough to be enjoyed for its twists and turns, pivots on whether Sirius is able to locate the mysterious Zoi in whatever form it takes, and in working out how and why and by whom he has been framed for the murder of a luminary. But as above, so below: this is also a touching human story, how the despised Kathleen loves and remains loyal to her pet through thick and thin, and how selfishness and prejudice test the patience and resilience of the innocent. Leavening the casual cruelty of some of the characters are whimsical sections, largely concerned with the brothers Basil and Robin Duffield, the Duffields’ three cats, and Sirius’s canine siblings which, surprisingly, have also survived their watery ordeal.

So, Dogsbody is a quest story as well as a Cinderella story (though the ‘rags to riches’ aspect doesn’t involve Kathleen achieving princess status). In addition I now see it as coloured by motifs from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, particularly the classical ‘Cupid and Psyche’ version that was first told in Metamorphosis or the Golden Ass by the Roman novelist Apuleius. Kathleen, abandoned with relatives in England and subjected to tribulations, is a kind of Psyche, and Sirius takes the role of Cupid who was reputed to take the shape of a winged serpent because Psyche was never supposed to see his true nature.

In fact, the more I think about Dogsbody the more classical references I see woven into the plot. Sirius, as tutelary spirit of a star, could be termed an animus, a Latin term with a variety of meanings including “breath, life, soul”; Psyche, the role Kathleen takes, is a Greek word meaning “soul”; the Zoi, for which Sirius quests, is related to the Greek zoë which means “life”. The root of Zoi leads me on to the Zodiac which is also alluded to in the novel: as well as being the Dog Star, Sirius is called Leo by Kathleen, who as a maiden is the equivalent of Virgo; when she loses her temper and smashes up Mrs Duffield’s pottery she is almost literally a Bull in a china shop; and the constellation of Orion too has a part to play in the role of a horned hunter as Arawn, the Welsh lord of the Underworld. Once the earnest literary detective starts the mythical clues seem endless, as the author herself implies when she has Kathleen reading bedtime stories like ‘Bluebeard’ aloud to a dog which, unbeknown to her, understands every word she says.

Myth was a source Diana Wynne Jones was to return to throughout her writing life: for example Eight Days of Luke drew from Norse myth in the 1970s, while three decades later The Game (2007) involved Greek deities and a concept called the mythosphere. But because as we all know the gods are like petulant children playing at grown-ups, her skill was to draw the reader into the human dramas she narrated, tragedies as well as comedies, blithely ignoring the convention that children’s fiction should be undemanding.

Note. Dogsbody shouldn’t be confused with Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (1944), a speculative novel set in North Wales during the Second World War though it’s, incidentally, well worth a read

Read for #MarchMagics, Kristen of @WeBeReading’s celebration of the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, and for Paula of @bookjotter’s #ReadingWalesMonth: Diana’s father was Welsh, and Dogsbody brings in Arawn from The Mabinogion as a named character in this fantasy.

23 thoughts on “As above, so below

  1. Pingback: Reading Wales 2023 – Book Jotter

    1. My pleasure, Paula! Sorry to bombard Dewithon with items – I’m focusing on a couple of Reading Ireland Month authors now but hope to return to a Welsh theme before the end of the month. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a coincidence that you started this with Canis major and Sirius. My mother’s been taking an online course on moons and I’ve been accompanying her to the terrace most evenings where whether or not we see anything else in our light-polluted area, the central formation of Orion and Sirius are ones we certainly see. Some faint glimpses of other stars in canis major sometimes.

    This sounds a wonderful read and I love books which reveal new depths each time one visits them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you can spot something where you are! We’re lucky in that the national park we’re in (Brecon Beacons) is a Dark Skies area; unlucky though that Wales is often cloudy! Still, on certain nights even in our small town the constellations and the Milky Way are often crystal clear.

      In North Pembrokeshire (another Dark Sky area where we used to live) we used to enjoy the Perseid meteor shower in August, and even on occasion the Leonids in November. Meanwhile, Dogsbody was a joy to revisit, and as good a Diana Wynne Jones novel as any to read for the first time!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Really interesting, and I totally get how you can respond so differently to a book because you’ve changed as a person. I may get to DWJ this month if I can fit it in, and I suspect my reading of her will be very different to how I found her in my 20s. But I hope to still love her!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: As above, so below – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  5. Several decades ago I chose “Dogsbody” to read with a class of 12-year-olds in NYC. They loved it.

    A couple of years ago now – pre-pandemic – I was at a memorial service and two of those students now I suppose middle-aged but still adolescents to me – just started to free associate on the memory of that book and that class.

    Getting sirius now with this from W.H. Auden:

    Under Sirius

    Yes, these are the dog days, Fortunatus:
    The heather lies limp and dead
    On the mountain, the baltering torrent
    Shrunk to a soodling thread;
    Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
    Vacant the scholar’s brain
    Under his great hat,
    Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
    A gush of table-chat.

    – W.H.Auden


    1. I’m glad DWJ’s target audience appreciated this novel, good to know! Great Auden piece which, by the way, I didnt know, Josie – thanks for the link which I’ll give my attention to presently!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Good one to pick for a reread, and for this final March Magics — it’s appealing on so many levels and I think a favorite for many. I’ve been reading the stories in Unexpected Magic, but I don’t think short stories are DWJ’s strength – I think I’ll have to dive into a longer work for a more satisfying farewell. But which one?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was glad for the excuse to revisit this, Lory, because as you say it appeals on several levels. I wonder if you, as I often do, find different images come to mind for the characters and the places they inhabit? I was imagining the action on Earth heading towards different compass points than I’d first envisaged years ago – very odd but not unusual.

      I’d vaguely thought I’d reread the novella-length ‘Everard’s Ride’ in Unexpected Magic for this last March Magics – I’ve been through it twice over the years and have come away puzzled each time, confused enough to not feel inclined to review it. If there’s an opportunity this month (touch and go I’m afraid) it might be third time lucky for me!


  7. Your comment about revisiting a book is a wise one, Chris. So much of our reaction to a story is affected by our own life experience isn’t it. Interpretations and emotional responses vary over time. This is a tempting review too. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dogsbody is well-liked by Jones’s fans but less well-known than the Howl’s Moving Castle series or her Chrestomanci books. I think you’d find it as interesting as any of her other fantasies, Anne, and certainly a story easily enjoyed by middle grade readers.

      And I find it curious that some people don’t ever revisit books they read, considering them as done and dusted when the final page is turned. I know it’s a valid stance in its own way but it’s never one I’ll understand.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I love reading about re-reads! It’s true that the person we are makes the book and who we are changes and so do our books. My last read through Iris Murdoch I was older or the same age as most of her main characters, which gave me a whole new perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, Iris Murdoch! I’ve got a copy of her A Fairly Honourable Defeat which Ann Rowe, a Murdoch academic, recommended to me but which I haven’t yet got around to! But yes, age does give perspective to what one read earlier in life, and of course experience…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, yes, I think I knew we had Anne as a mutual friend. You really would love Murdoch, her recurring themes, her explorations of myth and common characters … AFHD would be a good one for you, although The Green Knight would appeal, too!

        Liked by 1 person

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