A beautiful and terrible thing

J K Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger
Bloomsbury 2008 (2007)

Here is a set of Chinese boxes, fitting intricately one inside the other. As the title implies, a fifteenth-century bard called Beedle is said to have written them down in runes, subsequently translated by “the brightest witch of her age,” Hermione Granger. The translation is itself nested within Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, then bookended by Jo Rowling’s Introduction (the author added illustrations and additional footnotes) and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne’s missive about the Children’s High Level Group charity which supports over a quarter of a million vulnerable children in residential homes across Europe.

Bearing in mind the NGO’s compassionate aims it’s unsurprising that most of these five tales aren’t simply about fantasy or magic (though of course these are present); like many fairytales they are implicitly advocating charitable attitudes and ethical behaviour — in short, common humanity.

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Somewhere at the edge of Europe

Cretan-labyrinth

China Miéville The City and the City
Pan 2010 (2009)

Can cities really
co-exist in the same place?
Beware the frontier!

China Miéville’s preferred genre is ‘weird fiction’, and a sub-genre within that is urban fantasy. Kraken, for example, is set is a barely recognisable London, and the earlier The City and the City is set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, “somewhere at the edge of Europe”. Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t quite like Buda and Pest, or Istanbul spread between Europe and Asia Minor, though they do share that sense of liminality, of neither-nor. And the dividing line between the two isn’t as physically evident as, say, the Danube or the Bosphorus: individuals who stray across (let alone stare across) that metaphysical divide, who literally “breach” (particularly in so-called “cross-hatched” areas), are likely to fall foul of a shadowy force called Breach.

Into this knife-edge world strides the Besz police inspector Borlú, investigating the murder of an unknown young woman.

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Magic? It’s mostly ideas

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1502-1555). Fitzwilliam Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Sudden Wild Magic
Avon Books 1994 (1992)

Magic is mostly ideas — they’re the strongest thing there is!
— Gladys, X/2

The fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones are the epitome of wild magic, as other commentators have previously noted. You can guess what ‘wild magic’ is — uncontrolled flights of powerful fancy spiralling off in unexpected directions, or some such will-o’-the-wisp definition — and virtually every writing of this much missed author is replete with it. A novel entitled A Sudden Wild Magic is naturally going to include rather a lot of it.

The novel’s premise is easily summarised. A neighbouring universe has been harvesting ideas and inventions from our world without our knowledge — not such a fantastic notion these days — but has also been experimentally interfering with our lives, introducing global warming and epidemics for example to see how we cope with disasters on this scale. A UK-based group of magical guardians decide to infiltrate a crack team of female adepts, their mission being to disrupt this covert action conducted by male mages by introducing magical viruses; the novel switches back and forth from Earth to this parallel world as it follows the ups and downs of this team and those monitoring progress. Being a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy things are not always as they seem, however.

It’s almost pointless to outline the intricacies of the plot narrative in a straightforward review: there is so much going on, so many strands, such a varied cast, so many distinctive individuals. It’s a novel of its time, of course: issues current in the 1990s have assumed different perspectives a quarter of a century later — AIDS-HIV and global warming, for example — and we might baulk at their semi-humorous treatment both from a retrospective viewpoint and because they are matters warranting serious consideration. But it can be argued that humour used as a means of drawing attention to the misuse of power — from issues concerning exploitation and gender to technology used irresponsibly and child abuse — deserves its place in fiction.

Instead then of discussing the narrative’s twists and turns, I want here to indicate some of the ways the author’s own wild magic operates, how she takes ideas from here and there and allows them to follow their own courses.

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All you need is love

brain, old print
A disembodied brain (‘IT’) rules over Camazotz (the name is taken from the Mayan bat god)

Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time
Introduction by Julia Eccleshare
Puffin Modern Classics 2007 (1962)

Authors often say they write the books they would have liked to read, and it’s also often said that authors effectively write about themselves, as if in response to the classic writing dictum Write what you know! This seems to be the case with A Wrinkle in Time.

Meg Murry is the classic outsider at the beginning of this science fantasy; at school she is awkward and friendless, she considers herself a plain Jane, she finds lessons torture. As the author herself stated in an interview, “Who would’ve wanted to be like Meg? I made Meg good at math and bad at English, and I was good at English and bad at math. Otherwise, we were very much alike! Meg couldn’t keep her hair nice and she was not a beauty. She was a difficult child. She is a lot like me!” And what would Madeleine L’Engle have liked to read? It’s clear it’s books about what she came across in her twenties and what excited her as a result: Einstein, particle physics and quantum mechanics. What more natural thing than to combine the two subject areas — herself and science? And then not only dedicate her first children’s book to her father and father-in-law but also honour them by calling another key character Charles Wallace after their forenames?

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Return of the shadow

Still from Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

“[The] shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors. [It] can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities …” — Carl Jung (1963)

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
in The Earthsea Quartet, Puffin Books 1993

When I first read A Wizard of Earthsea (this is now my third read) I almost believed magic could exist, just as I had when I was a child. Le Guin’s words themselves wove a spell — it takes a special skill to make such art appear artless — and I could credit an adept affecting local weather, imagine I, shaman-like, could transform into a bird of prey, even converse with dragons … if they existed. Yet the magic that gripped me most was the terrifying moment when the newly apprenticed wizard conjured up a nameless shadow. Nameless, shadow — what else speaks to our most basic fears than something we can’t identify that manifests in our peripheral vision?

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A witch’s trial

The Uffington White Horse (as it appeared in 1892)

Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
Corgi 2012 (2004)

We’re all familiar with Alice going through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world, a world where she is able to look at things in a different way. Unexpectedly, Alice makes no attempt to find her own reflection: “The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one.” For a child who could make the observation “Curiouser and curiouser!” she is singularly incurious about her own reflection; perhaps she is not as prone to self-reflection as we have thought.

This is not the case however with the heroine of this Terry Pratchett novel when she finds that she has no mirror in which to check her appearance, for when she devises a way to observe herself without one she finds she has to indulge in self-reflection of a different kind. A Hat Full of Sky is the second of the Tiffany Aching novels, set on Discworld. We not only get to meet the Nac Mac Feegles, Granny Weatherwax and lesser witch Miss Tick all over again but also to encounter new characters, especially Miss Level and her neighbours. But really the focus is Tiffany herself, how she is growing into her powers and how she’s becoming more mature (although, to be sure, she has already shown herself to the equal of many adults in maturity).

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Final whispers from the mountain

The Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, with the sun setting in the west, from an old print

With this post I hope to complete my explorations of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain before finally returning to Dido Twite’s continuing adventures. If you’re new to Joan Aiken’s worlds this is one of the instalments in a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chases and which have now reached the sixth episode. If you’re new to this particular novel then here are my previous discussion posts:

1. A review.
2. Prominent themes in this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles.
3. The inhabitants of the part of Wales covered in this novel.
4. Visitors to this part of Wales.
5. The Arthurian influences in The Whispering Mountain.
6. The distinct geography of this part of Wales and how it differs from the topography of Wales in our world.

Now we come, finally, to the chronology of The Whispering Mountain. How does it fit in with the overall timeline of the Wolves Chronicles and how long does the story take to unfold? I’ve already alluded to these conundrums:

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