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Archive for August, 2011

I just read and recommend this novella, anthologized in Unexpected Magic, to all Diana Wynne Jones fans out there. It has a bit of the flavor of Narnia and of E. Nesbit’s Bastable books (which influenced the Narnia series as well). The title character is charmingly brave and vulnerable–an especially good example of the affection and understanding with which DWJ writes about young boys.

According to the book’s end notes, ER was written in 1966 but was not published until 1995, making it about the earliest work of hers that I’m aware of. However, all her favorite themes are here: an alernate reality existing side by side with our own, children who are trying to read things right but keep getting them wrong, and at least one irredeemably horrible parent. I found the setting–a wide sandy estuary that made me think of Barton Cottage in the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee film version of Sense and Sensibility–particularly evocative. Plus causeways are just cool, especially when they don’t take you where you’re expecting to go.

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Back in Chapter One, if you recall, the Market Chipping gossips had the word on Wizard Howl, and the word was “Bluebeard.” So it’s not stretching the point in the least to say that Jones is calling attention to this character, one of the nastier pieces of work in all of fairy tale-dom.

In 100 words or less, here’s the story: the dashing yet sinister Bluebeard gives his young bride the run of his castle and goes off. There is only one door that she must not open. Egged on by her sisters, she opens it and finds it full of bones and blood. Worse, the key to that door starts drooling blood all over everything it touches. Bluebeard figures it out on his return and is about to add her to his collection, but she outsmarts him by sending for her brothers, who make short work of Bluebeard.

There are numberless good books about the archetypes, symbols, and metaphors in fairy tales, myths, and stories of all sorts. For exegesis of the Bluebeard story I particularly like Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who gives him an entire chapter in her book Women Who Run With The Wolves.” [Disclosure: I often find books by women about women to be either too strident or too New-Agey. Estes manages to be neither. Describing herself as “a middle-class mystic with delicate intestines [p. 25],” her down-to-earth sensibility reminds me a great deal of Diana Wynne Jones.]

Estes writes:

Bluebeard is one of the teaching tales which are important for women who are young, not necessarily in years, but in some part of their minds. It is a tale of psychic naivete, but also of powerfully breaching the injunction against ‘looking’ and finally cutting down and rendering the natural predator of the psyche. [65]

We meet that predator again and again, the pre-conscious inertial force of resistance and self-loathing in the core of our own souls. I’ve just spent nearly two months knocked out of commission by it. And writing, which for me is the one thing that will put the monster back to bed, is the hardest thing to do when it’s up and roaming around downstairs, hungry.

Significantly, Estes mentions that Bluebeard is “a failed magician.” [45] In his quest for power and domination he is like Icarus, who in his hubris soared too high and fell too hard. Bluebeard’s fate, unlike that of Icarus, is to be an outcast from redemption and wholeness, living in a “deep and inexplicable loneliness.” [45]

Those already familiar with Howl’s Moving Castle will see at once the similarity to Wizard Howl — and the difference.

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Please bear with me as I find my way back after yet another enormous derailment. When I left off, Sophie had just discovered the fire demon in the hearth at Howl’s castle. On getting acquainted, the two learned that both were in situations that constrained and limited their existence. The demon offered a bargain, and Sophie, businesswoman that she is, accepted the terms — although she was far from eager to do so.

Everything she had read showed the extreme danger of making a bargain with a demon. And there was no doubt that this one did look extraordinarily evil. Those long purple teeth. [45]

Sophie has always taken everything she reads quite seriously. On the other hand, being a person of goodwill, she knows better (at least as a general moral principle) than to take people — or demons — at face value. Besides which, she doesn’t feel she has a choice if she is ever to be free of the dreadful spell. She is in a difficult, dangerous, and vulnerable position.

What we have here is a girl of 18 who is more introverted and less worldly than many, her younger sisters included. She has gone from the security of home and school to this unprecedented and bizarre situation, the ultimate cause of which was the death of her father. It has only been a few weeks, six or so, since she lost the chief male presence in her life. This is a significant loss for a girl in her teens (or of any age, come to that).

Fanny understood the depth of that loss, and although she did not believe she could support them herself, she did her best to place the three girls in safe situations. By way of Mrs. Fairfax Martha has gone to live under the roof and protection of the Cesari’s, and Lettie has taken what would have been Martha’s place in Mrs. F’s cozy cottage in the bucolic serenity of the next valley over. You’d think Sophie would be safest of all right there in the family hat shop, but things went badly off the rails, as things are wont to do.

And now she finds herself in the headquarters of the neighborhood predator, Wizard Howl. She tells herself she’ll be all right since she’s old and unattractive. She really had no choice but to seek shelter in his castle. But as I may have said in an earlier post, it was still very brave of her. I mean, come on: the guy steals girls’ souls and eats their hearts!

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