The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

13 September 2017

Like her Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock (1985), this tale does not rise to the level of effectiveness that the Chrestomanci series or Howl’s Moving Castle (1996) does. The characters are all interesting, and the plot cleverly arranged and effectively sustained, but there are… it is hard to describe… just too many words. The narrative, like Fire and Hemlock, would have been more effective if reduced about 30% in length. While Diana Wynne Jones’s concept of multiple parallel universes is fascinating, this is not the best example of her use of that narrative paradigm. Sacrilege thought it may be in the world of children’s literature to suggest such a thing, I would love to have seen these of Jones’s concepts in the hands of a more adept author.

Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

15 July 2017

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.

Snow White and the 77 Dwarves (2015), by Davide Cali and Raphaëlle Barbanègre

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.4.

Snow White and the 77 Dwarves

Illustrated by Raphaëlle Barbanègre

Cali - Snow White

The retelling of fairy tales for a modern readership has become a trend these days. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Donna Jo Napoli’s young adult novel retellings are spectacular, for example, and there are a number of new versions of Tam Lin (picture books and novels) that are even more engaging than the original, little-known tale. To some extent, though, the originals have a message that is still—or even more—valid than the newer, ideologically altered versions. This is the problem I have with Snow White and the 77 Dwarves. The modern twist to the story is that it is written with Snow White’s real situation in mind: imagine really having to cook and clean and care for 77 little men who have no manners and expect one to be their servant… Seventy-seven instead of seven, of course, hyperbolizes the degree of discomfort in Snow White’s life with her little men.

Snow White is harassed by the everyday repetitive work engaged in by many mothers; her wards are “kind, [but] also messy, rambunctious, naughty and VERY, VERY LOUD”; her house is a “zoo”; “It was all TOO MUCH.” So it is not surprising that in the end, she “decided to leave and take her chances with the witch.” She takes the poison apple not out of ignorance but with the intention of escaping her drudgery through a drug-induced “sleep” in the forest, “waiting to be woken by a kiss… [page turn] … oh, no, she’s NOT! Please DON’T WAKE ME UP. Thank you.” The end.

One, perhaps radical, interpretation of this story reveals the link between Snow White’s choice and the traumatic options taken by some mothers to escape their lives. Even the most liberal of interpretations, though, has problems. The “little men” (and by association child readers) are unquestionably being held responsible for their mothers’ anguish. The author is in essence blaming children for being exactly what children often are: messy, rambunctious, loud, and—yes—even naughty.

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997), by Robin McKinley

31 July 2015

Beauty (1978)

McKinley - Beauty

This is the story as it should be told, with all of the beauty and love and magic of the original fairy tale, brought to life by McKinley’s rich narrative. We learn to like Beauty and her difference from other girls, to identify with her as a character. She loves to read, is rather plain, and loves her family dearly. Her choices and those of her family make logical and emotional sense to the reader, which strengthens the magic of the tale. The Beast, too, we come to love as Beauty does. It is perhaps easier for us, as we know the story, and she doesn’t. But the saving grace of McKinley’s story is that the Beast is never beastly to Beauty; the story remains one of judging others for what they are inside. It does not have the insidious negative social message that the Disney version presents to us, of loving a man even when he is abusive. There is no domestic abuse in McKinley’s tale; Beauty is not beautiful; the Beast is under a wicked spell, but is a good man at heart.

Rose Daughter (1978)

McKinley - RoseMcKinley revisits her retelling of Beauty and the Beast, in what she considers to be the superior of the two. I agree with her book-borrowing fans, though, that this is not the case. Rose Daughter is too… well, just too. There is too much angst in the family at the outset, although this is more in keeping with the two selfish older sisters of the original tale, and after their financial fall, the girls becomes better friends, as is true in Beauty. What Rose Daughter is too, mostly, is overladen with allusion. We do not perceive in it the simplicity of the magic fairy tale world that Beauty presents us with; it is far more a medieval fantasy of sorcerers and social politics, of ways of magic that McKinley has instilled in her own text that do not have a source in fairy tale trope. And in the end, we are not given the satisfactory return to humanity for the Beast. Perhaps this message is powerful in one way—Beauty does not demand beauty of her spouse—but at the same time, it narratively untenable, for why would the magic-believing villagers welcome the Beast, in all his beastliness, as Beauty’s husband? McKinley posits an explanation, but it does not convince. I think the final shortcoming I need mention is that the balance is off. in Rose Daughter, we spend far too much time in Beauty’s mind, her experience, to get to know the Beast as we do in Beauty; nor is the magic personified, bringing both mystery and emotional solace to Beauty in her plight. The result is a longer, less gripping tale, definitely for older readers, but not more powerful for being more mature in nature.