The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.

Advertisements

The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

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.

Kingfisher (2016), by Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy is perhaps my favourite fantasy series of all times. Not sure if it quite beats Lord of the Rings, but if not it is awfully close. In my early teens, I waited and waited and waited for the next volume to come out… Imagine my surprise then, when Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher showed up in an advertisement for digital editions of fantasy novels. I thought it must be old, and I had just missed its existence until now, but when I got to the reference to cell phones, I had to check the publication date (as you can tell from other posts, I often don’t do that). 2016! So then I had to reassess my response to the text and I figured out what had been disturbing me about it.

In Kingfisher, McKillip shows us the threads of three main characters’ lives, and twists them ever closer together until the final moments, when readers—but not necessarily the players— are shown the answers they have been seeking.

Pierce Oliver is the younger son of a knight and a sorceress who fled the capitol—and her husband and elder son—while pregnant. Pierce has known no other life than cooking with his mother in their isolated home on Cape Mistbegotten. When he meets four knights who carry the shadows of the mythical creatures they were hunting, Pierce has inherited enough of her magic to see the shadows (but not enough to avoid being trapped later in a magical snare). We are immediately plunged into a fantasy world, but the information we are given is not expanded upon; we can merely store it away in isolation, waiting for the moment when it will become meaningful. (This is the first of two issues I had with the story: too many threads of narrative are presented separately to hold in mind before they are woven together into a coherent storyline. Or maybe that’s just me…)

Carrie, chef at the Kingfisher Inn a little to the south of Cape Mistbegotten, is troubled by secrets that no one will discuss. Her father spends his time chanting and roving, seemingly touched in the head by past trauma.

Something had happened. She was uncertain what; everything had changed before she was born. For all the vagueness in everyone’s eyes when she asked, the good fortune might have vanished a century before. Not even her father could come up with a coherent explanation, and he had been there, she knew. (Chapter 2)

Slowly—too slowly for this reader—Carrie begins to unravel the past that haunts the small community at Chimera Bay. That her father, Merle, is a shape-shifter, becoming a wolf and howling his sorrows into the night, only complicates her search for understanding.

Prince Daimon, “as the youngest of Arden’s five children, and illegitimate to boot, … enjoyed a certain amount of lax attention, an absence of scrutiny from his father as long as he did what the king asked” (Chapter 7). This gives Daimon the leisure to pursue his obsession with the captivating Vivien Ravensley—who seems to be both part of the life of the capitol city and yet not—and to resolve the issue of his heredity, partly grounded in his father’s pragmatic world (our world), partly in the mystical land of his mother.

The action of the novel revolves on the axis that is the Kingfisher Inn. Knights quest for a vessel that may or may not exist, that is sacred to the ruthless god Severn or to the life-giving river goddess Calluna in another interpretation of the myth, that can only be recognized by a worthy knight. Kingfisher is, of course, the legend of the Fisher King, but only loosely and far more tangled than the simple Arthurian legend (in any of its many versions). The journeys of “kitchen knight” Pierce (Perceval) and Carrie, daughter of a shape-shifter, and Daimon, heir of both Severn’s and Calluna’s realms, provide the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately fit together to form a whole. From a more prosaic perspective, the quest is a failure; for the reader who has seen the magic, a success. War between the two magical powers is averted, and Holy Grail is returned to its rightful place in the mystical procession. That none of the characters appear to understand how their several stories have led to the restoration of magical balance is a nice touch, I thought, and leaves the reader feeling far more satisfied than might otherwise be the case.

This resetting of legends in the modern world is not uncommon—Tam Lin, for example, is an often retold narrative—but McKillip cannot seem to temper her epic narrative voice, and that which makes reading her Riddle of Stars trilogy so powerfully immersive an experience jars against the inclusion of cell phones, of tuxedoes and chandeliers and mixed pepper aioli, of motorbikes and pickup trucks. Perhaps a deeper knowledge of the legend of the Fisher King would have helped my understanding as I travelled through the narrative, but I’m not sure that should be necessary.

What redeems Kingfisher from all negative consideration is McKillip’s unquestionable talent with characterization. The multitude of characters is balanced, each constructed perfectly to fulfill his or her narrative role. We feel always that we know exactly as much about each person as we should, and that anything else we need will be given us in due time. So in exactly the way the narrative structure is awkward, the characterization is superior. I might have been confused for the first half of the novel, but my interest in the people carried me through the confusion and strengthened my satisfaction in the end.

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

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.