Tue. June 5
The Tough Guide to Fantasy Family Life
The late Diana Wynne Jones struck every emotional key over almost forty years in children’s publishing. She wrote The Homeward Bounders, one of the bleakest books in the field of children’s fantasy, and Howl’s Moving Castle, one of the field’s fluffiest confections. She could take an inherently terrifying situation and make it hilarious, as when she filled a book about magical children in a witch-hunting world with flying mops and kookaburras (Witch Week, whose spirit can be summarized by the line, “My soul is being dragged to Uttar Pradesh! To utter destruction, I mean”). Or she could take a silly situation, like a lump of evil dough or a child named Cat who has nine lives, and make it believably nightmarish (Charmed Life).
One of her recurring themes was the need for a group of unhappy, unfriendly children to get over their mutual dislike and form a family, despite indifferent or actively harmful parenting. Jones herself was the product of the kind of fractured parenting which makes for great fairy tales, and she shows children working together, in families which aren’t “blended” so much as jammed together, without ever banging too strenuously on her theme or attempting to teach a lesson.
Although this theme surfaces in widely varied books, from the epic fantasy Cart and Cwidder to the more kitchen-sink Dogsbody–in which not only the children but the pets must learn to get along!–perhaps the most forgiving iteration comes in 1974′s The Ogre Downstairs.
This “ogre” is actually just a stepfather. His own sons, Malcolm and Douglas, have inherited his diffident and awkward demeanor, and his stepchildren, Johnny, Gwinny, and Caspar, view him as a brooding threat. The family sometimes tries to overcome its internal divisions but more often gives in to the impulse to blame one another. When a magical chemistry set enters the picture, suddenly the stepchildren can fly or turn invisible. At first the magic binds the stepchildren even closer, in opposition to the rest of the family. But when Malcolm and Caspar swap bodies, and Johnny’s experiments with invisibility seem to be reinforcing the darkest side of his personality, the kids find that they need one another—and the “ogre.” The ogre becomes an unexpected hero. His mordant sense of humor is revealed, and the reader can see how his better qualities were present all along, even though the kids couldn’t see them. The terrific scene in which the “ogre,” his kids, and his stepchildren use the Philosopher’s Stone to turn the ugliest metal objects in their house into gold forms a lightly-handled and endearing metaphor for the family’s own transformation through forgiveness and understanding.
Parents in Jones’s books tend to range from the merely distracted or egotistical (Clennen the singer/revolutionary in Cart and Cwidder) to the cruel and sad (Duffie from Dogsbody, who beats her cats). The “ogre” is actually one of her better fathers! But her books have a sense of perseverance, and a sense that the most unpleasant relative might turn out to be someone you need. She can show a child experiencing his first disillusionment with a parent, as in Power of Three when Gair realizes that his father is willing to lie in order to get out of an unpleasant task, but she can also show that same parent’s unshakable love for his son. Her kids are often scowling, self-conscious, full of inchoate anger—and then heroic, self-sacrificing, and willing to learn and grow.
Steven D. Greydanus wrote an essay on the theme of the broken home in contemporary kids’ fantasy movies, from Zathura to Up.
Diana Wynne Jones created stitched-together homes, patched up with mutual understanding, wiggy humor, and a little magic.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.