If you’re not already aware of the fact, We Be Reading is hosting the fourth annual DWJ March event, celebrating the fantastic fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones (who, sadly, died in March, 2011). Please stop by to check out the month’s readalongs, review posts, giveaways, and many other wonderful things.
After a grueling winter, I felt that I needed some humor in my life, so this month I decided to reread one of my favorite later books by DWJ, Year of the Griffin (Greenwillow, 2000). This is a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, which has many enthusiastic fans but which I personally find a bit grim. Happily, Year of the Griffin does not suffer from this problem, being a hilarious send-up of the “magical academy” trope, and very likely the only comic novel ever to be written about a female griffin who goes to college. I thought it would be especially fun to reaquaint myself with this unique protagonist in light of this year’s DWJ March theme, “The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ.”
Elda is the magically-produced griffin daughter of Wizard Derk, who formerly played the role of Dark Lord when his world was forced to host “pilgrim parties” sent from another, non-magical world for their fun and the tour company’s profit. Now, having rebelled and thrown out the intruders, Elda’s world is in disarray, and her mother has packed her off to the wizards’ university to get her out of the way. But the university is not in very good shape either, and having a giant magical griffin thrust upon it — along with several other new students who bring difficulties of various kinds — is quickly causing headaches for the faculty, who have better things to do with their time than actually teach.
It’s hard to make a griffin look anything other than menacing, and in the cover image of the US edition Elda appears rather fierce. (As to what on earth is happening there, I can’t explain — you will just have to read the book.) This is a bit misleading. Yes, she’s huge, strong, and dangerous, but she’s also a sweetheart. In the first chapter she develops a crush on one of her professors because he reminds her of her old teddy bear: “I want to pick him up and carry him about!” she cries. Jones somehow manages to make such absurd situations seem totally natural within the context of her created world, crowding in an astounding variety of elements familiar from fantasy literature, and affectionately poking fun at them. At the same time, she never loses sight of the emotional core of her story, which is about adolescents growing up and finding their way in life. That these two strands can co-exist and be intimately intertwined — as in the passage in which Elda becomes disillusioned of her crush — is highly characteristic of DWJ, and one of the delights of this particular book.
This is one of only two school stories by Jones, the other being Witch Week, and in many ways they are very different. The school cliques and unhappy misfits that populated the earlier book are absent in Year of the Griffin; Elda easily makes friends with a diverse group of fellow first-year students who support and encourage each other through their troubles in and out of school, in quite a heart-warming way. But the underlying theme is the same: the need for young people to discover and develop their own powers, for the betterment and healing of their world, in spite of the opposing forces of mediocrity and resistance to change. Even non-magical institutions of education would do well to heed this message.
In this book Jones reserves her sharpest satire for the faculty, particularly the University head who is obsessed with his research project of flying to the moon. His blindness to every other consideration, even as Elda and her friends keep trying to break through his ridiculously self-centered perspective with their talent and creativity, gives rise to many of the book’s funniest situations.
Rather than trying to describe these, I encourage you to pick up Year of the Griffin (preceding it with Dark Lord of Derkholm, if you want to get the backstory first). If you’re not smiling by the second page, I’ll eat my wizard’s hat.