Witch Week: The Graveyard Book

As October turns to November, I hope you’re enjoying Witch Week as hosted by Lizzie Ross – she’s put together a wonderful array of posts on the theme of “Gothick.”

Today’s treat is a discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I was so happy to get to participate, along with Lizzie and two of my other favorite blogging friends, Chris of Calmgrove and Jean of Howling Frog Books. We had a long and fascinating discussion over Google Docs, which Lizzie has edited down for your reading pleasure.

In this dark time, Gaiman’s tales of life in the graveyard held a curious kind of reassurance for us. I hope you’ll read more about what we found there.


Witch Week: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

Please head over to Calmgrove for the annual celebration of Witch Week, cohosted by Lizzie Ross. I’m so glad these blogging friends have taken up this event, which I initiated in my first year of blogging. so the fun can continue!

The theme this year is “Villains,” and it makes me think of the line above (from the MGM movie of The Wizard of Oz). Spoken by Glinda to Dorothy after her house has crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, it confuses the girl — who was carried away by a cyclone and never meant to kill anybody.

But it points to an important fact of modern life: as we come unmoored from societal norms and constraints, as religion and conventional morality have less and less hold over humanity as a whole, we are challenged to look within and decide for ourselves whether we are on the side of good or evil, and what that means. We all carry our own “magic”; we all have the power to heal and bless, or wound and destroy, through our words, our impulses and desires, our very thoughts. We might want to deny that power, to say with Dorothy, “I’m not a witch at all!” — but we then run the risk of unacknowledged forces taking us over and using us without our knowledge.

Dorothy encounters parts of herself she didn’t know were there: her courage to pursue a goal, her compassion for the distress of others, her ability to break through illusions and reveal the truth. Though she never casts a spell, her quest becomes the focus that enables her friends to find their heart’s desire. That is the magic of the “good witch,” who is both fully herself and fully at the service of others.

Witches are also central to Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a comic mashup of various Shakespeare plays, whose exuberant silliness is underlaid by a formidable intelligence. (Just unraveling all the literary references could be a job for a graduate student.) Power is the theme again, with the malignant forces of Macbeth replaced by a more benign trio of Discworld witches — the crucial difference being that these “wyrd sisters” know that if they start to go down the road of controlling other human beings, they’re likely to end up…cackling.

It’s tempting to mess around with destiny when people are too foolish to see what’s best for them, though, and so when an evil Duke usurps the throne of Lancre by murdering the King, the witches become more involved than their own wisdom might advise. When missing heirs, ghosts, a troop of traveling players, and a storm to beat all storms converge, with DEATH himself waiting in the wings, there’s drama aplenty — and more laughs than your average Shakespearean bloodbath.

While Pratchett bedecks his witches with various occult trappings that poke fun at both ancient superstitions and modern New Age trends, they are also gloriously human, capable of being as vain, jealous, petty or misguided as any other mortal. But though not averse to inspiring some healthy respect in their countryfolk, they are not wicked. That persuasion is represented by the Duke and his horrible wife, who demonstrate the polarity of evil: emptiness of soul, and being over-full of oneself.

Between these extremes fall most of us regular people, who struggle to know ourselves and to forge healthy relationships with others, walking a tightrope between selfishness and loss of self. The hero of this story is, appropriately enough, the Fool — the overlooked, unknown, and misunderstood element, who must look into his own heart and take up what calls to be manifested there, the good that lies hidden amidst the confusion and deception of the world.

This is the moral aspect that makes Pratchett a serious writer, in spite of his skill at jokes and pratfalls. Without dictating, without prescribing, he wants to teach us something. And teaching through laughter, through the levity we gain by recognizing the wisdom hidden in foolishness, is maybe the best way of all.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones gives us a darker shade of comedy, verging on the macabre. Because of its more realistic setting, and its situation founded in the author’s own life, its horrors seem all too possible. There are funny parts, but also the underlying sadness that often goes with comedy (also touched on by Pratchett in his Fool’s tragic upbringing).

“There’s been an accident!” she thought. “Something’s wrong!” With these words, the story begins: an unnamed, disembodied person finds herself wandering the scenes of her former life, and has to try to figure out whether she is really a ghost, what happened to make her like this, and who she is, anyway. Slowly, along with her, we get to know the family of four sisters she’s sure she belongs to, daughters of the couple that runs School House in a big boys’ boarding school (this is the part that is uncannily similar to Jones’s own upbringing).

Among other things, this is a clever narrative device, that sidesteps the problem of exposition by making it a necessary part of the storytelling. Instead of clumsy sections where our hero thinks back on this or that incident in his life, or contemplates and inwardly describes a scene, we see things from the point of view of someone who, like the reader, is also looking for orientation and meaning amidst a jumble of impressions. The ghost’s sometimes erroneous conclusions add to the feeling of disorientation that is the fundamental mood of the novel.

We also get a detailed and thoughtful exploration of what it would be like to be a ghost: aware on levels that humans aren’t, yet frustratingly unable to get through to most of them or to affect the course of events without their help, and sometimes carried away helplessly by forces beyond her control.

Alternately amusing and terrifying, this point of view parallels that of a person who is trying to work through the disorientation caused by an abusive upbringing, especially abuse by a parent. And not very far beneath the comic antics of the four eccentric sisters is the confused rage of the child who has been neglected and hurt by the person who should have cared for her. The ghost’s very dislocation helps her to penetrate through some of her own illusions; as she sees herself from outside and witnesses her own blind, numb submission to a power of evil that the girls had unwittingly invoked, she gains the strength to wrest herself free and possess herself, at last.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch? Do you seek the knowledge that brings illumination and freedom, the self made whole? Or do you cling to the power that preserves the divided self, in a a state of domination and slavery?

In so many stories, so many situations of our lives, this question lies hidden. As you consider the theme of “villains,” you may find yourself contemplating it, as well.

Witch Week Day Three: In Search of the Round Table (Guest Post)

When I put out a call for bloggers interested in writing a post on an Arthurian topic, Laurie from Relevant Obscurity responded saying she’d be interested in looking into the lore of the Round Table. It sounded like a terrific idea, and so it proved to be — she came up with a wealth of fascinating information about history and legend that certainly makes me think about the this seemingly prosaic object in a different way. Enjoy!


In Search of the Round Table

by Laurie Welch

Several months ago I came across an article about a group of researchers in England who were researching the Round Table of King Arthur. They claimed the Table might not have been a table at all, but instead an amphitheater abandoned by the Romans in the city of Chester. Still round and with circular seating, but not a table.

What I found was the Round Table, like all of the stories of King Arthur and Camelot, has its origins in myth, magic, religion, literature and speculative history. It is described in many ways and has associations with such diverse people and events as Merlin, the Last Supper and the court of Charlemagne!

Round Table Basics

The Round Table is first mentioned by the 12th century chronicler Wace, in Roman de Brut, which asserts the round shape prevents quarrels among the knights so no one can proclaim himself more important than another. When compared to a square table, there is a ‘head’ and seating descending further in order of importance.

In Sir Thomas Malory’s 14th century, Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin conjures the Round Table to reflect the shape of the world and the diversity of its inhabitants. Many writers use a word like ‘democratic’ to describe the equality among the knights and how the round shape of the Table supports this Arthurian knightly value.

The Siege Perilous or Perilous Seat is the empty seat set aside for the most pure of knights or the one who discovers the Holy Grail.

The shape of the Table corresponds to traditional Christian imagery that Jesus and the Apostles sat a circular table at the Last Supper.

The seating capacity of the Round Table varies from 52 to 1600, depending on the source.

Archaeological Sources

Scattered throughout Britain are numerous sites called King Arthur’s Round Table. They appear as henges (Neolithic stone circles) and amphitheaters.

The town of Caerleon in Wales was once the site of a Roman fortress, but it is so well-known in Arthurian tales if Camelot existed some say this would be its capital. It is tantalizing to imagine King Arthur and the knights planning and feasting away in the grassy oval area known as King Arthur’s Round Table!

So here we see the earliest examples of the Round Table as outdoor round stone structures, or round areas natural to the landscape. Maybe the researchers are right?

Literary Sources

Irish tales describe Celtic warriors meeting in circles to prevent fights of primacy. Wace may have known of these stories, but he certainly would have been aware of the biographies of Charlemagne that mention his round table decorated with a map of Rome. Whatever the source, Wace makes it clear that Arthur was conscious of a need for parity among his nobles and knights to prevent conflict.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, Merlin creates the Round Table and gives it to Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father. At his death it is passed to Guenever’s father King Leodegrance, who gives it to Arthur at their marriage with a complimentary 150 knights. “I shall give him the Table Round, which Uther Pendragon gave me, and when it is complete, there is an hundred knights and fifty.” The fact that both of their fathers were in possession of the fabled table is an interesting twist. Is this a symbol of the legitimacy of the union of the two houses?

The poet Layamon in his early 13th century work, Brut, an adapted version of Wace’s work written in Middle English, describes a great quarrel among the knights at a Yuletide feast which led to the construction of an enormous round table to keep the peace among equals. It is intriguing to note in light of the large amount of knights mentioned in the sources, the Cornish carpenter who made this table made it transportable!

Literary accounts of the Round Table differ on its size according to which author is describing it. I am assuming, though perhaps wrongly, that the number 1600 is a way to say there are “a lot of knights.” But if the researchers are correct about the Round Table being an amphitheater, then this number has some basis in truth.

The Siege Perilous

 In each literary iteration of the Round Table, there is a special seat designated for an unnamed knight. The French poet, Robert de Boron, in a late 12th century work called, Didot-Perceval says Merlin reserves the seat for the knight who finds the Holy Grail and because the seat can tell who is in it, anyone else will be swallowed up by the earth. Other sources say Jesus designates the seat for Joseph of Arimathea when he is given charge of the Christian community at his death.

Legends have Merlin setting aside this seat for the one true and pure knight. In other stories, the seat is designated specifically first for Perceval, then later for Sir Galahad. All stories make it clear, however, that to sit in this seat without proper sanction, is fatal.

The Last Supper and the Holy Grail

In Robert de Boron’s other Arthurian tale, Merlin, written in the 1190s, Merlin creates the Round Table in imitation of the Last Supper and of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Grail table. At this table, there is seating for only 12 with an additional empty one to mark Judas’s seat.

The 13th century Old French, La Queste del Saint Graal, shows Merlin’s creation of the Round Table meaning more than that of a table. The Round Table refers to the knights themselves, the flesh and blood men in all their variety devoted to Arthur:

“The table is called the Round Table because it symbolizes rightfully the whole world. For you can also see that the knights come to that Table from every land where chivalry is practiced, be it Christian or pagan practice. And when God has granted them the right to be a companion of the Round Table, they consider themselves more honored than if they had conquered the whole world.”

The notion of Christians and non-Christians in brotherhood at this time is remarkable.

Finally, in the Didot-Perceval, a supernatural connection exists between the Round Table, the table where Jesus holds the Last Supper, and the table on which Joseph of Arimathea places the Holy Grail. Together they symbolize the Trinity.

Round Tables in History and Popular Culture

In the Middle Ages ‘Round Tables’ were events of entertainment produced throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur’s court, with those attending taking on the personae of the knights and ladies that made up the original Round Table nobility. The events mimicked the court of Camelot and featured dancing, jousting and feasting.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the classic and heroic values associated with the court at Camelot were seen as ideals for a boys’ organization. Called the Knights of King Arthur, the roundness of Arthur’s table reflected the ethics of equality and democracy made concrete.

In the present day, we keep alive the Round Table and its principles of democracy and dialogue when we have ‘round table discussions,’ with the understanding that each participant has the right to speak and will get equal time to present their point. We use this phrase and its concepts even if the actual table is not round, as in ‘round table talks.’


My post is by no means exhaustive. There are centuries’ worth of legends and stories of King Arthur, his knights and their exploits; over a millennium if you count the archaeological sites. And an almost equal amount of interpretation. It is certain there will always be new discoveries by researchers, archaeologists, historians and others who will whet our appetite on the location of Camelot, the many quests of Arthur and his knights and certainly in the mysteries of the Round Table.

As we go through Witch Week, please let me know in the comments below what other mentions and configurations of the Round Table you have found in your readings.


Historians locate King Arthur’s Round Table

Ashe, Geoffrey. King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.

Biddle, Martin. King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation. UK: The Boydell Press, 2000.

de Briel, Henri, and Manuel Herrmann. King Arthur’s Knights and the Myths of the Round Table: A New Approach to the French Lancelot in Prose. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1972.

How to Set Up a Knights of King Arthur for Boys, 1915

The literary works can be found online:

Robert Wace, Roman de Brut

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Layamon, Brut

Robert de Boron, Dido-Perceval and Merlin

Author unknown, La Queste del Saint Graal

In her blog bio, Laurie says, “I love old books, especially the classics of 19th and early 20th century Britain and the US…I live in Huntington Beach, California with my trusty canine companion, Jess. I love to ride along the Santa Ana River snapping photos of the waterbirds along the way and trail walk in the nearby mountains. I am a Sunday drive enthusiast, an old movies maven and a vegan gastronome reveling in the diverse cuisines of Southern California.”

Witch Week 2016: Master Post and Linkup

…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen… —from Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

WITCH WEEK 2016-200

Welcome to the third annual Witch Week, an opportunity to celebrate our favorite fantasy books and authors. This year we’re focusing on the theme Made in America, and I hope you might feel inspired to join in by linking up your own posts about books set in the USA.

Or you may wish to join in the readalong of Something Wicked This Way Comes; or enter one of two fabulous giveaways; or enjoy some of the other reviews and interviews during the week. Here’s what I have planned:

Monday, October 31: An Introduction to American Gods (guest post by Kristen of We Be Reading)

Tuesday, November 1: Top Ten Reasons to Read Shirley Jackson (guest post by Jenny of Reading the End)

Wednesday, November 2: Giveaway Day – includes a US giveaway of Roses and Rot, an international ebook giveaway, and more

Thursday, November 3: An Appreciation of Oz (guest post by Deb of The Book Stop)

Friday, November 4: Author Interview with Kat Howard, author of Roses and Rot (guest post by Maureen of By Singing Light)

Saturday, November 5: Readalong of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (discussion with Chris of Calmgrove and Brian of Babbling Books)

Sunday, November 6: Wrap-up and 2017 Preview

Please use the linky below for your own posts; I can’t wait to see what you all have been reading! (You can also leave a comment or send an email to lory [at] emeraldcitybookreview [dot] com.) However you participate, I hope you enjoy the week as much as I have putting it together. Let the celebration begin!

Witch Week Summary, Giveaway Winner, and 2015 Preview

It’s the final day of Witch Week at the Emerald City Book Review, and I’d like to say a giant THANK YOU to everyone who participated, first and foremost our five guest bloggers: Ana, Kristen, Jenny, Cheryl, and Chris. Your contributions were a daily joy! For easy reference, here they are again:

Thanks to all who commented on these, and on the readalong post for the book Witch Week. If you didn’t have a chance to read that book yet, it’s never too late! Feel free to come back to share your thoughts at any time.

I’d also like to thank Leeswammes and the Literary Blog Hop (fortuitously scheduled during this week) for bringing many readers from all over the world to ECBR, and Tor Books, which generously contributed a copy of Deep Secret for the Witch Week giveaway.

And how about that giveaway? Jean L. won the $10 Powell’s gift certificate, the DWJ zine, and the copy of Deep Secret. Congratulations, Jean! Though the Witch Week giveaway is over, be sure to check out ghostgrrrl for a great opportunity to snag two mini-zines on “Five Diana Wynne Jones Books,” open through November 15.

I’ve gathered a few posts that were linked or sent to me below. You can still use the linky on the Master Post to add yours; I’ll keep it open for at least another month. You can also leave a comment or email me at withawhy99 [at] gmail [dot] com. I’ll keep on gathering posts here as long as anyone bothers to send them to me.


Finally, I’m already planning next year’s Witch Week! The theme will be New Tales from Old (books based on folktales, myths, and traditional stories) and the featured book for Halloween will be Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. It’s set at a fictionalized version of my alma mater, Carleton College, which makes it extra fun for me — but it’s a great read for everyone. I’d also like to include another book by Diana Wynne Jones, Eight Days of Luke, which plays on the origin of our days of the week in Norse mythology.

Other than that, I’m open to suggestions. What content would you like to see? Are you interested in contributing a guest post, giveaway, or anything else? Do you have feedback about this year’s event? Again, comment or email me to let me know.

Thank you all for being a part of the first Witch Week. I hope you’ll be back next year, and that you’ll stay connected in the coming months too. I’d love to share my reading journey with you.


Witch Week Day Six: Readalong of Witch Week

Diana Wynne Jones readalong
UK paperback, Mammoth

We’ve arrived at the fifth of November, known as Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night in the UK, and the last day of Witch Week according to the book of that title by Diana Wynne Jones — which, appropriately, has been our readalong selection for this event. This being the first time I’ve hosted anything like this, I’m curious to find out whether anybody else has actually been reading along! Did you read Witch Week for the first, or fifth, or twentieth time? What were your impressions, whether this is a new book for you, or an old friend? Did you have favorite scenes or characters, or were there perhaps aspects of the book that disturbed or puzzled you? If you were rereading, how has your experience of the book changed over time? Please comment below. . . and readers, be aware that spoilers are not prohibited from here on out.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Witch Week, but at least one of them was to a rapt audience of fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I know that when I first read it I was much closer to my own school experience, which in many ways paralleled that of Nan Pilgrim in the book. Like her, I was pudgy, hopeless in gym, disdained and sometimes tortured by the popular kids, and given to describing things. Thus I sympathized with Nan even as I laughed at her predicaments, such as when she thought she was climbing the rope in gym class when actually she was just making hopeful motions with her eyes closed, or when she vividly described the horrible school food while sitting next to the principal. I felt her delight when she found that she did have a talent, even if it was for forbidden witchcraft, and her vindication when she was able to transform that talent and the whole world along with it, through the creative power of storytelling.

But there is more to the book than the parts that resonate with me personally, and when I re-read it this time the darker elements came more to the fore. Witch Week, which was originally published in 1982, created a magical dystopia before it was fashionable to do so, and I think that current writers in the genre could learn much from its construction. Its depiction of a world like our own, with one important difference — witchcraft is both common and punishable by death — is subtly horrific, forming a weighty counterpoint to the comic scenes. These play upon themes we all know from our school days, like useless journal-writing exercises and teachers who think their private affairs are invisible to their students. But these schoolkids are not just threatened with being sent to detention or even being menaced by bullies; they are in serious danger of losing their lives.

bonfire night fireworks
An oddly appropriate Guy Fawkes scene (Historical Society)

Witch Week is in many ways the “anti-Harry Potter,” as Emma Jane Falconer astutely describes it in her DWJ zine, and its portrayal of evil is far more nuanced and real than the cartoon villainy of Voldemort — perhaps coming too close to home for some readers. Maybe that’s why when I looked for some other reviews, I found many that called it unpleasant and depressing. This is partly due to the fact that Charles Morgan, the second main child character in the book, is in danger of losing not just his life but his very soul as he turns toward the darker side of magic. I think that readers who are merely repelled by him are missing the point, though. A society that generates fear and hatred, and suppresses the creative human spirit, will ultimately destroy itself. Charles is a victim of that society, and his ultimate self-transformation is as important as Nan’s, though less obvious — it may be that some readers miss it altogether, in the rush of the story’s conclusion.

For me, rereading Witch Week was a delight as usual. I remain impressed by Diana Wynne Jones’s ability to create a story with so many different layers, combining farce and tragedy in a way I believe to be quite rare. Plus I still adore Nan, and cheer for her as she finally gets to ride (awkwardly) on a splendidly eccentric broomstick. Her triumph enriches all of us.

(If I haven’t mentioned that DWJ’s well-known recurring character Chrestomanci comes into the story, perhaps it’s because I find him more peripheral than in the other novels in which he appears. He plays a decidedly supporting role, even though it’s essential to the plot. If this is your first Chrestomanci book and you are a bit baffled by him, do seek out the others. It will all make sense, I promise.)

But enough from me! What are your thoughts? Please share them below, and remember that you can also link up your own reviews at the master post. Plus, don’t neglect to enter the giveaway before midnight tonight for a chance to win the above-mentioned DWJ zine! Tomorrow, a summary and preview of next year.

Witch Week Day Five: Deep Secret (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
UK Hardcover, Gollancz

Throughout this week, we’ve been considering how the power of storytelling in all its forms — folklore, myths, ballads, fairy tales — underlies and informs the writing of Diana Wynne Jones. Today’s book, Deep Secret (1997), is centered around perhaps the most profound and fundamental form of word-magic there is: the nursery rhyme. 

In spite or perhaps because of this, it’s also one of DWJ’s ventures into more “adult” territory, with a hilarious and madcap (but ultimately serious) plot mostly set at a SFF convention, with all its attendant excesses. A bowdlerized version was published for the YA market, but be sure to get your hands on the original — it’s fortunately being brought back into print by Tor Books this December, and you can enter to win a copy in the Witch Week giveaway!

For our final guest post, I was pleased that a blogger with many fascinating insights into fantasy literature agreed to take on Deep Secret, with a particular eye for the secrets hidden in its geographical setting. Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.” Welcome, Chris!

 Patterns and Self-Portraits

I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since [1976]. All my other books [after the first nine, plus three plays] have been written here. [… ] Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. –Diana Wynne Jones, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Greenwillow, 2012)

I used to live in Bristol. Ironically I had to move away before I became aware of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing but now, apart from her plays, books for younger children and a couple of short story anthologies, I have read all her other works save Changeover and A Sudden Wild Magic. And yet I still continue to be astounded by her writings, especially how she includes — magpie-fashion — all manner of curious things in the nest of her plotlines, and how she ruthlessly includes so much of her own life in her fiction. Including, in Deep Secret, a snapshot of her adopted town.

First things first. Deep Secret is predicated on patterns. These include the sign for infinity, like a figure 8 laid on its side or a Moebius strip, which stands as a model of the Magid Universe that Jones has conceived for this novel. The more on the Ayewards side worlds are found the more magic infuses them, the more Naywards they are (as Earth is) the less magic. Straddling the waist of the infinity sign is the Empire of Koryfos, which is where one of the many secrets in this complex novel rests.

key pattern Hephaestus
Greek Key pattern on a relief (source: Wikimedia)

Another key pattern in Deep Secret is just that, a key. Specifically, a Greek key. This is essentially a line which spirals in on itself by turning a series of right angles one way, and then at or near the centre reverses direction, spiralling out by another series of right angles. In its simplest form this is called a meander pattern, its more complex variations developing into one-way mazes or even multicursal labyrinths. The Greek key manifests itself in a hotel in which a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention is being held, but there is a sense that the whole plotline is also in the form of a Greek key.

I said that Diana wrote herself and her life into her books. In Deep Secret three Earth-born brothers — Will, Simon and Rupert Venables — belong to the so-called Company of Magids, a group that oversees the functioning of all the worlds Ayewards and Naywards. It can’t be coincidence that Diana herself had three sons — Richard, Michael and Colin — who took a keen interest in her fiction; indeed, Colin’s radio talk after his mother’s death particularly mentions the “fusion of the completely ordinary and the completely magical” as typical of her way of writing, so it is hard not to imagine her including her own offspring in the novel. Colin had already appeared as a “chilly public schoolboy called Sebastian who likes The Doors and photography” so it’s not unlikely that Rupert Venables, a games designer who lives in Weaver’s End near Cambridge, is partly modelled on this same Colin Burrow, former Senior Lecturer at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Diana Wynne Jones home
The Polygon (source: Geograph)

Both patterns and personal details come together in the chapters describing a meandering car chase through Bristol, with Rupert attempting to follow possible apprentice Magid Maree and her cousin Nick. This starts off at a “tall, smartly painted Regency house” (which is a close description of Diana’s former Bristol home in The Polygon, Clifton) and then proceeds past the Zoo and some “green parkland” (part of a large public open space called The Downs), the suburbs of Westbury-on-Trym and Redland, more Regency terraces (Clifton again), “pink Gothic towers” (either Clifton College or the University Tower), “modern office blocks” (the City Centre) and “cobbled alleys” (the area around Queen Square. So far this has been described as “every part north of the harbour,” but then we come to “Brunel’s iron ship” (the Great Western) and a bit of the suburb of Bedminster (what Maree’s cousin Nick nicknames Biflumenia, because of the “two rivers” of the Avon and a bypass canal called the New Cut). There is a brief appearance of a motorway spur, out of sequence here I believe, before we find ourselves back the other side of Bedminster going up Rownham Hill, crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge and returning virtually to where we started.

With a road map of Bristol it’s possible to trace out the route taken with reasonable accuracy, and this turns out to be . . . the rough shape of an infinity symbol. More numinous is the fictional Midlands town of Wantchester, where the SF convention takes place and where a particularly strong node exists for magic to enter and exit through. There is no such place as Wantchester, but there is the similarly named town of Winchester in southern England. The first element of Winchester is the Latin venta, meaning something like “market town,” and it’s clear that Diana is thinking of Wantchester as such a town with ancient roots, Roman or earlier; in fact the hotel is situated at one end of Market Square. My guess is that Wantchester is a fusion of all the English market towns hosting SFF conventions that Diana went to, with their generic labyrinth of streets, one-way systems, Cathedral, shopping precinct, Town Hall, river and bus station; there’s something in Diana’s descriptions that suggests that geeky unorthodox SFF conventions were a bit like a benign alien invasion in sleepy staid Middle England, and that Wantchester’s Hotel Babylon, with its confusing Greek key-like corridors, was a paradigm for all those soulless hotels that host such conventions, sumps for the human soul.

Greek centaur fresco
Chiron instructing Achilles (Wikipedia)

The joke is that it’s possible to hide your secret in the open — in nursery rhymes, for example — because there it will usually be disregarded as being mundane and ordinary. I can only scratch the surface of Deep Secret‘s own open secrets, but I hope to have revealed enough to encourage the reader to enjoy this inventive novel for its ideas as well as its narrative. There are so many themes and concepts fizzing and popping here, as references to Achilles’s teacher, Edith Nesbit’s husband, Oscar Wilde’s lover and the author of the Alice books all testify. The whole is a kind of labyrinth, where rounding a corner can reveal either illumination or shadow.

The last comment I want to make concerns the novel’s unwilling heroine, Maree. So many clues abound as to the significance of her role — Rupert’s hamlet named for a weaver, his own weaving of fatelines in a ceremony, Maree’s constant appearance leading the way — that it’s clear that she is a kind of Ariadne character (compare the character Ariadne in the film Inception) to accompany a Theseus — Rupert — in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, providing the clew of thread to lead him out of predicament.

And who is this character Maree based on? All the evidence points to . . . Diana herself. In the descriptions of Maree it is possible to discern a very faint, hazy self-portrait.

Chris, thank you for your inimitable way of pointing out the hidden secrets in our midst. Tomorrow, I hope all Witch Week readers will be back for a readalong of the book this event is named in honor of, Witch Week itself. Please join us!

Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post 


Witch Week Day Four: The Spellcoats (Guest Post)

UK Paperback, Mammoth

Diana Wynne Jones did not often write “series” books, and nor did she write many in a first person voice. But she did both with The Spellcoats (1979), third of the linked sequence of four books set in the vaguely Netherlandish land of Dalemark.  As is typical of DWJ, this series doesn’t always proceed in the way you might expect, and the first-person narrative originates in a most unusual way. Tanaqui is not just telling but weaving her story, literally making a garment of words. In so doing she both reveals and transforms the meaning of her own journey, bringing home to us once more the creative power of language.

So it’s appropriate that as a storyteller herself, Cheryl Mahoney is our guest blogger today. As well as being a book blogger at Tales of the Marvelous, Cheryl is the author of two books based on fairy tales. The Wanderers, published in 2013, follows the journeys of a wandering adventurer, a talking cat and a witch’s daughter.  Her new novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, retells “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,” with twelve trapped princesses who decided to take control of their
story. Welcome, Cheryl!

When Lory emailed me about her Witch Week celebration of Diana Wynne Jones, I was happy to participate — especially since one of the books under discussion was The Spellcoats. Lory and I both agree it’s our favorite book in Jones’s Dalemark Quartet!

It’s possible that The Spellcoats is the first Jones book I ever read. Funnily enough, the other contender for the title is Witch Week. I read both of them when I was a kid, without realizing that either was part of a bigger series, and probably without connecting them to each other as coming from the same author.  This happens when you do a lot of reading by browsing library shelves. . .

It’s also easy to not realize that The Spellcoats is part of a quartet.  Of the four books, it’s by far the most independent.  It’s set centuries (maybe millennia) prior to the first two books in the series, and connects only in an epilogue (until the fourth book ties things together more).

The Spellcoats places us in a pre-industrial society, beginning in a small fishing village along the Great River. Our narrator is Tanaqui, a young woman who is a highly skilled weaver. When invaders from across the sea plunge the country into war, Tanaqui and her siblings flee down the river, in danger from their own people because of their resemblance to the invaders. At the mouth of the river they meet the true enemy, a powerful magician intent on stealing souls. Tanaqui must learn about her family’s past and her own magic to save her family and country. And all the while, she weaves her story into two spellcoats.

Like many of Jones’s books, this is a coming of age story, of a young person figuring out her role in much larger events. She can be slow to grasp things and makes mistakes, but she’s courageous and loyal too. I like Tanaqui, her prickliness and her fierce desire to do something meaningful, her occasional blindness and resulting self-reproach, and her love of the Great River. And maybe I just like her because, in her weaving, she’s a storyteller!

Arachne weaving (source: Artes magazine)

Jones had a gift for oh-so-human characters, with faults and foibles, who are still likeable and sympathetic. Here we get a family that exemplifies that ability, quarreling all along the river, often impatient with each other, but tied together with loyalty and love too. In a way that’s more meaningful than a picture-perfect family. Anyone can love perfect people, but loving someone even while you’re irritated with them means more — and is more realistic too! Tanaqui fights with her brothers and wants to shake her sister, but they all still love each other and support one another.

The Spellcoats has my favorite villain of the Dalemark Quartet too, an evil magician who is decidedly creepy. He’s a villain who’s not quite human — but is close enough to make it even more disturbing.  He’s a stealer of souls, which always creates a deep-down-shiver type of villain. I also love that he’s a weaver too, with that parallel to Tanaqui’s abilities.

I’ve read The Spellcoats several times now, both as part of the quartet and on its own. And you know the nice thing about a book that’s almost completely separate from the rest of its quartet? You can read it first if it sounds intriguing!

Thank you, Cheryl, for helping us enter into Tanaqui’s world. Tomorrow, our final guest post will look at Deep Secret, which partly takes place in DWJ’s longtime home city, Bristol. Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post