June 14, 2006

Chrestomanci vs. Harry Potter

At the library the other day I noticed a dozen newly-released paperback editions of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci and Dalemark series, clearly an attempt to leverage the Harry Potter phenomenon. Well, if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes. Gift horses in the mouth, and that kind of thing.

The first book in the Chrestomanci series, Charmed Life, was published about the time I became too sophisticated for young adult literature, a problem that has since been remedied by age. But age also has the benefit of allowing one to experience authors I'm pretty sure I read Back Then as if for the first time. (See: Red Dwarf, when the AI unit has Lister erase its memory so it can re-read all the Agatha Christie novels.)

My reaction: amazement. Several times I found myself stopping to flip back to the title page to check the original copyright date. Yep, 1977. Because I kept thinking, she borrowed this from Rowling, right? And that? And this bit here? That one, there? But, no, excepting the possibility of time travel, the other way around, more likely.

I'm not talking about plagiarism. Other than the common elements of the "family romance," there is little resemblance in plot or character (although Chrestomanci himself is routinely referred to as "he whose name should not be spoken," by those who are terrified by its mere mention).

I would make the following comparison: an entire arm of the publishing industry (legal and samizdat) is devoted to the third-party exploration of copyrighted universes, expansions upon existing characters and settings that are, frankly, often better than the original. Dave Wolverton's Star Wars novels, for example. In Japan, there's the whole doujinshi movement.

Nothing even that specific, in this case; rather, a "sense of the world" which makes Jones's and Rowling's universes seem so similar. Call it convergent evolution: establish the same environmental variables, the same shaping narrative, and you end up with remarkably similar creatures at the end of the biological tree.

But this is somewhat besides the point I'm getting to (to quote Monty Python: "Let's not bicker and argue about who killed who"). The question is, why Rowling and not the far more talented Jones? Now, to be sure, Diana Wynne Jones is hardly a commercial or artistic failure as an artist, just not warping-the-fabric-of-space successful the way Rowling is.

Let's explore some possible reasons:

1. Not too close for comfort

Rowling snugs the Muggle universe and Magical universe side by side. In Chrestomanci, Jones is thinking more along the lines of L'Engle: parallel universes. Moving from "our" universe to the Chrestomanci universe is difficult, and entails serious repercussions.

Morever, in the Chrestomanci universe, as in Rowling's, advances in modern technology have been hamstrung by the pursuit of magic. But unlike Mr. Weasley's fascination with all things Muggle (one of my favorite characters), that world is too far away in Chrestomanci to have immediate relevance. You can't take your Sony Walkman with you.

I am no fan of the theory that children must identify with characters that are somehow copies of themselves, socially/racially/economically. Half the fun of a story is getting as far away from yourself as possible (besides, all those Star Trek aliens behave exactly as you would expect a normal human being to, unlike the normal human beings).

But there is something to be said for easing the ability to project oneself onto a protagonist. By making transit between the normal and the magical as simple as literally taking the train, Rowling makes it that much more accessible to her readers, who can imagine making the journey themselves, without having to make the existential leap of abandoning everything they know.

Consider, as well, Hogwarts. As foreign as the British boarding school may be, its social structures and politics are recognizable to any secondary school student. Chrestomanci also has a school of magic, in a castle, but it only has four pupils. Harry Potter for the home-schooled, perhaps.

2. If it's not baroque, don't fix it

Simply in terms of style, you can say this about Harry Potter's universe: there's a whole lot more of it. The entire Chrestomanci series would fit inside Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Rowling perhaps demands comparison to Dickens, who (and I'm paragraphing somebody else) wrote long because nobody back then had television.

Rowling didn't simply prove that kids will read a LOT given good reason to, but she also disproved the canard that they will only read simple, short, solipsistic stories about themselves, and furthermore that only nerds will wade through baroque, 1200 page genre fantasy epics, such as Robin Hobb's Liveship triology (BTW, recommended!).

Rowling's American editors actually did edit her manuscripts, removing the more "British" examples of the language, but I doubt that was ever necessary. It's all about the narrative, about "what happens next."

3. Market timing

I've heard Madeleine L'Engle speak directly to this matter. When the manuscript of Wrinkle in Time was first circulated by her agent, it was turned down with hardly a second look. It languished so long in publishing purgatory that L'Engle feared it would never see the light of day. But that delay, she believes now, in large part accounted for its success. By the time it was published (1963), an audience had evolved that was ready to embrace it.

Jones, an Oxfordian who attended lectures by Lewis and Tolkien at Oxford (suppressing envy, suppressing envy), started publishing in the 1970s. Charmed Life came out the same year as Star Wars, and for the next decade Space Opera (much of it very bad indeed) ruled the day and soaked up all those wandering attention spans instead.

Harry Potter, in contrast, arrived on the scene when the trend in young adult publishing had been for a decade towards "utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons--actual and moral--in the most punishing way possible," what Moira Redmond terms "Dreadlit." The neuroticism of Dreadlit, she notes, "may be the millionth reason why children like Harry Potter so much."

Incidentally, the amazing Ghibli Studios has done a very good job with Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, with Miyazaki coming out of retirement to direct for likely the very last time. Although not as well received as his previous feature efforts, I find that Miyazaki's visual depiction of Sophie's every-changing appearance makes her one of his most subtly and insightfully-rendered of all his female protagonists.

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
6/15/2006 8:32 AM   
Umm...the Liveship Trilogy is by Robin Hobb...@_@
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/15/2006 9:05 AM   
Correction made.
# posted by Anonymous Cliff
6/15/2012 9:10 AM   
I dont think you get the time line in Chrestomanci. You cant bring a walkman because in Cat's universe it hasnt been invented, Cat universe is around 1920's and Janet's universe is our modern universe. Jones want to bring very classic magic which almost gone by now. She keep trying to tell a story of magic in late centuries. Not in modern one. This is why I like her time and place setting.