This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Diana Wynne Jones’ The Ogre Downstairs. This was the last of her books which I read, and one of her earliest novels – it has the feel of slightly older British fantasy, with a strong dash of E. Nesbit in the awkwardness of real magic and the particular disasters which unfold, but a great deal of Diana Wynne Jones’ peculiar brand of oddity as well (the tragedy of the sentient toffee bars…) and some typically present and inconvenient parents.
I am ambivalent about strict rules of magic. I don’t like it being too explicable, and I enjoy the freewheeling invention of the magic in (for example) Harry Potter. I think it is better when it is slightly inconsistent. Otherwise it isn’t magic. But I do enjoy the rules of magic working against people – not so much the price of it as the price of not thinking it through. This is one of the few of DWJ’s novels which I remember for concentrating on it. I think Edward Eager may have used it in his novels, Enid Blyton certainly did, C. S. Lewis nodded to it (the trouble with rings and bells in The Magician’s Nephew), J. K. Rowling generally restrains her use of it to the experiments of enthusiastic adult wizards (with the odd flying car or humorous interlude), T. H. White hinted at the difficulties of power in Mistress Masham’s Repose, but E. Nesbit is one of the masters. Her novels are comedies of cumulative magical disasters, whether from actual magic (a magical ring of variable properties in The Enchanted Castle, the wishes granted by the sand-fairy in Five Children and It, an ill-considered application of a fairy godmother’s gift in “Melisande, or Long and Short Division”) or magic found in the everyday (the railway of The Railway Children, the get-rich-quick schemes of The Story of the Treasure Seekers). They aren’t warnings about magic (it often, indirectly, leads to good things) but they are very vivid illustrations of the necessity of thinking through the consequences of one’s actions!
And I adore how these stories feed into and off each other, often deliberately: the consequences of power of flight or of careless handling of dragon teeth (Five Children and It and The Wouldbegoods) are both echoed in The Ogre Downstairs, the Bastables of The Story of the Treasure Seekers are name-checked in The Magician’s Nephew, which echoes the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, and all of them borrow from other, older stories.
In other news: I have posted a Peter Pan illustration. It is very late, but I have finished a set of illustrations and it isn’t yet midnight and the Dalek is up while it is still Wednesday, and I found a cafe for breakfast which didn’t make me bargain for scrambled eggs, and had a delightful lunch in a French bistro with a friend and a lively law-and-literary discussion with another after work over ale and liqueur coffee, and had an idea which bodes well for the second story in a triptych. So I can’t complain too much, although I have discovered a taste for plain silken tofu, to no-one’s surprise as much as my own.