The Weeks that Were
Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke / Fire - Table of Contents

Underground Reading: Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

DogsbodyDiana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody (1975) is more about power than puppies. Despite its heart-warming premise, this children's book is more about scheming and anger than big-eyed fuzzy wuzzies.

Sirius is a luminary, one of the cosmic entities (embodied in stars) that rule the universe. He begins the book on trial for his celestial life, accused of murdering a lesser star with a Zoi (an Infinity Gem sort of thinger). Sirius has a rubbish defense and, being known for his terrible temper, the court finds against him. The Dog Star is shunted to Earth and reborn as a normal dog. If he can find the missing Zoi, Sirius will be allowed to re-ascend. If not, well... this dog will go to heaven the old fashioned way.

Sirius' dog life is far from a Disney movie. His first memories are starvation and then, horribly, being chucked in the river with his litter mates. He's saved by a little girl, Kathleen, only to join in the misery of her life. Kathleen is part Irish and virtually an orphan. Her mother has fled overseas (not wholly explained) and her father is in prison for his involvement with the IRA. Kathleen is bullied by virtually everyone in her small town, especially her domineering, selfish aunt, Duffie. 

Although Sirius (called "Leo" by Kathleen) gives Kathleen the companionship she needs, he doesn't make her life any easier. Puppy-Leo grows into a big, curious dog, one that battles with Duffie's cats, gets mud everyone and needs food (lots of it). As the family's Cinderella figure, Kathleen's already working her fingers to the bone. Not only does Sirius/Leo cause endless trouble, he provides the vicious Duffie another emotional stick with which to beat Kathleen. Do your chores or I'll put your dog down. Surprisingly soul-scarring stuff.

As his previous, luminary existence seeps back into Sirius' pea-sized dog brain, he begins to explore more of his surroundings in the search for the Zoi, at least, when he can keep his mind on the job. To some degree, this is the most haunting aspect of Dogsbody. Ms. Jones lavishly describes the aura and majesty of the luminaries, but here's Sirius - begging for scraps from old men and making big eyes at shopkeepers. When another local dog goes in heat, Sirius' quest for cosmic salvation is completely forgotten. Once, he was a god. Now, he's a base animal - slave to his instincts and, terribly, shamefully aware of it. 

Ms. Jones' willingness to show the grubby as well as the charming is what makes Dogsbody so emotionally poignant. Sirius and Kathleen's elusive moments of joy stand out against the grind of their daily, impoverished existence. As a children's book, some form of ultimate triumph is never in doubt, but the author's willingness to show pain and disappointment gives Sirius' quest all the more meaning. He's not just battling the Machiavellian plots of interstellar beings, he's wrestling with his own animal impulses as well (plus his guilt, his collar and one incredibly nasty woman).

In fact, those mundane (or Great Dane) struggles are, by far, the most compelling part of the story. However, Ms. Jones spectacularly baffled me with her clumsy inclusion of Welsh mythology into an otherwise self-contained science fictional world. This is clunky on several fronts:

[Spoilers to follow - although this is a thirty-five year old children's book.]

1) The power exercised by Arawn makes no sense. Vast cosmic entities are foiled by a creature that's solely of Earth (and planets, as we learn, are minor vassals to their stars). Even within the book, the characters are baffled by Arawn's bizarrely disporportionate magical strength, but their questions are dismissed with a wave of the hand, "Earth has many secrets". There's a stench of human exceptionalism. Is Earth so special that our regional deities trump the beings that rule the rest of the universe?

2) Arawn's inclusion simply isn't necessary. The challenge established by Dogsbody is Sirius vs. his own canine nature (which he already had as a star, and now has to wrestle with in four-legged form). When the latter-most eighth of the book is handed over to Ultimate Pantheon Smackdown, the book loses the plot (literally). Arawn only exists as a deus ex machina, appearing to hand out the Zoi and slap around a few luminaries. This could easily have happened without him there at all. 

[/end spoilers. Although is it really a spoiler if you're complaining that a plot twist couldn't be foreseen anyway?]

3) Arawn's not consistent with the rest of the text. And this, I think, irritates me most of all. Ms. Jones quickly and firmly establishes the rules of Dogsbody: luminaries, companions, planets, etc. She does so with masterful ease, building an entire universal hierarchy without it feeling clunky or forced. But Arawn and his ilk are never explained within the text. They require the reader to come in with existing knowledge (and appreciation) of Welsh mythology, else Arawn's just some omnipotent weirdo that pops up to solve all the book's problems. If it isn't in the book, yet the author relies on the reader to know it, that's... well... un-good writery. A unique universe turns into Welsh fan-fiction. Why?

I remain genuinely curious about this, as, if I recall correctly, the 70s and 80s brought with them a swathe of Welsh-infused children's literature. What prompted this movement - not just to retell the tales of the Mabinogion but to make its cast relevant (and critical) to new stories as well? Is it insecurity? Anti-Tolkienism? Some shift in the cultural landscape? A devious marketing effort to make Wales the new Greece? 

Regardless, in Dogsbody, Ms. Jones' brilliant novel goes awry (and Arawn) (sorry) in its final pages. Despite my concerns, it is still well worth seeking out. Sirius' internal struggles are beautifully detailed, the cosmic premise is intriguing and the connection between Kathleen and her dog is truly heart-warming. Dogsbody does so much, so well, on its own, I remain baffled why it reaches for outside help.