March Magics – Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975)

Do listen to this, Leo! It’s about the Dog Star.
Sirius, Alpha Canis Major, often called the Dog Star, is only some eight and a half light-years distant from our Solar System…its brightness and characteristic green color make it a notable object in our winter sky…It’s exactly right for you! Oh–and you’ve got a Companion that’s a white dwarf, about half the size of our sun.

 
dogsbodySirius is angry. In fact, he is so angry he is lit up green. He has been accused of murder and the mishandling of the Zoi, which was seen falling to Earth and he cannot convince the other luminaries of his innocence. However, they have suspended his sentence with the proviso that he be banished to Earth to find and return the Zoi. He will be put in the body of a native creature, in this case a dog, without the knowledge of his mission. If he succeeds, he will be reinstated to all his spheric dignities. If he fails he will die in a manner natural to the dog. His green eyes are the only indication he is different from other dogs.

He begins his life on Earth in a litter of unwanted puppies, who are taken to the river to be drowned. Two die, but 4 are rescued by people who find them barely clinging to life, including young Kathleen, who is Irish and living with her English relatives while her father serves out his jail sentence back in Ireland. Already begrudged by Mrs. Duffield, who hates the Irish and is not happy that her husband took her in, the dog just makes things worse: Kathleen has to promise to do all the cooking and cleaning in order for Leo, the name she gives the dog, not to be put down.

Mrs. Duffield and her two young boys, Basil and Robin, make life difficult for Leo by their aggressive behavior towards him. Mrs. Duffield is a potter with a shop inside the house which makes the ever growing Leo a hazard. So he is banished to the backyard every morning to be tied up until Kathleen comes home from school and can take him out. It is on a walk to the field where she picked him up that he begins to awaken to his mission, that he is something else besides a dog, that he was wrongly accused of murder, that someone let him down and while he understands that his goal on Earth is to find a Zoi and bring it back, at this point he does not know what it is.

As the days go by and Leo remembers more he develops the ability to understand human language, which Kathleen notices. A book lover, she reads to him at night and though these scenes are touching, they give Leo some of the most important information he needs for his quest. He also communicates with the 3 Duffield cats, who have come to trust him after he saves one of them, Tibbles, from a severe beating by Mrs. Duffield. Tibbles teaches him how to unlock the gate, which he does each day to go and search for the Zoi. He feels an even more immediate need to find it after he realizes Basil is a collector of rocks and fossils and fears he may come across the Zoi first.

As the rush to find the Zoi and clear his name heats up, Leo encounters help and hindrance from all kinds of magical, earthly and celestial beings: Sol and Moon, who communicate via sun and moon beams and Earth whose clues come from its body, the Companion sphere of Sirius and the New-Sirius who want to kill Leo so he can’t come back and kindly old Miss Smith who takes in Kathleen and Leo when life at the Duffield’s becomes too dangerous for both.

The ending is bittersweet. There is victory, there is letting go, there is grief. But ultimately for us, the stars are in alignment, our Earth is stabilized and Kathleen is safe.

While this is a wonderful children’s tale (although the treatment of Leo by the Duffields is hard to watch even for adults), Diana Wynne Jones fills this story with astronomical legends and mythical symbolism to keep adults satisfied. As the great orbs of our galaxy fight and war with each other, they are reminiscent of the stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and the feuds between them that threaten all of humanity and the one brave warrior tasked to save us all.

And what of the Zoi? Is it life itself? Is this a spiritual quest Leo travels toward as much as it is material? After all he is trying to save his life, or is he trying to save the life of all humanity? Frankly, I didn’t realize the depth of questions I would have before I started this book.

On a Personal Note

About three years ago I wanted to identify some of the constellations in the night sky and to learn their legends and history. Since Orion is so obvious and full of and close to major stars and other constellations I started there. Each late fall and through the winter months as it make its way across the sky I think of what I have learned. Orion is the Hunter, who is in the lead, while Sirius the loyal Dog, follows. In reading Dogsbody now, both Orion and Canis Major are visible and I have loved adding this story to what I know already about these constellations.

This is my first Diana Wynne Jones and I am grateful to Lory at Emerald City Book Review where I discovered March Magics and to Kristen at We Be Reading for having created it, giving readers a chance to discuss or discover a new author.

________________

My Edition
Title: Dogsbody
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1975
Pages: 261
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

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10 thoughts on “March Magics – Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975)

  1. As Brian suggests, the updating of the myth works very well here, as I noted in a review (https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/heavenly-conjunctions/). It’s just a teensiest way rooted in its period but I thought largely stood the test of time in being a narrative that hooked you in after a chapter or two.

    Interesting to compare it with another story about a dog called Sirius (https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2015/11/04/sirius/) which was also rooted in its period but was a more tragic tale, not being aimed at a young readership.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “and this Arawn-Orion-Cernunnos correspondence provides one of the pivotal scenes in the closing chapters.”

      This was a fascinating aspect of the book, wasn’t it? Just one of the many instances that this is a book for adults as well as children, depending on your experience or knowledge. When I got this book from the library it was in the children’s section, so I was prepared for something else. But as I read, I found it thoroughly enjoyable as well as challenging.

      And thanks for the other book recommendation. It sounds intriguing as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. Sometimes when mythology is upated by modern writers the results are very good. That sounds like the case here. This sounds very imaginative.

    The mythology around the constellations is so intriguing.

    Liked by 2 people

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