Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Year of the Griffin is rich in overlapping themes conveyed by a diverse cast of characters involved in the workings of magic. Through these characters, readers explore themes of the use and abuse of power, family and gender relations, self-realization and growth, cooperation, and education. The major characters are the students, named Ruskin, Claudia, Elda, Lukin, Olga, and Felim. All are enrolled at the university to develop their powers. Each has a distinctive background and personal problem.

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The problem faced by Ruskin illustrates the abuse of power through a hierarchical order, or a society in which some groups control others. Ruskin is a dwarf belonging to an artisan tribe, one of the lowest in his fastness, or secluded place. He is secretly learning wizardry so that his lower orders can revolt against the highest order, the forgemasters. Ruskin's peers seek equality and recognition of their talents from less competent forgemasters who lord it over them. "Oppression," Ruskin complains, in his characteristically blaring voice.

A different type of oppression affects Claudia, half-sister of Emperor Titus of the South. She is avoiding the Senate, which has wrongfully made of Titus "a sort of rubber stamp on legs." Senators hate Claudia because she wants Titus to stand up to them and because she has mixed blood. To a degree, family relations are a problem for Claudia. Her mother was of the Marshes, not the Empire of her father. Her parents separated, although Claudia and her halfbrother dearly love each other.

For Lukin and Felim, power struggles exist within the family. Felim must escape his brother, an eastern Emir, who would rather have him killed by assassins than have him succeed in power. Lukin is hiding from his father, King Luther, who tyrannizes his household. The theme of gender relations appears in the king's insistence that his son succeed him on the throne instead of a daughter, Isodel, who is qualified.

Issues of power and gender mingle in the troubles of Olga. She grew up with one parent, her father Olaf Gunnarsson, a pirate who became a gangster. "He'd always wanted a son," Olga says. He forced her to be his "cabin boy" and beat her if she did not use her magical talent to support his crimes. Olaf still expects his daughter to marry the man he chooses, his ugly chief enforcer. "A daughter is her father's property until he buys a husband for her."

By contrast, Elda, griffin daughter of Derk, comes from a large and happy family. Besides themes of family and gender, personal growth is developed through Elda. She is studying magic because she misused her power to push a mountain out of shape. In this way, she is like her fellow students who experience special problems with their magic. Claudia has a travel jinx, and Lukin inadvertently makes pits or holes. Olga has been "raising winds and monsters" since she was a small child.

Along with the theme of self-realization, Jones explores cooperation through all six students who blend their growing talents for greater effect. Several other characters contribute to this theme. Elda's human brother Blade and griffin brother Kit show how a spell can be "strong because so many people did it." Blade and Kit, in cooperation with the student group, help Claudia and Lukin achieve self-awareness. In the process, Jones delivers strong messages about growing up.

Claudia comes to realize that her jinx came from the way her separated parents shunted her back and forth. "Forget your childhood. It's over," Blade says. Lukin learns that he no longer needs to show his father how grown-up he is. He learns that he does not have to exercise power in the same way as his father. Similarly, Olga is freed from self-blame about her past. Through Olga, Jones delivers a crucial point about the worth of the individual, unhampered by family background or social status. "I wish to be accepted as I am, purely for magical ability."

The theme of learning, or education, is integral to the students' quests for self and power. The mediocrity in university teaching is addressed partly through the characters of two wizards, Wermacht and Corkoran. Wermacht exemplifies overbearing power in the classroom. He speaks to the students in insulting ways, leading Ruskin to mutter, "Oppression." Corkoran relies on his good looks and offbeat clothes to impress students, especially females. He is obsessed with moon-travel research. "Corkoran was always having ideas and none of them worked."

The students and Corkoran represent dashing philosophies of education. Corkoran teaches run-of-the-mill, practical magic, based on known facts. Influenced by Elda's father Derk, the students research classic theories of magic and espouse the unlimited possibilities for new spells. High Chancellor Querida contributes to the theme by opposing Corkoran's stodgy approach that turns out "half-trained magic users." Gender issues are also conveyed through Querida. She is the "strongest wizard in the world," while the male tutors are weak figures.

Although the shape-changing griffin wizard Flury is a late entry in the novel, he is important for representing themes of education, cooperation, and power. Flury disarms the power of Wermacht, takes over his classes, and greatly improves the quality of university teaching. Through Flury, the students learn that they can combine their talents to achieve a worthy goal.

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