Setting

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For Year of the Griffin, Jones creates a magical universe with a university at the center of action. Action does not often take place off campus. Instead, the university functions as a sort of proving ground. Here, representatives of far-flung regions and diverse forms of government converge.

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In some ways, Wizards' University follows a realistic tradition. Its campus boasts the typical kinds of buildings—a lecture hall, a lab, an observatory tower. The refectory provides the usual tasteless food. Attendance requires new students to break with childhood ties and locales, forge new friendships, and embark upon journeys of selfimprovement. For these reasons, the university is an ideal setting in which to explore the novel's themes.

At this university, the themes unfold in magical terms. The six first-year students take classes on such topics as basic magic, the laws of magic, basic alchemy, and elementary astrology. The Spellman Building, the oldest on campus, houses a library where the students find sources for new and exciting ways to cast spells. The statue of the university's founder, Wizard Policant, stands in a courtyard nearby.

As a favored gathering place of the new students, the Policant statue symbolizes the formation of new and powerful bonds. As the plot develops, the statue also represents a revitalization. At this university, in the beginning, nothing is going right. At the end, around the Policant pedestal, a scene of joyous celebration shows how far the students and the university have come.

Literary Qualities

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Year of the Griffin is structured to examine thematic concepts from a variety of angles. Jones follows the paths of six major characters whose interactions with a num- ber of lesser characters help to illuminate divergent perspectives. Nonetheless, a central plot emerges in the efforts of all six students to grow and protect themselves from harmful forces. In addition, the exciting climax, a moonshot involving the six students, helps to unify events. It reflects a deft use of foreshadowing technique. Jones prepares readers by repeatedly depicting the tutor Corkoran thinking about moon travel, to the extent that he wears T-shirts emblazoned with the word "moonshot."

Jones employs imaginative, vivid descriptions to differentiate characters and support thematic concepts of individuality and diversity. Elda, for example, is a "brightly golden" griffin "as large as an extra-big plow horse." Felim is brown-faced and Claudia is greenish, with hair that falls in dark, wet-looking coils. Olga has a "beautiful hawklike face, piercing blue-eyed look." Ruskin has reddish hair and a beard with skinny pigtails, each plaited with clacking bones and tufts of red cloth.

Although Jones constructs unusual or mythological characters, she makes them believable and complex. She constructs scenes made believable by blending magical and mundane elements. For example, griffin Elda develops her powers of flight over farming country. Plowed fields and green meadows seem ordinary until Elda looks down upon some cows and spots a dragon. At one point, Olga, understandable in human terms, talks to air elementals plausibly described as "long, silky, scarflike beings, and quite transparent, with anxious birdlike eyes."

Dialogue is an important device for Jones. Her characters—animal, mythological, or human—speak in normal, believable ways. Perceptive dialogue is even supplied to a winged horse, Filbert, who notes that the teaching wizards are "running in blinkers." Jones also uses witty dialogue. A notable example is the joint meeting of Empire senators and important dwarfs that is chaired by Corkoran. The senators speak in pompous double-talk interspersed with clarifications by the plainspoken dwarfs. The scene also illustrates the device of creating characters who are foils for one another or who highlight each other's qualities by means of contrast.

Jones reveals character and adds lighthearted touches through recurring motifs. Lukin is defined repeatedly by holes or pits he creates in spite of himself, until he achieves a mature self-realization. The recurrence of griffin characters is spoofed in the homage paid to Elda by an Empire legionary, whose banner bears a golden griffin image. Wizard Corkoran's superficial and flashy approach to teaching is reinforced by the motif of his awful ties, which change frequently.

The symbolic use of color, a typical fantasy device, is apparent in the ties. Their patterns and colors reflect the character and changing mood of Corkoran. For most of the novel, he wears bright, unusual patterns like pink irises or purple monkeys. As his confidence flags, he turns to a pattern of washed-out-looking daisies. Finally, by ties of plain white and then gray, Jones suggests Corkoran's sense of failure and a change in educational philosophy. In another example of color usage, Jones depicts assassins clad in black, which conveys their dark purpose.

Jones conveys locales or qualities of her characters through her name choices. Characters linked to Claudia bear names like those used in the ancient Roman Empire. An actual emperor was named Titus, like her half-brother. Olga and Olaf Gunnarsson recall names used in northern Europe, as does the name Lukin. The name Felim conveys an Arabic flavor. Perhaps the name of Wermacht is most striking in terms of character and theme. It appears to blend an Old Saxon word "wer," or "man," with the German word "macht," meaning power. Thus Jones cleverly reinforces a central concept of the novel.

Social Sensitivity

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In Year of the Griffin, universal themes of social equality and justice blend richly with some typical concerns of young adults. The novel incorporates the questions of how to adjust to a new school and survive away from home and family for the first time. As new students might do, the six major characters seek friends and even romantic partners. They learn to fit in with the group, cope with different teachers and situations, and explore their identities through relationships and the learning process.

In her treatment of these issues, Jones does not ignore the usual pitfalls of campus life. There are occasions, for example, when wine flows freely. However, the wizard Corkoran, rather than a student, is depicted drowning his sorrows in it. Elda crouches against a wall on another occasion, "sipping beer through a straw and wondering what humans saw in it." Campus cheating is an issue treated decisively. When a student tries to sell Felim ready-made essays, there is no deal. The student who buys them, Melissa, is said to be "just totally dumb."

On the issue of finding friends, close ties within the group become the backbone of cooperation that works magic. Elda is the most exuberant representation of joy in friendship. "I've got friends, Dad!" Elda tells Derk and invites him to meet them. She encourages Felim to let the group help him because "you're our friend." The students repeatedly minister to each other in friendship. The concept extends to family relations. Titus thinks of his sister Claudia as his "friend and ally." Lukin finally tells his father that he would hate "not being friends with [him]."

The novel incorporates scenes of confrontation with difficult parents, like the one in which Lukin declares that he will marry Olga against his father's will. Olga also defies her father Olaf. However, the portrayals are fair. In Olga's case, Olaf is a gangster and the bridegroom he selects for his daughter is a thug. "One can't choose one's parents," Ruskin says.

The romance of Olga and Lukin illumines the broad theme of class struggle or social equality. Olga is wealthy but "born to a very different family from Lukin's." She barely escaped being "waterfront riffraff." Crown prince Lukin declares his love for Olga nonetheless. Although Jones resides in England, a class-conscious nation, her portrayals resonate in America because they evoke the social division between rich and poor. They also touch on issues of slavery and discrimination, important parts of American history and culture. One example in the novel is the centuries-old, falsely based pact by which the forgemasters enslaved Ruskin and the lower orders.

The revolution of equals in the fastness is one way that Jones shows her firm espousal of the need to respect each individual regardless of appearance, including skin color, or ethnic background. In another example, Elda, as a huge griffin who fits well in the group, subtly encourages young adults to know that being large, or looking "different," need not be troublesome. The brownish skin of Felim, the greenish skin of Claudia, and the browns, grays, and golds of various friendly griffins help to show that diversity is no obstacle to social harmony.

The issue of discrimination is particularly addressed through Claudia and Querida, both of whom have greenish skin. Claudia's color is a taint to the senators, who do not want to mix their breed. The evil in this notion is shown by the senators' defeat when Titus assumes his rightful power. Similarly, Querida responds to a hoodlum griffin's joke about her green color—a kind of ethnic slur—by turning him and his gang into statues. "No one had dared comment on Querida's skin color for half a century now."

Querida also denies the claim that the griffins could not help their remarks. "Every creature with a brain can decide not to do something if it tries." Jones makes it clear that individuals are entitled to equal rights, but those rights also demand the acceptance of social responsibilities.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203

Alderdice, Kit. "PW Interviews: Diana Wynne Jones." Publishers Weekly (February 22, 1991): 201-202. This article contains insightful comments by Jones about her life, influences on her writing, and her rejection of a didactic approach. "There's nothing like being able to laugh at a thing to free you to use your mind."

Burkam, Anita L. Review of Year of the Griffin. Horn Book Magazine (November/ December 2000): 755-56. Burkam praises: "Jones's command of her material is so exceptional that a certain other magical aspirant might well find it fruitful to spend time studying at this school of wizardry."

"Diana Wynne Jones." In Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 12. Edited by Laurie Collier. Detroit: Gale, 1994. This entry contains a valuable biographical sketch with critical commentary, lists of publications, awards, and review sources.

"Diana Wynne Jones: Writing for Children." Locus (April 1989): 5, 62. In this interview, Jones explains why she prefers to write fantasies for young readers, how she endured "book starvation" in childhood, and how she developed some of her books.

Related Web Sites
http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk. Accessed August 7, 2002. This is the author's official Web site which provides the latest news about Jones and her publications, including biographical information and links to other sites with reviews.

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