Performing magic: The Magicians of Caprona

I always look forward to March Magics, hosted by We Be Reading, a celebration of two favorite fantasy authors — Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett. This year I wanted to tie in my reading to my own Reading the Theatre event, so I looked for a book with a theatrical component.

Original UK edition (Macmillan)

I’ve already reviewed Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett’s comic mashup of various Shakespeare plays, not once but twice! So I thought I’d better focus on something else this year. My thoughts turned to DWJ and her 1980 novel The Magicians of Caprona, which has a memorable scene in which the child protagonists are turned into Punch and Judy puppets by malicious sorcery and narrowly escape murdering each other in the course of the play.

This chilling little drama highlights several things. One is how happy we are to watch gruesome events, as long as we believe they are not really happening to real people. When we ourselves become the targets of violence, it’s another story — but we may be unable to escape our roles, to protest or to find anyone to listen to us. Being a living puppet is not a fate to envy.

Punch and Judy – By English School – English Artist – Narrative: Punch and Judy.

Children are often made targets in this way, because — as the wicked enchanter believes in the book — they are apparently helpless and unable to defend themselves. But as is often the case in Diana Wynne Jones’s work, through this very challenge they discover and demonstrate their native abilities to magically survive and even shine, in unique ways that had gone unrecognized by those around them. I am always happy to encounter a variation on this encouraging message, since even as an adult I’m still searching for my own magical powers.

Magic is not only performed through puppetry in Caprona. Enchantment is carried by music and singing, fittingly enough for a fictional Italian city state. The two rival magician families of Caprona make their spells through songs and verses; in another memorable scene they battle each other with choral singing and chanting. The main quest of the narrative is for the lost words of the song that would protect Caprona from the evil that menaces it, and singing together — in contrast to the earlier warfare — is the most powerful way to combat that evil. As we wait to emerge from our pandemic lockdown and be able to sing together once more, I cherish this example of one of my favorite forms of real-life enchantment.

Illustration by Courtney Mayo

A final nod to the theatrical theme is the Romeo-and-Juliet love story that takes place between those two rival families, but thankfully with a much happier ending. Although this is not one of Jones’s twistiest and most inventive tales, the family dynamics, which include rivalry, quarrels, and misunderstanding as well as love and support, are instantly relatable, and the magical elements serve to augment those human struggles, rather than placing them on some otherworldly plane.

That’s what good theatre does for me too, and so it’s one more reason I think this was a perfect read for this year.

Have you been to Caprona? If so, what did you enjoy most about it? Or what else are you reading for this year’s March Magics?

Thanks to Courtney Mayo for allowing me to use her illustration — see more of her beautiful work at her website.

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15 thoughts on “Performing magic: The Magicians of Caprona

  1. I’d remembered you’d commented on my review way back and see now that you said you’d like to holiday there! Would you still? 🙂

    I like your insights here about the veil between make-believe and reality which children have to learn about as they grow up; and I absolutely concur with what you say about missing live music and theatre because of the prolonged nature of this pandemic. I feel like we’re all in some doctor’s waiting room with the time of our appointment slipping away and no update being offered.

    1. I’d go to Caprona in a shot. We’d call Chrestomanci and he’d help us drive away the evil enchanter who is causing all the chaos. Then we’d have a big party with lots of singing and Italian food. What could be better?

      1. I’m IN! What a fun gathering that would be. The puppet scene (especially) and the community singing spells were impactful and memorable for me, too. Lory, I’m so glad you introduced me to DWJ waayyy back when we were teenagers– thank you! I re-read M of Caprona to my boys around 12 years ago, along with some other Wynne-Jones, and recall being struck by somewhat parallel plots lines shared by both M of Caprona and Dogsbody. Seems like I noticed 4 or 5 shared plot elements between them, but now all I can think of is a powerful female villain. Would have to re-read!

        1. Hi Susan! Nice to see you here. Powerful female villains are very common in DWJ, but she always changes things up in interesting ways. They’re some of my favorite books to read and reread, I hope you get a chance as well.

  2. Oh, I have been to Caprona and I loved it! You’ve brought that puppet scene right back. I fancy sitting down with it now, and a cup of tea, instead of earning a living. 🙂

  3. That was the first Diana Wynne Jones I read as a kid and that scene was so dark! Really chilling like you said, it’s the one bit in that book that’s stuck in my mind. I loved the way they made the spells through singing too.

  4. I own this but it must be a long time since I read it because I don’t remember Punch and Judy at all. But it’s always a good time for a DJW reread!

    1. Funny what sticks in our memory. The Punch and Judy scene made a big impression on me! Definitely a good one for a reread, I loved it all over again.

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