Discussion – Diana Wynne Jones

This post has been prompted by the news that Diana Wynne Jones is suffering from cancer and that she has decided to stop her chemotherapy. Jones’ books have been important to me throughout my reading life – ever since I picked up a copy of her Charmed Life when I was a child. She writes mostly for children or young adults, though most can be enjoyed by adults of any ages, since her stories are never simple. 

Collecting her books used to be tricky, since they were often published by different publishers; they also never caught the public imagination as, say, Harry Potter or other series books did, though her publishers in recent years have tried to rectify this by classifying several of her books as one of the “Chrestomanci” series, which works quite well, though she has written many other stand-alone books set in other worlds. In general, she writes about worlds which are similar to ours, but different: in the Chrestomanci books, there are a whole series of Related Worlds (one of which appears to be ours), caused by “splitting off” at crucial events in history (Terry Pratchett used the idea in Johnny and the Bomb and referred to the “trousers of Time”, for example). In Chrestomanci’s world, magic exists and magic practitioners are many: Chrestomanci himself is a government employee (albeit with a great deal of autonomy!), and the name is a title – like Lord Privy Seal, for example. His job is to make sure that magic users do not take advantage of non-magic users, and to regulate crooks – a sort of magic-wielding super-policeman. 

I first met Chrestomanci in Charmed Life, which is mostly about Eric Chant and his selfish sister Gwendolen, and in most of the other books he does not appear as a major character (except in The Lives of Christopher Chant, in which he is a boy, and later comes under the tutelage of the former Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt). He’s sarcastic, flamboyant, a strong enchanter, and very amusing to read about. Other books in this series are Witch Week, The Magicians of Caprona, Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg, as well as a few short stories. The Pinhoe Egg is one of my favourites of her books, since it has as main characters Eric Chant and Marianne Pinhoe, who are delightful to read about – strong magic users, but still children – and their adventures and problems are well-drawn.

 Another series, of three books, is that set in the land of Ingary – Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air and The House of Many Ways – featuring Howl the wizard, Sophie Hatter (who feels it’s her fate to be boring, since she’s the oldest of three daughters) and a fire demon called Calcifer. In the first, Howl and Sophie band together to defeat the Witch of the Waste, who has put curses on them both. The second focuses on Abdullah, a young carpet salesman and dreamer who falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Flower-in-the-Night, and tries to rescue her from a castle in the air (where she is being held captive by a djinn with many other princesses). He’s helped (or hindered) in his attempts by Sophie and Howl, as well as other characters from the first novel. 

I recently re-read the Dalemark Quartet in published order (i.e. Cart and Cwidder, Drowned Ammet, The Spellcoats and then The Crown of Dalemark) and really, really enjoyed them. I had read the latter three only, and only once before, so that the plots were strangely altered in my head – particularly The Spellcoats. I don’t think it matters too much in which order you read them, except that The Crown of Dalemark has to be last, since all the plot threads (and most of the characters) are brought together in it from the other three. 

The quadrilogy is set in a fictional Dalemark, in both pre-historic and historic times, and in the present day. Dalemark is a conglomeration of squabbling earldoms – the North is relatively free, but poor; the South is repressed by rapacious earls, but rich (or would be, were it not for the earls). Cart and Cwidder tells the story of a family of travelling musicians who are one of the few people allowed to travel freely between North and South. Drowned Ammet tells Mitt’s story, who grows up poor in one of the southern earldoms, and has dreams of rebellion and overthrowing the cruel regime. The Spellcoats is set a good deal further back in history, in a prehistoric Dalemark threatened by invasion from the Heathens, where a family of children have to flee their village because they look too much like the enemies; the evil mage Kankredin is mentioned for the first time. Lastly, The Crown of Dalemark unites characters from the first three books to tell how the Great Uprising began, and includes the character Maewen, brought back in time from the present to impersonate someone else. 

These are beautifully written, full of sadness and comedy, and are more politically and morally ambiguous than one would expect for children’s books. Mitt finds that the North isn’t as free or happy as he expected, for example, and when one earl is assassinated, it doesn’t provoke the regime change hoped for. I had to re-read The Crown of Dalemark immediately after I’d finished it. 

Jones evidently reads widely in the fantasy genre, and she skewered its clichés very well and amusingly in the wonderful “Tough Guide to Fantasyland”. If you’ve ever read a fantasy novel (or played a fantasy role-playing game) and wondered why no-one seems to eat anything but stew, how horses reproduce, why there don’t seem to be any insects (or indeed any animals apart from horses), and how personality is signalled by one’s clothing, and hair and eye colour, then this is a must.

I assume that her work on this led to The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Year of the Griffin which are very entertaining reads, but which also stick out their tongues to the fantasy genre. In first book, one world is forced to play host to visiting tourists who travel on Quests to retrieve magical objects and finally face a show-down with the Dark Lord – inevitably a fairly innocuous wizard who has been chosen for the part. In the sequel, Jones skewers the current phase of teaching students only what they need to know to pass exams, and shows us a lovely bunch of young people as they really learn about magic, themselves, and forge strong friendships. 

Then there are a lot of stand-alone books, such as Eight Days of Luke (which uses Norse mythology and an unhappy childhood to great effect), Dogsbody (in which Sirius is found guilty of a crime he did not commit and is sentenced to Earth to live as a dog until he can prove his innocence), Time of the Ghost (where a girl becomes a ghost going back into her childhood to try to stop something terrible happening in the present day), Archer’s Goon (where Howard finds that his town is run by a family of unpleasant people, and that his father is in some way helping them) and many others. Her most recent book, Enchanted Glass, is like many of her others in that it moves from comedy to tragedy or terror with ease. It contains many delightful characters (Andrew, Stashe and her family) and others who are rather more unpleasant (Mr O Brown, for example, and the rest of the otherworldly crew), and is very inventive.

Books for older readers include Fire and Hemlock – a re-telling of the ballads Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, but is much more than that – and the inventive Hexwood, which plays with space and time and other-worldly rulers.

Though books for children (in general), the children featured seem rarely to have happy childhoods, being often unwanted, unloved, bullied and friendless, though during the course of the books this usually changes, and they find strength and determination and – often – power. If they have happy home lives, they are often outsiders, such as Haley in The Game, or Roddy in The Merlin Conspiracy. From hints dropped by the author it sounds as though her own childhood wasn’t an idyllic one, with a tyrannical father and unpleasant great-aunt (I’ve always wondered if Black Maria is rather more autobiographical than is comfortable). Jones is also unusual in writing both from the boy’s as well as the girl’s perspective – though seldom in the same book; although she does this particularly well in The Merlin Conspiracy, which is jointly told by Nick and Roddy (Arianrhod) – so that both girls and boys can identify with the protagonists

A friend of mine once complained that all the endings seem to contain an element of deus ex machina, and that is certainly true of several – Black Maria, for example (which certainly isn’t her best book, in my view), or The Dark Lord of Derkholm (quite literally, and very appropriately, I think) – but in most the protagonists do manage to defeat their enemies themselves. She captures the squabbling but ultimately affectionate closeness of siblings and families very well – such as Sophie and her sisters in the Moving Castle books, the sisters in The Time of the Ghost, and the reluctant step-siblings in The Ogre Downstairs – and her villains are usually very unpleasant: not generally mindlessly evil, but humanly malevolent or spiteful and selfish (such as Shine and Archer in Archer’s Goon, or Kathleen’s horrible aunt Duffie in Dogsbody, or Orm Pender in Hexwood) – though I should probably make an exception for the Monigan in The Time of the Ghost since she (it?) is not at all human. Jones can convey mood or feeling in few words, and she is good at describing the feelings of the awkward child or adolescent and getting into their heads. Her scene-setting, without being flowery, is sharp and defined, so that one can really imagine the canyon city Nick visits in The Merlin Conspiracy, or the wood in Hexwood, or even the castle in Howl’s Moving Castle.

It would be hard to rank my favourites, since there’s nearly always a Diana Wynne Jones book for every occasion or mood, but I am particularly fond of The Pinhoe Egg, The Crown of Dalemark, Hexwood and The Year of the Griffin. Her short stories are also very good, and sometimes creepy.

In short – read her books (if you haven’t done so already, and this very long post hasn’t sent you to sleep…).

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7 Responses to Discussion – Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Erin says:

    I’m a silly Diana Wynne Jones fangirl. I adore her books, and I think you’ve done a great job explaining them. Nicely done. 😀

    • ela21 says:

      Thanks for stopping by – I love her books too, and it’s always nice to see how others appreciate her work.

      • Erin says:

        Yes. This is the part of the internet that I like — the part where you get to share things you like with complete strangers. 😀

  2. Pingback: PICTURES: DWJ March – My books | Ela's Book Blog

  3. calmgrove says:

    This is a really excellent discussion and shows up well your deep love of her books. Have you had a chance to read hwr poshumous collection of essays called Reflections? It gives a good indication of just how autobiographical her fiction is.

    Like you I’m anout to embark on The Islands of Chaldea, which I won in a HarperCollins competition. Look forward to your take on it!

    • Ela says:

      Thanks very much! I keep meaning to get Reflections, and may well do so now it’s a bit cheaper. My review of The Islands of Chaldea is scheduled for 24 March – will be interested to read what you think, too.

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