Wynne Jones, Diana 1934-
Diana Wynne Jones 1934-
English editor, playwright, and author of young adult novels, short stories, and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Jones's career through 2005. For further information on her life and works, see CLR, Volume 23.
The author of over forty books for young adults, Jones's fiction presents a pastiche of normative fantasy and science fiction conventions, combinations that offer complex mythological examinations of childhood identity and familial relationships. Her protagonists are generally youngsters trapped in confused family or societal situations who discover and utilize magic to relieve their tense living conditions. Throughout Jones's narratives, the way a character responds to magic reflects that character's personality, and magic often becomes a means to self-discovery and maturity. Her two best known novel series—the "Chrestomanci" and "Dalemark" cycles—are set in medieval-like fantasy realms which are filled with enchanted animals, witches, legendary gods, and faerie folk. Though she has been a published author since the early 1970s, Jones's popularity in her home country of England has far outpaced her success in North America, although recent renewed interest in juvenile fantasy—partially inspired by the predominance of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series—has prompted Jones's publishers, Harper-Collins and Greenwillow, to re-release many of her older titles which had been out-of-print for decades.
Jones was born on August 16, 1934, in London, England, to Richard Aneurin and Marjorie Jackson Jones. During the advent of World War II, Jones and her younger sister, Isobel, were sent to live with her father's parents in Wales, where they were soon joined by their mother and newborn sister, Ursula. Her family only remained in Wales for a year—due in part to the rocky relationship between Jones's mother and
her in-laws—and eventually settled in Westmorland in the Lake District. They took up residence in a house belonging to publisher John Ruskin's secretary, near the homes of noted children's authors Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter. After attending school in Westmorland with other wartime evacuees, Jones moved with her family again in 1941, living briefing in Yorkshire before returning to London in 1942. In 1943 Jones moved to the village of Thaxted in Essex where her parents were offered the job of managing a cultural residential center and summer school for area teenagers who worked weekdays at nearby factories. An excellent student, Jones was admitted to St. Anne's College at Oxford in 1953, where she took lecture classes taught by two professors who would eventually become two of the towering figures of children's literature—C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. While at Oxford, Jones met fellow student John A. Burrow, whom she would later marry. After graduation, Burrow became a lecturer at Ox- ford, and the couple had three sons, Richard, Michael, and Colin. During this period, Jones started writing fiction, aimed at both children and adults. In 1966 she began work on her first novel Changeover (1970), which stands as one of Jones's few published works written exclusively for an adult audience. After spending a year in America, where her husband taught at Yale University, Jones returned to England and was introduced to Laura Cecil, a literary agent specializing in children's books. With Cecil's encouragement, Jones found a market for a series of fantasy novels she had been writing, releasing Wilkins' Tooth in 1973 and The Ogre Downstairs in 1974. Charmed Life (1977), the first book in Jones's "Chrestomanci" series, received the 1977 Guardian Award for Children's Books. She was the runner-up for the Children's Book Award in 1981 and was twice runner-up for the Carnegie Medal. In 1999 Jones won two major fantasy awards—the children's section of the Mythopoeic Award in the United States and the Karl Edward Wagner Award in the United Kingdom, which is awarded by the British Fantasy Society to individuals or organizations who have made a significant impact on fantasy. Her young adult novel Howl's Moving Castle (1986) was adapted into an animated feature by acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki in 2004. In July 2006 Jones was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol.
Similar in theme and style to the works of fellow British fantasist E. Nesbit, Jones's fiction explores the nature of power from a primarily adolescent perspective. In Jones's books, children are often the wielders of magic, which forces them to assume roles of uneasy responsibility. Through their attempts to wield this new "ability," her protagonists frequently find themselves navigating unsteady terrain beyond their normal comprehension. With Cart and Cwidder (1975), The Power of Three (1976), and Charmed Life, Jones established her trademark plot structure for these magic-based narratives: The hero/ine of her books is likely to grow up among magical folk, often in an alternate world or secondary fantasy world, but this hero/ine feels inadequate because s/he does not appear to have magical powers. Using his/her own resources to cope with problems caused by magic, at the story's climax, a crisis reveals that our hero/ine does truly possess magic powers, sometimes superior abilities to those who surround her. This formula can also been seen in The Spellcoats (1979), The Magicians of Caprona (1980), Archer's Goon (1984), and Howl's Moving Castle, among others. Jones uses a slight variation on her formula in Black Maria (1991), where the heroine rejects the supernatural power offered to her because it is tainted. Charmed Life, which introduces the good enchanter Chrestomanci, has several sequels set in the same fantasy world, a land where magic is not only real, but licensed and policed by the government. While most of the world's inhabitants are fine with the government's mundane control of the fantastic, various crooked sorcerers try to operate independently and even overthrow Chrestomanci. One of the later "Chrestomanci" adventures, The Magicians of Caprona is set in an alternate Italy and constructs a story similar to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, albeit with a happy ending.
Nearly all of Jones's young adult novels can be classified as domestic fantasy, where magic disrupts ordinary life, though her stories occasionally delve into high fantasy, in which gods and goddesses become involved. Only a few of her works belong to other supernatural genres. The Time of the Ghost (1981) and Witch Week (1982) are ghost-horror stories with a twist—the witches in Witch Week are children, desperately hiding their powers from a hostile government, while the ghost in The Time of the Ghost is a benign entity cursed by a pagan goddess. Jones has also authored a few works of pure science fiction. In The Homeward Bounders (1981), young Jamie is separated from the rest of his family in a time travel accident, and while he is able to ultimately return to his home, the process takes a full one hundred years, an extensive absence during which his entire family has passed away. In 1985 Jones began a series of romantic fantasies about adolescent love, which included Fire and Hemlock (1985), Howl's Moving Castle, and Castle in the Air (1990). Fire and Hemlock, a modern retelling of the classic Scottish myth of Tam Lin, is set in our world and charts the experience of a teenage "crush." The story describes a network of witchcraft centered on the court of the Faerie Queen. Every nine years, the Queen takes a new lover, and the old lover is sacrificed to extend the Queen's life. Jones's protagonist, Polly, fights against the Faerie Court to save the life of her beloved Tom, who is scheduled to become the Queen's new consort. In Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, is resigned to a quiet life as a hatter while her younger siblings venture out into the world to seek their fortunes. When Sophie runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, the crone curses Sophie, transforming her into the shape of an old woman, and Sophie must trick her way into the wizard Howl's castle to find a counter-spell. Castle in the Air, a reinterpretation of the classic Arabian Nights fables, follows the adventures of rug merchant Abdullah after his daydreams suddenly become real. As the story progresses, Abdullah meets the girl of his dreams, the princess Flower-in-the-Night, only to see her kidnapped by a mighty djinn. Abdullah's relentless pursuit of Flower-in-the-Night eventually brings him in contact with Howl, Sophie, and other characters from Howl's Moving Castle.
Aside from her "Chrestomanci" novels, Jones's other most popular books are her "Dalemark" high fantasy tales. In the world of Dalemark, magic is occasionally wielded by the supernatural Undying, their favored humans, or by renegade mages. As the series opens, Dalemark has been divided for centuries into the free North and the authoritarian South, with each territory split into several earldoms. The Southern earls are tyrants, and their citizens dream of being liberated by the North. In the first "Dalemark" book, Cart and Cwidder, a boy minstrel, Moril, is involved in smuggling a Northern earl's son from the South to the North; in the second, Drowned Ammet (1977), a young spy, Mitt, narrowly escapes becoming an assassin and flees to the North by sea. Both Moril and Mitt encounter or wield magic during their adventures. In The Spellcoats, Jones describes the founding of Dalemark when the chief God, the One, struggled to unite feuding tribes against the evil mage Kankredin, who sought to enslave the tribes and rule Dalemark forever. In the fourth book, The Crown of Dalemark (1993), Moril and Mitt join forces to search for the legendary Crown and the rightful heir to the throne of Dalemark. Along the way, Jones makes several shrewd observations about political manipulation and the drive for power versus the impulse toward altruism. The heroes of The Crown of Dalemark know that an uprising to liberate the South will lead to innocent deaths, but to ignore the problem will only allow the South to continue their tyrannical reign, forcing the North to become corrupted by their need to employ spies and assassins. In the novel's conclusion, a vision of Dalemark 200 years later reveals a peaceful country which reveres the memory of the ruler who united the kingdom.
Much of the critical attention surrounding Jones's body of work has centered upon the disparity between her vast popularity in England and her relative lack of international recognition. In her review of Conrad's Fate (2005), Polly Shulman has called the author "[u]ncompromisingly intelligent beyond the wildest dreams of more famous fantasists … Diana Wynne Jones deserves a much bigger audience." Such critics have applauded the re-release of Jones's back list titles, comparing her novels to the works of such noted fantasy authors as J. R. R. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett. Many reviewers have complimented Jones's skill with comic action and romance, noting that such elements allow Jones to avoid the problems that plague other fantasy writers, such as excessive gimmickry, symbolizing, mythologizing, or moralizing. Mike Jones has praised The Power of Three as "an excellent read, full of unusual twists and turns, drawing to a moralistic conclusion with which one can hardly find fault," while simultaneously describing The Time of the Ghost as a story that "starts on the first page with a compelling mystery, and doesn't let up until the very last page." However, some have argued that Jones's works remain obscure largely due to the nature of her overly complex and occasionally frustrating narratives. Jessica Yates has asserted that, "Jones has not reached the wide readership … that her dedication to quality and originality deserve primarily because of the rambling nature of her plotting, and the way she takes she readers' intelligence and previous reading experience in science-fiction and fantasy genres for granted; however, these are the features that continue to endear her to her admirers." Vanessa Elder has also faulted Jones for her unfocused plotting in The Crown of Dalemark, suggesting that the book's "moments of wittiness and tension make reading the novel a pleasure at times, but there is an omnipresent scattered feeling that results in a somewhat baffling whole." Nonetheless, Jones's unique perspective, special focus on juvenile narration, and consistently imaginative plotlines have earned her a secure place within the pantheon of juvenile fantasy fiction.
Young Adult Fiction
Wilkins' Tooth (young adult novel) 1973; published in the United States as Witch's Business, 1974
The Ogre Downstairs (young adult novel) 1974
Dogsbody (young adult novel) 1975
Eight Days of Luke (young adult novel) 1975
The Power of Three (young adult novel) 1976
Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? [illustrations by John Sewell] (young adult novel) 1978
The Four Grannies [illustrations by Thelma Lambert] (young adult novel) 1980
The Homeward Bounders (young adult novel) 1981
The Time of the Ghost (young adult novel) 1981
Archer's Goon (young adult novel) 1984
The Skiver's Guide [illustrations by Chris Winn] (young adult nonfiction) 1984
Warlock at the Wheel and Other Stories (young adult short stories) 1984
Fire and Hemlock (young adult novel) 1985
Howl's Moving Castle (young adult novel) 1986
A Tale of Time City (young adult novel) 1987
Chair Person [illustrations by Glenys Ambrus] (young adult novel) 1989
Wild Robert (young adult novel) 1989
Castle in the Air (young adult novel) 1990
Black Maria (young adult novel) 1991; published in the United States as Aunt Maria, 1991
Hexwood (young adult novel) 1993
*Stopping for a Spell: Three Fantasies [illustrations by Joseph A. Smith] (young adult novels) 1993
Everard's Ride (young adult short stories) 1995
Minor Arcana (young adult short stories) 1996
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (young adult fiction) 1996
Deep Secret (young adult novel) 1997
The Dark Lord of Derkholm (young adult novel) 1998
Believing Is Seeing: Seven Stories [illustrations by Nenad Jakesevic] (young adult short stories) 1999
Puss in Boots (young adult novel) 1999
Year of the Griffin (young adult novel) 2000
The Merlin Conspiracy (young adult novel) 2003
Unexpected Magic: Collected Stories (young adult short stories) 2004
"Chrestomanci" Young Adult Series
Charmed Life (young adult novel) 1977
The Magicians of Caprona (young adult novel) 1980
Witch Week (young adult novel) 1982
The Lives of Christopher Chant (young adult novel) 1988
†Chronicles of Chrestomanci (young adult novels) 2001
Mixed Magics: Four Tales of Chrestomanci (young adult short stories) 2001
Conrad's Fate (young adult novel) 2005
The Pinhoe Egg (young adult novel) 2006
"Dalemark" Young Adult Series
Cart and Cwidder (young adult novel) 1975
Drowned Ammet (young adult novel) 1977
The Spellcoats (young adult novel) 1979
The Crown of Dalemark (young adult novel) 1993
Yes, Dear [illustrations by Graham Philpot] (picture book) 1992
The Batterpool Business (play) 1969
The King's Things (play) 1970
The Terrible Fisk Machine (play) 1972
Hidden Turnings: A Collection of Stories through Time and Space [editor] (young adult short stories) 1989
Fantasy Stories [editor; illustrations by Robin Lawrie] (young adult short stories) 1994
Fiction for Adults
Changeover (novel) 1970
A Sudden Wild Magic (novel) 1992
*Includes Chair Person, Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?, and The Four Grannies.
†Includes Charmed Life, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, and The Lives of Christopher Chant.
Diana Wynne Jones (essay date June 1989)
SOURCE: Jones, Diana Wynne. "The Heroic Ideal—A Personal Odyssey." Lion and the Unicorn 13, no. 1 (June 1989): 129-40.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses her opinions on the heroic ideal in children's literature, particularly how it relates to her young adult novel Fire and Hemlock.]
I have subtitled this essay "A Personal Odyssey." Hackneyed though this is, I think it is relevant in more than one way. I have never been able to think of heroes or the heroic without taking them to some extent personally—particularly when I was asked to talk about these topics in relation to my book Fire and Hemlock.
As a child, I was an expert in heroes. The eccentricity of my parents meant that there were almost no books in the house except learned ones, or books they used for teaching—and I was an avid reader. So before I was ten I had read innumerable collections of Greek myths, including Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, and the unabridged version of the Morte d'Arthur, in double columns and tiny print, from which, besides being very puzzled about just what Lancelot was doing in Guinevere's room, I made a mental league table of the Knights of the Round Table: Galahad went even below Kay, as a prig—my favorite was Sir Gawain. I also read Pilgrim's Progress and folk tales innumerable from all over the world, including all of Grimm—and also a certain amount of Hans Andersen, but as Andersen reputedly made his stories up, my parents only admitted him to their house in limited quantities. I then went on to the Odyssey, which I preferred to the Iliad.
In all this, I was saddened to find that as an eldest child and a girl I was barred from heroism entirely—or was I? I puzzled long over the story of Hero and Leander. Hero did nothing but let her lover do all that swimming. Obviously the girl was a wimp. But she had that name. When I was nine, much pleading wrung a frivolous book from my parents—The Arabian Nights, bowdlerized. Sheherazade, I was delighted to find, was an elder sister. So even though she did nothing but tell stories (literally for dear life), maybe there was some hope. I found it later in that book, in a tale in which the Sultana's jealous sisters tell the Sultan that his wife had given birth to a puppy, a kitten, and a log of wood. The log of wood was a girl, and she most heroically set things to rights. Good. It was possible for a girl to be a hero, then.
By this stage, I had acquired a firm mental grasp of what a hero is. A hero, first, is the one you identify with in the story. (Although this is not quite intrinsic to heroism, it is a fact that keeps flowing back into the definition and influencing it in all sorts of ways. When I later read Paradise Lost, I saw at once that Milton had made the mistake of ignoring this.) Otherwise, heroes are brave, physically strong, never mean or vicious, and possessed of a code of honor that requires them to come to the aid of the weak or incompetent and the oppressed when nobody else will. In addition, most heroes are either related to, or advised by, the gods or other supernatural characters. The gods (even if they only appear in the form of Fate) are important for heroism for two reasons. First, they supply a huge extra set of dimensions that put the hero in touch with the rest of the universe and render his actions significant for the whole of humanity. Second, the fact that the gods are watching over him serves to keep the hero up to his code. If he does chance to behave in a mean or vicious way—or break any of the other rules, for that matter, which are part of the world of that particular story—then he is at once punished and corrected.
But above all, heroes go into action when the odds are against them. They do this knowingly, often knowing they are going to get killed, and for this reason they impinge on a hostile world in a way others don't. When they die, their deaths are glorious and pathetic beyond the average.
Now this probably sums up Hector of Troy, and Hercules, and certainly applies to King Arthur—who has a double supernatural dimension, since he is guided both by Merlin and the Christian God—but I was aware that it did not quite apply to people like Jason of the Golden Fleece; or to Theseus, who coolly abandoned Ariadne on an island; or to the heroes of innumerable folktales who, like the Brave Little Tailor, start their heroic careers with a gross deception; nor, particularly, did it apply to Odysseus. Odysseus, while being billed as every inch a hero, nevertheless conned and tricked and sweet-talked his way all round the Adriatic. This used to worry me acutely. I was quite aware, of course, that Odysseus belonged to the second type of hero—the foxy, tricksy hero, the hero with a brain—but this being the case, was it proper to regard him as a hero at all? For a long time I felt I only had Homer's word for it—that he was only a ‘hero’ in the sense of being the person you identified with in the story. Then it dawned on me that the most heroic thing Odysseus does was never properly explained in my translation of the Odyssey (maybe Homer doesn't explain it anyway). This was to have himself tied to the mast with his ears open, while his sailors plugged their ears and rowed past the Sirens. My translation represented this simply as a sort of musical curiosity on Odysseus's part: he wanted to hear whatever it was the Sirens did. But if you look at this episode from the point of view of the rules of magic, you see at once that it is a calculated attempt to break the Sirens' spell. Obviously, if a man could hear their irresistible song and yet resist them, this would destroy the power of the Sirens for good. As soon as I saw this, I realized that Odysseus was a real hero.
Around this time, my grandmother gave me a book she had won at the age of six as a Sunday School prize (which she confessed she had chosen for its grand and incomprehensible title). It was called Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages. It contained almost every heroic legend from Northern Europe that was not part of the Arthurian cycle: the Charle- magne cycle, the stories connected with Dietrich of Berne, the entire Nibelung cycle, including the bits that Wagner did not use, the story of Beowulf and of Wayland Smith, and many more, all illustrated with wonderful woodcuts but otherwise in no way adapted for children. I read it until it fell to pieces. Many of the stories were unutterably sad, particularly those in which the gods took a hand—so much so that, when I later heard the saying "Those whom the gods love die young," I thought that, though thoroughly unfair, it was probably a profound truth.
Out of all this reading I had by now the basic hero-story well plotted. Your average hero starts out with some accident of birth, parentage, or person which sets him apart from the rest and often, indeed, causes him to be held in contempt. Even if he seems normal, he has at some point to contend with his own physical nature (as when Beowulf fights the dragon as an old man, or when Odysseus listens to the Sirens). Nevertheless he sets out to do a deed which no one else dares to do and/or at which others have horribly failed. The story often does not state the heroic code that demands this. That code only manifests itself when, along the way, the hero's honor, courage, or plain niceness cause him to befriend some being who will later come powerfully to his aid. (This is one of the places where being a hero overlaps with "being the person in the story with whom we identify," because your hero is after all also your Goodie.) After this, he may well make some appalling mistake—as Christian strays from the strait and narrow path, or Siegfried forgets Brunhilda—and this lands him deep in trouble. He can then end tragically. Or he can call in the debt from the powerful being he befriended earlier and, with difficulty, prevail.
So much for the male heroes. But it seemed to me the women were a mess. All over the world they were either goaded into taking vengeance, like Medea, or Brunhilda in my grandmother's book, or they were passive, like Hero or Andromeda or Christiana. A medievalist I consulted about this opined that Christianity had substantially affected the heroic ideal, especially where women were concerned, by introducing ideas of patience and endurance and the solitary personal struggle against one's own fleshly instincts. But you have only to look at the stories I have cited already to see that all these things are there in pre-Christian heroic stories. There seems to have been an overwhelming acceptance that meekness was the lot of a good woman, until she was goaded into turning evil. In the Odyssey, Penelope can only stay good by tricksy passive resistance, which doesn't do much to get rid of her suitors. But at least she is using her mind—like her husband.
By this time I was adding the rest of an education to this childhood reading. This involved studying Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And here I found a man writing who was more subtle than Odysseus, playing with the kind of narratives I had previously enjoyed, telling them in different styles, delicately deflating the typical hero, altering the balance of the tale with sophisticated touches (not least of which was making some tales almost too appropriate to their tellers, as in the "Clerk's Tale," where he has the ultimate female wimp, Griselda). And most ironical and sophisticated of all, he tells the most truly and obviously heroic story—"Sir Thopas"—pretending it is from his own mouth, and makes it an utter joke, a complete send-up. It was as if a super-Odysseus had passed that way, listening with a delicate and caustic ear to the Siren-song of my childhood stories and breaking their spell entirely. I didn't quite see this at the time, but I was left with an uneasy sense that the heroic ideal was awfully banal and naive and straightforward.
When I got to Oxford as a student I came to see that this was how these stories seemed now to everyone once Chaucer had done with them. No respectable writer dared for centuries to write a straightforward heroic narrative. If you wanted to, you had to show that your narrative had a purpose that was not heroic—either to strip the illusions from a naive hero like Candide or Tom Jones (Tom Jones, interestingly enough, being based on the Odyssey); or to make a moral and social point aside from the story as, say, Dickens does. And the bad things to be conquered had to be reduced to credible everyday targets, like the Government. Not surprisingly, tricksy Odysseuslike heroes came to be preferred by the twentieth century (Chandler's Marlowe is typical)—that is, if you still stubbornly wanted any element of heroism or naive story-telling. And the whole thing reached an apotheosis in a non-heroic non-story by James Joyce, called, appropriately enough, Ulysses. In the midst of all this I was very grateful to come across Edmund Spenser who had managed to retrieve at least six genuine heroes from this mess and put them in a narrative called The Faerie Queene. This is an allegory. Even in Tudor times you couldn't do it straight and be thought serious (I may remind everyone that Shakespeare didn't consider his plays serious: his serious stuff was Venus and Adonis, where the decoration almost hides the story).
To my joy, one of Spenser's heroes was a woman. Britomart. Now I haven't space to go into everything I learnt from Spenser—things such as how to organize a complex narrative, or how to implant the faroff supernatural into the here-and-now—but I must pause a bit on what a discovery Britomart was to me. A woman who was a proper hero (this may be a commonplace now, but it certainly was not in the fifties). True, she was also an allegory of Chastity and dressed in armour like a man; but the significant thing to me was that she had a vision of her future lover and set out to do something about it as a hero should. The vision of the future lover is of course a common folktale element. But in The Faerie Queene the vision serves as the high ideal, the thing to strive towards, and it is also, in plain human terms, love. And here I began to see just what Christianity had really added to the heroic tradition. It had reinforced the high ideal—for God is love—though heroes have always had that, even if they do not know it when they begin. But, more importantly, Christianity had modified the tradition that a hero is guided by a god or gods. For God watches over everyone. Thanks to Britomart and Spenser, I now knew that every ordinary man or woman could be a hero.
But the heroic ideal, I thought, had gone sour. It was not until I had children of my own and through them came to read the children's books I had never had as a child, that I realized that here was the only place where the ideal still existed. It flourished alongside the story, since children will not read much without a narrative, in a way that leads me to suspect the two things are closely connected. (Both ideal and story have since begun to flourish again in adult fantasy, but this hardly existed at the time I'm talking of: Tolkien had published only part of The Lord of the Rings.)
I think the reason that the heroic ideal had, as it were, retreated to children's books is that children do, by nature, status, and instinct, live more in the heroic mode than the rest of humanity. They naturally have the right naive, straightforward approach. And in every playground there are actual giants to be overcome and the moral issues are usually clearer than they are, say, in politics. I shall never forget the occasion when I was visiting a school as a writer and the whole place suddenly fell into an uproar because the school tomboy—a most splendid Britomart of a girl—had beaten up the school bully. Everything stopped in the staffroom while the teachers debated what to do. They wanted to give the tomboy a prize, but decided reluctantly that they had better punish her and the bully too. They knew that if, as a child, you do pluck up courage to hit the bully, it is an act of true heroism—as great as that of Beowulf in his old age. I remember passing the tomboy, sitting in her special place of punishment opposite the bully. She was blazing with her deed, as if she had actually been touched by a god. And I thought that this confirmed all my theories: a child in her position is open to any heroic myth I care to use; she is inward with folktales; she would feel the force of any magical or divine intervention.
On the other hand, it is clear to me that all children don't actually demand magical events in their reading. They differ as other people do. But it is a fact that all children's books that endure are fantasies of some kind. These do seem to strike the deepest note.
Anyway, you must picture me in the seventies all set to write according to these discoveries. But there was a snag. In 1970 no boy would be seen dead reading a book whose hero was a girl. Children were then—and still are to some extent—rather too inward with the heroic tradition that heroes are male and females are either wimps or bad. Girls will read male-hero stories and (wistfully) identify, but not vice versa, not in 1970 anyway. I took this up rather as a challenge: I love a challenge. For instance, I made David in Eight Days of Luke a boy, but I put him in a situation with his relations that both sexes could identify with. In Power of Three, I provided Gair with a sister with apparently greater gifts, and the same in Cart and Cwidder ; and I sneaked a female hero past in Dogsbody by telling the story from the dog's point of view. But a desire was growing in me to have a real female hero, one with whom all girls could identify and through that, all persons—a sort of Everywoman, if you like. This is the reason for the name Polly, when I eventually came to write Fire and Hemlock. The Greek poly means "more than one; many or much," and this, as we shall see, has more than one significance for the book. Another thing I had also long wanted to do was to show children how close to the old heroic ideal they so often are. I'd had a stab at it in Eight Days of Luke, by using the days of the week, and the Norse gods they were named after, to indicate that the big things, the stirring events—the heroic ideal—were as much part of modern everyday life as Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are. But I knew that what I wanted to do really was to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate. I also longed to base something on the ballad Tam Lin, because that had a real female hero, one of the few Britomart-like heroes in folklore.
Meanwhile, feminism had become a force and was slowly changing the climate of opinion. I looked one day at a picture I own called Fire and Hemlock. It is a very peculiar picture, because sometimes there seem to be people in it and sometimes not. And I realized I was about to write the book. If anything sparked it off, it was probably the saying "Those whom the gods love die young." (I often find my books are founded on a saying or proverb. The maddest is Archer's Goon, which is founded on a dire pun: ‘urban gorilla.’) But there was another consideration. Janet, the hero of Tam Lin, behaves throughout the story like a woman and not like a pseudo-man. I wanted a narrative structure which did not simply put a female in a male's place—and, oddly enough, the structure I came up with was no other than that great twentieth-century favorite, the Odyssey. I think at least part of the reason for this is Penelope, who, as I said before, is in her way as tricksy as her husband: she clearly has a mind. And Odysseus is a thinking hero. I knew my story was going to be a journey of the mind to some extent, both for Polly and for Tom.
Now you must understand that I came to writing Fire and Hemlock not only with the Odyssey in mind. My head was awash with myths and legends, hundreds of them, and they all contribute, but there are three which underlie it principally. The most obvious of course are the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, seen as parts of a whole. This gives the emotive aspect of the story: that of a foray into the supernatural world of the imagination to rescue the one you love (and this love is seen in the same way as Britomart's—as being the same as the heroic ideal). As to the second and third underlay, you must bear with me if I hold the third up almost to the end. But the second is the Odyssey, of course. The Odyssey accounts for the shape of the story, and the way it had largely to be told in flashback. For Homer's Odyssey starts in what we have to call present-day Ithaca, and when Odysseus himself finally appears, at least half of his story is in flashbacks. We find him disentangling himself from Calypso, a possessive supernatural woman, by telling his story. This gave me several elements. By association with Sheherazade, it made me see that Polly would be telling the story. It gave me Tom's recent divorce from Laurel. And Calypso, when she finally agrees to let Odysseus go, tells him he has to visit Hades first. This could be her way of saying "I'll see you in hell first!" but, since she is a nymph and semi-divine, it becomes literal truth and means "You'll have to pass through death first." This ties in wonderfully with the "tithe to hell" that the fairy folk have to pay in Tam Lin and gave me the ending of the book. It also gave me an important fact about Laurel: this way she has of bending the truth to her own ends. Put this together with the gift of true-speaking the Queen gives Thomas the Rhymer, and you have Laurel's gift to Tom: that everything he imagines will come true. It is not only a hellish gift from a supernatural female: it is the mark of a particularly terrible type of woman—I'm sure we all know at least one such person—a woman who confuses fact and fiction impartially for her own ends. For Laurel is Circe as well.
At the opening of the book, Polly as well as Tom is in thrall to this woman. She has to perform a strenuous and truthful act of memory to break that thralldom. This is in itself intended to be an act of heroism akin to Odysseus confronting the Sirens. As a girl, one would expect Polly to be in the role of Penelope—and she is, by and large, in that Tom ranges the world, while Polly stays at home. But there is another hero in the Odyssey, Odysseus's son, the young, naive Telemachus. Polly takes the role of Telemachus on herself when she first meets Tom, by naming herself Hero; and this begins a long series of heroic roles both she and Tom take on. (Another reason for her name—she is many people.) Polly does this semi-knowingly at age 10, because she knows instinctively that her only contact with Tom that Laurel cannot break is that of the imagination. At 10 children are good at knowing such things. Polly first expresses this knowledge in the naive made-up story of Tan Coul and his friends, with herself as assistant hero. As she grows older and recognizes the complexity of life, the naive make-believe becomes more and more marginal, so that as she searches for her ideal in a new form, she takes on a whole series of heroic roles. She is Gerda in The Snow Queen, Snow White, Britomart, St. George, Pierrot, Pandora, Andromeda, Janet from Tam Lin and many more, in a sort of overlapping succession.
Tom appears to cling to the role of Odysseus, which he takes on himself with the letter about the giant in the supermarket. Anyone reading that section closely may have noticed that the giant has only one eye, like Polyphemus the Cyclops. But in fact Tom loses that role to Polly around the time he discovers his alter ego in the hardware shop—and becomes in turn Leander, Kay kidnapped by the Snow Queen, the Knight of the Moon, Artegall, Bellerophon, Prometheus/Epimetheus, Harlequin, Perseus, Orpheus, and of course Tam Lin. He and Polly are continually swapping active and passive roles and, in fact, sharing the part of Odysseus between them.
Now the way I did this was something else I learnt from Spenser. Spenser's allegory ranges from large overt personifications (Pride is a woman who lives in a palace with a filthy back yard), to correspondences so subtle that it is sometimes hard to call them allegory. And at other times the allegorical role is shared about among many characters, each of whom is some aspect of it. I tried to do the same with the heroic personifications and actions of Polly and Tom. I needed to find some way, you see, to call on the magical or god-guided aspect of all heroic careers. So sometimes I made the action overtly supernatural and sometimes so close to mundane factualness as to be indistinguishable from everyone's ordinary acts. And sometimes halfway between the two.
In order to organize this, I found that the narrative moved in a sort of spiral, with each stage echoing and being supported by the ones that went before. I had to work very hard in the final draft to make sure the echoes were not repetitions, because at the same time I was establishing another set of resonances that had to be hidden in the same spiral. These were directly concerned with gods and the supernatural. All the female characters are arranged in threes, with Polly always at the centre. There are Nina (who is silly), Polly (who is learning the whole time), and Fiona (who is sensible); there are Granny, Polly, and Ivy, old, young, and middle-aged respectively. The first threesome may not strike people as significant, but taken along with the second, I hope it begins to suggest the Three-Formed Goddess, diva triforma. Towards the end of the book, Granny takes on the role of Fate and Wisdom quite overtly, shearing fish and explaining the riddle of the ballad of Tam Lin. Laurel is of course an aspect of this Goddess. Consequently, the most important threesome is Laurel, Polly, Ivy. Ivy is the mundane parasitical version of Laurel, evergreen and clinging—Laurel as the Lorelei in Suburbia, if you like. And Polly—make no mistake—is intended to be an aspect of Laurel too—Laurel as Venus and the Fairy Queen. But she is the aspect that appears not in Tam Lin but in Thomas the Rhymer, the good and beloved Queen that Thomas first mistakes for the Virgin Mary and then submits to. The adventures Polly and Tom have together fairly carefully echo this second ballad. I did this not out of perverseness but because of what I had learnt from Spenser, through Britomart, of the Christian contribution to the heroic ideal: that the deity is for everyone. There is God in all of us as well as with us. It follows that the major part of a hero's quest is to locate that deity within and to live up to its standards. And if the hero is female, it also follows that the deity is likely to be female too, in some sense.
(If anyone wonders about the male characters, yes, they are surreptitiously arranged in the same way.)
You will possibly be thinking by now that I had a rich mix and a complex structure to control. This is true. You are maybe also wondering about the third underlying myth that I mentioned. Before I come to this myth, however, I have to mention another factor. I needed a conscious, organizing overlay to this narrative. As you can probably see by now, it could well have run out of control without one. And, unlike the mass of myths and folktales in the story which came surging into the narrative almost unbidden, this had to be in my conscious control. The organizing overlay I chose was T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. This, on a purely technical level, gave me a story divided into four parts and featuring a string quartet. It also gave me the setting and atmosphere for the funeral Polly gatecrashes in Hunsdon House:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden …
… . .
Quick said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner… . Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? …
… . .
So we moved …
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly… .
Chapter Two is full of echoes from Burnt Norton. The vases come from here. I chose the poem because it combines static meditation with movement in an extraordinary way, to become a quest of the mind away from the Nothing of spiritual death (Hemlock in my book), towards the Fire which is imagination and redemption—the Nowhere of my book. A heroic journey from Nothing to Nowhere is what Polly takes.
Though I was always aware of Eliot's poem as an overlay, I only, as it were, turned the sound up on it from time to time. I kept it low until the Bristol sec- tion after this initial forte, where Polly, now in the role of Snow White, Euridice and Britomart—is turned out, lost and looking down into the River Avon.
I think the river is a strong brown god …
… . .
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel [Here is Penelope again.]
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending …
… . .
Where is there an end to it, the soundless wailing … ?
I turned the sound down on Eliot again after that, until Polly remembers what it was she did to lose Tom and put them both in Laurel's power. Now here I must remind you of my childhood discovery that all heroes are likely to make one horrible mistake. On the human level, Polly's mistake is to behave like her mother, with possessive curiosity, and spy on Tom. On the mythical level, it throws the story back to the tragedy and failure of Hero and Leander, with which the story started. This unjustified curiosity, which leads the hero to spy on his or her partner, is a motif in dozens of folktales—"East of the Sun and West of the Moon" being the one which is mentioned in the book. Here the young wife sees her husband in his true shape in the night, and loses him. This summary will no doubt remind you all of a much better known story—the story which is, in fact, the third underlying myth in Fire and Hemlock —the story of Cupid and Psyche. From long before C. S. Lewis this was a myth of the human soul in search of a beloved ideal, which is what Tom has now become for Polly. Tom in fact has Cupid's attributes, although few people seem to notice. When my British publisher was unable to see this, I simply asked her, "Who is mostly blind and goes to work with a bow?" and she said, "Oh, I see!" But, to go back to human terms, and Polly's loss of Tom, people do lose sight of their ideals quite often in adolescence and young adulthood; they tend to see life as far too complex and then come up with the idea that things are only real and valid if they are unpleasant or boring. The myth of Cupid and Psyche is certainly about this. Or, as Eliot says: "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality …" and the defense is to deny the imagination any reality at all. But Cupid and Psyche is not mentioned in the book on purpose, because Cupid and Psyche are both in their way gods, not heroes—and anyway, it always seems to me that powerful stories like that one always pull their weight better for only being hinted at.
Once Polly knows she has lost Tom, her quest becomes more urgent. So the narrative moves back to the present time, just as it does in the Odyssey, and becomes traditionally heroic in that Polly finds she can call for help on those she has helped in the past. This includes the one she nearly misses because it is too close to her: Fiona. This sort of thing may be a traditional motif, but it does also happen in real life—you can be very blind to people close to you, both for good or evil. Polly has accepted Seb in the same blind way. But at last, having called in her debts and made her heroic act of memory, Polly sets out to retrieve her mistake. Now here I found I had to leave the tradition represented by Janet in Tam Lin, because it was precisely by hanging on to Tom and being overcurious that Polly had lost him. Anyway she has already done her hanging-on as a child. It was clear to me that the only redress she could make was the reverse of possessiveness—complete generosity—generosity so complete that it amounts to rejection. She has to love Tom enough to let him go—hurtfully. This is the only way she can harness Tom's innate strength of character, and only hurting can he summon the full force of the fire—which is to some extent physical passion and to an even greater extent the true strength of the heroic world of the imagination Polly and Tom have built together. But Tom has to do it himself. He has depended on Polly too much.
This is where I turned the sound up again on The Four Quartets. Polly has to take the same road that T. S. Eliot describes in his quest:
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
Nowhere, you see.
But I was talking about everyday life as much as Eliot was. I was also following the Odyssey, where Odysseus does at last come home, to a partnership and a personal relationship. And I wanted to indicate, however briefly, that though a relationship was possible between Polly and Tom, such a relationship is only likely to be maintained through continuing repeated small acts of heroism from both. This is what I tried to do in the Coda, where the structure of the Odyssey most remarkably echoes what Eliot has to say:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
And this is the beginning and the end of my personal version of the Odyssey.
Diana Wynne Jones (essay date July-August 2004)
SOURCE: Jones, Diana Wynne. "Birthing a Book." Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 4 (July-August 2004): 379-93.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses the creative process behind writing a book, including the need for unexpected twists to arise naturally and her own need to inhabit the universe of a book while fashioning it as its creator.]
Writers are always being called upon to explain their "creative process," usually for radio interviews. I never listen to one of these without thinking, "She's lying!" or, "He's saying what he thinks they want to hear." Or just, "The same old guff!" For of course I have said the same kind of things myself—a sort of racy approximation to what the truth appears to be, along with a few spiky little insertions, usually to the effect that this particular thing really happened, or that thing was taken from real life, so that interviewer and listeners don't run away with the idea that fantasy has no connection with actual mundane existence. Desperate to please them—and above all not to let oneself down in public—one produces something that sounds as if it might be true.
I had a bit of fun with this process in a story called "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" [published in Mixed Magics, Greenwillow]. Carol is a twelve-yearold professional dreamer who suddenly finds she is suffering from, as it were, dreamer's block. She goes to the enchanter Chrestomanci to get this sorted out. Having pried Carol away from her pushy mama, Chrestomanci invites Carol to tell him exactly what she does when she makes a dream.
This was something Carol had done hundreds of
times by now. She smiled graciously and began,
"I get a feeling in my head first, which means a
dream is ready to happen. Dreams come when
they will, you know, and there is no stopping them
or putting them off. So I tell Mama, and she helps
me to get settled on the special couch … and I
drop off to sleep… . Then the dream takes me
… It is like a voyage of discovery—"
"When is this?" Chrestomanci interrupted in an
offhand sort of way. "Does this dreaming happen
"It can happen at any time," said Carol. "If a
dream is ready, I can go to my couch and sleep
during the day … It's like a voyage of discovery,
sometimes in caves underground, sometimes
in palaces in the clouds—"
"Yes. And how long do you dream for? Six hours?
Ten minutes?" Chrestomanci interrupted again.
"About half an hour," said Carol. "Sometimes in
the clouds or maybe in the southern seas. I never
know whom I will meet on my journey—"
"Do you finish a whole dream in half an hour?"
Chrestomanci interrupted yet again.
"Of course not. Some of my dreams last for more
than three hours," Carol said. "I can control my
dreams. And I do my best work in regular half-hour
stints. I wish you wouldn't keep interrupting
when I'm doing my best to tell you!"
Chrestomanci … seemed surprised. "My dear
young lady, you are not doing your best to tell
me. You are giving me precisely the same flannel
you gave the Times and the Croydon Gazette …
You are telling me your dreams come unbidden—
but you have one for half an hour every day—
and that you never know where you'll go in them
or what will happen—but you can control your
dreams perfectly. That can't all be true, can it?"
… "This is the way dreams are," [Carol] said.
"And I am only the Seeing Eye."
"As you told the Manchester Guardian," Chrestomanci
agreed, "if that is what they meant by
‘Oosung Oyo.’ I see that must have been a misprint
Poor Carol. She is in a situation very familiar to writers being interviewed, called upon to supply graceful facts that will interest her audience and to say simple things about a matter that is both very complicated and very, very private. So she doesn't exactly lie. She temporizes by describing external physical details—in much the same way as writers will describe how they have a special hut for writing in, or how long they work at their computers—and then she adds a plug for her dreams. And as Chrestomanci points out, none of it adds up. There must, he implies, be more to it than that.
And of course there is. And this is the part that never ceases to fascinate me—the private things that go on inside your head when a book is being planned and written. I wrote Carol's story more or less from life—my life—although I wasn't then suffering from writer's block: I was simply on holiday. The story actually started, for me, with a dream. I was in a deserted, litter-strewn fairground, where, after wandering for some time, I came upon a gloomy man called Norman, who was sitting on a box. He was apparently the only person there. I asked him where all the others were. He replied, somewhat drunken and slurred, "They're on shtrike—we're all on strike." And the story was born, in much the way that Carol Oneir claims. For, as I said, Carol does not lie. Everything she claims is true, whether of dreaming or writing, and the things that Chrestomanci declares cannot all be true at once are in fact all true at once. The human brain can lay one contradiction upon another and make the two things match without any trouble at all and be aware of strict logic at the same time. This is what I find so fascinating.
Led on by this fascination, I once, when asked to give a talk about my book Fire and Hemlock, did have a stab at describing what went on while I wrote it. I teased out every layer of the book. Starting with what I felt about heroes and the heroic, I went on to describe my passion for cello music and how a rereading of Eliot's Four Quartets sparked the actual book and gave rise to the presence of a quartet of musicians in it. I charted the various myths and folktales that surfaced and sank in the course of it, and of course I expounded on the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer—regarded as the negative and positive of the same story—which were the framework for the narrative. I gave the paper and the audience nodded wisely. This, they seemed to feel, was real stuff. I then went to New York, where my publishers had taken a great interest and had asked for a copy of the talk. I went in to see Libby, one of the editors—a wonderful wise lady with a voice like a sack of gravel being shaken. She was just finishing the paper as I walked in. She looked up from it and shook gravel at me:
"Very nice, Diana, but writers don't work like that."
I wanted to shout, "Yes, I do! It's all true!" Instead I sort of gulped and answered, "No. You're absolutely right." As soon as I thought, I realized that the book had not been written in at all the analytical way I had tried to describe. The second draft might have been, when I was trying to make clear all the various elements that went into it—a process I always liken to pointing up or grouting the basic brickwork—but the first draft had been written at white heat, in a state where I was unable to put it down. I worked at it in any spare five minutes I could find. I even got up at six in the morning to write. This was so unheard of that my family wondered if I was ill. And such was the passion with which I was going at it that it seemed to pull in all sorts of queer but relevant things from daily life—I can't tell you half the weird things now, but I do remember being followed around by a van labeled King's Lynn, and going to a lecture where the speaker turned out to be the image of Mr. Leroy, with great black bags under his eyes, who proceeded to talk about both the Four Quartets and the ballad of Tam Lin, in a lecture that I think was supposed to be about Shakespeare.
Yet the book got written with a shape and a coherent story. The various elements I so carefully dissected in my talk got fed in at the right places. And I know I was very careful throughout, even in the first draft, to keep all the supernatural elements just a bare thread away from things that could have a normal explanation after all. This was one of the prime requirements from the book itself when it first came thundering into my head.
In other words, I was in control, just like Carol Oneir was in her dreams. So, in an odd way, Libby was right, but so was I. Two seemingly incompatible things had been going on at once.
So the first truth about the creative process is that one is doing two mutually incompatible things. Logical souls like Chrestomanci find this hard to accept.
Let's go back to Carol and Chrestomanci then. Chrestomanci finds a solution to Carol's problems with the aid of Tonino, whose gift is to enhance the magic of others, and has him enhance Carol's dream magic in order to force her to do three things. First, he makes her actually enter physically into her dream. This, though it is put in fantasy terms, is truly and exactly what one has to do if one is to write any work of fiction properly. One has to see, feel, smell, touch, and thoroughly experience what is going on as one writes. George Meredith talks of it (in Diana of the Crossways) as living a double life. And one does. I vividly remember, when I was writing Dogsbody, being a dog a lot of the time, wanting to scratch under my collar or raise a leg to deal with an itch behind my left ear—I've felt itchy ever since really—and living through that lovely multiple stretch that dogs do, tail and back legs first, then up the back through to the front legs. Or that rotating shake that gets mud on the ceiling. At the same time, although I didn't ever believe I actually was a dog, I did so thoroughly believe in the story that I was sure the Sun—Sol—was an animate being. Every time I came to a passage with Sol in it, I would lay that sheet of paper in the patch of sun on my desk, so that Sol could check it for accuracy. Honestly.
Of course, all this makes you inadequate for everyday existence. I get terribly absent-minded and walk about in the street muttering to myself. And when I was writing Charmed Life (another one I couldn't put down), I did one evening put my husband's shoes in the oven to cook for supper—luckily, I noticed in time. This is the price one has to pay for living in a story and—more—believing in it. And it is a very important truth.
Chrestomanci also forces Carol to acknowledge a second and much more private truth. That she uses the same five characters again and again under different disguises. Carol likes and trusts her imaginary people—at least until she discovers what they're really like—and even then she still has a very loyal, special relationship with Melville, who acts all her villains for her. He promises to come back and take part in her dreams again when she has learned a little more. He is that real. As my real friend, editor Sharyn November, said when I told her about such people, "Oh, you mean an imaginary friend! Like children have!" I suspect that most writers have, just as I have, quite a number of these imaginary friends, and that they use them in their work over and over again; but I don't think I've ever heard a single writer admit it. Sometimes the fact is obvious, as in Dick Francis, whose protagonist is always pretty much the same, but mostly it is a lot less so. I don't know why it should be such a shameful thing to admit. Painters are allowed to portray the same haystack a hundred times, or the same lily pond, or whatever, but a writer is not allowed to put the same person in more than one book unless it is a sequel and that character has the same name. Some of this prohibition comes from readers and reviewers (who consider it cheating and uninventive), but I suspect the true reason is that writers themselves don't want to admit it. For one thing, they feel that such secret friends are childish. So they squirm and wriggle and say anything rather than that they use the same character more than once. Such repeated characters are always very near and dear to a writer's heart, and it is a true invasion of privacy to have other people know that you have been carrying this person about, nestled in the soft spaces of your head. But the fact is, these imaginary friends have your emotions vested in them, and usually you've had them long enough that they have grown as many quirks and facets as a real live person. This actually makes them doubly valuable. You can be sure that, once introduced into any narrative, they are going to pull your feelings in there with them (and so those of readers) and also that they are going to behave like a real live person. You don't have to perform any grinding, mind-bending feats of imagination to get inside them—you know what they are like inside. You know how they speak and how they will react.
The third advantage of such friends is the one that makes you use them more than once. They have lived with you so long and have developed so many sides to them that you can use a piece of them here and a piece of them there—split them down the middle like a billet of wood, as it were—and still present them as rounded personalities for that particular narrative. My hope is that nobody has hitherto noticed when I do this. Does anyone know that Mr. Lynn in Fire and Hemlock and the Goon from Archer's Goon both derive from the same person, split like a billet of wood? (Those two books were written back to back, using the two halves of a person who had been in my head forever.) Or did anyone spot that Howl in Howl's Moving Castle and the keeper of the silver casket in A Tale of Time City are similarly made out of another single person?
Of course you can use an actual live person in exactly this way, too—split them up and introduce part of them as a whole in the right story. Living people always have sumptuously many sides to their personality, and so I have cheerfully pirated parts of live people, too. I find I use real people quite a lot anyway—it is extraordinary how many acquaintances we all have who ought to be in a story—and being multifaceted the way living folk are, they split up really easily. For instance, Douglas and Caspar in The Ogre Downstairs are both portraits of my eldest son at different stages in his life; and Himself in The Time of the Ghost and the Sempitern in A Tale of Time City are portraits of my father—neither of them terribly flattering, I'm afraid.
It is very fortunate that actual people are open to this use (or abuse), because one sad fact about the imaginary characters is that they are quite liable to go away suddenly. They vanish from your head—possible go on strike—and although you know you once had them, and even what they were like, they are some- how not there any more. This, to some extent—with me, anyway—accounts for the fact that I very seldom find it easy to write sequels. I do one book, and the imaginary people in it are mysteriously gone—as if they don't want to be used again. Most only consent to appear again if they are used in another guise.
But to get back to Carol Oneir and her dreamer's block—Carol has made two major mistakes where her imaginary friends are concerned: not only has she overworked them as her main characters but she has paid almost no attention to the rest. She dismisses everyone but her five main persons as her Cast of Thousands, people who cluster at the edges of things and only say rhubarb and abracadabra. She is astounded and indignant when they turn out to have feelings and needs, as she does herself. This is a really monumental error—because it causes her to be basically bored by her entire dream works. Being bored is the surest way I know to halt any kind of creative process.
If there is one thing I have learned, it is that you must have at least some emotional connection with every soul who figures in a story. You may like them, love them, find them disgusting, or hate them, but you must react to them in some way. You must see them as real and treat them with the same respect you would accord someone you meet in the street. Only then can they take on any life of their own. And they do. I love it when people I have invented start behaving unexpectedly, as real people do—being themselves, in fact.
Naturally, if your people are doing their own thing, this is going to have an effect on the way the story goes. It is going to take on unexpected quirks and twists. It may even go in quite a different direction from the way you are expecting. For this reason, I always leave the story vague enough in my head that I can allow the characters room to alter it. And after an early shock when I was writing Wilkins' Tooth [Witch's Business in the U.S.], I always allow room for unexpected characters to appear, too. I was quite shattered in this early book when my main protagonists knocked on a door. I was all set to see the door opened by the vague father of the two little girls they were trying to talk to. Instead, the door was opened by their aunt, tall and covered with oil paint, with a cigarette wagging in her mouth.
Since then this has happened quite often. For instance, although I suspect some people will find this hard to credit, I had no idea what Chrestomanci was going to be like until he first appeared in Mrs. Sharp's kitchen. This is in spite of the fact that Charmed Life was a book that came into my head almost whole and entire from the start. I only knew there was going to be a great enchanter in it—I had left a sort of hole in the story where Chrestomanci was going to be and all I did was trust that someone would be along to fill that hole. And Chrestomanci filled it more than adequately. It added no end to the excitement of writing that book, because I was discovering what Chrestomanci was like—and about his dressing gowns—quite as eagerly as anyone else might.
Poor Carol Oneir has probably secretly been dying to let all her characters loose and see what happens. She has certainly become mightily sick of at least four of her lead characters. But she has become trapped in commercial success and by the pressure put on her to go on and do the same thing again. This is a pressure I find one really has to avoid if at all possible—that way lie boredom and blocks. Likewise it truly is fatal to yield to persuasion to write another book on the same lines as the first—unless of course your imagination is skipping expectantly up and down like a computer cursor, wanting to do just that. If it isn't, you shouldn't.
But poor Carol is only twelve and has got herself stuffed into a mold. When Chrestomanci helps her free herself, the whole dream world explodes into an extravaganza of absurdities, the Cast of Thousands runs riot, her stock Wise Old Man tries to behave like Santa Claus, and most of her other lead characters get drunk and head for the nearest casino. And Carol learns a valuable lesson. For there is such a thing as a character or characters running away with a story, and if you keep them on too tight a rein, my experience is that they do just that.
There is also such a thing as a story running away with itself, too, which is equally serious—because all narratives, long or short, need a definite shape, a shape you can usually actually draw as a diagram, and when this is not present, you don't get a narrative, you get a mess. In my experience, this happens when the writer's own idea of how the story should go conflicts with the story's idea of how it wants to be. This is where, like Carol, one is doing two incompatible things at once; for a book, when one is writing it, can be as willful as any delinquent character. You have to let it have its head, just as if it were a person, and at the same time try to coax it in the direction you think it ought to go. Sometimes it just won't. I have long been reconciled to books turn- ing out quite different from the grand Platonic ideal I had when I first conceived and started to write them.
This brings me to the really interesting bit. You notice that at the start of the extract I quoted, Carol Oneir says, "I get a feeling in my head first, which means a dream is ready to happen." Chrestomanci tactfully ignores this. It is not part of his remit to deal with the actual process of dream creation, only what has gone wrong with it. But this statement of Carol's begs all the important questions. The statements that I and other writers make to the media likewise blur over this most central matter—which is, what goes on in your head to cause you to think you're about to write a book? What things need to be present before you can?
This is actually what most young readers are fumbling after when they ask, Where do you get your ideas? I can get any number of ideas, but ninety-nine percent simply never could grow into a book that I could possibly write. It takes a certain kind of idea even to get me started, and even then over half of these don't come to anything. I have cupboards and drawers full of barely-begun writings.
I have been trying very hard for years to define what I do need to get started, ever since, in fact, I ran up against one of those holistic doctors—you know, cure your body and your mind together. A fine idea, if you can get it right. But this doctor would have it that my back problems were due to the fact that I spent too much time harking back to my past.
"Look to the future," he said, "and you'll get much better ideas for your books then." He made me so angry. As soon as he was out of sight, I yelled and threw cushions and jumped up and down, and swore, and threw more cushions. I wasn't sure then quite why I was so angry, but I think I have it worked out by now.
First, of course, you can't look to the future because it is a blank. It hasn't happened yet. Even someone who is wanting to write about the year 9000 has to have something from the present day to base the narrative on—they have, at the very least, to rely on the fact that human nature and economics and physics tend to be the same whatever year it is. And, assuming that human nature hasn't changed much, they can deploy their imaginary friends. In other words, you need hooks to hang your story onto. We all do. And my hooks happen to be twofold: my imaginary friends and my childhood.
So I'm going to leave Carol behind now and talk about my second set of hooks—my childhood.
Childhood was a very vivid and often very distressing time for me. Just for starters, WWII broke out when I was five, and the whole world went mad. Some of the time it was terrifying. The adults I knew were frightened (which is something that pulls the rug out from under any childhood sense of security), guns barked in the night, searchlights crisscrossed looking for raiding bombers, and nowhere seemed to be safe. Some of the time it was plain crazy, like the time I encountered one of my father's friends crawling about in the next-door field with a bush tied to his head.
"Hallo, Mr. Cowie," I shrilled innocently. "What are you doing crawling about with that bush on your head?" He rose up, bush and all, and tried to shout at me in a whisper, bright red in the face. "Shut up and go away, child! You're spoiling the exercise!" He was in the Home Guard, you see.
The war caused complete disruption in what promised to be a peaceful suburban childhood—though, knowing my parents, I doubt the peaceful. My father, for instance, carried financial economy to a new and zany art form. He wouldn't buy books for me and my sisters, but he salvaged his conscience by purchasing the whole set of Arthur Ransome's books (on sale, of course), which he then locked in a cupboard and doled out one between the three of us every Christmas; and when it was decided that I should go to university, he swapped my sisters' treasured dollhouse for Greek lessons for me.
My mother enjoyed quarreling. She did it with everyone, all the time.
At the start of the war we were hurried away first to Wales and then—after my mother had quarreled with her in-laws—to the Lake District (where, coincidentally, we were lodged in the house that belonged to the Ransome children). One of the things that I gained from this experience, which I have only recently realized, was a very strong sense of the changing seasons of the year and the effect the seasons have on the way you think and act. With the increasing urbanization of children's lives, I find this more important every year. Children need to be kept in touch with the cycle of the seasons. Every one of my books has its own season, or seasons. It is part of the feeling they bring with them when they are ready to be written—Charmed Life is an early autumn book, Black Maria takes place in the raw new weather of spring, Fire and Hemlock goes round the seasons several times—and this is as important to each book as the characters or the landscapes.
We were in the Lakes long enough to have a taste of each season, by which time my mother had quarreled with all the other mothers evacuated there. We moved to a nunnery in York, another strange interlude, and then—after a brief move back to London, to the bombs and gunfire—to a village in East Anglia. There, my parents had the job of running a sort of conference center. Both of them found the fact that they had children an extreme nuisance and preferred to forget about us. We were banished to a two-room outbuilding, heated only by an oil-heater we were always knocking over. I don't know how we didn't kill ourselves. We ran about on top of roofs and once nearly hanged my sister. Most of our clothes were castoffs from the local orphanage. My youngest sister tied her hair in knots to keep it out of her eyes, and this was not noticed for months.
In my only attempt at semi-autobiography, The Time of the Ghost, I found I had to tone down both the hanging incident and the knots-in-hair episode. No one would have believed the reality. And this is true about the whole of this part of my life—I don't ever really write about it, but on the other hand I write about it all the time. What I do is a sort of translating. Every time I get a notion that might start a book going, I find I ask myself, "Will this idea translate my experiences into something of value for people today?" For the experiences were much wider than mere neglect.
The first, outer layer of what I knew then was the global violence and insanity of the war and later the Cold War, which had a sort of icy saneness that was even more insane. I have never really lost the sense that the world is basically thoroughly unstable. I think this is why I tend to write about multiple parallel worlds—anything can happen and probably is somewhere. The next layer inwards was the village itself. It was beautiful. People used to do folk-dancing in the streets, and throw pots and weave and sing madrigals, and the vicar was a Communist and gave left-wing sermons. (People used to come from Great Dunmow in hobnailed boots in order to walk out in the middle of them.) And every other adult soul in the place was crazy in some way. At the extreme end were the man who sat in the church porch and howled on the nights of the full moon, the two witches, the man who made life-size replicas of elephants that really walked, and the gardener at the conference center who was always taking me aside to tell me about the vision he had had on the road to the next village. In this vision an angel descended to him in a blaze of light and told him always to go to Chapel and not to Church, and never to join a Trades Union. At the more normal end of things, I might cite the extremely refined and tweed-suited local nymphomaniac. You were liable to stumble over her in a ditch at any time, in her twin-set and pearls, having it off with one of the bus drivers.
A wealth of material, you'd say. But I never have wanted to put this in a book directly. It just lies behind the slightly more normal things I do do, this sense that most people are crazy, if you look deep enough. Any friendship is therefore liable to be unstable and odd. Adults always strike me as particularly crazy, and children have to deal with them.
Encapsulated in this craziness, and crazy too in its own way, was the grand and beautiful old house that contained the conference center. The main fact about the house—the thing that lives with me and truly does provide the basis for all I write—is that it had extensive grounds, divided into three sections. The first section was a huge graveled yard. It was where the nitty-gritty everyday things were, like our outhouse and the kitchen, and it had a lethal clothesline permanently and mostly invisibly in place halfway up, just at throat height. I have seen people felled there like oxen, and been felled myself. This yard was where all the cat or dog fights happened and the site of all my mother's best quarrels. It was also where the visionary gardener once cornered me and showed me a small, wicked yellow revolver, which he invited me to hold. It was heavy. As soon as I had hold of it I was seized with total horror. This thing is Death, I thought. But I tried to seem brave. I looked at it and sort of tweaked at a little metal bit hooked on to one side. "What's this?" "No, no, no! Don't move that! That's the safety-catch!" he snapped. "That'll go off, that's loaded, you know." I gave it back to him. But ever since then, I have thought of that yard as the place of ordinary Life and Death. The place where real people and everyday friends existed. The place where everything starts when I'm writing a book.
The next section was a brick-walled formal garden, consisting mostly of a large lawn sedately surrounded by shrubby borders. The part farthest from the house was raised and made a good stage. This was where the village and the conference people interacted, either to watch plays or operas put on by the house inmates or to folk dance, and many a crazy thing went on there, including the time one of the County Music Advisors got carried away and sang a tenor aria from the top parapet while he rained confetti on the audience in this garden. It turned out he'd used all the toilet paper in the house. When this garden was not in use, we children tended to play the make-believe kind of game there, the kind where you walk about inventing it as you go—the yard was where we mostly did the run-about-and-shout stuff. And this seems entirely fitting. With this garden you moved among imaginary friends and into the formal patterns of fantasy, the place where stories get made or adapted and most of the quieter fun or lunacy happened. I suspect this is the place where the central part of what I write gets made.
But there was another garden, across a road, which was always kept locked, where the conference people were never allowed to go. And this one was truly magical. It too was walled, but with stone, not brick, and the stones contained little gothic niches where my friend the visionary gardener placed little offerings of glass lamps and posies. It had an incredible velvety lawn that merged into a green path under twenty rose arches leading to an octagonal summer house with gothic windows and ivory inlaid walls. On either side were fruit and flowers, and every kind of apple tree you have ever heard of. It was like that garden in the Grimm story "The Golden Bird" where the king has counted all the apples—really like, because my father had hung labels on all the apple trees and he kept the key. It took hours of pleading to coax the key out of him and be allowed to let yourself in to this extraordinary, numinous place. There were beehives there, too. The bees hated the visionary gardener. They pursued him in a black whirring cloud at least once a week. But they never, ever attempted to sting me. I used to go right up to the hives and talk to them, because I had read somewhere that you should tell bees all your news, and I never once got stung.
This garden always seems to me the seat of the mystery and the beauty that should be, if possible, at the heart of every story. It stands for the old tales and the life-enhancing magics that ought to be there, too. And no idea for a book ever seems to me good enough if it doesn't have something of this at the heart of it. But it has to have the other two places in it as well. You can't exist—or write—purely on this strange and elevated plane.
So what have we got so far? I am living in a place where I am not actually living, leading a double life, while doing two incompatible things at once. I am controlling characters that behave like real people, a story that behaves like a self-programming entity, a landscape in which the seasons change as seasons should. Beneath this is an underpinning from my own experience containing the nitty-gritty of everyday life, formally patterned fantasy, a dose of lunacy, and the deep magic of myth. Almost enough to get a book moving, but not quite. Along with the season(s) the book is set in, you need also a quite indescribable taste-in-the-head, a feeling about this particular narrative that no other narrative has. If this doesn't come at once, or in the first few pages, I find you have to leave that effort and try again later. But if you have that taste, as it were, and with it a sufficiently dynamic idea, you are off.
It took me a while to distinguish what is a dynamic idea. A lot of things seem to start stories, but not all of them go on. To find the right kind of motive idea, I found I had to go back once again to childhood, but this time to the sort of mistakes children make. The sort that make you very ashamed when you think of them, but are actually one of the ways children learn. Everyone must remember some of the dreamlike confusions of their childhood—they may make you squirm in the memory, but if you look closely, you usually find that this mistake moved you on. Here is one of mine, from an article I wrote for Foundation (the international review of science fiction) in 1997:
At the age of five, I was evacuated to the Lake
District … I was told I was there because the
Germans were about to invade. Almost in the
same breath, I was warned not to drink the water
from the washbasin because it came from the lake
and was full of typhoid germs. I assumed that
germs was short for Germans.
Looking warily at the washbasin, I saw it was
considerately labeled Twyford, clearly warning
people against germ warfare. Night after night, I
had a half-waking nightmare in which Germans
(who had fair, floating hair and were clad in sort
of cheesecloth Anglo-Saxon tunics) came racing
across the surface of the lake to come up through
the plughole of this washbasin and give us all
This has all the elements of something needed to start a book off, the magical prohibition, the supernatural villains, the beleaguered good people and, for good measure, the quite incommunicable fears that children have. And of course it was how I learned that germs were small and Germans were human size, simply from working out why I knew people would laugh at me if I told them my fears.
A mix-up of notions like that is nearly always dynamic. What you need then is the people to whom it happens, not always but most often at least one imaginary friend, whom you can see in the midst of the confusion. Then you've got it. You go. If it works, it is like a long fuse that has been lit in several places, so that it gives off at intervals sharp blotches of white magnesium light. Each white fluorescence illuminates—with luck—a ring of landscape or a room with people moving and speaking in it, scenes from the story that is making itself. Around it, along the rest of the fuse, the rest of the story occurs like a photographic negative of a foggy day—faint white objects against black. And what I do is rush from flaring point to flaring point along this fuse, often at top speed, like a fire myself. Except I am of course sitting down and doing it all with words. Word by word.
I don't think I can find any other way to describe the way it feels, unless it is to echo poor Carol Oneir. "It is like a voyage of discovery …" And if I've got it right, it should be. It is also my way of moving out of the past into the untouched future. This is always wonderfully exhilarating, but it can also be very scary.
Jessica Yates (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Yates, Jessica. "Jones, Diana Wynne." In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Third Edition, edited by Tracy Chevalier, pp. 500-01. Chicago, Ill.: St. James Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Yates offers a critical introduction to Jones and her body of work, asserting that, "Jones has not reached the wide readership in the United Kingdom that her dedication to quality and originality deserve."]
Diana Wynne Jones comments:
* * *
Everything I have written so far has been fantasy,
and a great deal of it comic. I want to provide exciting
and amusing reading for children, and I
should be bored myself if I did not. But I also try
to use fantasy—just as one would use a metaphor—
to say things about life. It seems to me
that very complicated things can be said to children
by these simple means, and appreciated by
them. (In the same way, I think children can grasp
difficult words if the sentence and story are lucid
enough.) Each time I write a book I try to say
something new, with the result that each book
turns out differently from the ones before—which
surprises, puzzles, and pleases me in about equal
The amazingly prolific (and high-quality) author Diana Wynne Jones is not far short of publishing her 20th full-length children's novel, in less than 20 years. Ever striving for originality, and remaining so far faithful to the genre of fantasy, in each book she employs a different supernatural theme and setting, for example, the traditional nasty old witch, legendary gods operating in the modern world, the enchanted animal, tiny fairy people living in secret, the unhappy ghost, fantasy wargaming, and time travel.
Children are her main characters, usually unhappy, unsettled children to whom magic comes first as an extra burden, and then, if they can master it, as a way of solving their personal crises. The common problems of child life—absent or hostile parents, quarrelsome siblings, and powerlessness against adult caprice—are solved by magic operated by a child who has achieved a new self-realisation on the road to maturity. In this way Jones follows the tradition of E. Nesbit, whose child characters often experience magical adventures while their family lives are disturbed.
In The Ogre Downstairs, her accomplished second novel, two families are "united" when the "ogre," father of two boys, marries a mother of three children. To make peace, stepfather gives each group a chemistry set. But the chemicals turn out to be magic, and as the children can't understand the Latin labels, and experiment blindly, endless disasters are caused and the children daren't explain to mother. When mother walks out in despair at the chaos at home, her children can only get her back by making friends with the other children and their hated stepfather.
Each book contains realistic family situations, and the business of living, not excluding death, is seriously analysed. The heroine of Dogsbody is Irish, with a father in prison: he escapes and is killed. The Little People in Power of Three are threatened with extinction when humans plan to flood their moor; they have also been engaged in a blood feud with a tribe of water spirits. Many of her main characters lose their parents one way or another, either by death or permanent separation, like Jamie in The Homeward Bounders, who takes 100 years to get back to his own world, by which time his family is dead.
In an article for the Times Literary Supplement (11 July 1975) Jones explained how children accept tragic elements in their reading, and how fantasy can help them: "tragedy is both close and frequent among children … Possibly what they love is the core of tragedy, modified by fantasy and its sting removed by laughter." She does indeed balance the serious side of her stories with generous helpings of humour, including slapstick pile-ups and recurring misunderstandings.
Two linked sequences of novels have developed out of her work, one comic and one heroic. The Chrestomanci cycle (Charmed Life, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, The Lives of Christopher Chant ) is set in a world where magic exists and is legalised. Chrestomanci is appointed by the government as chief enchanter and troubleshooter to prevent magic being used for evil purposes. In the first three novels he helps children discover their particular magical talent; the stories are told with plenty of humour, as the children's experiments with magic go wrong or turn into practical jokes. The Lives of Christopher Chant recapitulates the plot of Charmed Life in a more serious mode. Christopher, who will become the Chrestomanci of the first three books, is flattered by his dubious uncle Ralph into using his magic powers to travel to other worlds and bring back strange goods. Before he discovers Ralph's true wickedness he loses several of his nine lives.
Jones is also the creator of the secondary world of Dalemark, a feudal country rather like mediaeval Iceland, once ruled by a king but now divided into free North and tyrannised South. Here is scope for serious political commentary relevant to our own times, and Clennen spies for the North in Cart and Cwidder, and Mitt joins the underground revolutionaries in Drowned Ammet. The supernatural element in Dalemark is derived not so much from magical talent as from the gods of Dalemark, who bestow their favours on our heroes and heroines when they decide, however uncertain and ignorant of their potential, to dare their utmost in the service of Good against Evil.
The Spellcoats, set in Dalemark's legendary past, and one of Jones's best books, tells how the girl Tanaqui saves her people from a terrible enchanter by weaving two spellcoats that counteract his magic. The story is told by Tanaqui, and we observe how she gradually becomes more confident in her powers as she enlists the help of the local deities of river and landscape. In the brilliant, moving climax we are not even told whether she wins her struggle: her narrative ends as she sets out to use the second spellcoat, and a final note from a keeper of antiquities centuries later (contemporary with the other two Dalemark novels) describes the discovery of the two spellcoats in a marsh.
In the 1980's, responding to increasing enthusiasm from her adult readers, including many science-fiction addicts, Jones has maintained her original plotting and consciously written on two levels, so that although still published "for children" she deploys political and romantic elements to please adult readers, and has moved into the science-fiction genre. Archer's Goon, with its family of good and bad wizards controlling a town, is clearly a satire on local government (and was deliberately published in 1984). A Tale of Time City uses the science-fiction concept of a Time Patrol working to preserve historical events as we know them and defeat rogue time-travellers out to change history for greed. The setting, however, is Time City itself, an exotic place out of time which monitors all other epochs.
A new development, the fantasy romance for teenagers, has been very successful, producing two books considered among her best, Fire and Hemlock and Howl's Moving Castle. Fire and Hemlock, exceptionally long, recounts the story of a girl of today who fatefully meets a young man under the spell of the Faerie Queen. Over the nine years she knows him, their friendship develops, through her teenage crush and several years of separation when she is bewitched by the Queen herself, until she is old enough at 19 to meet him on equal terms—but it is Halloween and Tom's life and soul are forfeit to the demonic powers unless she can save him.
Howl's Moving Castle, set in a kind of Fairyland, is the love story of Howl, a young wizard, and the formerly lovely Sophie, who has been enchanted into the shape of an old woman. She becomes Howl's housekeeper, hoping to find out how to get her youth back, and a love-hate relationship develops between them as she tries to keep her identity secret. Rich in invention, this story is more carefully shaped than usual, for it must be admitted that Jones has not reached the wide readership in the United Kingdom that her dedication to quality and originality deserve primarily because of the rambling nature of her plotting, and the way she takes her readers' intelligence and previous reading experience in science-fiction and fantasy genres for granted; however, these are the features that continue to endear her to her admirers.
Suzanne Rahn (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Rahn, Suzanne. "Vaccine for Future Shock: Diana Wynne Jones." In Rediscoveries in Children's Literature, pp. 145-75. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.
[In the following essay, Rahn posits that Jones's young adult novels function as postmodern variations of the children's fantasies of E. Nesbit.]
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Aristotle. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by Ingram Bywater. New York: Modern Library, 1954.
Jones, Diana Wynne. Archer's Goon. New York: Greenwillow, 1984.
———. Charmed Life. New York: Greenwillow, 1977.
———. Dogsbody. New York: Greenwillow, 1977. ———. Eight Days of Luke. Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1977.
———. "The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey." The Lion and the Unicorn 13, 1 (1989): 129-40.
———. The Ogre Downstairs. New York: Dutton, 1975.
———. Personal letter. 14 May 1991.
———. "The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings." In J. R. R. Tolkien: This Far Land. Ed. by Robert Giddings. London: Vision; Barnes and Noble, 1983. 87-107.
———. A Tale of Time City. New York: Greenwillow, 1987.
M. C. Review of Archer's Goon. Junior Bookshelf, 1984: 264-5.
Nesbit, E. [Edith] The Story of the Amulet. Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1959.
Waterhouse, Ruth. "Which Way to Encode and Decode Fiction?" Children's Literature Association Quarterly 16, 1 (Spring 1991): 2-6.
Maria Nikolajeva (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Nikolajeva, Maria. "The History of Children's Literature from a Semiotic Perspective: From Certainty to Hesitation." In Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic, pp. 74-5. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Nikolajeva proposes that Jones's young adult novels offer a complex examination of good and evil, creating narrative worlds where neither quality is an absolute.]
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Bergsten, Staffan. Mary Poppins and Myth. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1978. (Studies Published by the Swedish Institute for Children's Books; 8).
Martha F. Sibert (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Sibert, Martha F. "Jones, Diana Wynne." In The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Cre-ators, edited by Anita Silvey, p. 231. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
[In the following essay, Sibert presents a brief thematic introduction to Jones's canon, stating that, "readers who choose to share her vision will have an uncommon imaginative experience."]
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CART AND CWIDDER (1975)
Camille Hodges (review date fall 1995)
SOURCE: Hodges, Camille. Review of Cart and Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones. Childhood Education 72, no. 1 (fall 1995): 43.
Enter an imaginary land called Dalemark and taste thrilling adventures [in Cart and Cwidder ]. This book, the first of a quarter, centers around an old disagreement between the North and the South, which results in a civil war. The only people trusted enough to travel safely between the two sections are the traders and licensed singers who bring news from one section to another. With the help of a magically empowered stringed cwidder, the characters manage to make it all right in the end. For lovers of fantasy, this book is a winner. Ages 12 up.
Elizabeth Laraway Wilson (review date 2002)
SOURCE: Wilson, Elizabeth Laraway. Review of Cart and Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones. In Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children's Literature, p. 213. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002.
When Clennen, a traveling minstrel, is killed, his three children aren't yet aware that he has for years been a secret agent for the northern freedom-loving part of the land of Dalemark [in Cart and Cwidder ]. The North and the rigidly ruled South are in bitter conflict of purpose, though not yet engaged in outright war. Clennen and his family have been traveling in their cart through the South, giving musical shows in the villages. They are on their way north, and the children, beginning to realize that a web of danger they don't understand threatens them, are trying to keep moving on, anxious to return to their home. Adventure, puzzling events, and grave peril become part of their daily lives as they continue making music along the way. Clennen has bequeathed to his youngest son, Moril, his legendary ancient cwidder, the largest of the lute-like instruments they possess. As they find themselves in serious jeopardy, Moril realizes that his cwidder has powers that go beyond music—if he can just use the instrument for right, and in the right way. A colorful and suspenseful saga.
THE TIME OF THE GHOST (1981)
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 5 August 1996)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of The Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones.
Publishers Weekly 243, no. 32 (5 August 1996): 442-43. Published in Great Britain in 1981 and available here for the first time, this gripping novel [The Time of the Ghost ] serves up often giddily hilarious fantasy that nonetheless deals unflinchingly with some ugly issues. At least twice in the course of the multi-layered narrative, the heroine has not the faintest idea who she is—a powerful metaphor for the novel's underlying theme of alienation from self. The story begins with the as-yet-nameless heroine floating—literally—through a boys' boarding school and its outlying grounds, a setting she finds oddly familiar. With a little spectral sleuthing (easy enough to accomplish when you're invisible) the disembodied spirit concludes that she is Sally Medford, one of a quartet of eccentric sisters who live at the school and are grossly neglected by their overworked schoolmaster parents. As the plot continues on its intriguingly convoluted path, evidence of time-travel begins to emerge: the college-age Sally is in a hospital, gravely injured after her abusive boyfriend throws her from a speeding car. Some part of her has journeyed back seven years into the past, where—with the help of her sisters and their schoolboy friends—she must undo a rash bargain with a powerful and ancient goddess. Given the violent boyfriend and the girls' ill-tempered father (prone to referring to his daughters as "bitches"), this tale is less overtly light-hearted than such Wynne Jones works as Howl's Moving Castle and Charmed Life but it is just as profoundly satisfying. Ages 10-up.
Ann A. Flowers (review date November-December 1996)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of The Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 6 (November-December 1996): 736-37.
[In The Time of the Ghost, ] Sally Melford cannot understand what has happened to her—in fact, she's not even sure who she is. She seems to be lacking a body, and she can't think. But gradually she realizes she is a ghost observing her own family, seven years in the past, where the four Melford girls, the daughters of a schoolmaster in a boys' boarding school, lead a ragtag, neglected life; their parents are so busy running the school that they pay them no attention, leaving them ill-fed and unsupervised. But they are clever, imaginative girls, and just for fun they devise and begin to worship a goddess they name Monigan. Unfortunately, Monigan is horribly real and demands a life seven years hence as a sacrifice. The scene shifts back and forth as Sally, critically injured in an accident, desperately tries as a ghost from her hospital bed to alter the past and save her life. The complex plot, which twists and turns to the surprising climax, is absorbing, but equally interesting and frequently amusing are the family dynamics and the character sketches of the four fascinatingly eccentric sisters.
WITCH WEEK (1982)
Jeannine M. Chapman (review date November-December 2005)
SOURCE: Chapman, Jeannine M. Review of Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 6 (November-December 2005): 743.
When a note accusing a student in class 6B of being a witch anonymously appears on the teacher's desk, each of the classmates tries to prove his or her innocence—no one wants to meet a fiery end [in Witch Week ]. As accusations and witchcraft fly in Jones's alternative world, playground politics take center stage. Jones's ability to capture the voices of adoles- cents is magnified by Doyle's wonderful inflections—he gives each character a distinctive voice that fits perfectly with Jones's impeccable writing.
WILD ROBERT (1989)
Kay Weisman (review date 15 September 2003)
SOURCE: Weisman, Kay. Review of Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones. Booklist 100, no. 2 (15 September 2003): 237.
Gr. 3-5—Heather lives with her parents at Castlemaine, an ancient dwelling owned by the British Trust [in Wild Robert ], where her parents give tours to generate the funds necessary to maintain the property. One day, desperate to avoid the constant parade of boring tourists, Heather wishes the return of Wild Robert, (a former resident who was executed 350 years ago for witchcraft), to stir up a little fun. Her wish is granted, and soon Heather is traipsing over the grounds after Robert, trying to restrain the mischievous magician. Luckily it turns out that Robert's spells are only effective during daylight hours, giving Heather (and her parents) a little reprieve. Originally published in Britain in 1989, this amusing fantasy features a likable (and believable) young heroine, broadly painted comic villains, and a fairly straightforward plot that even young fantasy buffs will be able to follow. In addition, many of the original Briticisms still remain, adding to the flavor of the text. A good choice where fantasy is popular, especially for readers who aren't ready to tackle long fantasy tomes.
Eva Mitnick (review date October 2003)
SOURCE: Mitnick, Eva. Review of Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 49, no. 10 (October 2003): 128.
Gr. 2-4—Heather dislikes living in a castle [in Wild Robert ]. Her parents are curators who spend all day leading tourists through the place, so her summer is filled with noise and crowds. Her boredom ends when she accidentally summons Wild Robert, who lived at Castlemaine 350 years earlier and was banished underground by his brothers because of his mischievous, magical powers. The handsome but naughty young man announces his intention to claim his inheritance, and woe to those who annoy him; he wields his magic with a liberal hand. Heather's commonsense attempts to keep Robert from wreaking havoc while she figures out what, if anything, to tell her parents are entertaining, as are his imperious comments and wicked sense of humor. The ending offers an anticlimactic and unsatisfying solution to the girl's dilemma, but her ability to recognize and admire the touch of sadness and bravery beneath Robert's hauteur adds a bit of depth to the story. The pencil illustrations are mostly successful, though they lack the wit of the text and sometimes seem lackluster. Light and fun, this fantasy is fine for children who aren't old enough for Jones's more complex fare.
CASTLE IN THE AIR (1990)
Alleen Pace Nilsen and Ken Donelson (review date November 1992)
SOURCE: Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Ken Donelson. Review of Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones. English Journal 81, no. 7 (November 1992): 90.
With all the tension emanating from today's Middle East, it's refreshing to have an entertaining fantasy like Jones' Castle in the Air to remind us of the creativity and the imagination of Middle Easterners and their contributions to the folktales of the world. Jones doesn't retell a particular story; instead she uses such archetypal characters as a beautiful princess, a day-dreaming young man reminiscent of Aladdin, royalty disguised as an old soldier, an evil and a good—at least sort of good—djinn, a genie captured in a bottle, a couple of witches and their wizard-type husbands, and some ingenious pets whom we don't know whether to list as animals or humans. The situations also come right out of A Thousand and One Nights with a transformed castle, misunderstandings among young lovers, stolen princesses galore, a flying carpet, danger on long and perilous journeys, and at long last a happy ending.
The flavor of the story is revealed in the first few titles: (1) "In which Abdullah buys a carpet," (2) "In which Abdullah is mistaken for a young lady," (3) "In which Flower-in-the-Night discovers several important facts," (4) "Which concerns marriage and prophecy," and (5) "Which tells how Flower-in-the-Night's father wished to raise Abdullah above all others in the land." The angry father wants to impale Abdullah on a forty-foot-pole and leave him for the buzzards to eat, but readers aren't at all sure that this is the intended meaning of the mysterious prophecy which a fortune teller gave Abdullah's father: "Two years after your death, while he is still a very young man, he will be raised above all others in this land." Thank goodness a better meaning emerges, but none of it comes easily or without twists and turns as mysterious as the blue smoke that forms the genie and the bright blue thread that whirls free from the old, magic carpet and forms a fire demon.
Although this is a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, it isn't necessary to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one.
John T. Gillespie and Corinne J. Naden (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Gillespie, John T., and Corinne J. Naden. "Castle in the Air." In Juniorplots 4: A Book Talk Guide for Use with Readers, Ages 12-16, pp. 223-27. New Providence, N.J.: R. R. Bowker, 1993.
[In the following essay, Gillespie and Naden explore the narrative structure and thematic subtext of Jones's Castle in the Air.]
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A SUDDEN WILD MAGIC (1992)
Alexei Kondratiev (essay date spring 1993)
SOURCE: Kondratiev, Alexei. "Tales Newly Told." Mythlore 19, no. 2 (spring 1993): 34, 44.
[In the following essay, Kondratiev offers a largely positive assessment of A Sudden Wild Magic, arguing that, "[n]o children's writer can portray cold, diabolical nastiness as vividly as Jones."]
Some writers of fiction for young people come to hit upon a vein of inspiration that is so perfectly and uniquely their own that their work becomes the focus of something like a cult, attracting a circle of aficionados who will eagerly lap up anything their favorite author produces. Such a writer in our own time is Diana Wynne Jones, who has a large and devoted following among young readers on both sides of the Atlantic—as well as among adults who read children's literature, needless to say! As a children's author she is essentially in the tradition of E. Nesbit: her juvenile characters are realistically abrasive in their manner toward each other, they have somewhat less than awed view of adult behavior, and the stories move easily (as do the character's minds) from the totally magical to the totally mundane. But Jones has improved immensely on the Victorian roots of this tradition. Her inventiveness has an outrageous quality to it that is quite in tune with the experience of childhood in the late twentieth century. Although she maintains a link with more ancient themes from mythology and folklore, all the familiar gimmicks of science fiction—time-travel paradoxes, multiple universes, etc.—appear in her books in a completely matter-of-fact way, as though they were the stuff of old fairy tales. Her magical beings are, as often as not, shown watching television or driving cars, and are as much at home with such bits technology as with the starker landscapes of primordial myth (as, indeed, are most of Jones' young readers). While the stories tend to be humorous in tone (a leading factor in their popular success), there is a darker side to them as well: the evil in them is real, and thus genuinely frightening. No children's writer can portray cold, diabolical nastiness as vividly as Jones.
In some of her recent works Jones has drawn so much more heavily on the darker side of her inspiration that the resulting stories no longer fit neatly in the juvenile genre. In Fire and Hemlock, her powerfully original and effective re-telling of the Tam Lin legend, she began the story from a child's point of view, setting a tone and ambiance familiar from her other juvenile fantasies, but then took her protagonist on into childhood, causing the elements of the plot to be re-examined in a different, more disturbing light. Her latest novel, A Sudden Wild Magic (Avon Nova/Morrow, 1992), has been published as adult literature. This means, among other things, that sexual themes are here dealt with more frankly than in her juvenile fiction, and tragic death is presented in somewhat starker terms. And yet, despite such major shifts in perspective, Diana Wynne Jones fans will feel completely at home with this new tale: the simply-drawn but vivid settings, the neurotic eccentrics, the madcap humor, the wild plot-twists, the moments of deliberate silliness are all still there, not greatly changed.
The story is a development of the by now well-known legend which claims that the Witches of England banded together during World War II to protect their country magically against Nazi invasion (a legend based on certain historical facts, one might note in passing). Here the Witches of England (who are portrayed as modern Goddess-worshippers who raise energy by means of ceremonial-magic rituals) are set against an invasion from another universe. On the borders of our reality they discover a blue citadel floating under a dome, like Swift's Laputa or one of James Blish's flying cities (the Witches initially refer to it as "Laputa-Blish"). This turns out to be Arth, a pocket universe created by the Pentarchy (a world both very like and very unlike our own) to spy on the Earth's cultures, gleaning useful information applicable to the Pentarchy's own needs. Although they originally did no more than copy Earth inventions for the Pentarchy's use, the directors of Arth (a quasimonastic all-male society, sworn to celibacy) have—prompted by Leathe, a country ruled by female magician-aristocrats—taken to engineering certain trends in Earth's history. Leading to catastrophes (in this case, global warming) which, as Earth's people are forced to find ways of dealing with them, will give the Pentarchy information on how to resolve similar problems in their own world. Arth has also sent secret agents to infiltrate the Witches and stave off any defensive action on their part.
Plans for defense proceed, nonetheless. Among the principals involved are: Gladys, a grotesquely eccentric old woman who shares a rambling house in Hereford with twenty-odd cats (although her true familiar, Jimbo, is a mysterious being called an "ether monkey"); Mark, a brilliant but peculiarly humorless young computer scientist; Maureen, a rather vicious and selfish professional dancer; and Amanda, an academic who takes a somewhat condescending attitude toward the rest of them. Amanda's younger sister, Zillah, has borne Mark's love-child, but, with a Hester Prynne-like loyalty, refuses to intrude upon his marriage or in any way lay claim to his emotional life, despite her deep love for him. When an expedition to Arth is mounted, she sees her chance to escape from her painful situation and stows away on the exploratory capsule with her little boy, Marcus, unknown to her sister and to the other Witches of the Inner Ring.
What Zillah herself doesn't know is that the expeditionary force—composed primarily of women—has adopted a strategy of "kamikaze sex," aimed at forcing the celibate Brothers of Arth to break their vow of chastity, thus upsetting the magical balance of Arth. This leads, of course, to some uproariously funny scenes which, despite the "adult" nature of their theme, are very similar in tone to much of Jones' juvenile fantasy. The subversion of Arth's emotionally repressed denizens and their revolt against Brother Lawrence, the monumentally hide- bound and unimaginative High Head, bring to mind any number of boarding-school stories. This effect is heightened when Zillah makes friends with some young enlisted servicemen from the Pentarchy, who are on Arth against their will and have little respect for its peculiarities. Chief among them is the young aristocrat Tod, himself the heir of a Pentarch, and possessed of a magical "birthright" which will play a crucial role in the plot.
What saves these scenes from coming across as frivolous and unbelievable is Jones' unique empathy for the childlike (or childish, depending on the context!) aspects of adult behavior. In her juvenile fiction this is usually brought out when adults interact with children, or when children interpret their elders' actions. Here the adults manage very well by themselves, driven, no doubt, by the extreme stress that is put on them. Unresolved childhood conflicts, nursery frustrations, are found to be the true motivation for actions with a seemingly adult rationale. Zillah, who has had a very bad experience with her mother, finds it all the more difficult to confront the terrifying Lady Marceny of Leathe.
Yet these obscure, pre-rational regions of the soul are also the source of the magic that all the main characters use; in fact, the more in touch they are with their instinctive feelings, the more potent their magic. It is clear, for instance, that it is Glady's very eccentricity, her ability to pay no attention to social norms, that has made her the most powerful of England's Witches, although the others may laugh at her uncouthness. Zillah's magic is just as clearly founded on her love for her son, and for Mark. Because these are feelings she cannot measure or control, so is her magic measureless and uncontrollable (the "sudden wild magic" of the title). And Tod, in his impulsiveness and self-reliance, shares somewhat in the "wildness" of this gift, which will defeat the more disciplined and seemingly stronger magic of their adversaries.
The tale is not without its flaws. The ending is a little abrupt, with too much happening at a frantic speed (although this is, in a way, a Diana Wynne Jones trademark). And hasn't Jones already given us a female villain unmasked in extremis as a non-human creature? (One may recall the ending of The Magicians of Caprona. ) A subplot involving Maureen and her lover Joe (an agent of Arth) begins with a promise of great suspense but fails to sustain its own flow within the narrative as a whole.
The book's problems—such as they are—come largely from its seeming to fall between two stools, being neither a conventional adult novel nor a conventional juvenile one. But for Diana Wynne Jones' many fans, this should present no difficulty. They will not be disappointed; this new tale will give them all they have learned to expect, and more.
THE CROWN OF DALEMARK (1993)
Ann A. Flowers (review date March-April 1996)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 2 (March-April 1996): 209-10.
[The Crown of Dalemark, t]he final book in the quartet of novels about the mythical kingdom of Dalemark gathers together the strands of the previous three novels and provides an intricate, satisfying conclusion to the fantasy. The hero is Mitt, who was also the protagonist in Drowned Ammet (Greenwillow). Here he follows Noreth, the pretender, on her quest to become the ruler of a united Dalemark, as she attempts to gain the legendary items foretold to belong to that ruler. Noreth is really Maewen, a girl from the present day, who is sent back in time to impersonate Noreth for reasons that she only dimly understands. Mitt and Maewen are accompanied by various other characters from the previous books (most notably Navis, a cold but effective soldier, and Morin, an itinerant musician who plays an enchanted instrument, a cwidder) and are constantly menaced by the evil wizard Kankredin. In a surprising conclusion, Mitt becomes the great king who unites Dalemark. Maewen is an intelligent, attractive heroine, and her developing relationship with Mitt is one of the most important elements in the tale. Although the story can stand alone, the interested reader will perhaps enjoy the book more if the other three novels are read first. This volume contains "A Guide to Dalemark," with entries on the places and characters of all the books. A complex, engrossing fantasy by a master of the genre.
Vanessa Elder (review date August 1996)
SOURCE: Elder, Vanessa. Review of The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 42, no. 8 (August 1996): 164.
Gr. 6-9—While this fantasy [The Crown of Dalemark ] is rich with fascinating scenes and details, it's unlikely that those who haven't read the first three books in the series will be willing to unravel the laby- rinthine plot. The story's engaging first part concerns Mitt, a sensitive, courageous young man who speaks his mind. An earl and countess assign him the unpleasant task of murdering Noreth, a teen who believes it's her destiny to seek the ring, cup, and sword that will allow her to unify the land and become queen. The author then leaps ahead 200 years and introduces Maewen, 13, who is sent back in time to impersonate Noreth. Maewen is quite clueless about her purpose, but adjusts to the strangeness of being in the past and on a quest remarkably quickly. Her followers accept her as Noreth without suspicion—proving Wynne Jones's observation that people see what they want to see. There is an interesting uncertainty about whether the directive voice Maewen hears in her head is good or bad (it turns out to be that of the evil magician, Kankredin), and the concept of the Undying (godlike humans) is intriguing, as is the powerful role given to musicians. Some of the characters are very real and likable, but the events and reasons that sustain them are rather mind-boggling and tenuous. The moments of wittiness and tension make reading the novel a pleasure at times, but there is an omnipresent scattered feeling that results in a somewhat baffling whole. The long glossary is helpful.
THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND (1996)
Charles De Lint (review date April 1999)
SOURCE: De Lint, Charles. Review of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones. Fantasy and Science Fiction 96, no. 4 (April 1999): 34-5.
[The Tough Guide to Fantasyland ] is a hilarious spoof on the well known "Rough Guides" travelogue and encyclopaedia series published in the UK, offering easy-to-follow hints on how to survive a visit to Fantasyland (a pastiche of pretty much every fantasy novel published since Tolkien). Like much British humor, the writing is witty throughout and the humor rises naturally from the material, rather than relying on pratfalls or punchlines. In other words, it's Monty Python more than the Three Stooges.
The entries are set up in alphabetical order for easy reference and cross-indexed throughout. In many ways this book makes an excellent companion to the more serious Encyclopedia of Fantasy published in 1997. And Jones's book is funny. I won't bother to quote favorite bits, but there are plenty, as you can see for yourself if you simply open a copy in your local bookstore and read an entry at random.
But a funny (as in odd) thing happened to me as I continued to read. While I kept laughing, underneath the laughter a certain depression began to set in because every funny bit (check out the entry on horses, for example) started to remind me of a novel—no, of many novels—in which these same improbabilities, and just plain mistakes, were cheerfully presented in the course of the story in all seriousness.
Now I realize that we've built up a certain number of stereotypical characters, settings, and plots in high fantasy novels over the years, but until I read this book, I didn't realize just how bad it had gotten. You know—how you can miss the most obvious thing until someone points it out to you?
I'm not speaking of the actual prose now, and certainly many authors aren't guilty, but every high fantasy author should read this, and study it carefully, to avoid making, or propagating, the same errors and stereotypes. Many of your readers will be reading it as well, and after doing so, they'll undoubtedly be much less forgiving than they have been in the past when any of these elements showed up in one of your books.
Tom Easton (review date April 1999)
SOURCE: Easton, Tom. Review of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones. Analog Science Fiction and Fact 119, no. 4 (April 1999): 133.
Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a pleasant little jape, a thoroughly tongue-incheek send-up of all—it's hard to imagine missing one in three hundred pages!—the clichés rampant in fantasy. Her chief points are that originality is rather scarce among the elves, wizards, and dragons and that fantasy writers rarely pay much attention to the fabric of their worlds (that is, they've read a lot more other fantasy novels than they have ecology and economics textbooks).
Fantasy fans with a sense of humor should enjoy this one. Ex-fantasy fans, who came to their senses, should enjoy it even more.
Is anyone working on a similar Tough Guide to Sciencefictionland?
DEEP SECRET (1997)
Jeff Zaleski (review date 29 March 1999)
SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. Review of Deep Secret, by Diana Wynne Jones. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 13 (29 March 1999): 97.
Keeping the multiverse in balance requires Magids—powerful magicians who are sensible, pragmatic and often very busy [in Deep Secret ]. One such Magid, Rupert Venable, is sorting out a crisis in the Koryfonic Empire while, on earth, he must locate the proper replacement for a recently deceased fellow-Magid. The Empire needs Rupert's talents to help locate missing heirs, and good Magid candidates are hard to track down. These plot strands tie neatly at a fantasy/SF convention—the fictional PhantasmaCon in the equally fictional Hotel Babylon of Wantchester, England. Anyone familiar with such "cons" will appreciate Jones's accurate and wryly fond depiction. The setup works admirably as the plot thickens, for the con hotel is situated on a magical "node" of power; the appearance of a handsome wounded centaur brings little more than comments like "Fantastic costume!" As readers are hurtled toward a conclusion involving the guest of honor's speech, Imperial troopers and a bushgoddess, what might first be perceived simply as mere embellishment and rich detailing prove to be adroitly handled story elements of an intricate plot. Throughout, Jones (Charmed Life, etc.) combines strong writing, high fantasy heroics and delightfully dark humor to sparkling effect.
Christine C. Menefee (review date October 1999)
SOURCE: Menefee, Christine C. Review of Deep Secret, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 45, no. 10 (October 1999): 178.
YA—[Deep Secret is a] romp through "the Multiverse," where reality, symbolized by the infinity symbol, contains numerous worlds ranging from "ayewards" to "naywards" and back again. The Multiversal balance between positive and negative forces is maintained by a small and unchanging number of Magids, powerful magicians able to cross the boundaries of worlds at will; still, though possessed of extraordinary talents, Magids are "only human." At the nexus of the Multiverse sits a politically backward Empire, and it is the misfortune of the most junior of all Magids, one Rupert Venables, to be assigned to oversee the Empire and all its worlds. As a new crisis is erupting, Rupert's mentor on Earth dies and, under a strict deadline, he must replace him. Attempting a sub-rosa interview of the people on his short list, he inadvertently brings them all together at a science-fiction convention that soon reels out of control. The best candidate for new Magid proves to be a young woman who irritates and upstages Rupert at every turn. Maree and her sidekick cousin, Nick, are eccentric, gifted, and plucky adolescents who should be familiar to teenaged graduates of YA fantasy novels; the two first complement and then prove instrumental in solving Rupert's problem with the Empire in a splendidly entertaining adventure. This should be a popular choice among readers of humorous fantasy and science fiction, and it will be a special treat for those who have already dipped their toes into the world of SF-fantasy fandom.
THE DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM (1998)
Steven Engelfried (review date October 1998)
SOURCE: Engelfried, Steven. Review of The Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 44, no. 10 (October 1998): 136.
Gr. 7 Up—An alternate world full of wizards, dragons, and other wonders is controlled by the ruthless Mr. Chesney [in The Dark Lord of Derkholm ]. He operates a lucrative business in which tourists from his world enjoy staged adventures, and he holds the magic world at the mercy of a powerful demon he controls. When Derk, a goodhearted but apparently bumbling wizard, is chosen for the key role of "Dark Lord," the "Pilgrim Parties" begin to veer sharply from the script. Derk shares his duties with his unusual children; two humans and five griffins (created from a mix of cells, including his own and those of his enchantress wife). The chaos that ensues is exciting, mysterious, and hilarious. Myriad plot twists and undiscovered schemes are slowly unveiled as the seemingly invincible Mr. Chesney gets his just reward. The characters reveal the workings of their world in a delightfully well-paced, and roundabout way. For all of the magic and intrigue, however, the growth and development of Derk's unique family is really at the heart of the novel. All of his children have distinct personalities, and the family relationships are changed and strengthened as the various crises unfold. The griffins are delightful characters who experience the same adolescent concerns as Derk's human son Blade, an eager but uncertain young wizard. Mr. Chesney's power and heartlessness loom throughout the story, keeping a suspenseful edge to all of the fun. Fans of Jones's previous books will not be disappointed, and Dark Lord could also be an excellent introduction to high fantasy for other readers.
Ann A. Flowers (review date November-December 1998)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of The Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 6 (November-December 1998): 732-33.
Derk the Wizard's world, populated by magical beings as well as ordinary humans, is used by the villainous Mr. Chesney as a base for his off-world Pilgrim Parties tours [in The Dark Lord of Derkholm ]. Each year the tours are organized with various inhabitants forced to portray such exotic types as Glamorous Enchantresses, Evil Kings, Dark Lords, pirates, and gladiators; in addition, Chesney insists on manifestations of iron-fanged horses, red-eyed demons, and baleful fires as well as battles including dragons and griffins. The whole scheme is, needless to say, very hard on the inhabitants. So the greatest wizards in the land meet together to find a way out of their desperate situation. A consultation with the Oracles instructs them to appoint Derk, a rather unorthodox wizard, as the Dark Lord, and his son Blade as Wizard Guide. Derk is extremely unwilling to undertake the role; he has never been a mainstream wizard, and his primary interest is in breeding unusual animals: griffins (who are like his own children), flying pigs, winged horses. But Dark Lord he must be, and he goes about his business with an immense roster of fascinating creatures, from gods to Dark Elves to thieves to sulky Pilgrims. In fact, one of the main charms of the book is the staggering magnitude of the invention. Although the resulting chaos is occasionally baffling, readers will find themselves deeply involved in the convoluted plot. Several surprises lead to the triumphant ending of the author's best fantasy in some time. (Read "Disney" for "Chesney," and there might even be a message here.)
BELIEVING IS SEEING: SEVEN STORIES (1999)
Jean Franklin (review date 15 November 1999)
SOURCE: Franklin, Jean. Review of Believing Is Seeing: Seven Stories, by Diana Wynne Jones. Booklist 96, no. 6 (15 November 1999): 614.
Gr. 6-12—Six of the seven stories gathered here [in Believing Is Seeing ] have appeared in previous story collections, including the author's own Warlock at the Wheel. Buy the book anyway, not only for the excellent stories but for the fantasy contrasts they offer. "The Sage of Theatre," for example, is a light-hearted, alternate-world fantasy in which the gods are perhaps too well organized—until the Sage of Dissolution appears. In sharp contrast, "The Master" is a nightmarish, edgy story about a young vet summoned on an emergency call to an experimental wolf preserve that seems to include werewolves. A schoolgirl at home with a bad case of the mumps invents a miniature fantasy heroine who comes to life and threatens her creator in "Enna Hittims," and an aged cat narrates a fairy tale of sorcery and true love in "What the Cat Told Me." Several of these stories would make wonderful read-alouds. Give this book to fans of McCaffrey, Pratchett, Wrede—and, of course, the remarkable Ms. Jones.
YEAR OF THE GRIFFIN (2000)
Beth Wright (review date October 2000)
SOURCE: Wright, Beth. Review of Year of the Griffin, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 46, no. 10 (October 2000): 161.
Gr. 6 Up—It has been eight years since Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Tours ended, and wizard Derk's world is still recovering from the devastation described in Dark Lord of Derkholm (Greenwillow, 1998). Derk's griffin daughter Elda has just begun her studies at Wizard's University, without her father's permission and despite his belief that the university is no place to learn anything. In fact, several members of Elda's class are attending without their families' knowledge, and the misdeeds ensuing from various attempts to retrieve or retaliate against the young wizards provide most of the dramatic thrust for this hilarious ensemble piece. Jones cleverly intertwines elements of humor, fantasy, and character development, as in the case of Crown Prince Lukin, who accidentally makes large holes in the ground whenever he does magic. Lukin's jinx produces some of the book's funniest moments, but it also reveals much about the young man himself. Readers new to the series will enjoy Year of the Griffin without first reading the previous book, though they will certainly want to backtrack to learn more about Elda, her family, and the Pilgrim Tours. The foreshadowing is so deft that the rather complicated climax makes perfect sense, while still leaving plenty of room for another sequel.
MIXED MAGICS: FOUR TALES OF CHRESTOMANCI (2001)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 15 April 2001)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Mixed Magics: Four Tales of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones. Booklist 97, no. 16 (15 April 2001): 1558.
Gr. 4-7—Jones offers four short stories for readers longing to revisit Chrestomanci, an enchanter with nine lives who oversees the magic in a parallel world "next door to us." Three of the stories [in Mixed Magics ] have already appeared in U.S. editions: the witty "Warlock at the Wheel" and "The Sage of Theare" in Warlock at the Wheel and Other Stories (1984); "The Sage of Theare" again in Believing Is Seeing (1999); and "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" in the anthology Dragons and Dreams (1986). "Stealer of Souls" is a good, strong story, notable for its creepiness as well as a bit of humor, but libraries where the other volumes are accessible will have to gauge whether one new good story is reason enough for purchase.
Martha V. Parravano (review date May-June 2001)
SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of Mixed Magics: Four Tales of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 3 (May-June 2001): 327.
Along with the re-release of Diana Wynne Jones's incomparable Chrestomanci novels comes this collection of four short stories [Mixed Magics ] featuring the powerful, nine-lived enchanter responsible for enforcing the proper use of magic. (Chrestomanci, by the way, was called "You Know Who" long before, well, You-Know-Who.) Though three of the stories—"Warlock at the Wheel," "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream," and "The Sage of Theare" —have been published previously, one is new; and a new addition to the Chrestomanci canon is cause for celebration. "Stealer of Souls" takes up where Jones's novel The Magicians of Caprona leaves off, with the young enchanter Tonino visiting Chrestomanci Castle from Italy. Cat Chant, from Charmed Life, is unhappy at all the attention Tonino is receiving, and unhappy at himself for resenting the homesick boy when he is supposed to be looking after him. Then both boys are kidnapped by an evil enchanter (the kind Cat is afraid he's turning into), and their memories are all but erased. The only thing Cat's sure of is that he has to look after Tonino, and his bold protection eventually disrupts Master Spiderman's spell for "a ten-lifed enchanter, who is to be more powerful than any of your Chrestomancis!" It's a terrific story, especially when read as a companion to Charmed Life : tense, fast-paced, and—not surprisingly—inventive. Jones's conception of the dead enchanters' newly-sprouted souls as animate, sentient leaf shapes—variously streaming after one another in a "luminous line" or huddling in nervous clumps as they attempt to escape Master Spiderman—is just plain brilliant.
Patricia A. Dollisch (review date July 2001)
SOURCE: Dollisch, Patricia A. Review of Mixed Magics: Four Tales of Chrestomanci, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 47, no. 7 (July 2001): 110.
Gr. 5-8—[Mixed Magics presents f]our previously published stories of varying length. The first and shortest is about a magicless warlock who suddenly finds himself in a new world, with his magic restored. He lands in the hands of a spoiled little girl and her dog. Given the choice of jail or caring for the youngster, he chooses the former. The longest of the stories involves Cat Chant and new boy Tonino Montana. They are sent on a disastrous visit that ends with them releasing the souls of eight enchanters from the power of an evil enchanter. Story three, which is perhaps the most fun, is about Carol Oneir, "the world's youngest best-selling dreamer." Her hovering mother and her own desires for the trappings of fame are too much pressure for her though, and her dreams dry up. With the direct help of Chrestomanci, Carol discovers that her main characters are unhappy; as they escape from her dreams, she is released to live a relatively normal life as well. The last story features Thasper, son of a god, who is destined to bring down the order of Heaven. His father's attempts to avert the disaster will leave readers scratching their heads and pondering the effects of even the simplest act on everything else in space and time. The plots are fully realized and engaging, but characterizations are uneven—Thasper and the Willing Warlock are rather flat, while Carol and her dream folk leap right off the page. "Chrestomanci" fans will best appreciate this book. For a truly delightful short-story collection, try Michael Stearns's A Wizard's Dozen (Harcourt, 1993).
THE MERLIN CONSPIRACY (2003)
Janice M. Del Negro (review date May 2003)
SOURCE: Del Negro, Janice M. Review of The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 56, no. 9 (May 2003): 364-65.
Roddy and her friend Grundo are members of the royal court of Blest, and they spend their lives roaming all over the kingdom with their sovereign, whose job it is to maintain the balance of not only Blest but of all the worlds it touches [in The Merlin Conspiracy ]. Though of wizardly origins, Nick is the adopted son of a novelist living in modern-day England; he knows about the magic-filled other worlds but, much as he longs to, he just cant's reach them. When the Merlin of Blest (the court magician) dies suddenly, Roddy and Grundo discover an insidious conspiracy that may undo the magical balance of the multiverse. Meanwhile, Nick, attempting to access the magic that is his birthright, meets powerful sorcerer Romanov, who sets the boy on a path that enmeshes him in the plot to overthrow Blest. The story alternates between narrators Roddy and Nick, as their paths intertwine and they arrive at the final, horrific confrontation between good and evil. Jones' tight, descriptive prose propels readers through layers of untrustworthy relatives, mythological figures, complex worlds, and magical hierarchies. The race against time to save the balance of magic adds an undercurrent of desperation to the already fast pace. The action is packed, but what makes this complicated story work is the characterization, both primary and secondary. The main characters have that instant recognition factor, those attributes that will make readers care about them up front. Secondary characters are less developed but still artfully drawn, with specific personality traits and tics that make them solidly three-dimensional. Holding it all together is an understated humor that whispers through presentations of political and social structures both admired and derided. The ending is a bit abrupt, but given the pell-mell ride that came before, readers won't mind. They'll be too busy looking for the hopefully inevitable sequel.
Susan Dove Lempke (review date May-June 2003)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 3 (May-June 2003): 359.
Longtime children's fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones writes on an epic scale in this richly complicated tale [The Merlin Conspiracy ] of worlds where magic is "wide, various and big"—but where its users can become corrupt. The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Roddy (a girl) and Nick. When Roddy and her friend Grundo discover that the Merlin (who is in charge of magic) has been murdered, they are unable to convince anyone else of the murder conspiracy. Roddy summons an unknown helper, Nick, who is startled to be drawn from his own equally magic world but loves Roddy on sight. As in her previous books, Wynne Jones deftly creates a fully realized fantasy universe with a series of worlds that resemble one another and our own but have differences that make them distinct. One world Nick visits is a futuristic nightmare with strict rules and a toxic sun, while another place crafted by a powerful Magid is three different worlds cobbled together. Along the way Roddy, Nick, and Grundo encounter a contrary goat, a devoted elephant, terrified salamanders, a pair of entertainingly obnoxious twins, and numerous adults who often turn out to be related in some way. Although the multiple characters and plots are all tied up by the end, the conclusion lacks closure on an emotional level, though this may point to a future book developing the relationship between Nick and Roddy. British readers will have an advantage in appreciating some of the details, as Wynne Jones weaves in many references to British places and history, but that won't stop other fantasy lovers from delighting in this vastly absorbing story of good battling evil.
Dennis Duffy (review date 22 June 2003)
SOURCE: Duffy, Dennis. Review of The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones. New York Times Book Review (22 June 2003): 23.
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Text Not Available Due to Permissions Issues
UNEXPECTED MAGIC: COLLECTED STORIES (2004)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 15 April 2004)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Unexpected Magic: Collected Stories, by Diana Wynne Jones. Booklist 100, no. 16 (15 April 2004): 1450.
Gr. 5-10—Sixteen tales of mystery and magic from Jones, three of them never before published in the U.S. Of those previously published here [in Unexpected Magic ], five come from Believing Is Seeing (1990) and seven from Warlock at the Wheel and Other Stories (1984). Even libraries that own those volumes should consider purchasing this because it concludes with the novella "Everard's Ride." Difficult to find, this excellent romantic adventure is worth the price of the book, particularly where Jones has a strong following. In this story, young people set out for a nearby island only to find themselves in another time, when treachery threatens a legendary realm. In "Enna Hittims," a child with the mumps is initially entertained, then alarmed, as the tiny characters she invented blaze a path of destruction through her home. "Little Dot" is narrated by a cat, who saves her wizard from an ill-advised love affair and defeats the riddling Beast of Ettmoor. A flavorful anthology.
CONRAD'S FATE (2005)
Walter Minkel (review date April 2005)
SOURCE: Minkel, Walter. Review of Conrad's Fate, by Diana Wynne Jones. School Library Journal 51, no. 4 (April 2005): 135.
Gr. 6-10—Jones is a master of British fantasies that are hilariously droll and totally heartfelt at the same time. [Conrad's Fate ] is a new novel in the series that began with Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant (both 1998, HarperCollins), the story of how Christopher, the "nine-lifed enchanter" who regulates the uses of magic throughout 12 sets of alternate worlds, began his career. This book introduces Conrad Tesdinic, a boy who lives in one of the Series Seven worlds and has been told throughout his youth that he has bad luck, an Evil Fate, bad karma. When he graduates from lower school at the age of 12, his magician uncle reveals that Conrad's black Fate has been caused by his failure to kill a depraved evildoer in a previous life. The reincarnated evildoer, he is told, dwells in nearby Stallery Mansion, which generates so much magic that no one living nearby gets any TV reception. Conrad must take a job as a servant at the mansion and kill the villain, whose identity he must discover. Once hired, he meets his roommate and fellow servant, a smug, handsome young man named—aha!—Christopher. Almost all the players—including Conrad—conceal their true identities as they dash from one alternate Stallery Mansion to another, solving several interlocking mysteries. This witty, satisfying story can be read on its own, but is much richer when read as part of the series. It's a must for all Jones fans.
Timnah Card (review date May 2005)
SOURCE: Card, Timnah. Review of Conrad's Fate, by Diana Wynne Jones. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 58, no. 9 (May 2005): 390.
Deep in the English Alps (in a Chrestomancian alternate universe), Conrad is forced by his uncle to leave school at age twelve to work as a domestic servant for the aristocrats at Stallery, the grand home up on the mountain [in Conrad's Fate ]. Uncle Alfred promises that as soon as Conrad fulfills his karma by bumping off some unnamed nasty at Stallery he can return home and attend school with his friends. Otherwise, Uncle Alfred sighs, Conrad's Evil Fate is to "die in agony before the year's out." Packed off to Stallery to fulfill his mission, Conrad finds himself swept into the rhythms of life on the estate, serving the cantankerous Countess and her son and daughter, Count Robert and Felice. Random earthquakes that result in minor reality shifts and the secretive behavior of a fellow footman (a tall, irrepressible fifteen-year-old who calls himself Christopher Smith) involve Conrad in a whirlwind of mystery and magic, which, when calmed, reveals a misuse of power so great that the integrity of several universes is jeopardized. This latest Chrestomanci novel is a crackerjack concoction, featuring one of Jones' signature convoluted plots involving a large cast—touched off with telling characterizations—in a sensory-rich setting packed with idiosyncratic cultural details, the whole of which envelops the reader in a gratifying maelstrom of images and information. A deft resolution binds off the various storylines into one neat knot and provides fans of the Christopher Chant books (Charmed Life, and The Lives of Christopher Chant, ) with a tantalizing glimpse of Christopher's (and Conrad's) first steps into adulthood. Readers with a penchant for witty fantasy—even those with no prior Jones experience—will find themselves right at home.
Polly Shulman (review date 10 July 2005)
SOURCE: Shulman, Polly. Review of Conrad's Fate, by Diana Wynne Jones. New York Times Book Review (10 July 2005): 20-1.
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Text Not Available Due to Permissions Issues
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Additional coverage of Jones's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 16; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 23; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 4, 26, 56, 120; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 26; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 161; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 9, 70, 108, 160; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 7; and Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2.
Chapman, Jeannine M. Review of The Pinhoe Egg: A Chrestomanci Book, by Diana Wynne Jones. Horn Book Magazine 82, no. 5 (September-October 2006): 587-88.
Praises The Pinhoe Egg for showing "the consequences,
both good and bad, of questioning authority."
D'Ammassa, Don. Review of Year of the Griffin, by Diana Wynne Jones. Science Fiction Chronicle 22, no. 2 (February 2001): 43.
Evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Year of the Griffin.
Jones, Mike. Review of The Power of Three, by Diana Wynne Jones. Science Fiction Chronicle 25, no. 11 (December 2003): 30-1.
Describes The Power of Three as "an excellent read, full of unusual twists and turns."
Odean, Kathleen. Review of Archer's Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones. In Great Books for Boys, pp. 304-05. New York, N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 1998.
Compliments Jones's narrative in Archer's Goon as a "complex, entertaining fantasy."