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No one writes like Diana Wynne Jones: she is a complete original. She fits into no tradition of fantasy writing that I know of, unless the British tendency to produce writers of startling originality can be considered a tradition. Her highly imaginative, funny, hugely enjoyable novels began appearing in 1974, winning various literary awards through the seventies and eighties.
Not only does she write a unique, underivative brand of fantasy but every one of her novels is an original, too. One could easily assume at first glance that her novels were all written by different writers, so different do they appear, at least on the surface. While some of them form a loose series, and several of them are set in the same universe, there is an immense variation in content, setting, atmosphere and tone in her work.
The novels of Diana Wynne Jones can be grouped into very loose categories, with much overlapping and blurring. (She has also, by the way, written short stories, plays for children and a novel for adults.) A few, like Chairperson, Wild Robert and Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?, are clearly aimed at younger children (perhaps the seven-to-ten age bracket), and a few others, like A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock and Howl's Moving Castle, would appeal most to much older children, adolescents and, of course, adults who love fantasy literature.
But most of her novels - and this would include such works as Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona, could find an audience among any or all of these readers.
And, as is the case with all truly great fantasy, her books can be appreciated on different levels of complexity and depth. Always they are totally engaging tales of mystery and magic, filled with surprising and unpredictable happenings that feel completely believable and real. But, beneath all the variety and fertile profusion of her work, there can be culled several common themes and approaches that make up the writer's vision, her unique way of viewing the world.
Life, in all of Jones's novels, is an exciting, mysterious and delightful puzzle for the main characters to solve. On one level a Jones novel is a kind of fantasy detective story. Nearly always at the beginning we are presented with a mystery that widens as the novel progresses, and becomes extremely complicated, sometimes to the point of hilarity. Yet somehow this immensely complicated web of events is spun and woven in Jones's skilful hands into resolution that feels obvious and fated all along. The sudden twists and surprises that result from this snowballing effect are both gripping and humorous. Beneath all this activity lies Jones's perception of life as endlessly rich and fascinating, of people as endlessly complex and diverse.
Jones is an astute observer of people, and is able to bring them, both children and adults, to a detailed and concrete aliveness on the page. She is able, for example, to portray the funny, sad, confusing, chaotic yet also eccentrically ordered world of childhood with startling vividness. In Witch Week (Macmillan Children's books, 1982, 210 pp.) we are shown the real underworld of the dynamics in a classroom through the eyes of several of the children in it. We see the complex web of group interaction, the wildly differing perceptions, the precise and sometimes cruel justice that children mete out to each other, and we also see, as the mystery unfolds, the slow emergence of friendships in this crazy yet logical jungle world of children.
Similarly, Jones has a talent for portraying the deep intricacies and nitty-gritty realities of domestic life. Most of her novels are firmly set within family situations of one sort or another (though there are exceptions) and portray the subtle dynamics of family interaction. Some of them, like The Ogre Downstairs, The Time of the Ghost and Charmed Life, are deeply concerned with sibling rivalry.
The children through whose eyes mysteries unfold are usually very bright, resourceful, and often startlingly eccentric or talented. Often they are unaware of their own resourcefulness or talents, and through events become gradually aware of them. They also come to see their own more unsavory characteristics as well; they learn to see how their actions and behaviour appear to others. Jones's novels are always deeply concerned with the growth of self-knowledge in their child or adolescent characters, but also often in adult characters. In The Ogre Downstairs (Macmillan, London, 1974, 191 pp.), Jones's first novel, two families have been blended into a new step-family, and things are not going at all well. The two sets of children hate each other, and one set particularly despises their stepfather, whom they dub 'the Ogre'. Some chemistry sets the children are given turn out to be magical - alchemical, in fact - and through the snowballing zany events that follow, the two lots of children slowly come to understand each other.
It is only towards the end that the stepchildren of 'the Ogre' begin to see him as an ordinary human being with human frailties, one of which is intolerance of the chaos that living with children brings. Moreover, this new understanding only comes about after the sudden realization on the part of 'the Ogre' himself about what is really going on, and how the children feel about him. Unlike many writers of children's fantasy, Jones is able to represent adults who are able to accept and believe in magical phenomena and grow through them, just as the children do. What is really occurring in The Ogre Downstairs is the transformation of a difficult and chaotic family situation into one of greater maturity and acceptance; the chemistry sets themselves are agents of this change, this alchemical transformation.
Often what is discovered is the child's very identity. In Cart and Cwidder, for instance (Macmillan, London, 1975, 191 pp.), Moril discovers that his parents are very different people than the ones he had assumed them to be, and he must work out just what he is out of the very strange mix that resulted from his parents' union. In Archer's Goon (Methuen, 1984, 241 pp.), Howard discovers that his real identity is far more than that of a thirteen-year old boy. (Archer's Goon, incidentally, is perhaps the closest of Jones's novels to science fiction.)
Jones's books are all, in one way or another, journeys into identity and self-discovery. All of her novels have a sense of an opening up, a dawning of light, a wonderful unfolding, as characters not only unravel the mysteries that Jones has cunningly planted from the beginning, but also mature into a greater understanding of their world and themselves.
Much great fantasy is, of course, concerned with this theme of self-discovery; one thinks immediately of C. S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillop or Madeleine L'Engle. In fact, even the hackneyed quest of the Hero Who Finds Himself in much of modern mediocre fantasy writing has emerged from this tradition. And of course the self-discovery theme also has strong roots in mainstream writing both for children and adults. In many ways, perhaps because of their rich realistic feel and their portrayal of complex interactions, many of Jones's novels seem as much in the tradition of the modern mainstream novel as that of the children's fantasy. The blend is original and intoxicating.
One of the ways Jones is able to achieve the sense of opening up is by making observations and comments from the perspective of a particular character. The implications of these comments can be seen only later by that character. The gentle irony and subtle shift of perspective involved in this process help to bring characters alive as real, interesting people with changing viewpoints. Such subtle irony, and Jones's good-humored acceptance of human frailties, prevents any possibility of her sounding moralistic or judgemental. Her characters simply grow in self-understanding and learn to evaluate their own behaviour more critically.
So while Jones's perspective is not moralistic it is nevertheless deeply moral. We see this most clearly in her treatment of good and evil. In the complex flow of life that Jones presents, most of her characters, too, are a complex mixture of good and bad. Many of her child/adolescent characters are talented and special, yet are peppered with the same human failings as the rest of us have. Some characters, like the enchanter Chrestomanci who appears in several novels (but most extensively in Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant), strike us as particularly, deeply good, with their goodwill, their humour and reasonableness and courtesy, while still coming across as real, fallible human beings.
But there are others, too, who strike us as undeniably and horribly evil. Evil, in Jones's universe, comes about through a particular approach to life and to other people: a desire for power for its own sake and an absence of ordinary human kindness. Nearly always, interestingly enough, there is also a lack of a genuine sense of humour. Such a character may appear ordinary, or even charming and attractive at first; his or her monstrousness is inner, and often hidden from public view.
Nearly all of these genuinely nasty characters are adults. The Duchess in The Magicians of Caprona, Uncle Ralph in The Lives of Christopher Chant, 'They' in The Homeward Bounders, the Lees in A Tale of Time City, Kankredin in The Spellcoats, and Laurel and Mr Leroy in Fire and Hemlock are all despicable and wholly evil because of their callousness and their cynical self-graspingness. They are utterly unscrupulous; they use people and they are obsessed with power. One of the few child villains, Gwendolen in Charmed Life (Macmillan, London, 1977, 204 pages in the Puffin edition), is contemptible for exactly the same reasons, although she is treated with an irony and humour that make us laugh at her as well.
It is clear that, in the flux of life that Jones values for its own sake, what she values most is the single, precious individual with his or her unique qualities and eccentricities, and the mysterious force in each one that leads to change and eventual maturity. Conversely, the person or force who debases these values is abhorrent. It is significant that the only characters who do not change in her novels - whose viewpoint, at least, hardly alters at all - are evil characters. They are evil precisely because they refuse to flow with the rest of life, to be vulnerable, to change and deepen, as all life does.
In a few cases, they do not even grow old or die; their lack of humane qualities is emphasized by this non-human trait - Monigan, in The Time of the Ghost (Macmillan, 198l, 192 pp.), is actually an ancient force who was once worshipped and sacrificed to in an area of the English countryside. Some children somehow awaken this ancient power and it tries to take one of them as a sacrifice. This figure is one of pure malevolence, having no ability to relate to anything except in terms of its own power and desire. In portraying this evil entity that is not human and is therefore unchanging by its very nature, Jones seems to want to stress those characteristics that make for lack of humanity; Monigan is representative of Jones's evil characters in this very unchangingness and coldness. (This probably explains why Jones's evil characters are rarely children: children are, by their very nature, in the process of growing and becoming.)
Despite the delineation of some characters as essentially good and others as irredeemably evil, one does not gain a sense of a neat black-and-white view of life in Jones's universe. This is partly because, as we have seen, most of the characters are neither wholly good nor bad, but complex and richly layered. Also, characters' reactions to events are highly individual and complex, not stereotypical; and Jones often portrays characters' different perceptions of the same events.
Significant, too, is the fact that, while Jones's endings are usually very satisfying, rarely are they tidy black-and-white solutions. In The Homeward Bounders (Macmillan, 1981 224 pp. in the Magnet paperback), although 'They' are finally beaten at their own game, the child protagonist is left, in the end, in quite a sad, difficult situation. It is not wholly a happy ending. The Homeward Bounders illustrates that Jones is not afraid to show children the painful side of life. Jamie's fate strikes one as unjustly hard, but it has meaning and substance through the fulfillment of Jamie's unique task in life. Life is complex, Jones is saying - messy and difficult and often sad - but there is an underlying sense of the rightness of things, of characters' lives being part of a larger pattern. Life is not without pattern or purpose.
Similarly, in The Spellcoats we are denied a totally happy ending as Jones leaves us with some tantalizingly loose ends, while in Archer's Goon, we are left with a glimpse (again tantalizing) of what the future of the characters might be - and the suggestion is that it will not be easy.
The use of mythological elements (as in The Time of the Ghost) is very common, in one way or another, in Jones's novels. In both Eight Days of Luke and Dogsbody she makes use of actual figures from various mythologies, incarnating them in our modern world; and sometimes she uses her own created mythological figures, such as Monigan (which may or may not be based on a true myth) or the Time Lady in A Tale of Time City.
In many cases, figures that are part of a particular world's mythology turn out to be real, living entities in that world, forces with true power. This does not in any way take away their imaginal power; in fact, by having mythological figures act out their fates again in the modern world or in the modern age of a given imaginary world, she emphasizes the real power of myth in our lives, and our need for it. The characters in The Spellcoats become mythological figures in the other two novels in the loose series set in the land of Dalemark, and the patterns that were set in that far off prehistory of The Spellcoats become imprints on the fate of that land.
Here is a paradox in Jones' universe: life is unpredictable yet laced with pattern and meaning; characters are eccentrically unique yet often live out long-ago myths or fulfil some necessary, almost preordained function. In this, it seems to me that Jones is simply reflecting the feelings we all experience of the paradoxical nature of our own lives.
Whether they are set in some exotic imaginary world or in our own mundane one, Jones's novels always beautifully marry a sense of the magical and wonderful with the gritty feel of the everyday world. Her portrayal of characters, of family life, of ordinary everyday objects, has the totally concrete, tactile feel of reality about it.
This is how Jones describes Howard's first sight of the 'Goon' in Archer's Goon:
Jones can give us the atmosphere and physical feel of a place in two short sentences:
In a similar way, in The Time of the Ghost we find a strikingly vivid and concrete portrayal of what it would be like to be a 'ghost' or disembodied presence.
As well as being inventive and wildly creative, the magic depicted in Jones's novels has a matter-of-fact, real quality about it. This is partly because beneath all the wild fun and exciting plot elements, interesting ideas bound about the world and the place of magic in it. All of the novels in which Chrestomanci appears, for example, contain the concept of the existence of many alternate worlds. Whole series of these worlds are so closely related that the only difference between them is some small detail, such as a particular historical event or the presence or absence of magic. Magic, in those worlds where it does exist, is simply another fact of life, so that witches, enchanters and magical phenomena are just as natural as ordinary things in our world. Sometimes accidents can occur in the way the worlds are related to each other, as in Witch Week, in which a historical accident has resulted in a world that is exactly like ours, except that witches are both extremely common and extremely illegal; and it becomes Chrestomanci's job to put things right Such concepts, although not in themselves wholly original, make the magic in Jones's books feel real and entirely possible, and make her novels conceptually interesting as well.
A good example of the way Jones can weave mythology and a sense of ancient, abiding magical forces into the grainy feel of the everyday world is Fire and Hemlock (Greenwillow Books, 1984, 280 pp. in the Bantam edition).
In this novel Jones employs an English folk legend that appears in two medieval ballads, 'The Tale of Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Tam Lin'. In both of these tales, although with variations, a man is enchanted by a fairy woman and lives for seven years in 'Elfland' (fairyland). He is then allowed to return to the world for seven years, but after that, his fate is unclear. Jones transposes this myth to modern England, where a musician called Thomas Lynn seems to be bound in a very strange way to a very beautiful, mysterious woman he has recently divorced.
Jones opens the novel, as she often does, with a mystery: eighteen-year old Polly becomes aware that them are whole chunks of her past that she seems to have forgotten; that, in fact, there is a whole series of events and people in her life that seems to remember now, but which someone has attempted to eradicate. With her, we go back and piece together the events of her childhood, from the time she first befriends Thomas Lynn and first glimpses the truth. Polly must save Tom from a dreadful fate.
The novel is awash with the small details of everyday living; Jones is covering many years in Pony's life, and the wonderful thing is that she manages to sustain our interest throughout. Sometimes places, people and times do become a little confusing. If there is any criticism at all to be made of Jones's novels, it is that her plots tend to be somewhat complicated, sometimes even convoluted. Side by side the events of mundane life are the evidences of ancient dark forces; Jones reinforces this by prefacing each chapter with a quote from either of the two ballads.
The fascinating thing about Fire and Hemlock - as with all of Jones novels is the way Jones manages to do so much more than tell a wonderfully engrossing tale (not a mean feat in itself of course). Fire and Hemlock is a novel about the process of growing up. We see Polly's experiences through the eyes of both the child and then the older adolescent, and we follow her growing maturity.
The novel is also about relationship. We watch Polly coming to terms with her immature and selfish mother and her disappointing father; this is contrasted with the warm and deepening relationship between Polly and her grandmother, who turns out to be more than she appears at first. Significantly, it is her only really loving relative who turns out to hold a key to the mystery.
The book is also about the growth of a particular relationship that begins when Polly, as a child, first meets Thomas Lynn: the development of their friendship, the experience of separation and hurt, and finally a mature love that accepts imperfection and complexity. Polly comes to understand that pain and even betrayal are aspects of genuine love. Indeed, the resolution - and the salvation of Tom - depends on this insight.
Again, Jones gives us the very antithesis of growth and relationship in Laurel the immortal 'fairy queen' figure who, beneath the surface beauty and elegance, is chilling in her cold logic, her ruthlessness, and her lack of any genuine warmth or human feeling. She is totally unable to relate; her only interest in the various men she has entrapped through the centuries is her practical use of them. She is unchanging and emotionless, a non-human, mythological force like Monigan, the opposite of all that is human, vulnerable and growing. Although she is evil she is also, in some sense, simply a fact of life, a principle that we humans cannot destroy, but must deal with as best we can. Here again we see that Jones's approach is far from simplistic, even on the subject of evil.
Howl's Moving Castle (Greenwillow Books, 1986, 212 pp. in the Ace edition), like Fire and Hemlock, would suit adolescents and adults rather than younger children, but its tone is very different. Despite its undertones and splashes of humour, Fire and Hemlock is a rather serious book, but Howl's Moving Castle is a delightful and uproarious romp from start to finish. Here Jones is at her quirkiest and most outrageously witty.
In the land of Ingary, a nasty spell is laid on Sophie, who must seek the help of the apparently wicked Wizard Howl; the motives behind the spell and how to remove it, and the apparent contradictions in Howl's character and behaviour, are the mysteries we have to unravel. Along the way we meet an enchanted prince, a menacing scarecrow, a shrewd fire demon, even an ordinary household in the Wales of our world.
Through all this, and despite the big differences in tone and setting from those of Fire and Hemlock, many of the familiar Jones trademarks are here: the combining of the fantastical and magical with the mundane and ordinary, and the presence of vividly real characters who are much more than they seem at first, who develop and discover their talents and identities. Again, a main theme is the growth of relationship, in this case most strikingly between Howl and Sophie, but also between other characters as well. And again the evil in the novel is personified by characters who care nothing for individuals or relationship but seek only their own power. Once again, Jones manages to do this without over-simplification of characterization or stereotyping, while telling a wonderfully funny and engrossing tale as well.
Over a period of about two decades, Diana Wynne Jones has produced at least twenty books, all of which can be found to contain common and typical characteristics that embody her unique vision and style. That this can be so, and that, far from being written to any formula, each of her books is highly original, different from all the others as well as immensely enjoyable, is Diana Wynne Jones's special genius.
Roslyn Kopel Gross, August 1991
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Roslyn writes a column/page called TypeWriter, devoted to an exploration of writing and personality type, in the Electronic Journal "The Enneagram & the MBTI", which is created and maintained by Patricia Dinkelaker and John Fudjack.