Reading Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom

Published in Science Fiction Studies in 2002


Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom – ed. Teya Rosenberg, Martha P. Hixon, Sharon M. Scapple, & Donna R. White
(Peter Lang, 2002)

As a writer, Diana Wynne Jones has existed in a peculiar state for many years. Her work is adored by her admirers, adult and child alike, and she has many fans, all over the world. However, a more general public awareness of her work has been noticeably absent, for reasons that are not at all clear to me, except perhaps that her novels have had a somewhat chequered history in paperback publication. The Rowling-fuelled explosion of interest in children’s fiction has changed this situation, with many of her older titles at last back in print alongside more recent novels.

Similarly, although there have been many thoughtful reviews of her novels in various magazines, and a number of articles on her work, by Jones herself and by others, many of the latter now usefully available through two websites, The Official Diana Wynne Jones Website and Chrestomanci’s Castle, up until now there seems, somewhat surprisingly, to have been little in the way of published scholarly discussion of Jones’s work. What there is has been conveniently listed by the editors of Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom, the first volume in a new series from Peter Lang, Studies in Children’s Literature, a volume which goes some way towards redressing this scholarly imbalance.

However, in attempting to rectify this academic omission, it’s clear, immediately, that the editors had their work cut out, trying to steer a sensible course through the potential wealth of subjects generated by a body of work which extends to more than twenty novels, as well as several volumes of short stories, and a work of non-fiction. Inevitably, given the constraints of publication, they could do little more than scratch the surface of so broad an area of interest, in which case, at least one of their article choices puzzled me somewhat. At other times, I wished they had chosen fewer papers and covered topics in greater depth, although I could appreciate the need to give a reasonably broad view of Jones’s oeuvre.

Diana Wynne Jones belongs to that generation of British writers of children’s fiction, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Penelope Lively among them, for whom the Second World War was an experience in common, a catalyst for introducing elements of the fantastic into otherwise realist writing, the so-called Golden Age of children’s literature. No Golden Age is without its critics, and a number of ‘pop’ commentators too easily dismiss these writers and their contemporaries as dealing in misguided nostalgia, irrelevant to the modern world. However, Karen Sands-O’Connor’s perceptive analysis, ‘Nowhere To Go, No One To Be: Diana Wynne and the Concepts of Englishness and Self-Image’, places Jones’s work as marking a point where the nature of children’s fiction shifts from a wholehearted defence of traditional values (Sands-O’Connor here cites Lively and Philippa Pearce as defenders) and towards, in some cases at least, and Jones among them, a recognition that nostalgia can be a source of power, but not necessarily to the good.

Sands-O’Connor also opens up several other themes in Jones’s work, not least her deeply significant use of myth, and the way in which she moves from the use of the preservative, (nostalgic, even) patriarchal myth of rebirth and renewal towards a testing, or more often dissolving, of the boundaries of myth, much as Jones, an avowed hater of genre distinctions, effortlessly dissolves the so-called boundaries between science fiction and fantasy. Noting the way in which Jones shows that the past has an inability to inform the present, Sands-O’Connor further opens this out to examine the ways in which traditional myths often disenfranchise as much as they empower, marginalising women, the non-English, and also, one might argue, children and adolescents generally. Later essays in the book touch frequently on the awareness experienced by the children that their lives are controlled by unseen figures of authority, more-than-parental figures who dominate the children’s lives through their inexplicable, almost capricious actions

Which brings us to another of Jones’s great themes, that of the powerlessness or otherwise of overt parental figures. In ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Two Dogsbodies: A Jungian Reading of Diana Wynne Jones’s Dogsbody’, Alice Mills notes the recurring figure of the malevolent older woman in Jones’s fiction and quotes my own interview with Jones, in which she acknowledges the figure as her mother. However, while Mills’s essay explores the malevolent mother figure in Dogsbody (1975), the essay also inadvertently points up a more serious omission in the collection, which is that there is no discussion of the family generally in Jones’s writing, despite it playing a large and significant role, not just in terms of the nuclear family but also blended families, and ‘families of choice’. Likewise, alongside the malevolent mother figure stands the, by turns, ineffectual or otherwise preoccupied father figure (Wilkins’ Tooth (1973), Archer’s Goon (1984)) and the fabulous, exotic, male figure who stands in loco parentis, Chrestomanci being one example, Howl another in a more wayward and unpredictable fashion. For that matter, a wider-ranging discussion of gender issues in Jones’s work (more ambivalent than they might at first appear to be) would also have been welcome. I hope other scholars will remedy this lack.

Perhaps the greatest theme of Jones’s work is the relationship between language and magic. Deborah Kaplan and Charles Butler both explore this issue. Kaplan, in ‘Diana Wynne Jones and the World-Shaping Power of Language’ notes that those who can write or tell stories have immense power in Jones’s work (Nan Pilgrim in Witch Week (1982) is her particular example) while Butler’s ‘Magic as Metaphor and as Reality’ notes how Jones acts on an observation of C.S Lewis’s: that fictional woods have the power to enchant real ones, using fiction as a way of bringing magic into reality. Butler explores the metaphoric and metonymic portrayals of magic in Jones’s work while Kaplan looks more closely at the way in which Jones portrays the magical properties of properly descriptive language.

In invoking the use of magic, we also inevitably invoke the now-ubiquitous spectre of Harry Potter. Commentators have speculated long on whether J.K. Rowling read Diana Wynne Jones, and Jones herself has said she feels sure that Rowling must have done. Jones’s admirers have been outraged on her behalf that Rowling has drawn more attention, although it could be argued that interest in Rowling has brought unjustly neglected titles into print again. Sarah Fiona Waters’ ‘Good and Evil in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones and J.K. Rowling’ offers a measured assessment of the two bodies of work, demonstrating that the two authors both draw on the traditional genres of children’s literature, while doing very different things with similar raw material and creating very different moral landscapes as a result. Harry’s moral education is, as Winters notes, driven by learning which rules to break, which not, the protagonists of the Chrestomanci series have a very different, more subtle, education, which teaches them to see beyond the surface of situations and interpret them accordingly, a distinction which ties in with an earlier observation by Sands-O’Connor, of Jones’s interest in the themes of adult fiction. The fluidity of language is also discussed by Maria Nikolajeva in ‘Heterotopia as a Reflection of Postmodern Consciousness in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones’.

Despite the wide range of thought-provoking essays in this collection, there are disappointments; Donna R. White’s ‘Living in Limbo: The Homeward Bounders as a Metaphor for Military Childhood’ seemed to me to be more about US military children than about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel, and I was at a loss to fully grasp the connections between the two. The argument that during World War II, most British children ‘were military brats’ does not, to my mind, ring true. The displacement experienced by British children was that of evacuation which was, for the most part, a removal from A to B, home and not-home, and then a return to the familiar, rather than constantly having to establish a new ‘home’. Most people who remember that time would, I submit, not see themselves as ‘military brats’ but as the civilians they remained throughout.

Akiko Yamazaki’s linking of Fire and Hemlock (1985) and Adele Geras’s Watching the Roses (1991), ‘Fire and Hemlock: A Text as a Spellcoat’ remained tenuous, and the analysis of Fire and Hemlock served only to reiterate comments made elsewhere. Karina Hill’s ‘Dragons and Quantum Foam: Mythic Archetypes and Modern Physics in Selected Works by Diana Wynne Jones’ was for me undermined by Jones’s own comment in the excellent interview conducted by Charles Butler, when she revealed that she had read about quantum mechanics after she had established her multiverses, although it is typical of Jones’s work that this should happen.

However, these are minor dissatisfactions with what is, in the main, a useful set of essays, to be welcomed as the starting point for a larger body of critical publications on the work of Diana Wynne Jones.

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