reading Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition by Farah Mendlesohn

First published in Science Fiction Studies, in 2006


Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition – Farah Mendlesohn. (Routledge, 2005)

Like many people I first came to Diana Wynne Jones’s novel as an adult rather as a child. More than twenty-five years later, I still read her fiction with the greatest pleasure, as do many other adults I know. I mention this specifically to support Farah Mendlesohn’s introductory contention: while Diana Wynne Jones may be a writer of children’s books, her audience is much broader, and it is therefore entirely legitimate ‘to discuss her not as a children’s writer but as a fantasy writer’.(p.xiii) I cannot speak for anyone else but I always found Jones’s fiction to be ‘different’, in a way that wasn’t easy to explain but that was good to read. It was well-wrought, which always brings satisfaction for an attentive reader, and I was pleased with the way that Jones often employed mundane, contemporary settings and characters, but there was also a sense that Jones was doing something else with the fantastic, something really unusual, and doing it in plain view of the reader if she could but understand what was going on. This sense of ‘doing something else’ is what Mendelsohn sets out to examine.

I have more than once described Jones’s work as subverting fantastic tropes, which is why I find Mendlesohn’s overall thesis so intriguing. She argues that ‘Jones is both a fiction writer and a critic’, and contends that ‘her fiction can be viewed as a sustained metafictional critical response to the fantastic’. (p.xiii) This suggests then that Jones is not so much subverting the genre as holding it up to scrutiny in a subtle but distinctive way. As Mendlesohn puts it, ‘[f]iction as written by Diana Wynne Jones is a critical process. (p.191) We know from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland that Jones is both critically aware and critical of the construction of fantasy as a genre; some of the entries in the Tough Guide were memorably scathing about the assumptions made by those writers who used the trappings of the fantastic without understanding what made them work. Jones’s approach, Mendelsohn argues, is very different.

Jones’s fiction constantly tests the reader’s expectations and assumptions about fantasy, and also about reality. The magical and mimetic worlds both operate according to certain conventions, but nothing is quite as it seems. We might wish to operate according to a comforting binary opposition of real and not-real, magical and mundane, good and bad, but Jones points out time and again that nothing is ever that straightforward. Mendlesohn suggests that in Wilkins’ Tooth Jones is developing ‘an alternative cartography of fantasy’ (p.7), picking up on the concept of the rough Tough Guide. In other words, Jones is teaching her readers how to read fantasy, and more importantly, how to interpret and question what they’re reading, as they read. More than that, even, she is also engaging with what might be considered to be the standard fare of ‘children’s fiction’ and querying how it is presented to a child reader.

Agency and the passage to adulthood are topics that figure in literature for children and in fantasy literature as well. The acquisition of power is often used to signal a move into adulthood; too often, however, the assumption of an author is that power automatically confers maturity. By contrast, Mendelsohn argues, Jones ‘reverses the route map to adulthood’. It is therefore the acquisition of agency that brings power, and Jones is concerned in all her novels to address the notion of what it means to acquire agency and to gain access to power. If agency is, therefore, about making conscious choices, with choice comes consequence and also responsibility. As Mendlesohn points out, Jones’s characters are constantly having to address the meaning of power, and indeed are learning to operate within moral constraints in order to exercise their powers most effectively. Throughout Jones’s work, characters are brought to the understanding that intent is as important as external behaviour when they attempt to use magic. It’s far to easy to assume that magic confers agency when in fact to use magic effectively one must be aware of how power can and should be used. ‘It is the intelligent negotiation with magic, rather than magical power, that leads to agency.’ (p.44)

The most complex chapter of Mendlesohn’s study focuses on the way in which Diana Wynne Jones uses time in her novels. Jones’s use of time travel is itself complicated; Mendelsoh notes that her approach is ‘distinctively that of the writer of science fiction’ (p.53) rather than merely using time-travel as a fantastical convenience. Here she draws on John Ellis McTaggart’s theory of A-Series and B-Series (relative and absolute) time to examine the ways in Jones uses past events to establish the story in the present, and also destabilises the use of a linear narrative in order to move back and forth through the story, presenting it from different viewpoints. For anyone used to a straightforward presentation of a series of events, one after the other, the time shifts in Jones’s writing can be an unwelcome challenge, but for those who relish complexity, Jones’s fiendish plotting is a joy. Here, Mendelsohn’s theoretical exposition opens up the beauty of the narratives’ construction in a whole new way and effectively demonstrates the skill behind the plotting.

For me and for many other readers, the most striking features of Jones’s narratives is the way in which she makes the mundane fantastic. This is sometimes achieved through the setting – she was one of the first writers I ever encountered, along with Ann Halam (Gwyneth Jones) and Alan Garner, who seemed to be comfortable about placing characters in worlds recognisably analogous to our own, with characters for whom the encounter with the magical, the inexplicable was bruising rather than comfortable and easily resolved – but just as often through the kinds of domestic dilemmas her characters encounter. The key seems to be that ‘the dividing line between magic and reality is deliberately blurred, unassailable by logic’ (p.136). As Mendlesohn notes, Jones’s novels ‘manipulate irony and equipose to challenge the presumptions behind the concept of realist fiction, and to reverse some of the conventional patterns of fantasy’ (p.137). This I think is at the heart of Jones’s work, that desire to challenge and test conventions.

As Mendlesohn notes, ‘Each novel Diana Wynne Jones has written takes children through the art of logic, the nature of story, a writing and editing course, and a discussion of ethics. She demands of them that they continually question the assumptions on which any happy ending rests.’ (p.193) This is true, I think, for all readers of Jones’s work, whatever their age, if one accepts that reading at its best is a serious engagement between reader and author. I began this review by saying that for me ‘there was also a sense that Jones was doing something else with the fantastic’. As a result of reading Mendelsohn’s book, I genuinely feel I have a better understanding of what Jones is trying to do with her oeuvre. If Mendlesohn’s argument is correct – and it is certainly extremely convincing – the implications of Jones’s undeclared project are breathtaking; Mendlesohn has done a great service in laying them out for further discussion. One can only hope that other authors will help shoulder the burden of trying to teach everyone to read critically.

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One thought on “reading Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition by Farah Mendlesohn

  1. g.r.del

    Thank you for blogging about this. I must get hold of Farah Mendlesohn’s book as a a huge DWJ fan and children’s literature geek.
    I am lucky enough to be of the generation that discovered her as a child and that blurred line between mundane reality and the magical…it spoke to me then and I still seek it as an adult.

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