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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.

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.