The Wonderful Worlds of Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite writers. Her books are fondly remembered by generations of fantasy fans, and she has had a huge influence on many authors who are writing fantasy today. She wrote mainly for children, but also some young adult and adult books, some for even younger readers, and a little non-fiction – all with fantasy themes.
I think of her books as feeling very British, even when they are set in other worlds entirely, perhaps because of the way she describes countryside and towns, or people’s behaviour. There’s a sort of comforting, cosy feeling to her stories, but at the same time they are often very deep, and sometimes much more complex than you might expect a children’s book to be. Diana Wynne Jones doesn’t shy away from the more unpleasant, cruel, or even sometimes disturbing aspects of human nature, but her books also focus on the good – bonds of family and friendship, love, simple kindness, and bravery in all its forms, not just connected to skill with a sword or a willingness to fight.
“I think I write the kind of books I do because the world suddenly went mad when I was five years old.” – Diana Wynne Jones
When war broke out, Diana and her three-year-old sister Isobel (and later her third sister Ursula) were sent to their grandparents’ manse in Wales. Wales was entirely different from their life in Hadley Wood on the outskirts of London. The countryside and houses were strange to them, the river ran black with coal, and everyone spoke a different language. When she was older, Diana said that she would still hear people talking in Welsh in her head when she was writing, though she could not understand what the words meant, only that they seemed magical. Later, the magic of the Welsh would emerge in one of her most well-loved books, Howl’s Moving Castle.
“…it dawned on me that I was going to have to write fantasy anyway, because I was not able to believe in most people’s version of normal life. I started trying. What I wrote was rejected by publishers and agents with shock and puzzlement.” – Diana Wynne Jones
Diana explores and often deconstructs mythology and folklore in her books. Howl’s Moving Castle and its sequels are set in a traditional-looking fairytale kingdom, one where the elder sister knows she cannot amount to anything, where the middle sister will marry well, and where the younger sister will of course become a powerful sorceress… except that the sisters themselves are not going to accept this. Almost everyone in these books steps out of the role their fairytale society has handed to them, forging their own fate and making their own choices.
In Homeward Bounders, Diana puts her own, very clever, spin on aspects of Greek mythology, particularly ideas about Prometheus and Pandora’s box. In Eight Days of Luke, she explores Norse mythology, and in Fire and Hemlock it is faery folklore, especially the story of Tam Lin, that is twisted and played with. In A Tough Guide to Fantasyland and The Dark Lord of Derkholm, epic fantasy is critiqued with wit and affection. In the Dalemark Quartet, Diana writes more ‘traditional’ secondary world fantasy, but with interesting twists and time-jumps and beautiful explorations of her world’s past and its mythology. This is the Diana Wynne Jones trademark – her books always seem very simple at first glance, but there is so much going on beneath the surface.
“She was the funniest, wisest, fiercest, sharpest person I’ve known, a witchy and wonderful woman, intensely practical, filled with opinions, who wrote the best books about magic…” – Neil Gaiman
One of the things I adore about Diana Wynne Jones’ books is the way she writes about magic. Magic is not a system with clear rules, but it can be studied and learned… still, it is unpredictable at best! It’s never completely clear where magic comes from – either it is in the world around us, or deep inside ourselves, or perhaps it is something even deeper than that. Magic is always a little mysterious, but also always fun, and just a little bit dangerous.
Diana seemed particularly fascinated by the idea of multiple worlds or universes, all connected, of which our world is only one. This idea pops up many times in her novels, even in completely unconnected series. In many, people have ‘doubles’ in different worlds; sometimes people can cross between, sometimes wizards protect the bounds between worlds (Enchanted Glass, The Chrestomanci series), and sometimes powerful beings manipulate the many worlds to their advantage (Homeward Bounders, A Sudden Wild Magic).
“Granny was truly marvellous, five feet of Yorkshire common sense, love, and superstition. She was always saying wise things.” – Diana Wynne Jones
Diana and her two younger sisters did not have a conventional childhood. They were moved around a lot and looked after by many different adults during the war, some of whom were kind and some not, but who did not show them much love. Later, in Essex, the sisters were put into ‘The Cottage’ by their parents, a lean-to shack across the yard from the main house. Their parents did not have much time for them. The girls often had an uneasy relationship with their mother, who seemed to regret not having boys and who found it hard to give sympathy. “It damages me,” she told her daughter one day after Diana’s appendix was removed.
Perhaps as a result of this childhood, parental figures in Diana’s books are often absent, or flighty and irresponsible, sometimes to the point of ignoring their children or blaming them for their problems. This is particularly the case in Fire and Hemlock, a very deep, clever book that explores family and the ties between people, in a story about the more sinister aspects of faery. Grandmothers and old ladies fare better in her books; they are often the wisest and most capable of her characters. Having said that, Diana is just as willing to twist her own tropes now and again, showing us evil grandmothers and evil sisters.
“I had long known that Isobel was the best and most interesting of companions. It was marvellous to discover that Ursula, at two-and-a-half, could make us fall about laughing. I knew I was lucky to have sisters.” – Diana Wynne Jones
Diana may not have had a very good relationship with her parents, but she did form extremely strong bonds with her sisters. They were best friends, inseparable. Diana began her writing career as a child, telling stories to her sisters to keep them happy and to make up for their father’s reluctance to buy them books. As in her life, so in her books siblings are incredibly important to each other, particularly sisters. Sometimes they can drive each other mad, but they can also form a support network like no other. Family is one of the most important recurring themes in Diana’s books.
“She told stories the way some people eat ice cream: eagerly, with delight and no self-consciousness.” – Emma Bull
Where to begin? Diana Wynne Jones has written so many books, a lot of them extremely different in feel and subject matter, and yet all connected by that particular Diana Wynne Jones essence that’s hard to define.
Well, I would always recommend starting with my favourite, Howl’s Moving Castle, the story of eldest of three sisters, Sophie Hatter, who has been cursed by the Witch of the Waste and set off to seek her fortune. She meets the wizard Howl, a wonderfully unexpected character, and becomes embroiled in magic and adventure. This is actually an incredibly romantic book without actually being about a love story. It is simple and charming on the surface, yet holds many layers and weaves several sub-plots together into a perfect ending.
The Chrestomanci series is a favourite with a lot of readers and features some fantastic characters. Chrestomanci is the title given to a sorcerer with nine lives, who watches over the boundaries between worlds. These are not told in chronological order, and readers may choose to start with the first book Charmed Life, or to begin in ‘time’ order, with The Lives of Christopher Chant. Diana Wynne Jones herself recommended beginning with Charmed Life.
The Dalemark Quartet, as mentioned earlier, is Diana Wynne Jones’ most ‘traditional’ fantasy series, but even this is told so differently from most. The books jump between times and characters, telling stories about the world that do not seem connected, then bringing them together at the end in unexpected ways. I love the mythology in Drowned Ammet and in The Spellcoats, and these are my favourites of the bunch. Cart and Cwidder is probably the weakest of the four, but it is the first one in the series. Because of the time and character jumps, you could really start anywhere in this series except with the last book, The Crown of Dalemark.
For readers who would like more of a challenge, there is Fire and Hemlock, and Hexwood, which both may need more than one reading to fully understand. Diana Wynne Jones sometimes likes to play with conventions and folklore, and these books can become very twisty and turny with their logic. Things might only be possible because other things are not, and power can be gained through manipulating human emotion and reasoning. This is also the case with The Homeward Bounders, one of Diana’s more bittersweet stories, that deals with Greek mythology in a new way. Eight Days of Luke will please fans of Norse mythology, and Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy explore Arthurian legends.
There are many more wonderful books by Diana Wynne Jones, and I’m still discovering more all the time. There are, of course, some that I’m not as fond of – Enchanted Glass and A Sudden Wild Magic, for example – but every book is guaranteed to contain something that surprises me. A more detailed reading guide can be found on the Book Smugglers site here, including some of Diana’s books for younger readers and her non-fiction too.
Whichever one you do choose to begin with, I hope that you are just as enchanted as I have been! Do you have a favourite Diana Wynne Jones book? Leave it in the comments!