Sunday, 27 March 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones, who has succumbed to the cancer which has plagued her over the past year or so, was one of Britain’s finest writers of the fantastic, an assertion which doesn’t need the appended qualification ‘for children’, even though this was the category under which her books were shelved. Being published as a children’s author doesn’t exclude an author’s work being considered and judged by the same standards of good writing which general fiction is afforded, and Jones’ novels are conspicuously enjoyed by readers of all ages. It takes a particular talent to be able to write books which can genuinely engage such a wide range of people. Her Chrestomanci series has inevitably drawn comparisons with another female writer of fantasy novels about a school for wizards which have met with some degree of success. Jones’ novels also feature the education of young people blessed with magic powers, but they are wider ranging and more imaginatively diffuse than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The universe of Chrestomanci, with its array of interconnected worlds, allows for a diverse mix of theatrical backdrops and fictional forms to be used, giving each novel a unique flavour whilst maintaining a sense of continuity between them. So we can move from the school based drama of Witch Week to the Italian comic opera feuding of The Magicians of Caprona. The fact that all is bound together by the notion of a bureaucracy of magic which attempts to keep everything under control is indicative of the way in which Jones’ work as a whole grounds a delight in wild fancy within a wry awareness of the absurdity of the everyday. I’m not one for decrying the phemomenal popularity of the Potter books, but perhaps it’s the absence of their comforting uniformity and repetition to be found within the Chrestomanci books, which instead spiral out in a chaotic pattern out of complex invention, which militates against them attaining a similar degree of success. Having said which, the exceptional, once in a lifeteime benchmark set by JK Rowling is rather an unfair one to use, and Jones’ series has proved immensely popular in its own right. Popular enough to lead to screen adaptations, certainly. Firstly with a BBC series of Archer’s Goon, and secondly with the Studio Ghibli animated version of Howl’s Moving Castle, in which Hayao Miyazaki managed to marry his visual style to her storytelling to a largely successful degree.

I have come to Jones’ work rather late, and have only sampled a small fraction of her writing to date. I’ve read Charmed Life, the first of the Chrestomanci novels, and was struck by the way in which she managed to balance a light and witty air with the weight of moral consequence. This was a world in which amusing comic misadventures were able to coexist with a sense that what happened mattered. Her ability to combine lightness of tone with an underlying gravity was the mark of a serious children’s writer (although she never made the mistake of becoming preachy in the manner of a CS Lewis), in other words one who takes children and young teenagers seriously. It’s another reason why she is also enjoyed by an adult readership (perhaps one which has first encountered her at a young age and continued to follow her work). The three other novels of hers which I have read all diffract the Matter of Britain through the prism of her imagination, casting them in novel forms which indicate her disregard for genre boundaries. Hexwood overlays SF and fantasy versions of the plot to provide a modern day masque of chivalric Arthurian archetypes in whose dramas the young protagonists are caught up. The fact that the courtly figures of medieval romance are personae adopted by visitors from another world allows Jones to comment on the conventions of heroic fantasy, as she would do in wickedly satirical vein in her ‘guidebook’ The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. The transformation of an unspectacular scrubby stretch of suburban woodland, in which most of the action of the novel unfolds, is an example of Jones’ enchantment of the everyday. It tangentially connects the novel with the central idea behind Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its subsequent variants, that of the wood which contains worlds and reflects and extends from the ancestral roots and branches of personal and collective memory flowing through the transforming nexus of the subconscious. The spirit of place, no matter how unpromising the locale may appear, is there to be unearthed. The baroque complexity of the plot, which folds in story elements from occult, space opera and heroic fantasy fictions into its intertwined layers, could easily be filed under the catch-all term post-modern. But such a definition, with its implication of clumsy stylistic and thematic juxtaposition, would fail to acknowledge the skill with which she manages to blend her disparate ingredients into a coherent and tasty whole. The fact that the space operatic overmasters are overturned by one of their maltreated servants also goes to show that Jones’ sympathies are with the underdogs, and that she loves nothing more than to turn the world topsy turvy.

This gnarly complexity is characteristic of her work as a whole, and is also exemplified by The Merlin Conspiracy. Here, two plot strands, easily distinguishable through the use of differing typographies, run parallel to each other, gradually sharing elements one from the other until eventually they collide. The novel is again set in a world parallel but different from our own. Jones’ frequent use of parallel worlds serves once again to undemonstratively underline the moral seriousness hiding beneath even her lightest work. Variants on the world as we know it show that small changes can have great effects. The position of Merlin in the world in which magic is once more a powerful force is another of Jones’ bureaucratic roles, introducing the civil service as a bathetically incongruous element in heroic fantasyland. The narrative carries us and one of its dual protagonists through several alternate worlds. For Jones, one world is often insufficient to contain the overspilling profligacy of her imagination. Here, genres once more shift and shade into each other as we step from our mundane world to a dystopian multi-layered vertical city lodged within a deep crevasse and on to the magical version of Britain known as the Isles of the Blest. There are some wonderful ideas in the book. I particularly like the weather working wizards, who pore over their three dimensional models studying approaching fronts and cloud masses. Unlike TV weather presenters, who wave their electronic wands to alter predictive digital charts, these meteorologists are able to directly affect the weather through their interventions, swirling a storm cloud here and nudging a warm front there. The personification of cities towards the end, and their occasionally tendency to uproot and wander off, is also delightful. Her description of London’s voice is a wonderfully poetic evocation of the composite sound signature of the capital: ‘Part of it was like the groan and clatter of thick traffic, and the rest was a chorus of different voices, high, low and tenor voices, voices with very upper class accents, bass voices speaking purest Cockney, overseas voices, and every grade of voice in between. It was almost like hearing a huge concert’.

Fire and Hemlock has a more straightforward narrative, but it is more sombre and psychologically complex in its modern day recasting of the Tam Lin legend. It offers a beautifully modulated portrait of a young woman’s growing awareness of herself and her effect on the world. The magical elements, never outlandish and just at a small remove from the everyday, are a perfect symbolic representation of the sense of new possibilities attendant upon this dawning self-awareness, and the fears and anxieties which accompany them. The fact that it is so different in tone from the books mentioned above is and indication of the range which Jones was capable of. She studied at Oxford in the fifties and attended the lectures of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien whilst she was there. Now that she has gone, we can look on the large body of her work which she has thankfully left behind (a large pile of which, stacked beside me as I write, I eagerly look forward to exploring more thoroughly) and rest assured that she will take her place alongside them and the noble lineage of British writers of fantasy for children and adults alike to which they belong: from George MacDonald and Edith Nesbit to Joan Aiken, Alan Garner and David Almond. Distinguished company indeed, a firmament in the midst of which she is sure to attain literary immortality.

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