There is sometimes an assumption that if a novel’s protagonists are youngsters then the novel can only be for other youngsters to read. This is not always the case, and for me many of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘young adult’ stories can and ought to be enjoyed by youngsters of all ages, reasoning which prompts me to resist tagging this volume as ‘children’ or ‘YA’.
It is also sometimes assumed that fantasy is a lesser genre than more mainstream novels. I don’t accept that needs to be so, and the author herself has made clear that to dismiss fantasy as escapist is a mistaken attitude (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-bd). The best fantasy has as much to say about the human condition as more literary examples, and Jones’ fantasy mostly falls into this category. Add to that the fact that Jones attended lectures by Tolkien himself at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be taken seriously.
The first three of the Dalemark Quartet were published in the 70s, with the first two published as Volume 1 nearly thirty years later. Cart and Cwidder happens moreorless contemporaneously with Drowned Ammet and so it makes sense to have the two titles combined in one, as the publishers have done here. The action takes place in a land wracked by civil war between north and south, in which Jones’ young heroes and heroines must make their precarious way.
Cart and Cwidder (1975)
In a lecture on ‘Heroes’ delivered in Australia in 1992, Diana Wynne Jones makes it quite clear that she sees her heroes (and heroines) as flawed beings in whom we, the spectators, seek to invest our sympathy. And so it is with the young travelling musician Moril in this tale, an apparent dreamer who inherits a stringed instrument called a cwidder. (This seems to be a made-up word based on a family of stringed instruments, from Ancient Greek kithara and zither, through to modern guitar and sitar, though cover illustrations seem to show a cross between a Renaissance lute and a mandolin.) He is expected to shoulder a lot of responsibility, despite his age, and how he responds is the mainspring of the story. And his response involves exactly that dreaminess that many other creative people have, in concert with the latent magical powers of the cwidder. A great many stories of magic, both old and new, involve the power of sound, from Orpheus’ lyre to the necromantic bells of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, from the musical instruments in Alison Croggon’s Pellinor tales to the traditional use of terms like ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’ (from French chanter), ‘grimoire’ and ‘glamour’ (from ‘grammar’) all referring to both spoken and sung words as well as those written down, and this Dalemark story follows in the same tradition.
Drowned Ammet (1979)
As Cart and Cwidder is structured round a journey (by cart, of course) from the south of the subcontinent of Dalemark to the north, so Drowned Ammet founds young Mitt also travelling in the same general direction, but this time by sea. And, in a similar way to Moril’s experience, Mitt’s long physical journey is shadowed by an inner journey as he comes to terms with who he is, what he stands for, where he is coming from and how he stands in relationship to friends, family, acquaintances, enemies and the demiurges that shape his world. When we hear distant news of Moril’s achievements we may strongly suspect that the paths of both Mitt and Moril may be destined to cross in a future book.
It is certainly delightful to read these two tales back to back and to live the experiences of these two protagonists through their eyes, as it were. And while the geography and physics of this world may seem strange to us, and the technology veer from high medieval to early modern, there is no doubting that these are real human beings recognisable from our own world, and for whom we can feel affinity and affection. And this being fantasy, there is of course an element of magic and the supernatural.
Here may be a good place to mention the useful map prepared by David Cuzic that appears in this edition and which provides a rudimentary but indispensible counterpart to the clues contained in the text.