Diana Wynne Jones
OUP 2005 (1979)
A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey downriver to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.
The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told. We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction (defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’), a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published.
Some of the threads are picked up in Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet (published before The Spellcoats) as well as apparently resolved in the concluding The Crown of Dalemark; but don’t take that for granted. It’s typical of the author that the climax of the story is all smoke-and-mirrors: does it happen the way Tanaqui’s narrative implies, or is it all an illusion, a trick of the light flashing across the material of the Spellcoat? This is not a cop-out, as some might see it, but rather the mark of a writer who knows that magic should be experienced instead of explained away rationally.
This book comes satisfyingly close to the feeling of a good fable, and stands comparison with some of Ursula Le Guin’s similar fantasy writing. In large measure this is down to a general vagueness in geography, with the River running from the mountains in the south to the sea in the north, in contrast with the detailed map that can be (and has been) drawn for the other three titles set in later historical times. Nevertheless, all four novels involve travel for the protagonists in the lands of Dalemark, another metaphor, this time for the personal journeys they are all called on to make. Also there is a well thought-through (if at times confusing) theogony of the Undying and their relationships with humankind, matched by an attention to the etymology of names in the author’s created world of Dalemark; in this The Spellcoats shares the almost anthropological approach that Ursula Le Guin brings to her created worlds.
For me The Spellcoats is very much a tale that works on different levels, potentially appealing to both a young adult and an older readership. This, as much as other three titles, deserves to be better known by fantasy fans, especially those who love epic fantasy: Dalemark is as clearly imagined as Middle Earth, yet with characters perhaps more rounded than Tolkien’s and a chronology that, beginning in the mists of time, ends in the last of the quartet with a modern Dalemark not too unlike our own world.
Review first published May 2013, here slightly revised