Diana Wynne Jones
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing
Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Greenwillow Books 2012
Where to start? Diana Wynne Jones was a very individual and distinctive voice within British fantasy writing, highly regarded and rightly so, though that recognition was perhaps long coming: for example, though I was aware of the name I only first read her work in 2004, on a strong recommendation, beginning with The Merlin Conspiracy. However, from then on I was hooked. She had a growing loyal following from the mid-seventies onwards, but perhaps the fillip to her popularity came with an audience keen for more fiction along the lines of the Harry Potter books, aided by the success of the Japanese animated film of her Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, within a relatively little time she discovered she had cancer, dying just two years later in 2011.
So, I’ve made a start. If you’ve read any of her books you’ll understand the appeal; if you haven’t then you are missing a treat. But what if you’re an adult, and especially an adult with an antipathy to fantasy? It’s all make-believe, isn’t it, not serious enough for grown-ups to bother with as it’s not about real life? Well, let’s put aside the facts that all fiction is made-up and, because it often offers neat conclusions, not messy like reality, and that even writing non-fiction has to be both a selective and creative process; all that aside, true fantasy is about the interface between daydreams and everyday life, and acquaintance with that starts at a very young age. As Diana writes (‘Fantasy Books for Children’),
Writers of fantasy for children have a heavy responsibility: anything they write is likely to have a profound effect for the next fifty years. You can see why if you ask ten adults which book they remember best from their childhood. Nine of them will certainly name a fantasy.
Crucially, she goes on to say, “If you enquire further, you will find your nine adults admitting that they acquired many of the rules they live by from the book that so impressed them.” These ‘rules’ about appropriate behaviour, recognising character, responding to crises or a general outlook on life stay with you and largely determine the way you live that life in the decades to come. And, as Diana notes, this is a heavy responsibility for any children’s writer.
Those notions implanted at an early age by books are every bit as important as the oral lore you get from family or friends or society at large, from personal contact or through the media. As adults we shouldn’t belittle these early brushes with ‘virtual life’, and indeed we should be revisiting them to re-experience and re-assess how our world-views are formed and what validity they have. This is not to say that we should censor childhood fantasy to conform with our ossified adult world-views, as some pedagogues are wont to do. Instead, we should re-immerse ourselves in that childhood world where monsters exist under the bed and behind the curtains, and bullies of all ages lurk to make our lives miserable, and models of courage and cowardice and resourcefulness and helplessness are presented for us to help us learn to cope with ‘real’ life. And, yes, a childhood where we can believe that magic exists, as something to be in wonder and awe about, to prepare ourselves for the miracles of nature and the universe.
Reflections is a wonderful collection of writings, mostly by Diana herself, for magazines, conferences and lectures. As discussed above, she discourses widely on the responsibilities of the writer, and the perils of visiting schools, the value of learning Anglo-Saxon and the craft of writing; she reflects on the creation of the fantasy worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, particularly interesting as she attended lectures by both Tolkien and C S Lewis when she was at Oxford. Nearly all her addresses are peppered with recollections of singular incidents from her childhood, and while several anecdotes are repeated in different contexts, they are always apposite and telling. Her upbringing was unconventional, to say the least, but like all children she somehow thought it was ‘normal’ until she matured and discovered otherwise, thus not only highlighting how childhood experiences form the adult character but also underlining that however different all our childhoods are in specifics the generalities are what we have in common.
Edited by Charlie Butler from the University of the West of England in Diana’s home city of Bristol, the pieces (nearly thirty of them) have self-explanatory titles like ‘A Day Visiting Schools’, ‘Advice for Young Writers’ and ‘Creating the Experience’. Butler, author of Four British Fantasists (a study which includes Diana Wynne Jones), provides an insightful introduction and an interview with her, and there is a Foreword by fantasy writer and DWJ fan Neil Gaiman, plus contributions by two of her sons, Colin and Richard Burrow; and the whole is rounded off by notes, a bibliography of her published writings and an index. Even if you’re not a fan, or have never read a word of her writing, there is much to enjoy; but if you are and you have, then, mitigating the sadness of her passing, Reflections is full of the joy of living in both the exterior ‘real’ world and the no less valid inner world.
5/5 reposts of reviews to mark five years of blog posts on Calmgrove; this first appeared on December 13th, 2012