A heavy responsibility well acquitted

Diana-Wynne-Jones

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

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20 thoughts on “A heavy responsibility well acquitted

  1. Hi,

    Thanks so much for introducing me to Diana Wynne Jones — since I am busily working on a Middle Grade novel historical fantasy, I am excited about Reflections and absolutely agree that writing for children is a huge responsibility. And thanks so much for following my blog!

    Write on,
    Karin

    1. You’re welcome, and I hope you get to enjoy not only Reflections but also many of her other writings. It’s ironic that it took a move away from Bristol for me to discover that Diana lived in Bristol, and it’s a regret that our correspondence was brief (she wrote a very chatty and generous reply to an appreciation I’d written of The Merlin Conspiracy).

      I also enjoy Joan Aiken’s fiction, for similar reasons of awareness of the responsibilities of writing for youngsters. Best known as the writer of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (fifty years old in 2012) and its sequels, her collections of short stories were what first drew me to her in the early 70s; fairytales many of them, with that sense of wonder and magic inherent in the best of that genre, but often firmly rooted in the minutiae of the 20th century. Although a British author, her father was Conrad Aiken, and she wrote Nightbirds in Nantucket as a homage both to Moby-Dick and to her American family connections there.

  2. Like you, I discovered Diana Wynne Jones in my adulthood. I started w/ Howl’s Moving Castle, moved on to Chronicles of Chrestomanci, and now have Dalemark Quartet in my to-read pile. Such a joy. I’ll have to get Reflections — I can always use more pointers.

  3. Wonderful reflections 🙂 on this book, especially the insights on the impact of reading we do as children. I like the suggestion that we should revisit those childhood books to better understand where our values and worldview came from–and to better understand ourselves in the process!

  4. Pingback: Reflecting on Writing with Diana Wynne Jones | Tales of the Marvelous

  5. I’ve loved her work since I was ten and am always surprised that she seemed so little known in other parts of the world. As one of those 9/10 adults who’ve can cite 7/10 fantasy books influencing me even as an adult, I have to say DWJ has made me smarter and laugh more than Harry Potter ever could! Fire & Hemlock awakened my interest in True Thomas and fantasy writing which still helps me today as a writer 😀 Thanks for a wonderful article!

    1. It must be a huge compliment to any writer to know how much of an inspiration they were to an aspiring author; such a shame she’s no longer here to appreciate it, she would have conveyed her delighted response, I know. But I’m glad you found my review a reminder of the power of her writing, Leeana. 🙂

  6. She was so right, with that responsibility that weighs heavy on writers of childrens’ fiction. There are books that I’ve mentioned to you before (Susan Cooper and Alan Garner mainly) that truly shaped who I am and their themes of courage and resourcefulness, myth, magic and ‘othernerness’ have stayed with me through all these years. As an aspiring writer, some of the authors I read when I was young are still the ones I would aspire to emulate now.
    I can’t quite believe I have never read Diana Wynne Jones, though I know you’re a big fan. I must put that right!
    Thanks for such a great review and for bringing her work to the fore once more

    1. The darkness that Cooper and Garner exhibit is well reflected in your posts, Lynn, so it doesn’t surprise me that you reference them. But you also exhibit a sly humour at times, a characteristic of some of Diana’s writing — so I suspect you may well enjoy her stuff!

      All authors have responsibilities to their readers, but none more so than writers for younger audiences. Diana always kept this foremost in her mind, certainly in her YA books.

      1. Thanks Chris, and thanks for the nod to humour. I worry sometimes that I’ve allowed that element of my writing to become swamped by the horror. I shall search DWJ’s books out. Can you suggest a good starting place?

        1. Howl’s Moving Castle is as good a place to start as any. If you like creepy try the slightly autobiographical Time of the Ghost, and if you’re in the mood for YA enigma then Fire & Hemlock a fine choice. Charmed Life is also delightfully spooky!

  7. Lovely to read of my favourite children’s authors; Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. I miss my days as a teacher/librarian when I could buy these author’s books for the school Library and encourage the children to read them!

    1. Thanks for commenting! I myself welcome the fact that many libraries and bookshops stock contemporary authors, but regret that some of the classic 20C favourites — like the ones you mention — are frequently absent, even though perennials like Blyton and C S Lewis haven’t yet relinquished their places.

      Hopefully there may still be teacher-librarians around who feel the way you do — if reducing budgets haven’t already made them an endangered species!

  8. Thank you for your introduction to Diana Wynne Jones and Congratulations on five years of blogging on Calmgrove.
    I agree with you that books read and reread in childhood impart lasting values and life lessons. E. Nesbit’s books, C. S. Lewis’, and Arthur Ransome’s certainly. And more…

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