Magic? It’s mostly ideas

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1502-1555). Fitzwilliam Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Sudden Wild Magic
Avon Books 1994 (1992)

Magic is mostly ideas — they’re the strongest thing there is!
— Gladys, X/2

The fantasies of Diana Wynne Jones are the epitome of wild magic, as other commentators have previously noted. You can guess what ‘wild magic’ is — uncontrolled flights of powerful fancy spiralling off in unexpected directions, or some such will-o’-the-wisp definition — and virtually every writing of this much missed author is replete with it. A novel entitled A Sudden Wild Magic is naturally going to include rather a lot of it.

The novel’s premise is easily summarised. A neighbouring universe has been harvesting ideas and inventions from our world without our knowledge — not such a fantastic notion these days — but has also been experimentally interfering with our lives, introducing global warming and epidemics for example to see how we cope with disasters on this scale. A UK-based group of magical guardians decide to infiltrate a crack team of female adepts, their mission being to disrupt this covert action conducted by male mages by introducing magical viruses; the novel switches back and forth from Earth to this parallel world as it follows the ups and downs of this team and those monitoring progress. Being a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy things are not always as they seem, however.

It’s almost pointless to outline the intricacies of the plot narrative in a straightforward review: there is so much going on, so many strands, such a varied cast, so many distinctive individuals. It’s a novel of its time, of course: issues current in the 1990s have assumed different perspectives a quarter of a century later — AIDS-HIV and global warming, for example — and we might baulk at their semi-humorous treatment both from a retrospective viewpoint and because they are matters warranting serious consideration. But it can be argued that humour used as a means of drawing attention to the misuse of power — from issues concerning exploitation and gender to technology used irresponsibly and child abuse — deserves its place in fiction.

Instead then of discussing the narrative’s twists and turns, I want here to indicate some of the ways the author’s own wild magic operates, how she takes ideas from here and there and allows them to follow their own courses.

Laputa and Balnibarbi from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

The floating citadel or entity that is pirating Earth’s intellectual resources is initially called Laputa-Blish. The reasons for this are many. First, it’s called Blish because at least one of the protagonists has evidently read James Blish’s series of novels called Cities in Flight. But it’s also called Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels, where the flying island freely travels above the greater island of Balnibarbi. But there are more ramifications: the island’s name is derived from the Spanish la puta — which means prostitute or whore — from which DWJ has taken the idea that the team of female adepts will use what she calls ‘kamikaze sex’ to upset the machinations of the brotherhood of mages.

You’ve now gathered that A Sudden Wild Magic is not a fantasy aimed at her usual audience of younger fans. “Usually I write [speculative fiction] for children,” she wrote in an article,¹ “but recently I wrote a novel specifically for adults. this was something I had long wanted to do — really ever since I discovered that quite as many adults read my books as children do.” But in penning this fiction, clearly happy to introduce what may have been regarded as slightly risqué humour, she found that she was breaking some unwritten rules about writing fantasy for adults. Thankfully she decided to disregard them in this case.

There are two strong female leads in these pages. The first is Zillah Green, an unmarried mother with a toddler called Marcus. She’s part of some intricate relationships which it’s too complex to relate here (they involve a Mark and a Marceny). Zillah is blessed, or maybe cursed, with that sudden wild magic, a talent that gives her great (if rather unpredictable) power but also causes her to be lost and confused. It may be significant that Zillah, a name that first appears in Genesis 4 — where she is the mother of Tubal Cain, the first metalworker — means ‘shadow’ in Hebrew: that shadowy aspect may have been what allows Zillah to be constantly overlooked as someone either not present or else insignificant. She does, however, have a significant part to play throughout the narrative.

The other woman with a key role is Dr Gladys Naismith, a professor emeritus of theology. When we first meet her she appears as a dotty old woman with a penchant for cats, living in a cottage in the Herefordshire countryside. It soon becomes clear though that she is a powerful adept, and also good at reading people. Perhaps her surname is indicative of her abilities, for there is a widespread belief around the world that metalworking is a kind of magic and artificers such as blacksmiths are ipso facto magicians. In such ways does Jones match her characters to their personalities and talents.

Gladys also leads us to another complex of relationships in the novel: Welsh connections and Arthurian allusions, themes which the author frequently includes in her work. Gladys, a form of Gwladys, is related to Welsh gwlad, meaning ‘land’, ‘realm’ or ‘countryside’– perhaps it originally meant a queen or princess, just as gwledig meant ‘ruler’. This Gladys also shares her name with a Dark Age queen, daughter of the king of what was Breconshire and wife of another king of what was to become Monmouthshire. Both of these ancient Welsh polities are contiguous with Herefordshire in England; so what I believe Jones is suggesting is that the fictional Gladys inhabits a kind of no-man’s-land between two realms — what’s conventionally called the Welsh Marches — making her precisely the sort of person ideally placed to effect communication and movement between both.

We can see that there is method in her madness, a kind of labyrinthine logic to Jones’ own wild magic. In Earth’s parallel world, the floating island Laputa-Blish is actually called Arth. As well as almost having the same letters as Earth, Arth reminds us of the name Arthur, and I’m sure this is no coincidence. In Welsh tradition Gwladys is abducted by King Gwynllyw from her father King Brychan, and war between the two rulers is only prevented by the intervention of King Arthur, their overlord. In A Sudden Wild Magic the unnamed king of this alternative world attempts to reconcile the ruling mage of Arth with Gladys Naismith. While not an exact parallel there are enough similarities to suggest some crossover; while Arth itself is a kind of hybrid of a Celtic monastery and Camelot-like citadel.

Elsewhere on this parallel world we encounter a Pentarchy under that king, consisting of Orthe, Frinjen, Trenjen, Corriarden and Leathe. Students of British history will remember the concept of the Heptarchy — which is how Victorians referred to the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as existed before the Norman conquest — and will see how Jones has adapted it for her purposes. I’ve had fun trying to winkle out the origins of the names of the five kingdoms but I won’t bore you with them here, only to suggest that the mythical Greek river Lethe, associated with a goddess, produced forgetfulness and oblivion, a rather apt association for the Leathe of the Pentarchy.

Finally, in exploring the imaginative wellsprings of this novel, I want to briefly discuss the varieties of humans on this world. There are those who are termed gualdians, slightly fey-like people with large eyes who have a propensity for wild magic. I’ve little doubt that Jones derived this term from Welsh gwyllt, which by now you won’t be surprised to learn means … ‘wild’. Then there are the centaurs, half horse, half man (and they do seem to all be male in this story). Jones was to bring centaurs back in Deep Secret (1997), a hybrid from classical myth and an introduced species in her otherwise insular worlds. C S Lewis, one of her lecturers at Oxford, famously started his first Narnia book “with a vision of a faun walking in the snow beside an old fashioned streetlight”.² As she wrote of this series, “I marvelled and learned from it.” Maybe centaurs are a nod to Lewis’s faun.

Now, to the crux of the matter: is this a good story? Because, as she wrote in her essay ‘Two Kinds of Writing?’, despite the hidden assumptions about writing for adults (as opposed to writing for children), “when all is said and done, it is telling a good story, and telling it well, that is the point of both kinds of writing.” Well, here are my criteria for judging narrative: Am I engaged when I read it? Do I enjoy the way the story is told? And do I identify in some way or sympathise with the main protagonists?

Firstly, I admit I’m biased: I am predisposed to be engaged with a Diana Wynne Jones novel because I’ve enjoyed so many in the past and found them satisfying on so many levels.

Now, as to whether I enjoyed the way this particular story is told, I’m not entirely convinced. In her essay she writes, as an established children’s author, about assuming “that writing for adults gave me more freedom, for instance, in the way I could tell the story.” She could write episodically, for example, or imply that adults could have sex; she could include “a lot of guilt, a lot of pleasure … and an awful lot of whoopee at some point when enough people relaxed enough.” She adds that in the story “two-thirds die, two get badly victimized, one falls into a clinical depression, one gets blackmailed, everyone’s judgement goes askew, and one woman runs away and nearly gets her small child killed.”

I don’t have any problems with all this. I don’t even have a problem with her editor’s belief that “It’s all so nice.” No, what I find marginally disappointing is the way that, having brought all her main characters through various vicissitudes she does what she often does in her children’s fiction and wraps the action up just we’ve just started investing in them. In other words, just when we want to know how they feel, react, plan the rest of their lives or whatever, down comes the curtain. It’s almost as if she’d lost interest in them, though I’m sure that would never truly be the case.

Perhaps I’m expecting more than this novel is offering. Quite probably the key to it all (and indicative of the author’s basic approach) is the observation by the character Roz (VI/4): “It likes fun — the citadel, I mean. Can’t you feel? People keep repressing it, and it’s just sort of itching for something to enjoy.” Fun. Enjoyment. That’s really what this fiction is looking out for. If, as Gladys says, magic is ideas, then sudden wild magic puts the fun into those ideas.

Finally, did I find the lead roles sympathetic? If I’d read this a few years ago, I perhaps would have identified more with Zillah, irresponsible, creative and impulsive as she was. Now, somewhat older though not necessarily wiser, I find I sway towards Gladys, an authoritative figure who is good at reading people, cultivates dottiness while being as sharp as a pin when it suits her. I sometimes wish I was more like her; at least I have the dottiness.

¹ ‘Two Kinds of Writing?’ (1991), republished in Diana Wynne Jones, Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. Greenwillow Books 2012, 33-43
² ‘Reading C. S. Lewis’s Narnia’ in Reflections, 47-50

The original Diana Wynne Jones fansite is no longer updated but contains a wealth of material, including a selection of articles by the author herself, a picture gallery, an official autobiography and a bibliography

In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book published in the 20th century

22 thoughts on “Magic? It’s mostly ideas

  1. Great review Chris. I love how you often investigate the origins of the stories, characters and place names in your reviews. It’s like joining you on a literary investigation as you lick out details and references that perhaps even the authors are unaware of. Sounds like an interesting book, if not a wholly successful one,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lynn! If my reviews somehow transform into mini-essays it’s because I too think ideas are magical, so when DWJ adds fun into the mix then anything’s up for grabs!

      I think, on reflection, that this novel labours under the burden of being labelled an ‘adult’ fantasy. To be clear, there’s nothing even resembling soft porn here, and nothing that a teen would find exceptional in a ‘young adult’ fantasy. A plague on labels! This is simply another DWJ fantasy and if it weren’t for the needs of publishers to categorise fiction under genres (whether by subject or age range) there’d really be no difficulties with this: it says it all in the title.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand why retailers and publishers need to ‘label’ books, but at times they are truly limiting and misleading, aren’t they? DWJ was clearly a fascinating, imaginative writer.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I totally agree, Lynn. Labels are indicative but shouldn’t be defining or, as you say, limiting. Generally my tags cover a range of genres for any one review; and I also refuse to tag what are generally regarded as children’s/teen/YA titles as I think a well written novel can and should appeal across the board.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Very true. There are a lot of YA novels/writers that I feel are sidelined or in some ways, diminished in stature because they’re deemed YA and that’s thought of as lesser in some way. It’s wrong and rather unfair

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Deep Secret felt more grounded — as it were — to me, Lory, but I do know I’ll keep mulling this around for a little while (though probably not online) so it’s obviously had some impact on me!

      I acquired the original US paperback edition and, yes, the cover is extremely odd — as though the artist had read the first few chapters and then went for a literal interpretation. And I found it hard to keep open at the page I was reading for fear I’d break the spine.


  2. I too have the original US paperback and it is pretty terrible! Who cares, though, I am quite fond of this story. The hungry mother of Leathe is almost as scary as Laurel, though less subtle.

    Thanks for your analysis, I enjoyed reading it and will keep it in mind for my next go-round with SWM.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve just noticed a weird coincidence: I’ve chosen to read a book featuring a Marceney (that hungry mother of Leathe), a Mark and a Marcus for March Magics! And it is a coincidence of course… 😁
      Glad you enjoyed my critique, Jean! I’m sure I too will reread this at some stage, but perhaps I’ll go for a more recent edition, one with a less lurid cover and with less of a tendency to trap my fingers…

      PS I’ve also just thought: this is a Trojan Horse story, is it not? And the Marceny/Mark/Marcus characters may owe their origin to the Welsh word march which means … horse. Makes me wonder whether Marceny’s intended sacrifice was also related to the Trojan War.


        1. I’m trying to think of more examples of that ‘marc/mark’ syllable, Jean. Dalemark of course comes to mind, from words for ‘valley’ and ‘boundary’. What others had you in mind?


  3. Kristen M.

    This and Hexwood are the two DWJs I haven’t read yet. It’s interesting that this is an actual adult novel because I was musing this month as I read about how she tends to slip a swear word into many of her older kid/YA novels, in that way that makes a child reader feel both stealthy and empowered that someone trusted them with that word. Now I feel like she might have been trying to get away with something as well — Diana, the not-so-secret rebel author. Oh, I love her!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll have read ‘The Jones Girl’ in Unexpected Magic which, given some artistic licence, must still indicate what a rebellious nature she showed to the outside world, the perennial outsider who possibly developed a scratchy persona to hide her sensitive and vulnerable self. Or am I reading too much into it?

      I think, Kristen, that ASWM is fairly tame by adult standards, but slightly too risqué for pre-teens, however wiser than their years some of those youngsters may be. Nowadays I suspect this would be aimed towards the YA market (maybe the newish British edition is?) as they wouldn’t blink an eye at teenage pregnancies, random deaths or the general promiscuity suggested here — especially as it’s consensual and, anyway, done with humans from another universe…


      1. Kristen M.

        I definitely got that same sense from The Girl Jones –that she was an outsider in both word and deed. And the scratchy persona could also have started to protect herself from her parents … such a tragic thought.
        And the Magid books are at that same level (with, for example, the stairwell orgy in Deep Secret). That makes the fit even more tidy with your prequel idea!


    2. Oh, and Hexwood I read quite a few years ago. I suspect you too would find it as confusing as I did first time round, but suggesting depths that might repay a second read. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway!


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