Music, magic and maturity

Trees

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1:
Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet
Eos 2005

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 1970s, 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.


This double review was first published 30th April 2013 and is here dusted off in anticipation of Witch Week 2019, in which the readalong is Cart and Cwidder. Hopefully the post will whet your appetite if you were considering it!

The single title has been republished in several recent editions — HarperCollins Children’s Books in the UK for example — so should be generally available.

The other two titles in the Dalemark series are The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark (the links are to my reviews).

21 thoughts on “Music, magic and maturity

    1. Yes, I did, Libby! You’re very welcome to re-use it with a credit. It’s actually a winter view from our property of the Preseli Hills in Wales, but you don’t have to mention that of course!

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  1. Pingback: Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones | dreaming out loud

  2. I have been considering buying volume one of the quartet rather than just Cart and Cwidder and you’ve made a good case for doing so. Does that mean there is an accompanying volume two, housing books 3 and 4?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is indeed, Sandra! If these two are more or less contemporaneous, the third and fourth titles are like bookends, one set much earlier in Dalemark’s history and the other set in an alternative world akin to our late 20th century world. My compendium of these two novels is in a US edition (Greenwillow/Eos being a North American imprint from Harper Collins) but my copies of the other two titles are from OUP.

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    1. If you like a hint of menace and villainy (I’m guessing from your flash fiction!) then can I suggest, Lynn, Black Maria or Time of the Ghost as a starting point? Not so well known, they are nevertheless very dark, belying her reputation as ‘only’ a writer for children. I know you’d love either, though I don’t know if either are currently in print.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh, thank you for the tip, Chris. Just looked up the blurb and both sound exactly my thing – you know me so well! And both are available through Waterstones, too. I feel a treat coming up 🙂 Thanks very much

        Liked by 1 person

    1. If you’re not enamoured of the mystical then Diana Wynne Jones may not be for you, as pretty much all her writing involves magic, great or small.

      Having said which, Cart and Cwidder, though it does feature magic, is focused on many human themes: family dynamics; talents and responsibilities; power and corruption. It’s also a road trip, and deals with the potency of music and of narrative and of myth. There’s a lot to think about and admire, I feel.

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    1. I know you say you are leery of novels specifically directed towards the YA market, Ola, but DWJ always strikes me as an author for all ages, as her legions of loyal fans demonstrate! The Dalemark series is one of her more serious endeavours, suiting the dark themes she explores here.

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      1. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle, thanks to your recommendation, Chris! 😊 And I agree, her books seem to perfectly fit the description ‘for all ages’. I will definitely give these a try 🙂

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    1. The more or less contemporaneous ‘sequel’ is almost like a standalone when the focus shifts to Mitt as a very different protagonist. The sombre atmosphere is still there though, Laurie!

      I get the very strong impression that DWJ was never into writing sequels which merely duplicated the original — hence the Chrestomanci novels where Christopher is almost an afterthought, Year of the Griffon which almost turns its back on the first Derkholm novel, and even the two Howl & Sophie sequels in which you only realise they’re sequels some way into the books.

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