#WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder

Cart and Cwidder HarperCollins UK edition 2016

When their father, a travelling minstrel is killed, three children involved in rebellion and intrigues inherit a lute-like cwidder with more than musical powers.
— From the first edition of Cart and Cwidder, Macmillan 1975

You’ll by now be aware that Witch Week takes its title from a novel of the same name, ostensibly for children, by Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011. So it seemed apt to have as this year’s novel for discussion Cart & Cwidder, the first volume in a fantasy quartet set in a polity called Dalemark. In fact the very first Witch Week featured The Spellcoats, another Dalemark novel in which the principal villain is actually identified.

Three of us have had a detailed online chat about this — an edited version is offered below — but a number of you have also taken up the challenge of reading it beforehand so that you could join in today’s conversation, and you are very welcome to add your comments below. The participants in the online chat were Laurie Welch (red), Chris Lovegrove (green), and Lizzie Ross (blue). Our comments coalesced around topics such as magic, historical setting, bildungsromans, zeitgeist, and of course villains!

HarperCollins Greenwillow Books edition 2005

Lizzie: Do you remember where in C&C you figured out who the “villain” is?

Laurie: To be honest, this is the question I kept asking myself all through the book. However, I am thinking it’s not the traditional evil person or, if so, there is more than one villain.

Chris: It’s Moril’s reaction to the “light-eyed” man at Medmere who had had “an odd look in those eyes which Moril did not trust” that struck me at once. But the general air of suspicion — between North and South, from wary villagers, from shuttered houses — all helps to keep the reader on guard so that any stranger, or indeed acquaintance or family member, is a possible suspect.

Laurie: Yes, I like this aspect of the novel that even some of the main characters have suspicious qualities about them that make you think there is more to them than what they show. Clennen, Dagner, Lenina, Brid caused an unease for me at times making me wonder who they really are?

Mammoth 1993 edition

Lizzie: Is there more than one villain?

Laurie: As I read my notes I kept saying it’s “this vs. that”. For example, the villain could be the political situation, North vs. South. Or Clennen vs. Lenina, who don’t match. Or Old vs. New in the songs that they sing having to be careful that the old songs are not heard by the wrong people. When I think of a villain it’s the person out to get someone or destroy someone or something, without empathy and out for their own good. This describes Tholian, but …

Lizzie: I feel the same, Laurie, I’m at the point where Tholian is clearly a baddie (willing to kill anyone, of any age, who threatens his position). Your point about Clennan vs Lenina raises the issue of conflict — does conflict automatically imply there’s a good side and a bad side? And I’m not even sure if “conflict” is the right word to apply to Clennan’s and Lenina’s situation.

Chris: I do like the way there are no absolute goodies or baddies for most of the time. Moral ambiguity within the family — Clennan, Lenina, even Brid — is matched by the attitude of court officials at Neathdale, the reluctant recruits to Tholian’s army and the “murmuring gentleman” who gently accosts Lenina at the family’s various stops.

Lizzie: As well as similar gentlemen approaching Brid — always nervous-making (for female readers especially?), but current events make these moments appalling.

Chris: Yes, I too had thoughts of not so much #MeToo as that first stage of classic stalking. I liked, however, that Ganner’s character turns out to be neither black nor white: as someone who makes compromises because he’s aware that his position and power may be in jeopardy if he crosses Tholian, he’s still clearly sweet on Lenina and will do his best by her.

Lizzie: Yes, and that it ends up being Ganner who saves Dagnar from the noose is especially great. Except for those whispering scenes with Lenina, Ganner doesn’t give off any creepy vibe at all — we see him only through Moril’s eyes, but even so, Moril doesn’t react to Ganner the way he does to Tholian.

Lizzie: A theoretical question: villain vs antagonist — same difference?

Chris: I’m quite clear on the difference: a villain is someone with corrupt morals; an antagonist is simply someone who opposes the protagonist (agon is Greek for contest or conflict). With the antagonist (and protagonist) there may be moral ambiguity — neither being wholly right or wrong — they may question themselves, lack a sense of self-esteem, or simply be confused. A villain however could be a sociopath, psychopath, narcissist, liar, manipulator, abuser, a power-hungry CEO or politician with few or no redeeming features despite surface charm or other dissembling habits.

Lizzie: Ok, Chris, using your terms, I’d mark Tholian as a power-hungry sociopath, and certainly with no redeeming features — except perhaps that he has enough strength to recognize the danger of Moril playing the cwidder. And now that I’ve read Laurie’s post, I can see that Tholian is very much like Jadis in Narnia — he takes and maintains his power by force, and he certainly knows how to play on everyone’s weaknesses. We see this especially in how accurately he can predict how Moril and Kialan will act in almost every situation.

Magic and historical setting

Chris: For an epic fantasy this has precious little magic for most of the time, though hints of that grow throughout. It fits different moulds at various times — alternative world or paracosm, even steampunk towards the end with the giant organ. And the historical setting is confusing, medieval at times, Thirty Years War at others. Do we like this kind of ambiguity?

Lizzie: The shifting genres don’t bother me — I believe in DWJ’s created world, so bring on the pipe organs and pigeon-breasted armor, the guns and cannons. I agree, not much magic going on here (I remember this comment from last year’s discussion of The Other Wind), but it’s there as a potential, although it seems to be available only via musical instruments (the cwidder), and only to certain people (in this case, only Moril). In the rest of the Quartet, magical spells come via woven fabrics, idols, etc. Those creating and/or using these things have powers they don’t recognize until consequences help them see what’s going on. I like that aspect of DWJ’s work here.

Laurie: At the beginning I felt the setting was roughly Medieval — a traveling band of musicians in a cart through forests will do that to me. 🙂 But after Clennen’s death and the family being on the run I was reminded of the Wild West escaping from the Indians in a covered wagon. That’s either a tribute to DWJ or I just have too active an imagination!

Chris: 17th-century Europe seems to me to be DWJ’s inspiration here: not only the murderous Thirty Years War and the English Civil War but also the obsession with spying, political intrigue and, crucially, mysticism and witchcraft suspects. The lute (the equivalent of the cwidder) reached its height of popularity at this time; also this century saw a fashion for automata and similar mechanical toys, especially in France. I see Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet both being set in this kind of period.

Laurie: Perhaps because I just finished the Narnia series, I was aware that Olob the horse had some magical qualities about him in the way he sensed danger and would not be talked out of it.

Lizzie: Of course! I hadn’t thought of that, although I can remember thinking at moments, “Look at Olob, he knows something!” I agree his prescience is magical, which means he’s an additional important legacy from Clennen to the children. And then Olob’s death is the final straw that sets off Moril and results in saving the North from invasion.

Chris: Olob is an aspect of this world’s magic I’d forgotten too! He reminds me of Falada, the talking horse in the Grimm fairytale The Goose Girl.

Lizzie: I was disappointed in the “villain” (Tholian) — not much to say about him: he’s a typical villain, motivated by greed, etc, a bit one-sided. The complexity of the plot comes only in Moril’s inner struggles to figure out how to use the cwidder, and then in his final realization that he lied with the cwidder in order to destroy his enemies. A good thing for the wrong reason.

Laurie: Yes! As soon as he sees Olob so senselessly killed Moril goes right to the cwidder. He knows its power at this point and how to use it. Without thinking of the consequences he immediately wants payback, even though the power of the cwidder is many times greater than the death of one horse or even to avenge his father.

Moril is wracked with guilt, but this is the conundrum: is such an evil deed acceptable for the greater good? Its morality is muddied when Keril says, “I don’t think we had much chance of holding the pass otherwise.” And then we find Moril’s act killed so many people, including the ones who would be heirs to the Earldom of the South Dales, that Dagner is the now the living heir. Now Moril has to live with what he knew “was not done right.”

Coming of age, and naming names

Chris: As we see pretty much everything through Moril’s eyes perhaps it’s unsurprising that Tholian is two-dimensional, with Moril seeing him responsible for all the South’s ills. Mind you, Tholian deserves all the opprobrium he gets; as this is a kind of bildungsroman (albeit over a very short period) Moril is going to have to grow into a more mature attitude, a painful process with loss of family members and unexpected responsibilities.

Lizzie: Cool, a fantasy bildungsroman. In this case, Moril has to figure out what to do with his two parts (the dreamer, and the noticer — if I got these right; maybe these are the dreamer/noticer vs the musician/world changer). Is there a traditional role for a “villain” in a bildungsroman? Or is the villain internal (ignorance, naivety) or hugely external (racism, war)?

Anyway, Moril has to figure out that he doesn’t need to choose between his two selves, he just needs to figure out how to do/be both. He can’t do this while in Hannart, so he must leave with Hestefan.

Laurie: And also he just needs to grow up! I think the hasty destruction of Tholian’s men can be attributed to adolescent willfulness. A truly evil person would never grow out of it. A good person feels guilt, and will hopefully go off and mature. I actually like this double aspect, as you put it, of Moril. It is very relatable to the young people reading this, as they watch a teenager whose temper gets terribly out of hand, but who also has remorse over the destruction his quick temper created.

Lizzie: Yes, typical teen behavior. Your idea about how important guilt is strikes home — that’s what will save Moril. By the way, I love the names (Hestefan, Lenina, Dagner, Brid), which remind me a bit of Mary Norton’s Borrowers — Pod, Homily and Arrietty — almost, but not quite familiar.

Laurie: I got a vibe of something else, too, but it is Game of Thrones!

Lizzie: I thought also of Earthsea. It may be that’s something all fantasy characters have in common. Names are crucial. “Tholian” sounds like it comes straight out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which certainly influenced GRR Martin.

Chris: The names also intrigue me, many of them modelled on Northern European exemplars: Mendakersson and Thornsdaughter reminiscent of Icelandic patronymic and matronymic customs, Konian and Kialan very Medieval Welsh, Fledden and Medmore almost Scottish. There are, as you both note, Tolkienian echoes: Lenina’s father Thorn (for Thorin?), Markwood (Mirkwood?).

Kialan is dubbed ‘Collen’ at some stage to disguise the fact he’s from the North. Collen was not just an ancient Welsh name but also, I suspect, a closet reference to her son, Professor Colin Burrow, who has complained that she’d ‘borrowed’ him for characters in novels such as Fire and Hemlock.

Early Puffin edition of Cart and Cwidder


Lizzie: Given the current political situations in UK & US, is there something we can say here about Tholian et al.? Was there anything going on in the early 1970s that might have influenced DWJ in plotting this? Villains in the rest of the series are like Tholian — “cruel and tyrannical” (quoted from a Wiki summary of Drowned Ammet’s plot). Is that the best DWJ can do? Or was that typical of fantasy stories of the time? I’m thinking about Le Guin from last year: in Earthsea, fear of death drove people to do evil deeds (not to mention, of course, conquest, power, greed).

Which brings up a side point — how many different motivations are there for villains? Revenge, lust for power, greed, misanthropy, sheer cussedness. I’m thinking of Iago, as well as Grendel. And does providing a villain with an origin story change how we see them?

Does Tholian have any special powers that make him more dangerous? He’s the grandson of the previous Earl, newly come into power and ready to do anything to hold on to and even expand that power. What is it about the “odd look” in Tholian’s eyes that worries Moril, just before Tholian kills Clennen? Are those eyes supposed to suggest some type of soullessness? Or perhaps something that has taken over Tholian’s humanity?

Laurie: I felt an overall uneasiness all through the book. It wasn’t connected to Moril’s final act, but to something else. Something “bad” is in the air and the forest and in the villages right from the beginning pages and pervaded the whole book for me. It felt like Clennen’s murder was its victory, not Moril’s act of violence. Maybe it expands the definition of villain as being other than a person?

Lizzie: Everything’s off, somehow, in Dalemark, and it’s clearly going to take more than one book to put it right. So the “villain” is more like a zeitgeist? Or whatever is causing the zeitgeist?

Chris: As I read the above comments I kept being reminded of the phrase in Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” except here it’s the state of Dalemark. I agree about that sense of malaise, malevolence, that’s present here, all-pervasive in Drowned Ammet too. Does it match up with what DWJ observed in 1974, the year she would have been writing C&C? It was a year of unrest in Britain, certainly: a compulsory three-day working week, minority governments, two general elections, a state of emergency in Northern Ireland, an IRA bombing campaign on ‘mainland’ Britain, a politician sacked for an inflammatory anti-immigration speech predicting “rivers of blood”, and much more. And that was just the UK. That sense of a malevolent ruling spirit is only resolved in the final novel, The Crown of Dalemark, completed many years later. What you call the prevailing zeitgeist, Lizzie, is pretty spot on.

Laurie: I realize how much of a prophet/foreshadower Clennen is.

  • Clennen tells the crowd at Derent about the magic of the cwidder and he being descended from Osfameron, who could move rocks from mountains and the dead from their sleep.
  • In his story of Adon and Osfameron it’s really Kialan’s story and the present battle between the North and the South
  • In the days before his death he teaches Moril hard (does he know his death is imminent?) Lizzie: I suspect that, being a spy, Clennen always expected a sudden death.
  • Clennen gives so many clues to Moril about the power of the cwidder, to Dagner that his songs should not be sung because the words are seditious and there are spies everywhere; on his death bed to Moril that the Cwidder belonged to Osfameron, “He could use it. I couldn’t … and only found the power once.”
  • The long story about Lenina and Ganner being engaged but Clennen took her away. Then asking Lenina about seeing Ganner recently, which she admitted she had. And it coming out that Tholian is her uncle, which passed me by the first time.
  • The songs are very important, they’re all metaphors to pass along information to the rebels who want peace in the South or to remind listeners how great the North is. The songs are both the past and the future. And the song Dagner shares with the family Clennen says he must never sing in public as the words sound like they are for the rebels. Lizzie: And also, that Tholian fears the power of Clennen’s words.

This part of the book really sets the stage for what is to happen post-Clennen’s death. It is all foreshadowing what will occur later. “No one can trust anyone anymore. It comes of uneasy rulers paying uneasy men to make the rest uneasy, too.” Clennen is the key to setting up the sense of wariness, of negativity and evil that is endemic to the society right now. The question, “Who is the villain?” is the sense of suspicion between neighbors, chaos of government, pitting North against South, spies everywhere, culture that cannot speak to the real problems of the country.

Lizzie: I love this assessment, Laurie. The villain is the zeitgeist!

Laurie: And Chris’s comment above asking about what was happening in society at the time DWJ wrote this makes sense, as do the times we live in now to some extent. We need a great cwidder and a Moril to make mountains fall on our present day Tholians…! More Clennen: “It’s like life. You may wonder what goes on inside, but what matters is the look of it and the kind of performance we give. Remember that.”

Lizzie: I’m still trying to figure out what Clennen meant by this statement. If what matters in life is performance/looks, that seems very shallow, and I don’t think Clennen was a shallow person. Performance can hide evil. I actually think this is a cynical take on life, from a practiced spy. He has had to perform well to hide what’s “inside” his songs.

Laurie: I agree about hiding what’s on the inside. So his whole outward persona was to deceive, so as not to betray his spy job. This might also be a warning to his kids to keep their feelings/songs to themselves, because of being overheard.

“And haven’t you heard the songs the freedom fighters used to sing here the year of the Rebellion…? They never dared say a thing straight out, so it was all put sideways — ’Follow the lark’ was one, ‘Free as air and secret’ another went, and the best known was ‘Come up the dale with me.’ The lords here still hang a man on the spot for singing words like that.”

Chris: All really interesting points, Laurie, and while to me these foreshadowings and closet remarks seem typical of DWJ’s writing it’s also a technique she will have come across in Tolkien’s fiction. In fact, Clennen’s gnomic utterances remind me a lot of Gandalf’s advice to the hobbits, and looks forward to Dumbledore’s sage sayings to Harry.

Macmillan hardcover 1975

What were your responses to Cart and Cwidder? How did your understandings of the villainy in Dalemark evolve? Did we get everything wrong? anything right? Let us know in the comment section below. And if you’d like to read the full discussion, you can find it here.

28 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder

  1. Fantastic discussion everybody. I need to pore through it again with the book in hand as I did not manage to read along.

    The comment that “the villain is the zeitgeist” is one that rang true for me — and important to consider in our own troubled time. How do we stand up against these forces that want to make us uneasy and to act out of fear? We don’t have magical cwidders, but those metaphors can help us activate the powers we do have.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, Lory, I agree: Lizzie’s “the villain is the zeitgeist” is the standout phrase for me too, a commentary as relevant to our own times as it may have been when DWJ wrote her novel. And we do need those metaphorical cwidders to start to redress the dreadful imbalances that currently face us.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It’s difficult to read almost any fiction these days without making some kind of connection to current events — perhaps the defining quality of “great literature”. Or perhaps “zeitgeist” is just another name for “the human condition”. (Sorry, feeling ultra pessimistic this election day here in the US. But The Clash will clear away the dark pall. Turning it up to 11 today.)

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  2. Pingback: A penny for the guy | Lizzie Ross

  3. Pingback: #WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. I’m grateful for sharing in this in-depth discussion with you, Laurie, and Lizzie as it got me thinking more about what DWJ was trying to achieve in creating this world. Now when I get round to rereads of the remainder of the series it will be with a greater understanding and appreciation as a result of your insights and questioning! Thanks again for agreeing to join in, and I hope you’re encouraged to read more by her. 🙂

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  4. I haven’t read the book so have nothing to add to your extensive discussions! Anyway, I’m busy… I’m searching for a ‘murmuring gentleman’. Every girl should have one, I feel. Failing that, I suppose I’d settle for a talking horse…

    Liked by 4 people

          1. Mea culpa, Laurie, it was me who introduced Falada, the goose girl’s talkative four-legged friend, into the conversation and somewhat slewed the conversation! But, yes, talking horses — and donkeys, and mules?! — are a wonderful notion! 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Great conversation! I read Cart & Cwidder last week so I could participate, and I completely agree about the sense of looming danger but I was unsure where it would come from (was actually sure the whispering gentlemen were going to do something dreadful to Brid). I will admit that I wanted Moril to be a little more clueful about the cwidder and I thought he would come up with a way to get his brother out of prison before he left town. Admittedly, it was a nice touch to have the despised stepfather get him out. I wished there had been more magic but I suppose it was more dramatic this way when the cwidder started cwiddering.

    I don’t know much about horses but pulling the wagon and 5-6 people sounded quite exhausting for poor Olob even before things started heating up.

    Overall, I enjoyed it but did not get quite as much depth out of it as you three. But I own the series so will definitely continue with it. Lory, thanks for the alert!


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for joining in the readalong, Constance, for your wonderful review and for adding these observations! What I love about the series is that DWJ hated to merely write sequels in exactly the same vein and so with the remaining three novels she took a different tack, not only with protagonists but also with different time frames and different kinds of magic; just the ‘villain’ remained, but even they had a different aspect to them each time.

      Olob must have been some big-chested carthorse, perhaps more like a shire horse, than the various cover illustrations suggest to do the amount work that you’ve rightly mentioned. It’s just a shame (though probably an aspect that makes this an epic fantasy) that we don’t have the chance to meet him again!


    2. “I don’t know much about horses but pulling the wagon and 5-6 people sounded quite exhausting for poor Olob even before things started heating up.”

      Hi Constance! This struck me, too, and I remembered reading something about how the cart was fitted out so that the weight didn’t affect Olob. So I went back to my copy hoping I could find where it was described and sure enough the weight is addressed, “the cart was so well sprung and greased that Olob could hardly feel the difference.” You, like me, must be an animal lover!

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  6. This is a great discussion and has thoroughly enhanced my reading of the book. Whilst I was reading Cart & Cwidder I found myself wondering why it had been selected for Witch Week’s ‘Villains’ theme as there didn’t seem to be a villain to really get one’s teeth into – as with Jadis, for example. Tholian is a baddie, yes, but I don’t have him up there in the realms of serious villians; he isn’t going to stand out for me when I look back on this book. His actions for me were a plot device, as a character he felt like a non-entity. (I realise that you have pointed out in the discussion that Tholian is two-dimensional perhaps because he’s seen through Moril’s eyes.) But I certainly felt that sense of unease and at times, menace, throughout the book. Indeed, again as you’ve pointed out, no one was really what they seemed.

    The idea of the zeitgeist as the villain is brilliant; it encompasses that pervading unsettling atmosphere. I have to say I would have loved a straight sequel to this and I hope that somewhere in the remaining three books we get to meet Moril again and learn how he fares in his efforts to channel the cwidder’s power. But having absorbed all that you’ve explained here, I shall be able to read the books that follow with much greater understanding and enjoyment. Thank you all for that!

    (Must also add that I loved Olob! And I totally understood why Moril reacted as he did.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, Sandra, Olob’s death is a perfect example of “the last straw”, so Moril’s reaction is completely understandable.

      I have to admit that as I was rereading Cart & Cwidder, I was wondering, like you, why we’d chosen it. I kept trying to pinpoint the bad guy, and failing. During the conversation with Laurie and Chris, I began to think it’s DWJ’s genius to leave that trope behind and approach evil as being centered beyond any individual — people just get caught up in Evil. I’m not willing to discard the idea of the “evil genius”, or even just an “evil idiot”, but the power of a culture’s norms to guide and control people’s actions is kind of frightening. We’ve had so many examples of this throughout history, and yet we’re shocked when it happens again. Each time I think about this, my respect for rebels increases.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Pleased that our discussion produced surprises for you, Sandra, as it did for us — not least in recognising that the villain here was a prevailing climate of fear, with Tholian, as it were, only a kind of puppet.

      Meanwhile, Olob reminded me of those pets — dogs especially — that are sensitive to when humans are ill, perhaps even trained to sniff out underlying pathologies. I won’t say that he was the metaphorical canary in the cage (used as warning of damp gas or carbon monoxide in mines) but it is certainly a shame that he ended so ignominiously.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I think it’s fair to say, we need an Olob prequel or sequel, because miraculously he survives! Sadly, it won’t come from Diana Wynne Jones, but someone must take up the reins (sorry, but that’s the best word!) on this. And for the record, don’t look at me!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Wonderful talk! One thing I dig how DWJ does her slow burns where magic is concerned. When magic is rare, it’s all the more powerful in the story–and with readers. Or, you can flip that to where magic is an everyday part of life. Even then, Jones finds a way to make something about the magic unique, and part of this comes when that unique bit is a rare sight in the story. It’s all about the restraint 🙂

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    1. This is an insight so few readers seem to get about her writing, and I’m glad you brought it up: magic is effective either when it’s sparingly used or when it there’s a twist to it that removes it from cliché. So here it’s introduced only gradually, while in the pieces in Stopping for a Spell (https://wp.me/p2oNj1-3S6) though, where the reader is concerned, magic is a given, it’s the unexpected process or outcome of that magic that encourages one to accept its existence. “Restraint” is a perfect way to describe her MO.

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