Deserving more fantasy fans

© C A Lovegrove

The Spellcoats
in the Dalemark Quartet
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Oxford University Press 2005 (1979)

A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey down a river in flood to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.

The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told.

We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction — which, as you all know, is defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’ — a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published.

© C A Lovegrove

Some of the threads are picked up in Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet (published before The Spellcoats) as well as apparently resolved in the concluding The Crown of Dalemark; but don’t take that for granted. It’s typical of the author that the climax of the story is all smoke-and-mirrors: does it happen the way Tanaqui’s narrative implies, or is it all an illusion, a trick of the light flashing across the material of the Spellcoat? This is not a cop-out, as some might see it, but rather the mark of a writer who knows that magic should be experienced instead of explained away rationally.

This book comes satisfyingly close to the feeling of a good fable, and stands comparison with some of Ursula Le Guin’s similar fantasy writing. In large measure this is down to a general vagueness in geography, with the River running from the mountains in the south to the sea in the north, in contrast with the detailed map that can be (and has been) drawn for the other three titles set in later historical times.

Nevertheless, all four novels involve travel for the protagonists in the lands of Dalemark — another metaphor, this time for the personal journeys they are all called on to make. Also there is a well thought-through (if at times confusing) theogony of the Undying and their relationships with humankind, matched by an attention to the etymology of names in the author’s created world of Dalemark; in this The Spellcoats shares the almost anthropological approach that Ursula Le Guin brings to her created worlds.

For me The Spellcoats is very much a tale that works on different levels, potentially appealing to both a young adult and an older readership. This, as much as other three titles, deserves to be better known by fantasy fans, especially those who love epic fantasy: Dalemark is as clearly imagined as, say, Middle Earth is, yet with characters perhaps more rounded than Tolkien’s and a chronology that, beginning in the mists of mythical time, stretches out to end in the last of the quartet with a modern Dalemark not too unlike our own world.

A few additional thoughts occurred to me after a recent reread. One is the realistic sibling squabbling that goes on between the five youngsters named variously for birds or, in Tanaqui’s case, after the scented rushes that can be woven like wool or plaited into utilitarian objects; as The Spellcoats was dedicated to one of the author’s sisters, Ursula — herself a storyteller — no doubt the bickering echoed the relationships the three real-life sisters had at times while growing up.

A second point concerns how, even in this fiction set in a fantasy world in mythical times, Jones was wont to include aspects of her final home in the West Country city of Bristol. The muddy silt-laden River Avon that flowed through Bristol does seem to be echoed in the Aden river that dominates much of the story; and the tidal effects such as the surge wave or tidal ‘bore’ that affects the lower reaches of the book’s River is reminiscent of the equivalent phenomenon of the bore on the estuary of River Severn into which the Avon flows. Ebb and flow thus parallel how so many narratives, including this one, are offered for our inspection.

Finally, epic or high fantasy is sometimes derided as too often presenting a polarised and perhaps simplistic narrative of Good versus Evil, such as with the siblings here in conflict with the malign power that is Kankredin. Because, some critics would argue, the real world is never simply about some Dark Lord trying to attain self-aggrandisement through inhumanity and conquest: such a black-and-white situation would never happen in modern times, would it now? I’m not so sure that’s the case, though.

Review first published May 2013, slightly revised 8th August 2013, and now, after rereading the novel, expanded and reposted for March Magics for the eleventh anniversary of the author’s death on 26th March 2011.

13 thoughts on “Deserving more fantasy fans

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Spellcoats | Tales of the Marvelous

  2. Pingback: The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones | dreaming out loud

  3. I own but have not read this one. I think I must have acquired this series in the wrong order and so put off starting to avoid reading out of order. But I joined in the Cart and Cwidder conversation two years ago so you should have persuaded me to read the whole series!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chronologically this volume comes first, but it was the third to be published — after Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Amnet. I think the only one it makes sense to be left to last is the finale The Crown of Dalemark, which comes last in the timeline and was also the final one to appear!


  4. Pingback: Deserving more fantasy fans – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  5. The great high fantasy novels seem only more and more relevant to me every day. There are dark lords among us, unquestionably. The question to me is how do we stop them from multiplying and taking over entirely? Were they once human, and can that humanity be recovered, or can we only turn our efforts to preventing more from being spawned? In any case, we need to keep weaving stories that hold the world together and make sense of our lives. Love this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a great story, isn’t it. I too believe that stories hold the world together and make sense of our lives, but sometimes those stories develop cankers that distort their meaning and intentions.

      Currently the perverted story that is convulsing the world is the notion that a certain country can only regain its integrity and status by acceding to the hubristic visions of one man. The problem seems to me that he and his admirers seem to play by obscene rules which more honest but horrified nations choose not to abide by, which is honourable but currently more devastating for innocent victims. But high fantasy implies it is possible to ultimately defeat dark powers by behaving honestly and with true integrity, and I think that if enough of us hold our governments to those principles evil tyrants will not prevail.


      1. Yes, everything originates in story, both good and evil. The distorted, untrue story produces evil action. We have to keep telling ourselves the truth and living it in spite of all that surrounds us. We have to actually wear it as armor, that’s why I love the Spellcoat image. And often we don’t know what is true until we have externalized it in some way. We have to weave it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I heartily concur, Lory. Coincidentally I reread this morning Lewis’s essay ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’ which is included in my one-volume Chronicles of Narnia; when I first read it just felt diffuse and scattergun and, while I didn’t really disagree with any of it its discursiveness blunted his message for me.

          And now? I really want to reiterate all his points, amongst which he adds the image of wearing a story like a garment — though not quite in the way you or DWJ mean. I have to say I found the essay much more enlightening for being read during this Narniathon than I did the first time around.

          Sorry, I’m rambling on a bit when I actually wanted to agree with what you said.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I love it when I see DWJ written about, such a perceptive and excellent writer. I have read this one, back in the pre-blog mists. And it is coming up to a friend’s wedding anniversary – she did like DWJ and I held back my knowledge that she’d passed on my friend’s wedding day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I know those bittersweet anniversaries, Liz, as when my partner’s mum died one Mother’s Day — that particular day has always brought mixed emotions every year since. But I agree with your assessment of DWJ’s writing, she’s peerless in the particular way she writes.

      Liked by 1 person

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