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.
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.