Music, magic, maturity


Cart and Cwidder (1975)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
in The Dalemark Quartet, Vol 1.
Greenwillow / 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.

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. 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 at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) as well as C S Lewis and then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be given more consideration.

The first three of the Dalemark Quartet were published in the 1970s, with the first two published in North America as Volume 1 nearly thirty years later. As Cart and Cwidder happens more or less contemporaneously with Drowned Ammet it made sense to have the two titles combined in one, as the publishers Greenwillow did back in 2005 (though just the former title is considered 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.

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. 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.

Cwidder by the way seems to be a made-up word. It’s based on a family of stringed instruments, from Ancient Greek kithara and zither, through the crwth or bowed lyre of medieval Wales to the modern guitar and sitar, though cover illustrations seem to show a cross between a Renaissance lute and a mandolin. A great many stories of magic, both old and new, involve the power of sound, from Orpheus’ singing to his 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’). These refer to both spoken and sung words as well as sounds notated and played, and this Dalemark story follows in the same tradition.

The thirteen chapters mostly seem to settle on towns and villages visited by Moril’s family — Derwent, Crady, Fledden, Markind, Cindow, Neathdale — and average around sixteen pages each in my edition, suggesting Jones knew how to structure and pace her story. The general air of suspicion — between North and South, from wary villagers to shuttered houses — helps to keep the reader on guard so that any stranger, or indeed acquaintance or family member, is a possible suspect.

Yet I liked the way there are no absolute goodies or baddies for most of the time. Moral ambiguity within the family is matched by the attitude of court officials at Neathdale, the reluctant recruits to the tyrant Tholian’s army and the “murmuring gentleman” who gently accosts Moril’s mother Lenina at the family’s various stops. I liked that this character, Ganner, 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.

Incidentally, I’m quite clear on the difference between a villain and an antagonist: a villain is someone with corrupt morals, while 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.

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; and as this is a kind of bildungsroman (albeit over a very short period) Moril is going to have to develop a more mature attitude, and it will be a painful process with loss of family members and unexpected responsibilities.

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 musical organ. And the historical setting is confusing, medieval at times, Thirty Years War at others (the armour and the guns suggest that). 17th-century Europe seems to me to be Jones’s main 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 (along the lines of Rosicrucianism) with suspicions of witchcraft. 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 being set in this kind of period.

Yet there is certainly magic, and there are magicians. My first instinct was to think of magic-users as thaumaturges, but that term suggests a seasoned practitioner of the art. Even ‘charmer’ (as in ‘someone using a charm or magical object’) implies someone who knows what they’re doing. Perhaps ‘a sensitive’ might be be the best description of people like Moril. Even animals, such as the troupe’s horse Olob, are an aspect of this world’s magic; he reminds me of Falada, the talking horse in the Grimm fairytale The Goose Girl.

The names used here 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 also Tolkienian echoes: Lenina’s father Thorn (for Thorin?), Markwood (Mirkwood?). There are distinctions between Northerners and Southerners, as when Kialan is dubbed ‘Collen’ at some stage to disguise the fact he’s from the North. Collen was not just an ancient Welsh name meaning “hazel” but also, I suspect, a closet reference to the author’s son, Professor Colin Burrow, who has complained that she’d ‘borrowed’ him for characters in her novels, such as in Fire and Hemlock.

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. That sense of malaise and malevolence which is present here is all-pervasive in Drowned Ammet too. Does it match up with what Jones observed in 1974, the year she would have been writing this novel? 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. Reflecting the prevailing zeitgeist is not uncommon in fiction.

Closely related to fictional reflections on zeitgeist are foreshadowings. These foreshadowings, and also closet remarks, seem typical of Jones’s writing, 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 Albus Dumbledore’s sage sayings to Harry Potter.

I’ve said more than enough to indicate how complex and rich this novel is, and yet I’ve given precious little attention to a synopsis of the novel, to its characters and to the atmosphere created. The best way to appreciate these is of course to read the novel itself; but I hope that armed with the foregoing remarks the reader may approach a first or subsequent read with deeper insights into the powerful storytelling that makes this so effective a fantasy.

This now expanded review was first published 30th April 2013, and was originally dusted off in anticipation of Witch Week 2019, in which the readalong was Cart and Cwidder. The other two titles in the Dalemark series are The Spellcoats and The Crown of Dalemark (the links are to my reviews).

34 thoughts on “Music, magic, 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!


  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 2 people

    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.

      Liked by 1 person

    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 2 people

      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 2 people

    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.

      Liked by 1 person

    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 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    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.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for the great review and reminder. A great DWJ fan but only managed to find the Drowned Ammet book, and I thought it was her most ‘steampunk’ of her stories. My favorites are still ‘Fire and Hemlock’ and my ‘Archer’s Goon’, both being great takes on dysfunctional families and relationships. I agree totally that fantasy runs much deeper and highlights the human condition more than most other genres.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this appreciation, and I hope you get to find a copy and finally read this wonderful story. While I don’t necessarily think fantasy runs any deeper than other genres I believe it explores areas in depth that other genres mayn’t usually approach, areas which are also part of the human condition. The two of DWJ’s titles you mention are among my favourites too — I’m sure many of her fans recognise aspects of her dysfunctional families in their own lives and that’s why they feel she speaks to them; I know that’s the case for me at least!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Aonghus Fallon

    I seem to have read most of Diana Wynne Jones’ early period, but not any of her later stuff (ie, I stopped reading her around 1980, with Fire & Hemlock being the exception) so while I read Cart & Cwidder, I never read the other Dalemark books. Off-hand, I can think of three books from that period in which the male lead has some proficiency with a musical instrument; Tom in Fire & Hemlock becomes a member of a string quartet, the mc’s violin is turned into a cat (while he’s playing it!) in Charmed Life, and then this – for years, I actually thought a Cwidder was a real instrument.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sure you’re onto something with musical instruments: in the Dalemark novel The Spellcoats (which I also recently reviewed) one of the principal characters, the apprentice of another, plays a reed pipe (possibly panpipes) to effect magic, and there’ll be other instances, I’m sure. I should check what she says about music in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

      I think I’m right in saying DWJ played piano to a reasonable standard. I’d love to see what she thought a cwidder really looked like — I rather think if she wanted it to look like a lute she would have specified one.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Music is very important, always GOOD and probably MAGIC, especially if played on a HARP. It seems that DARK LORDS are tone-deaf. They have never been known to employ Music as a WEAPON, or to strike fear and desolation into anyone by means of a bespelled tune.* The utmost they ever rise to is chantings in TEMPLES. This is lucky because, on the side of Good, Music has enormous power. It can amplify SPELLS, summon supernatural help and inspire superhuman courage …”

      * Not strictly true: the Witch in Lewis’s ‘The Silver Chair’ thrums a mandolin to aid her hypnotic suggestions.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Moral ambiguity is what makes the Dalemark books so interesting! And it started with this one, a deceptively slim tale which manages to pack in some big philosophical and political questions.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I didn’t love this one when we read it for Witch Week 2019 but after reading your review I think I would like it better if I reread it. Since reading it, however, I took my grandfather’s lute to the Antiques Roadshow tryouts so I am more interested than before in the concept of a cwidder. My 18th century lute turned out to be a 20th century oud, a Middle Eastern instrument, and we did not make the final cut, alas!


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh what a shame about the oud, but as it was the forerunner of the European lute (from the Arabic al ‛ūd) I still think you have a marvellous instrument!

      I see I commented on your lovely review back in 2019, Constance, and would probably say the same things if I was commenting now. 🙂


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