Holand to Holy Island

‘Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Drowned Ammet (1977)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
in The Dalemark Quartet, Vol 1.
Greenwillow / Eos 2005.

People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing. Mitt wondered himself by the end.

Chapter 1.

With this dramatic opening paragraph Diana Wynne Jones began the second book of what became known as the Dalemark Quartet – even though the last book wasn’t published till 1993 and, appearing fourteen years after The Spellcoats, evidently an afterthought. As with many of her series – Chrestomanci, Howl, or Fantasyland for example – she steadfastly avoided repeating herself, studiously refusing to conform to expectations that a sequel would merely be more of the same.

Here the events of the first Dalemark novel, Cart and Cwidder, are merely distant rumours, with none of those protagonists referred to by name even though the action is more or less contemporaneous in both. This means that Drowned Ammet can be treated on its own merits even though set in the same world – and that’s how I propose to deal with it now, almost as if it’s a standalone novel.

Map of Dalemark (credit: David Cuzic)

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 finds young Mitt also travelling in the same general direction, but this time by sea. He has had dreamlike inklings of a land somewhere northwards from a young age, and feels drawn towards it though he has no knowledge of it. That dream land is in stark contrast to his life in South Dalemark where warring earls and crippling taxes force his parents, one after another, to travel to Holand [sic] to eke out a living.

When his father is presumed dead following a failed revolutionary coup and his mother marries a gunsmith, Mitt determines to become a revolutionary himself and thus avenging his father’s death on whoever betrayed him. Instead he finds himself on the run with two siblings from one of the hated noble families, sailing into the unknown after his own failed attempt at assassination. And what begins as a familiar tale of realism becomes touched with intimations of divine influences.

In a similar way to Moril’s experience in Cart and Cwidder, Mitt’s long and dangerous physical voyage 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. Though we hear distant news of Moril’s achievements and wonder if the paths of both Mitt and Moril may be destined to cross in a future book, the author will disdain to stoop to predictable outcomes; as with many of her fantasies Jones is concerned with realistic human relationships and individual dilemmas, and that often leads to the kinds of messy outcomes we find in daily life.

When I first read the first two Dalemark tales it was certainly delightful to read them back to back and to live the experiences of these two protagonists through their eyes, as it were. 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 they are about real human beings recognisable from our own world, and with and for whom we can feel affinity and affection, and occasionally antagonism. I also think that Mitt’s parents – along with Hildy and Ynen, the two companion runaways he frequently squabbles with – owe much to the author’s own emotionally distant parents and her two lively sisters: it may be significant that Drowned Ammet was dedicated to her mother.

And this being fantasy, there is of course an element of magic and the supernatural: the title refers to a corn dolly figure which, along with another composed of fruits, is ritually consigned to the sea at Holand but which manifests differently the closer the young protagonists get to the Holy Islands. I constantly marvel at how the author was able to render the fantastic believable and immanent in certain of her characters, whether in epic fantasies like this or more domestic situations.

Here may be a good place to mention the useful map prepared by David Cuzic that appeared in the Greenwillow omnibus edition and which provides a rudimentary but indispensible counterpart to the clues contained in the text.

Revised and expanded from a review of Drowned Ammet with Cart and Cwidder in Volume One of The Dalemark Quartet, published by Eos / Greenwillow Books (1995), and first posted 30th April 2013. Posted as part of Wyrd and Wonder’s annual celebration of the fantastic.

Wyrd & Wonder 22: tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com

17 thoughts on “Holand to Holy Island

  1. Goodness, every time I read one of your reviews of Diana Wynne Jones, I promise myself I’ll pick her up soon, but I still haven’t done so. I should have added her to my 10 books list. I must confess when I read about the land he dreamt of in the North, I fund myself thinking of the Horse and His Boy (and on a tangent Strange the Dreamer).

    The Van Gogh is also one I haven’t come across before!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t know Strange the Dreamer but now you mention it I hear the echo of TH&HB in my synopsis. DWJ takes things in a very different direction though, even if there’s a sea voyage to compare with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader! You really should try DWJ some time, I think you’d find her fiction quite to your taste (especially if you like Ibbotson!). Then there’s Joan Aiken…

      The Van Gogh (done when he sojourned in the South of France) was new to me too but I thought it fitted in with the protagonist here learning sailing skills from being apprenticed to a fisherman.


    1. She published the last in this series, The Crown of Dalemark, in 1993, just three years before she published her spoof tourist guidebook The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, so you may be sure she was well aware of and seemingly avoided all the pitfalls and clichés of the epic fantasy genre! I’ve been rereading them all and find the same predilection for subverting many of the conventional tropes the genre can be prone to. I think you may get something worthwhile out of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Holand to Holy Island – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. The comment about the Van Gogh led to an odd thought: once the artist is finished with a painting, and it has sold, the artist moves on. Whereas the purchaser now has a tangible object that just sits there forever unchangeable.

    Life is funny.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Now that you mention that, I think I read it somewhere. But my guess is he sent them to Theo, his brother (?), rather than stack them or hang them where he lived.

        Which still makes it true for the majority of painters, including my mother: I have static objects she created, instead of her. A very bad bargain.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. For many having a memento mori is better than no keepsake at all – due to sibling greed the few things I have to remind me of my parents are a photo album and one or two books, but even without those I still have my memories, the good ones with the bad.


          1. My memories are getting fuzzy – I’m sorry about your siblings. Mine have been golden – the five of us girls have always gotten along.

            I still have two boxes they sent me from Mexico when our parents died – I know what the emotional cost is going to be, and I haven’t dared open them yet.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, tricky. Intelligent fantasy verging on magic realism you might find palatable, so The Time of the Ghost for example is only a slight distortion of her life growing up in Essex with her sisters and ‘unusual’ parents, though with a ghost thrown in (my review https://wp.me/s2oNj1-ghost).

      Fire and Hemlock also has a highly fictionalised autobiographical feel to it, mixed in with the Tam Lin legend and some T S Eliot influences (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-hemlock). Neither of these is any less literary or well-written for having a whiff of magic to them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Excellent, I shall make a note of both of them and will try to get them from the library. That way if I find either is not to my taste I won’t feel guilty about the cost of buying a book and then not reading it

        Liked by 1 person

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