Music, magic and maturity

Trees

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1:
Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet
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, reasoning which prompts me to resist tagging this volume as ‘children’ or ‘YA’.

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 (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-bd). 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 himself at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be taken seriously.

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Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

Good things come in threes

Snettisham torc, Norfolk, 1st century BCE (image: Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, slightly edited)

Diana Wynne Jones: Power of Three
Harper Trophy 2003 (1976)

Another wonderful offering from the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three is an early-ish fantasy but one which displays all her trademark tics: a tricksy plot with an ending which has you rereading the last few pages wondering what has just happened (and how), a self-doubting protagonist with talents largely hidden from them, and a narrative that — while riffing on traditional themes, tropes and traditions — still manages to read as a one-off original.

We begin the novel assuming this is high fantasy: a seeming pastoral medieval community that is also au fait with magic, with some individuals able to divine the future, find distant objects and gifted with the power of suggestion. As we delve further we realise that it’s quickly morphing into so-called low fantasy with the modern age beginning to impinge, first at the fringes and then at the centre.

Underlying this is the growing sense of triadic groupings, as suggested by the book’s title: three siblings; Three Impossible Tasks, in the best fairytale tradition; three peoples (humans, the Dorig and the Giants); three powers (the Sun, the Moon and the Earth); and over all these, the Old Power, the Middle and the New. It all makes for a heady concoction, with a twist about a third of the way in.

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The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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Of shreds and patches

Table Mountain or Crug Hywel hillfort, Crickhowell, Wales

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.

On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.

The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.


I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,

A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…

Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.

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Wild magics

Still from Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle

The first March Magics event (then called DWJ March) was inaugurated by Kristen of We Be Reading in March 2012 to celebrate the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011). This year’s March Magics has as its featured DWJ book Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps her most famous title and the subject of a delightful Studio Ghibli animation.

For any followers of this blog unfamiliar with DWJ’s work (and a few days before I post my second review of this fantasy, on the anniversary of her death, the 26th March) you may find the following links, to my reviews of other titles, helpful in deciding which of her fictions might appeal to you.

Let’s start with the series loosely associated with that peregrinating edifice.

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Riches well told

Wizard by Chris Riddell, Waterstone’s bookshop, Cardiff

This preview post is to flag up two of the books I shall be reviewing for March Magics, the book event founded by Kristen Meston of We Be Reading to highlight the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.

In a couple of days I will be looking at the third in the Tiffany Aching series, Wintersmith. I’ve already drawn attention to this in a post, but you may possibly feel inclined to also look at my reviews of the first two books: The Wee Free Men and A Hat full of Sky.

Later in the month—on the anniversary of her death, the 26th—I shall be returning to Diana Wynne Jones’ land of Ingary by re-reviewing her most famous title, Howl’s Moving Castle. An earlier review appeared here, but a recent reread (and my usual mental meanderings) have encouraged me to think further on this: and an episode in Wales means this also counts as an entry for the Wales Readathon, Dewithon. (There were two sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. And I’ll be posting an overview of Diana’s fiction later in the month.)

If you haven’t discovered either or both of these authors you might do worse than made a foray into their works this month (and maybe glance at my links) . . .