Fire and Hemlock --- loosely based on the fable of Tam Lin, about a troubled girl trying to make sense of two sets of memories --- was my introduction to her work. Not only did Polly and her problems split across two worlds seem relevant to me, her struggle to remember what was most important to her --- at the peril of losing her true love and her very life --- seemed like a kind of heroic version of the confusion I was experiencing. It described the split between the life of the child as it’s experienced by the child and the life of the adult where childhood becomes a dim --- but still powerful --- memory. I was a fledgling adult myself, and sometimes it seemed difficult to hold on to the person I knew myself to be so far from the mountains and vast horizons of my Colorado home.
Dark Lord of Derkholm --- which features a bumbling wizard chosen to play Dark Lord for the tourist industry that plagues his bucolic, magical world --- or The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a satirical guidebook that came about when compiling an encyclopedia of fantasy. She thought, "'You know these books are all so much the same that I could write the guidebook for this country!’ after which I thought 'Why not?'"
Diana Wynne Jones strayed across the boundaries of fantasy land more than once, whether it was with her Dalemark Quartet, which adheres more closely to traditional fantasy tropes, or her Chrestomanci series, about a boy with nine lives destined to become the enchanter who oversees the magical administration of a multiverse. Magic tends to be an everyday affair in her books, with characters showing gifts for rather mundane types of magic. But it is also a force that can be ill-used, coveted, or stolen. In Chrestomanci, the boy destined to be the next Chrestomanci discovers that the reasons his aptitude for magic has never manifested is because his sister has been siphoning off his magical powers and using them for her own.
Eight Days of Luke --- in which a boy inadvertently releases the Loki, the Norse god of mischief, on a suburban neighborhood --- has always been special to me. The boy, an orphan whose guardians are always telling him what a nuisance he is, has an encounter with Mr. Wednesday, the god Odin who arrives in a Valkyrie-driven white limousine to set things straight. Mr. Wednesday, in assessing the damage that’s been done --- not just by Loki, but also by David's guardians --- tells him that it’s the guardian’s job to look after the child, not the other way around. David, who has been experiencing terrible remorse --- not just for Loki's actions, but also for the fact that his guardians are always telling him he’s worthless, ungrateful, and inconvenient --- is given this gift: a glimpse into normal life. The book is at once a charming children's fantasy and a work with some psychological depth. On a literal level, this is a humorous book about Norse gods who plague an ordinary neighborhood. But on a symbolic level, it’s about the disruptive forces unleashed when children are neglected: Loki is the side of David acting out to demand the attention and love he claims by rights as a child.
Despite a childhood of perpetual neglect and poverty, Wynne Jones was able to win a place at Oxford. She recalls, "C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing then, Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others. Looking back, I see both of them had enormous influence on me, but it is hard to say how, except that they must have been equally influential to others too. I later discovered that almost everyone who went on to write children’s books --- Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, to name only two --- was at Oxford at the same time as me, but I barely met them and we never at any time discussed fantasy."
Wynne Jones did not come to write her own books until after she had children of her own. Initially she thought she would be writing novels for adults, "but my children took a hand there," she writes. "...as the children grew older, they gave me the opportunity to read all the children’s books which I had never had as a child and, what was more, I could watch their reactions while we read them. Very vigorous those were too. They liked exactly the kind of books --- full of humour and fantasy, but firmly referred to real life --- which I had craved for in Thaxted. Somewhere here it dawned on me that I was going to have to write to fantasy anyway, because I was not able to believe in most people’s version of normal life. I started trying. What I wrote was rejected by publishers and agents with shock and puzzlement."
Witch Week from the Chrestomanci series --- and Rowling's books about a magical boarding school. In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, Diana Wynne Jones graciously commented, "I think that she [Rowling] read my books as a young person and remembered lots of stuff; there are so many striking similarities."
In response to the frequently asked question of why she writes for children, Diana Wynne Jones said, “Why do I write for children? There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless.”
Diana Wynne Jones died this weekend after a long battle with cancer. She leaves behind family, friends, and many fans. There is a Hebrew proverb --- the origins of which escape me at the moment --- to the effect that when a life is lost, a whole world is lost. In her case, it wasn't just one world lost, but many. A prolific and endlessly original fantasy author, she was the creator and chronicler of many worlds.
The Guardian obituary:
Diana Wynne Jones's life, in her own words:
Sarah A. Wood, a reviewer for teenreads.com and kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.