In Britain she’s known as ‘the Grandmother of Fantasy’ and ‘Queen of the Fantastical’ in America. She met Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome as a child, and took classes from both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien while at Oxford (Tolkien, she later said, clearly would rather have been writing The Lord of the Rings than teaching young undergraduates about the art of the narrative). She decided to become a writer despite being dyslexic and left-handed – practically a curse in 1940’s England – and has since earned the comparisons of J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Garth Nix, all rolled into one.
Have you heard of her? Her name is Diana Wynne Jones.
If you have then I would guess, dollars to doughnuts, that it’s because of the 2004 film of Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki. There’s no shame in that – many people get interested in an author or a book because it’s made into a blockbuster movie – but if you only know about Jones because of the film, you’re doing yourself a disservice; the book is far more complicated, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking than the movie ever was.
Before I mention some of her more noteworthy novels and why you need to stop what you’re doing and read them at once, I must explain that nearly all of her works were written for children. Naturally, the protagonist is almost always a child – the majority of them are around the age of twelve – but don’t let that stop you. Jones once said that living through World War II taught her that all adults are really just like children, with all the concerns and cares of their younger selves. In her novels, the reverse is true as well: regardless of their young age, her main characters have a wisdom beyond their years that makes them understandable and empathetic to older readers.
Let’s start with Howl’s Moving Castle, since I mentioned it before. Ironically, it’s one of the few books that breaks the child-protagonist rule: Sophie is seventeen. The oldest of three, she runs her late father’s hat shop while her mother and siblings are off making their fortunes. Deeply unhappy and unsure how to fix her situation, she takes her frustration out on a customer – the dangerous Witch of the Waste, as fate would have it – and as punishment, is turned into an old woman. A series of adventures follows, throwing the anguished Sophie into the path of Wizard Howl, a powerful yet vain womanizer infamous for eating the hearts of his victims, and the imaginative moving castle from the title. The levels of creativity, ingenuity, and many layers of plots, subplots, and red herrings are astounding in this novel – I’ve read it countless times and still learn something new – and the quirkiness of the chapter titles only adds to the experience. It wasn’t originally meant to have sequels, but over time two popped up: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, which are interesting additions to the world Jones has created.
The Dalemark Quartet is Diana Wynne Jones’ version of a high fantasy epic, and is broken into four stories: Cart and Cwidder, Drowned Ammet, Spellcoats, and The Crown of Dalemark. The first three stories each focus on a different character — Moryl, a shy musician; Mitt, a reckless revolutionary; Tanaqui, a storyteller from Dalemark’s past – who, along with Maewen, a reluctant heroine from Dalemark’s future, unite together in the final volume in a quest for the country’s throne. The books work together like sections of an orchestra: each one can be read individually and enjoyed on its own, but together they create a symphony that enriches those that came before, presenting characters and a story as multifaceted and believable as any historical record I’ve read. The Quartet isn’t as popular as some of Jones’ more recent books or series (such as the Chronicles of Chrestomanci – a funny and endearing six-volume series, alternately focusing on soulful Cat and arrogant Christopher Chant. They are tremendous fun to read, but are perhaps a little more suitable for younger readers than the Quartet), and are out of print. But the library does have copies of all four novels, so they are still available for the intrepid reader.
Jones was no stranger to the parodies and clichés of the fantasy genre. In one of her works she, too, joined in mocking those stereotypes; marketing her book as a non-fiction tour manual, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland outlines the traditional ‘rules’ of fantasy stories. Arranged alphabetically, this dictionary of useful terms, titles, and objects provides no end of amusement to even the casual reader (one entry reads: ‘BAR SERVICE has not been invented. Drinks and other orders are traditionally brought to you at your table in the INN by barmaids. This is an enlightened arrangement by the Management because it prevents unemployment among young unmarried women and probably keeps up the birthrate. See also EUNUCHS, MAIDS, and War’). Jones wrote two companion novels that complement Tough Guide: The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Year of the Griffin, which both satirize and celebrate the genre she wrote for.
Diana Wynne Jones wrote over sixty novels, short stories, and essays over the forty years she was a novelist, and was still writing a few weeks before her death from cancer last year. Her final book, which was completed by her sister, is set to come out in 2014. Until then, though, there are still plenty of her timeless stories waiting to be discovered, shared and loved at your Fayetteville Public Library.