Teya Rosenberg and associated editors’ Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom

imageThat fiction has power to alter reality is, at least in one sense, literally true. Fiction is a product of language, and human beings live largely in a social and linguistic world — above all, a world of narrative. It is through narrative that we understand ourselves and our own history and project our hopes and anxieties into the future. Persuasive and powerful users of language have power to shape these narratives and thus to shape the reality of their listeners and readers. — Charles Butler in “Magic as Metaphor and Reality”

Diana Wynne Jones is the sort of author who makes readers gush. Children who read her say, “She is sooooo cool! I love her books!” Scholars who read her say, “If I were limited to a one-word description of the appeal and force behind the fantasy writing of Diana Wynne Jones, it would be inventiveness.” I myself think Jones’s writing is wonderful, and her novels Fire and Hemlock and The Homeward Bounders, two of my favorite books, books I’ve returned to again and again over the years. I often get the chance to enthuse with children and young adults about her work, but not so often with scholars; I was therefore eager to read this new collection of twelve scholarly essays (and one interview), Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom.

The essays range far and wide, exploring all sorts of facets of Jones’s writing — including some I never would have guessed were there. One in particular, “Living in Limbo: The Homeward Bounders as a Metaphor for Military Childhood,” by Donna R. White, took me a bit aback when I read its title in the table of contents. However, by the end of the article I was nodding and “hmmm-ing.” It’s true that military children, who often describe themselves as being “from nowhere,” can find a strong sense of solidarity with Jamie and the other “homeward bounders,” cursed by evil alien beings to travel from world to world, never allowed to stay anywhere.

Of the essays, nine are explorations of Jones’ work alone, while three compare her writing with that of other authors. “Good and Evil in the Works of Diana Wynne Jones and J.K. Rowling” by Sarah Fiona Winters, was of course de rigueur — any collection of essays talking about a children’s fantasy writer today must perforce compare that writer to Rowling! But Winters doesn’t merely draw the simplistic conclusion that the Harry Potter books are more “black and white,” while Jones’ books are more “complex.” Instead, she says that Rowling and Jones draw on different genres and work toward different outcomes in their stories. Rowling raises questions about the nature of good and evil as external forces. Jones, on the other hand, draws the reader to consider the forces of good and evil as they coexist in the human heart.

I found two essays here to be especially fascinating, so much so that I scribbled notes all over them and sat back after reading them saying (in proper scholarly reviewer fashion), “Wow!” The first is “Dragons and Quantum Foam: Mythic Archetypes and Modern Physics in Selected Works by Diana Wynne Jones” by Karina Hill. Citing sources as diverse as Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and John Gribbin’s Schrödinger’s Kittens, Hill compares the “gates” that connect the many worlds in Jones’ multiverses with the way a subatomic particle, under certain experimental conditions, seems to arrive in two places simultaneously. As Fred Alan Wolf says, “at the smallest level of space-time-matter, space-time is continually fluctuating… as a kind of frothy quantum foam.” Hill suggests that our physical world “at the smallest level” and our inner world at the innermost level work in parallel ways. The archetypes of gate and gatekeeper are essential elements in our quest as humans to link the contradictions and differences in our lives. Jones, Hill says, applies this scientific and archetypic parallel consistently throughout her books.

The other truly wonderful essay is “Fire and Hemlock: A Text as a Spellcoat” by Akiko Yamazaki. In it, Yamazaki discusses the way hypertext functions on the Web to create a wonderful density and interlinking of information and ideas. She then goes on to explore the way Jones deliberately creates intertextuality within her stories, by making overt and implied references to other writers’ works, and by creating links within a story between various parts of the story itself, causing it to interweave and become increasingly richer and deeper. Yamazaki uses one of Jones’s own images to describe this process, that of the spellcoats in the Dalemark novel The Spellcoats. In this particular story, Tanaqui can weave coats using patterns that stand for words. The woven words tell a story, in this case the story of what has been happening to Tanaqui. But she realizes that the way she chooses to tell the story, the very words she chooses to weave, will effect the outcome of the story — her life — which is still going on. By changing those words, she can change her life. In the end, in fact, Tanaqui weaves a coat that changes the entire world.

I wish I could say that all of the essays in this collection are worth reading. Unfortunately not. Occasionally, as scholars are sometimes prone to do, the writers indulge themselves too much in wordy “gushing,” resulting in silliness. Jones has pointed out one example herself, in an online bulletin board called The Ansible. “I recently got sent a set of academic essays on my books,” Jones says, “published as a slim volume and full of the most extraordinary statements. My favourite is the assertion that I am ‘rooted in fluidity.’ Obviously hydroponic, probably a lettuce, possibly a cabbage. A new light is cast.” Deborah Kaplan (in “The World-Shaping Power of Language”) is the writer guilty of “rooted in fluidity.” To be fair to her, she was referring to the powerful yet unstable nature of storytelling — and Jones’s storytelling ability — not to Jones herself. Nevertheless…

However, such lapses are due mostly to an enthusiastic writer’s not-so-successful attempt to convey awe and excitement in words. They are forgiveable. What is not forgiveable, in my opinion, is a scholarly stance that infers that a writer (such as Jones) does not really know what her work means, or what she intends by it. The scholar, however, does, and will proceed to pick apart the work to show its “real meaning.” An example is the first essay, “Nowhere To Go, No One To Be: Diana Wynne Jones and the Concepts of Englishness and Self-Image,” by Karen Sands-O’Connor. In it, Sands-O’Connor suggests that Jones’ stories are really about children, especially female and minority children, suffering in England, which is “a nation that can only look to the past… Diana Wynne Jones’s novels agree with the notion of a bleak future and a present with no answers.”

The final chapter in this collection, an interview with Jones conducted by Charles Butler, is fortunately without a doubt worth the entire purchase price in itself. Reading Jones’s own words about her work is enlightening and deeply satisfying.

As is probably clear by now, Diana Wynne Jones: An Exciting and Exacting Wisdom is written in an academic, scholarly style. Lay readers who are deeply interested in Jones’s writing, or those who enjoy exploring fantasy themes on a intellectual level, will want to read these essays. They certainly belong in the collection of any serious scholar of young adult and adult fantasy literature.

(Peter Lang, 2002)

About Grey Walker

Grey Walker is a Narrative American (with thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin for coining that term). Although she makes money as a librarian, she makes her life as a reader and writer of stories and reviews of stories. She has a growing interest in the interstitial arts. The album she listens to most often is Morning Walk by Metamora. The book she re-reads most often (and she never owns a book unless she intends to read it more than once) is The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien.