Aug 16 2014 8:00am

Diana Wynne Jones Subverted Fantasy Even as She Celebrated It

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones never quite took her fantasies seriously. Any time she had the chance to subvert your expectations of the brooding Byronic wizard, or the master enchanter, or the fantasy kingdom wracked by war, she took it. Taken as a whole, her books act as both a love letter and a critique to the Fantasy genre.

Born this day in 1934, she was raised by parents (both professional teachers) who neglected their children, remained emotionally distant, and only provided their three girls one book a year to share between them. What might have fostered resentment instead led Wynne Jones to be self-reliant: she made up for their lack of books by making up her own stories.

She had multiple run-ins with other famous fantasists in her youth: meeting Arthur Ransome (“I watched with great interest as a tubby man with a beard stamped past, obviously in a great fury, and almost immediately stormed away again on finding there was nobody exactly in charge to complain to. I was very impressed to find he was real. Up to then I had thought books were made by machines in the back room of Woolworth’s”), and Beatrix Potter (who slapped her little sister in the face), and attending lectures by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Lewis boomed excitingly to crowded halls, while Tolkien muttered inaudibly to Jones and three other students.)

After studying English at Oxford, Wynne Jones married a medieval literature scholar, John Burrow, and had three sons. She began her career as a playwright in the late 60s before writing a novel for adults, 1970’s Changeover. After that she turned to young adult work, partly because the stories she was reading to her own children bored her. In 1978 she won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for Charmed Life, the first book in the Chrestomanci series. This series shows Wynne Jones’ particular talent for melding everyday life and bureaucracy with a fantasy world. While the Worlds of Chrestomanci are filled with witchcraft, spells, enchanted lives, and cats who used to be fiddles, “Chrestomanci” itself is a job description. The Chrestomanci is not so much the master enchanter of the realm, but more of a civil servant, the magician who supervises all magic in an alternate Britain next door to our own. The Dalemark Quartet, meanwhile, tells the epic story of a near-constant civil war between North and South Dalemark, set against a backdrop of thousands of years of the land’s history. Many of her strongest (and funniest) books, however, are stand-alones. She also wrote a non-fictionish critique of her chosen genre, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Modeled after the Rough Guides series, the Guide acts as a dictionary/travel book for a generic Fantasyland, which is presumed to be a place where Dark Lords rule and all forests are enchanted. Rather than writing an essay about the shortcomings of fantasy, she provides a critique that is as loving as it is sharp. After the success of the Harry Potter books her works became more popular, and then Hayao Miyazaki’s gorgeous adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle pushed her work even further into the public eye where it belonged.

Even more than the range of her work, it is the tone that sets it apart. The New York Times described her as writing with “an arched eyebrow,” which sums it up perfectly: the world is unreliable and not to be taken seriously, parental figures are often incompetent, nothing is ever quite as it seems, and only people who are ready to use their humor as well as their cleverness are going to make it through. Naturally she was a giant influence on J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman, who wrote a beautiful tribute to her when she passed away in 2011. Over her forty-year career, she took memories of a grim childhood, and a highly skeptical view of adult life, and used them to infuse more than 35 books with wit, charm, and light.


alastair chadwin
1. a-j
But why did Beatrix Potter hit her little sister?
D. Bell
2. SchuylerH
@1: Apparently, it was for swinging on Potter's garden gate.
3. anewname
The Tough Guide is hilarious, and required reading for all would-be
fantasy writers.
Gaiman took the main idea for American Gods from Wynne Jones'
Eight days of Luke (one of my favourite DWJ books), and asked her permission before writing his book.
A unique voice, sadly missed, who could combine belly-laugh comedy with tragedy (see The Homeward Bounders).
4. arnique
I always wanted another Fire & Hemlock. I've just finished Islands of Chaldea, and I could see glimmers of her old self. I miss her.
M Sharp
5. Acyn
I borrowed Charmed Life from a friend and then borrowed and read it 2 more times before buying my own copy. I thought The Homeward Bounders was one of her better works also. I haven't read The Tough Guide yet, but I will add it to the list tonight. Mrs Jones' books will always be on my shelf.
6. EC Spurlock
One of my all time favorite authors; I've never read a book of hers that I haven't enjoyed thoroughly. I've always like the Chrestomanci series better than Harry Potter and felt it deserved an equally faithful and magical film adaptation.
Elisa Edgren
7. Isiswardrobe
I love all her books, though some more than others, she is one of my absolute favourite authors ever. As a kid I only read a few as I'm Swedish and very few have been translated, so it was a wonderful surprise to start reading her in English and realise that she had written so much more!
8. I Clare
I never liked Miyazaki's film of Howl's moving castle, I find it cloyingly sweet. Diana Wynne Jones was never sweet. And his interpretation of the witch of the waste was rather silly.
However, DWJ herself liked the film, so maybe I'm the one who read the book totally wrong.
9. RiceVermicelli
@8 - I like the film and the book, but I find it helps me greatly to treat them as totally separate works. Not related.

One of the things I loved about the book was Howl's life in modern day Wales. In one universe, there is a mysterious, powerful sorceror, dressing up in ridiculous outfits. In another, there is a man who plays video games with his nephews, and gets roaring drunk with his rugby club. I believe I have met this man, many times, and it's a delight to be invited to both laugh at him and like him (when he's being reasonable).

I don't recall Howl getting drunk in the movie. I can't remember Wales really making an appearance. Am I just really flakey today?
10. HelenS
That drawing doesn't look like any of the photographs of DWJ I've ever seen, to the point where I'm wondering if it's the wrong one. Admittedly her appearance changed a great deal over the years, so this may well represent a stage I haven't seen in photos, but I'd thought she did always have exuberantly curly hair.
11. Marla J.
"Dogsbody" may have been the book of hers that I read first. No one seems to mention it. Anyone else remember that one? Also, she included characters of different ethnicities and colors early on, with Indian kids in one of the Chrestomanci books and Tacroy--a black character--in another. I was impressed by that.

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