On This Day

Diana Wynne Jones Subverted Fantasy Even as She Celebrated It

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.

This article was originally published August 16, 2015.


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