JANE: Alan, last week you told me that you wanted to discuss a writer whose work I’ve been reading quite a bit of lately. When you indicated that this writer was Diana Wynne Jones, I was thrilled. Why don’t you start?
ALAN: Probably the first Diana Wynne Jones novel that I read was Howl’s Moving Castle. I was absolutely blown away by the subtlety and depth of the plot, the witty writing and the complete weirdness of the central concept of a castle that is constantly on the move. The dialogue between Sophie and Calcifer, the fire-demon was brilliantly funny and Howl, the wizard, was suitably eccentric.
As I explored more of Diana Wynne Jones’ worlds, I quickly learned that this was typical of her stories – her plots were generally very convoluted, her prose was consistently witty and often laugh out loud funny and the situations in which her characters found themselves were often extremely bizarre.
JANE: I had a very different introduction to her works. Have you ever read her novel, Dogsbody? It is quite dark, incredibly moving, and deeply mythic in the absolutely best sense of that term.
The final sentence is full of beauty and I can rarely tell anyone about it without choking up. That said, this is not a downer of a book. It is the absolute opposite.
ALAN: Yes, I have read Dogsbody. Like you, I found it very moving and I was really impressed by the richness and depth of the plot. Taken at face value, it’s a simple story – Sirius, the Dog Star, has been convicted of murder. His punishment is to live as a dog on Earth. He will die there, unless he can find the Zoi, though he is not certain what that might be,
On the surface, that’s very straightforward and it is full of elements that the children she was writing for can appreciate and enjoy. But there’s so much more to it than that. Her books were always marketed as “Young Adult” stories (and were sometimes aimed at very young children). Nevertheless, her stories often had very adult themes and they were always full of references and allusions that probably went right over the heads of the children. Not that the children would care. They’d be far too wrapped up in the story; her plots were never less than enthralling. But it’s that extra depth, cleverness, and subtlety that make the books so satisfying for adults as well.
JANE: I do like Diana Wynne Jones’ quirky elements a great deal. However, if it wasn’t for the depth and cleverness – Howl’s Moving Castle is also a brilliant commentary on aging – I would not find her books as wonderful as I do. It’s easy to be quirky, almost TOO easy, as the boom in repetitive and stupid “humorous” fantasy in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, demonstrated.
It’s humor with heart that has staying power… Diana Wynne Jones had heart in – well, I can’t resist the pun – spades.
ALAN: She’d have liked your pun. She always enjoyed a good joke. A sense of fun is usually bubbling away just under the surface of even her most serious stories.
JANE: Yes. I agree. For all that I would classify Dogsbody as one of Diana Wynne Jones’s more serious works, one does need to accept a book in which one of the main point-of-view characters is simultaneously and completely a puppy and a stellar intelligence. I guess that’s quirky.
Diana Wynne Jones’ gift is that she makes this work so well that I accepted this as easily as I accepted the elements of the plot that focus on Sirius’ human owner, the young Irish-born Kathleen, who lives with her horrible English aunt, her benignly neglectful uncle, and two boy cousins.
ALAN: Yes, that’s exactly correct. One of Diana Wynne Jones’ great strengths was that she could take stories set in the here and now, full of characters you can recognise, and then tie them together with mythological (or in the case of Dogsbody, cosmological) elements and make the stories work without losing the sense of reality.
Another good example would be Eight Days of Luke where David Allard, at home on holiday from boarding school and feeling somewhat bored, accidentally rescues a young boy called Luke who has an odd ability to control fire, although he assures David that he cannot raise the dead.
Soon other strange characters turn up looking for Luke. There’s Mr. Wedding who only has one eye, for example. It soon becomes clear that David is trapped inside a Norse myth – Luke is Loki, of course, and he is as mischievous, a source of trouble as always. The gods are locked in a struggle that will prepare them for Götterdämmerung. But meanwhile they have some problems. Mr. Wedding in particular is not happy with Luke. Perhaps David can help…
JANE: Oh! I remember that one! A friend loaned it to me, so I don’t have a copy. Now I feel a great need to find one. That’s the problem with Diana Wynne Jones’ books. They’re like an addiction. Jim recently went on a binge where he systematically read every one we had in the house.
ALAN: What a wonderful time he must have had! One thing I’ve noticed (and I’m sure Jim must noticed it as well because of reading so many books one after the other) is that even at her most light-hearted, there is always a serious undertone to Diana Wynne Jones’ stories.
In Deep Secret, we meet Rupert Venables who is the junior Magid of Earth. Magids are powerful magicians charged with maintaining the balance between positive and negative magic (presumably white and black magic in our terms) on the worlds they supervise. They seldom act overtly, but they do use their powers to push people into doing the right thing at the right time to make the right things happen. As the story opens, the senior Magid of Earth has just died and Rupert, helped by the ghost of the senior Magid, must choose a new junior Magid. He decides to conduct the examination of the candidates at an SF convention. After all, those things are so peculiar that nobody will ever notice any extra oddities introduced by his examination of the Magid candidates.
And so the stage is set for an, at times, somewhat squirmy tale. Read it, attend the SF convention and recognise yourself and many other people who you know. Diana Wynne Jones tells her story with deep affection and understanding, but she never misses an opportunity to make a barbed remark! The book is an utter delight from start to finish.
But despite all the fun (and it is great fun, make no mistake) there is a real and serious concern at the heart of the story. The magids may be metaphorical in real world terms but when you look at the news headlines, you sometimes wish they were actually here and doing their job.
JANE: Hmm… I’m not sure I’ve read Deep Secret. I’ll need to add it to my list.
There are several really important things about Diana Wynne Jones and her work I’d hoped to bring up but the novels – as they should – took center stage. I’ll save it all for next time.