Saturday, 26 March 2011

Diana Wynne Jones in memoriam

My entry in Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, 2000. 

Jones, Diana Wynne (b. 1934), outstanding British writer, author of more than thirty highly original fairy-tale novels, an indisputable innovator of the genre. Even when using typical motifs like struggle between good and evil, journeys into alternative worlds or time shifts, she applies more subtle means, which turns the conventional and well-known into something unexpected. Her novels are intellectually demanding, since they operate with paradoxes, different dimensions and complicated temporal and spatial structures, but this also makes them a stimulating reading. One of her favorite devices is to give the protagonist magical powers, thus breaking the traditional fairy-tale pattern, in which the protagonist is an ordinary person assisted by a magical helper. In several novels, the narrative perspective lies with a witch or wizard. Diana Wynne Jones portrays otherness, including Other Worlds, from the inside, while our own reality becomes, for the protagonist, the other world. This device, known as "estrangement", is extremely unusual in fairy-tale novels for children. Playing with alternative worlds enables Diana Wynne Jones to discuss existential questions such as: what is reality? Is there more than one definite truth? The recurrent idea in her novels is the existence of an infinite number of parallel worlds, which may remind of our own, but are different in essential ways, depending on the development in each particular world. This idea is in accordance with contemporary scientific view of the universe. In Diana Wynne Jones's model of the universe, the difference between worlds implies that in some of them magic is a common trait. In a group of loosely connected novels, Charmed Life (1977), The Magicians of Caprona (1980), Witch Week (1982) and The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988), our own reality is featured in the background as a parallel world, bleak and dull, since it lacks magic. The world of the novels is a combination of medieval and modern, where magic is a natural part of the everyday, and magical power is a talent to be trained and developed in a child, just like a gift for languages or maths
In The Power of Three (1976), the characters are supernatural creatures who work magic by incantations, can see into the future and sense danger. There are other creatures in this world, Giants, who eventually appear to be humans, and their so-called magic, which the protagonist admires, is radio, cars and dish-washers. There is also a more traditional magic object involved in the story, connected with a curse. Thus Diana Wynne Jones always combines elements of heroic fairy tale with irony and humor. The device of making the protagonist alien is especially invigorated in Archer's Goon (1984) where the young boy in the center of the plot appears in the end to be one of the seven evil wizards striving to take power over the world. The story is told from Howard's point of view, and he is facing a hard dilemma: he has been trying to reveal the villain, and finds to his dismay and horror out that he himself is this villain, against his knowledge and will.

In Howl's Moving Castle (1986) we meet a young girl who is enchanted and turned into an old woman, a common motif, which, however, acquires a different tone since we are given a detailed description of Sophie's rheumatism and age fatigue, which traditional fairy tales usually omit. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters and therefore knows that according to fairy-tale rules she is bound to fail. The story is built upon Sophie's and the reader's anticipation, which naturally is disrupted. The novel is set in the magical land of Ingaria, and the enchanted Sophie lives in a strange moving castle belonging to Howl, a powerful magician. There is a door in the castle opening toward four different dimensions, one of which is our own reality. This is where Howl comes from. In Howl's childhood home in Wales, his nephew is playing a computer game involving a magical castle with four doors (Diana Wynne Jones was among the first to use the image of computers in fairy-tale novels). She is thus interrogating our common notions of here and far away, of time and space. There are all sorts of magic in the novel, both good and evil, and many magical creatures, both traditional and original. Castle in the air (1991), an independent sequel, is more of a magical adventure story, inspired by Arabian Nights, with its vaguely Oriental setting and tokens such as flying carpets and genies in bottles. The young protagonist sets out on a quest after his kidnapped princess and is assisted by several helpers, who all appear to be enchanted humans.

In many of Diana Wynne Jones's novels, we find cosmic dimensions in her portrayal of struggle between good and evil, where humans are merely pawns in the hands of higher powers. This disturbing idea, most explicit in The Homeward Bounders (1981), Fire and Hemlock (1984) and Hexwood (1993), is often counterbalanced by reflections about Earth being the most beautiful place in the universe. In Dogsbody (1975), the protagonist and narrator is the star Sirius who is exiled on Earth in the form of a dog. There is thus a double perspective in the story, both the point of view of a powerful deity and a helpless, speechless animal. The protagonist's dilemma is the usual one in Diana Wynne Jones's books: the magician's loyalty toward ordinary people, the burden and responsibility of unlimited power. To be a magician and use magic is in here novels always a painful and laborious process, which supplies ethical dimensions. There are never any clear-cut boundaries between good and evil, and the readers are encouraged to choose sides together with the characters. The protagonist of The Lives of Christopher Chant has nine lives and loses them one after another during his adventures in alternative worlds. This may remind of a computer games when you are allowed to play again when you "are dead". It is, however, more fruitful to view this motif as a child's training, in his imagination, to live his own life, to discover his identity. Christopher learns eventually that besides their lives people also have a soul, which holds all lives together.

In all Diana Wynne Jones's novels we see unconventional solutions, sharp observations and a deep penetration of human nature. There are never magical adventures for their own sake, and the traditional struggle between good and evil is merely a background for an inner struggle within the character. Among Diana Wynne Jones's strong sides, her portraits of young girls should be mentioned, drawn in a true feminist spirit.

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