Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children's Literature by Farah Mendelsohn
When I was in high school and even when I was at university, I could never figure out why anyone would want to discuss the structure, symbolism, etc. of the books they liked. Surely that would kill your pleasure dead, like picking apart a joke to see why it was funny?
I'm really not sure when this changed, but it was probably fannish reading that did it, and I'm guessing perhaps it was the various online analyses of the Sandman and Terry Pratchett's Discworld books.
In the past few months, with the help of my perceptive daughter, who knew what Mom really wanted the most off her Amazon wish list, I was able to immerse myself in the inner workings of one of my favorite writers, British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones (1934–2011). Mendlesohn's book, which generally rambles through various overarching themes of Jones' work rather than marching along by publication date, offers a number of great insights into what's going on in the books and in some of DWJ's short stories. The book by Jones herself is a collection of articles, essays, and talks, and would be worth the price of purchase (for me, at any rate) simply because it contains the famous essay "The Heroic Ideal—A Personal Odyssey," which explores DWJ's fascinating and mystifying YA novel Fire and Hemlock from her own point of view. Actually, the other items in the book are enjoyable and useful as well.
A couple of highlights will, I hope, give an idea of some of what's included in these books.In the DWJ book, she mentions how her family's dislocation to the Lake District during the WWII bombing of London changed her views of various things. She also mentions how the explanations about the Germans who were trying to kill the British became conflated with the warnings of their hosts about not drinking the water from the lake, because the "germs" would give you typhoid. Then young Diana noticed the brand name of the bathroom fixtures, which was "Twyford." She became convinced that the Germans were going to get at them through the bathroom fixtures and make them deathly ill. The fact that she could vividly remember how her mind came to this conclusion somehow seems to me to explain in part how her wildest scenarios work into her readers' minds so effectively.
Mendlesohn makes a number of points that ring very true. One can say that DWJ's children's and YA books are about growing up, but in fact, they are more about the integration of the POV characters' psyches, whether those characters are children or adults. Acceptance of one's own valuable characteristics, despite the fact that the community at large may not approve of them and that they may not be comfortable to accept, is a very typical DWJ theme. Another point is that the structures of the books themselves, and the settings in the books, are as important as the characters and in fact, the settings often rise to the level of characters themselves. Consider the fact, for example, that one never really knows whether anything else exists outside the town in which Archer's Goon takes place. To circle back to the DWJ book, DWJ herself has an essay about the structure of Lord of the Rings and how it enhances the story, which is a good example of what Mendlesohn means.
Fascinating stuff, and I enjoyed both books very much and expect to reread them multiple times. (In fact, I will have to reread the chapter of the Mendlesohn book that covers "time games" to get anywhere with understanding some of the time models she discusses with reference to DWJ books such as A Tale of Time City and Hexwood.)
Fair warning: the Mendlesohn book is a scholarly work and priced accordingly. Used copies may be available.