Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

I spent what I count among the happiest three days of my life in Bristol, in early July 2009, attending and presenting a paper at the international conference on Diana Wynne Jones. Scholars, students, editors, and many who “just” read and enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ novels came together, and spent an entire weekend discussing, enthusing, reminiscing, delighting in and celebrating her work, and rejoicing in the company of so many who shared a love and admiration for this not-well-enough known author for children and young adults. That time could only have been made more sublime (is it possible?) if DWJ herself had been able to attend, as she had planned. She could not, because she was ill with lung cancer.

And now she is gone.

That she was loved by many is attested to by the outpouring of tributes and expressions of grief all over the blogosphere and the internets. She even trended on Twitter yesterday (and would have been highly amused, I’m sure). No doubt, there will have been many on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere scratching their heads, wondering “who the heck is Diana Wynne Jones”? She was not well enough known. Mention Howl’s Moving Castle and more will have seen Miyazaki’s movie than read the book. Mention a school for wizards, and everyone with think “Hogwarts,” though DWJ created Chrestomanci castle many years earlier. Those of us who love and admire her work gnash our teeth at the popularity of a certain JKR or the books about sparkly vampires, when DWJ has been writing richer, funnier, more literate and just plain better books for so long. It took the popularity of JKR to bring DWJ’s books back into print. But back into print they are, and she will live on in her words.

And what words they are. What books. So many! Not all equally great, but even her weakest books are worth reading. And her strongest are … oh, so good.

Everyone at the conference agreed that Diana Wynne Jones writes books for intelligent people. They challenge you. They make you think. They are inventive, and original and can be tricky. But they are exciting and often hilariously funny.

She writes about strong children and weak adults. She writes about how easy it can be to lose your identity and sense of self-worth when everyone around you is preoccupied with other business and no one cares about your feelings. She writes about the importance of independent thinking and self-reliance. She writes about reading, and writing and the power of the imagination and of words. She writes about power, and vanity, and getting things wrong, and making things right, and responsibility. She writes about girls and she writes about boys and she writes about wizards and griffins and a fire demon and a goon and dogs and cats, and every single one has more character in his or her or its little finger than many other author’s characters put together (JKR, I’m talking about you).

One of my favourite little moments in DWJ’s books comes in The Ogre Downstairs, an early domestic fantasy, already demonstrating how delightful and original her work could be. It’s about a newly blended family of children who hate each other, and the “ogre” who is stepfather to half of them, and who are brought together through misadventure with a magical chemistry set filled with mysterious (but entirely logical) ingredients that do things like give the power to fly and bring inanimate objects to life. One of the ingredients is labelled dens drac. (dragon’s teeth). Remember the myth of Jason and the Argonauts? And the dragon’s teeth that when scattered on the ground spring to life as fully armed soldiers? When the children drop these on the driveway of their house, a motor-cycle gang springs up, speaking Greek. Written in Greek. And if you happen to know Greek, there’s a wonderful inside joke, because it’s not Greek. It just looks like it. If you read it out loud they say things like “Let me at ‘im!” and “Full of spirit, aren’t they?” And it’s such a readerly joke, because the family hearing it doesn’t understand the “Greek” but we reading it (maybe) do. And the awful stepfather, who at this point in the book is becoming not-so-awful, saves the day by following the trick that Jason uses in the original myth. And it’s all metafictional and thoroughly delightful.

Ask me to name a favourite of her books, and I will unhesitatingly offer Fire and Hemlock, a lovely, rich, strange, complex, bewildering and truly wonderful riff on love and heroes and reading and enchantment and poetry. But, oh… there’s Howl’s Moving Castle with the vain but charming wizard Howl, and Sophie, who doesn’t know how powerful she is until she’s turned into an old woman, and the fire demon Calcifer who wants to be free but is loyal to them both. And there’s the debonaire and mysterious Chrestomanci. And Archer’s Goon. And The Homeward Bounders, whose final line “But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

They are there now.

Thank you, Diana, from the bottom of my heart, for years and years of reading past and to come. Those bright characters and complex worlds will never die; they will be there always, ready to spring to life in the pages of your books.

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10 Responses

  1. I thouroughly agree with everything you said – except when you accuse JKR of writing watery characters. Diana Wynne Jones was a wonderful writer, but JK Rowling is also an excellent storyteller – there is no need to resent one only because the other was less famous during her lifetime.

    I need to E-Bay Diane’s books now, though. Thank you for this obituary. ūüôā

  2. […] on Dogsbody. The Rejectionist, quoting DWJ herself. Diane Duane on The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Debbie Gascoyne on The Ogre Downstairs (and others). Pandarus on her childhood experiences reading […]

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  4. Oh, this is lovely, Debbie. It’s been such a pleasure to read about people’s favourite or memorable DWJ moments. A sweet reminder.

  5. This is possibly the best tribute I’ve read. Thank you.

    I think one of the many things I love about DWJ is how diverse her work is: you can’t stereotype or pigeonhole her. Archer’s Goon is different to The Homeward Bounders is different to Witch Week … The Spellcoats is different not only from everything else but also from the other three books in the series.

    My last, great hope for a worthy successor is Frances Hardinge, who shows something of the same diversity.

    And yes, it is a travesty that so many lesser authors have so much greater success. But, I would venture, none of them are as dearly loved.

  6. Thanks for this. Lovely sentiment, and so true. The world is lucky to have had her.

  7. Thank you for writing this, Debbie. I must go reread Ogre. And Howl. And Magicians of Caprona…

  8. […] JonesLife or Books?Things Mean a LotEmma and Rosy Barnes: Sorcerors and SiblingsDebbie Gascoyne: Remembering Diana Wynne JonesGili Bar-Hillel: An Appreciation (Gili is pne of Diana's Hebrew translators and publishers)From the […]

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