Heroes of Tomorrow: A Diana Wynne Jones Retrospective
By Karen Healey
18 April 2011
Diana Wynne Jones, who died last month, was brave.
I don't know if she was brave in person, although tributes from friends, including Neil Gaiman and Emma Bull, indicate that she probably was. But she was certainly a brave writer. She flagrantly disobeyed the pat rules of thumb that are supposed to govern writing for children and young adults (usually employed, of course, by those who have read little of either).
Don't construct complex plots.
Don't employ unsympathetic characters.
Don't commit the sin of an ambiguous or unhappy ending.
Don't mix genre tropes, use unusual vocabulary, or allusive themes and structures.
Don't believe that your readers are intelligent, imaginative, and capable of appreciating your very best work.
Oh, those characters, those prickly, complex characters with their multiple motivations and shifting loyalties. Jones could construct very likeable characters (Sophie, Polly, and Conrad come to mind). Just as easily, she could create less likeable characters, and then make the reader like them.
Christopher Chant, of The Lives of Christopher Chant, and the Chrestomanci of her most popular series, is an obnoxious, vain kid who grows into a perfunctory, vain adult. The Wizard Howl of Howl's Moving Castle is also vain, not to mention cowardly, dishonest, and literally heartless, at least until the intrepid Sophie can fix his messes.
Neglectful and abusive family members abound—brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, and stepparents could be the protagonist's best support or their worst opponent. Frequently they could be both. When Adam in The Homeward Bounders attempts to sell his bossy older sister to her suitor, it's a horrible moment. Adam's supposed to be a good guy! But Jones leaves the reader with few illusions; sometimes family is unalterably on your side, and sometimes you have to choose a side, and make your family there.
Sometimes Jones's villains are really wicked, and sometimes they're weak and greedy, and sometimes they're just opposing the protagonists for entirely reasonable reasons. The wicked stepfather of The Ogre Downstairs isn't an ogre at all. He's just a busy man who reacts poorly to his new stepchildren's boisterous behaviour in his small home, but manages to overcome his temper when they really need his help. The antagonist of Power of Three is no less justified than the heroes in seeking to protect and provide for his people; the really wicked action that exacerbates the conflict between their peoples is performed by somebody ostensibly on the heroes' side.
Power of Three illustrates another Jones staple that she made look effortless; the mixing of genre tropes into a fascinating whole. It is simultaneously a first contact story, a coming of age narrative, a reworking of Welsh folklore into contemporary Britain, and a forthright allegorical exploration of ethical conduct between nation-states. In 236 pages, Jones covers interspecies prejudice, culture shock, resource management, land rights, and the importance of empathy and diplomacy as alternatives to war, without ever veering into preaching or didacticism.
Jones's narratives are almost always fast-paced and tightly-plotted. She had an amazing knack for reincorporation, making reading her novels a frequent experience in detection. The tiniest detail can be vital, and by the time you get to the end, with everything contributing to the final solution, all is revealed.
Or not, in the case of Fire and Hemlock, the ending of which is famously and marvelously hard to fully grasp. Reading the final chapters of this Tam Lin retelling is an appropriately dreamy sensation; it's rich with emotion and intertextual allusion and light on exposition, straining the intricate, myth-laden structure of the novel almost to breaking point. But more often, Jones is explicit in her endings; and sometimes they are explicitly less-than-happily-ever-afters.
Giving children ambiguous or sad endings might have been Jones's bravest move as a writer. It's not that children can't handle anything other than a happily-ever-after ending, but that the parents, teachers, and librarians who are the gatekeepers of children's literature might think otherwise.
Jones was not opposed to a happy ending. The Ogre Downstairs ends with the family reconciled to both of its prickly parts, and money to buy a house large enough for all of them to have space. Witch Week concludes with the characters, who were all formerly in danger of discovery and execution, safe and happy; in fact, far happier than they were in the book itself, and laughing merrily over the thought that one of them is a witch. Power of Three ends with reconciliation and fairness—the nastiest elements voluntarily exile themselves, and everyone manages to find solutions to the resource crises over which they've been fighting.
Dogsbody, on the other hand, is more ambiguous. Star-slash-luminary-in-a-dog's-body Sirius is eventually acquitted of murder and regains his former form, power and sphere of influence. Lonely orphan Kathleen, his erstwhile owner, is removed from terrible caregivers, one benignly neglectful and one outright abusive, to live with a kindly older woman.
However, the two are separated, and the loneliness is acute for both of them. Sirius, as a star, cannot even approach his friend for fear of burning her, and Kathleen, whose father has been shot in a prison escape, needs her dog most at the time he must leave her. She is, after a few months, "taller and browner and outwardly happier." Oh, the sting of that "outwardly."
But there's some hope. "Sirius needed me to look after him whatever shape he was," Kathleen observes, and her lovely new guardian Miss Smith notes that, "Where there's need enough, a way can often be found." Sirius won't hear of finding a new inhabitant for his Companion star: "The small white sphere circling his goes untenanted," the book concludes, "because he hopes that what Miss Smith said is true."
The Homeward Bounders, on the other hand, has an unflinchingly hopeless ending. Jamie is a Homeward Bounder, someone sent out to traverse the boundaries of the worlds—including our own—controlled by the powerful, horrible Them, who play wargames with human lives. Aging only a little, and never dying, even when he starves or drowns, Jamie must wander until he finds his home.
And he does. But home has moved on, a hundred years on, and his Victorian era England is now 1980s Britain. Jamie is able, with the help of the other Bounders, to free a powerful ally and defeat Them in their most real place, and the surviving Homeward Bounders are finally free to go home, however much it might have changed.
But a few of Them escape.
To keep all the worlds safe and real, a single Bounder will have to continue wandering from world to world, watching their friends age and die. Jamie volunteers. He narrates his story to a machine in Their world, hoping to spread it round the worlds as a warning against Their return. And just before he leaves on his unimaginably long journey, he utters the devastating last line of the book:
"But you wouldn't believe how lonely you get."
Aged eleven, I lay on my bedroom floor and sobbed. But I didn't think the ending was unfitting or unjust. Of course Jamie would make that choice. He wasn't a warrior; sometimes he was a downright physical coward. But he stood in the loneliest place in the universe and made the hardest decision possible, and he was a hero.
Jones had her own thoughts on heroism, particularly on the roles of tricksy heroes, and heroic women. She wrote an essay which I didn't find until after her death (you can find it linked at the end of this blog post). Reading it gives me a deep sense of rightness. Yes, here is where Kathleen comes from—as Jones puts it, she "sneaked a female hero past in Dogsbody by telling the story from the dog's point of view." And here is Polly, the heroine of Fire and Hemlock, bold and stubborn and imaginative. Later, we get snarly Helen, who has a demonic gift; witchy Maree, who fights internal demons to assert her own strength; and many other fantastic female heroes.
While Jones heroes often have physically effective allies, they don't tend to be heroes in the Hector mould themselves. One of the funniest moments in The Homeward Bounders comes when Jamie and athletic friend Joris are trapped into a game of cricket with English schoolboys without having the least notion of the rules. While Joris quickly gets the idea and starts pounding the ball into sixes and fours, Jamie cowers from the horrible red missile. He's run out, bowled out, hit leg before wicket, and the one time he actually makes contact with the ball, is caught out by Adam, who remarks that Jamie has now managed to get himself out in every way possible. But it's the Odyssean Jamie, who lies himself out of trouble more than once, who is the ultimate hero of the worlds.
Jones's heroes might have otherworldly powers or strange curses, but they are otherwise people you might meet someday. Or people you could be some day. These are books where the ordinary unfolds into the extraordinary and back again with incredible ease. While reading, it was easy to believe that you too might find a puppy who was a star by the river, or stumble across powerful beings playing strange games, or wander into a funeral presided over by the Fairy Queen.
To readers, Diana Jones was a joyous revelation. To writers, she was a stunning inspiration. She is likely to remain both, for many years to come.