[Diana Wynne Jones] wrote books for young children, for older children, and for adults. She wrote picture books, chapter books, full-length novels, poetry, plays, and non-fiction. She wrote fantasy, science fiction, romance, farce, and satire; and she wrote books that looped the loop, refusing to be confined within any generic box. She could handle outrageous comedy, but also turn on a sixpence and evoke subtle shades of desire, grief, loneliness, bliss, and love, and do so in prose that never strove to draw attention to its own virtuosity. She could also, as this volume attests, turn out a pretty mean academic essay when she set her mind to it.
Her range is equaled by her stamina, shown not just in producing so many books over such a long period (more than forty books in forty-one years)—something other writers have done only by sticking to a winning formula—but by keeping her art so fresh. No book of hers is simply a rehash of a previous one. In some cases she has invented, or reinvented, entire genres. Edith Nesbit wrote urban fantasy, but not like Archer’s Goon. C. S. Lewis wrote about alternative worlds, but not like the Chrestomanci books. And J. R. R. Tolkien, for all the depth and tenacity of his imagination, would never have come up with the strange loop that is Hexwood, or with Deep Secret, or the Dalemark quartet.
Diana Wynne Jones was a prodigiously creative writer. This is true not only in terms of the number and range of books she produced, but also in her ability to load every rift with ore. Some of her stories involve mundane situations or everyday phrases, seen from new angles and stretched out to reveal their latent absurdity. Elsewhere you will find a rich idea lying apparently unregarded in a single line. The Merlin Conspiracy, for example, features a short conversation with an elf. Diana created elves in a wide variety of models and moral orientations, by the way, but this elf is relatively benign, even though he irritates Roddy Hyde (who has a herb that enables her to understand elfish), because he insists on practicing his broken English on her like an earnest foreign tourist: “I need learn!” This is funny enough, but perhaps the most memorable thing about the elf is the way he explains his appearance and disappearance into an earthen mound with the throwaway sentence, “Space is as a folding screen to the little people.” So much is suggested by that one phrase that many novelists would have been tempted to extrapolate a novel from it. But so little is made explicit that it remains in the mind like a grenade with the pin already pulled—a phrase whose potential is all the more powerful for being unrealized. What does it mean, for space to be “like a folding screen”? Diana was a writer abundant in ideas: realms and islands were as plates dropped from her pocket. But she also knew her craft and knew that sometimes being prolific is a matter of knowing when not to speak.
Then there is her magic. No one does magic like Diana Wynne Jones. In the course of her books she runs the gamut of magical styles, and demonstrates that she knows quite a frightening amount about the technicalities, too. She has a sure instinct for the way magic works: totem magic, social magic, transformation magic, and the rest. Some of her spells are grand, formal affairs, like the climax of The Merlin Conspiracy. Others are casual, like the way Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle unwittingly charms the hats she decorates, simply by talking to them: “You have mysterious allure.” Sometimes, as in Fire and Hemlock, she keeps you guessing as to whether any magic has taken place at all. At others she shocks you with something startlingly and undeniably magical, as when the eponymous villain of Black Maria, who until this point has primarily used the powers of suggestion and social manipulation, turns her nephew into a wolf.
Diana’s humor is of course everywhere. Her books are full of verbal wit, but she rejoices too in physical comedy, and in the spectacle of people acting in absurd ways that appear to them to be the height of good sense—a tendency she laughed at but also recognized as an aspect of the human condition. Everyone will have favorite images from her books: Wizard Howl covered with self-indulgent green slime; the conga of alien magicians and witches in A Sudden Wild Magic; Chrestomanci giving the gods flu in “The Sage of Theare”; the giant sentient toffee bars that drape themselves over the radiators in The Ogre Downstairs; the Importance of Being Earnest-style multiple revelations of identity and relationship that feature in several of her final chapters. Then there is her satire—nowhere packaged more conveniently than in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a book that it is almost impossible not to quote from (and I resist the temptation here only because Diana quotes from it herself in two pieces in this book).
“The world is not enough,” Diana once said, and for her this was true. Her imagination shuffled universes like cards, or bent them into origami shapes. It was not enough for her to invent parallel worlds. She invented multiple multiverses: the worlds of Chrestomanci, of The Homeward Bounders, of Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy, of Dalemark, of A Sudden Wild Magic, of The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin, of The Game—each has its own geography and ecology, its own politics and fashions, its own rules of physics, its own magic. Some are linked to our own world through having split off from it at earlier points in history; others are connected in different ways, or not at all. Diana never insists on surplus exposition, but her worlds have a conviction and a coherence that communicate themselves immediately. As she once put it:
You have to know enough about a world to be able to show things in the foreground that bring the background with them. You must have it firmly enough in your mind so that it all hangs together. You don’t have to say that there are wild beasts in the wood, so long as you have got the right setup where there might be.
All her worlds have that thought-through, felt quality. The same applies to her characters: she takes seriously the advice that she gives aspiring writers in an article in the present collection, that whatever appears on the page about a character, the author must know many times more again—about his or her appearance, past, taste in clothes and music. Diana was adamant that such knowledge did not need to be set down explicitly but that, with people as with physical locations, if the writer knows what she is talking about, her knowledge will communicate itself. The description Virginia Woolf gave of her method in Mrs. Dalloway is no less applicable to Diana:
I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.
This is true; but one of the many ways in which reading Diana does not resemble reading Virginia Woolf is that Diana gives her readers waymarks by which to navigate her text, Homeric epithets that conjure a character in a minimal number of words. What reader of Fire and Hemlock will forget that Polly’s granny’s house smells of biscuits, for example, and the way that this comes to symbolize the homely, reliable, sweet but highly nutritious nature of Granny herself? How potent a symbol are Chrestomanci’s flamboyant dressing gowns, denoting both wildness and yet a certain physical indolence? How irritatingly recognizable are helpful people who, like Joris in The Homeward Bounders, are always ready to reach into their jerkins and find some desired item with a “Why, as to that!” Yet none of these is a caricature or simply a collection of catchphrases. We never doubt that behind each surface lies a system of complex and beautiful caves.
Diana’s books have many subjects and many distinctive themes: language, imagination, storytelling, the recognition of talent in oneself, the ability to look beyond the obvious. If there is one that sums up the rest, however, perhaps it is that of empowerment—although I doubt whether Diana would have cared for the word. It is true that she also has a kind of affection for put-upon officials and for adults swept along by the tide of daily responsibilities. Their desire for respect, or at least feeling that they are not being positively laughed at, is one she treats with sympathy: one thinks of the anguished Sempitern Walker in A Tale of Time City, the earnest Rupert Venables from Deep Secret, or the harassed Wizard Corkoran in Year of the Griffin. But if there is a question of sides there can be no doubt that Diana is on the side of the powerless, the ones who have decisions taken and imposed upon them by others. And this, of course, usually means that she is on the side of children. As she has said, she aims to “provide a space where children can relax and walk round their problems and think ‘Mum’s a silly fusspot and I don’t need to be quite so enslaved by her notions.’” In a Diana Wynne Jones book, no orthodoxy or authority is above question. She is no nihilist—indeed, she has strong views about the responsibilities of the children’s author—but she is nevertheless one of the most thoroughly transgressive writers around.
All these qualities—her imaginative fertility, her range, her stamina, the breadth of her human sympathy and understanding, her command of plotting and of the other technicalities of the writer’s craft, along with her unquenchable curiosity about life and people—have given Diana a unique place, not just in literature for children or within speculative fiction, but in modern literature generally.