Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Newest Mania: Diana Wynne Jones

I have been aware of Diana Wynne Jones since at least 1982, when I bought and read A Reader's Guide to Fantasy from cover to cover in search of new wonders. The short summations supplied there did nothing to tempt me, and the bouquet of her Nomenclature (I tend to judge an author to some extent on the surety of their Naming of characters, places, and things) seemed very plain. I have since come to find this style of Nomenclature in the hands of a fine author like Diana Wynne Jones is a delicate, simple, and transparent method that does not get in the way of the storytelling. But at the time I passed her work over in quest of more promising but harder to find books, like The Circus of Dr. Lao or Kwaidan.

There was always plenty of Ms. Jones to be had. Every time I would search the shelves I would pass a huge wodge of books I would automatically jump over, cursing her (unfairly) for taking up space while the books I wanted were elsewhere. There are as of today (depending on how you count them) about fifty volumes to her credit. Of course the comic, karmic flipside for me is that now that I want them, they are locally rather thin on the ground. Thank God for, but at the rate I am devouring her books the postal service is a grindingly slow process. But at the time, as I said, they were merely unwanted filler.

Then two things happened, more or less simultaneously. Hayao Miyazaki's animated adaptation of Jones' book Howl's Moving Castle came out, for one thing. I love Miyazaki's work, and this was one of his best. If she could inspire this, I thought, maybe there's something to her stuff after all. Still, by the time I saw the film out on DVD, a copy of the book was hard to come by, so I temporized.

The second thing that happened was I got a copy of Jones' A Tough Guide To Fantasyland. I had heard good things about it, and it turned out to be completely as advertised: a hilariously funny parodic encyclopedia of the cliches of Fantasy writing. I laughed and groaned as I recognized my own past sins time and time again, from the perils of STEW to the plain facts about BOOTS and HORSES. Still, it was not a sample to judge her storytelling chops from.

When I finally did get a copy of Howl's Moving Castle and sat down to read it, I found it was not a fair experience. I went in looking for the movie, and it made the book hard to see. The movie had, of course, simplified the plot somewhat and the characters a lot; the book had more leisure (not fat) with its story, the movie had changed, merged, and excluded many characters and their fates. I came away from the encounter not totally convinced, but momentum in Jones' favor was building.

It came to a head with Castle In The Air. This was a sequel to HMC, and in the same format as my copy. I decided to buy it and give it a shot. And my enthusiasm just took off. I was able to go back and read HMC again on its own merits, and this time enjoyed it immensely. I quickly rooted out the next sequel, House Of Many Doors, then started on The Chrestomanci Chronicles Volume I: Charmed Life & The Lives Of Christopher Chant. Right now I have Volume III and await the arrival of Volume II. Then I expect to begin The Dalemark Sequence.

I cannot blame A Reader's Guide To Fantasy; Diana Wynne Jones' style is hard to describe. Her writing is strong, plain, and flexible; her plotting is sustained and satisfying; her characters are vivid and believable. The tales I've read so far take place in a multiverse, where magic is as commonplace as other arts and sciences: a factor of life that people accept but that not all people have the same talent for. Whether the Moving Castle books take place in the same multiverse as the Chrestomanci books is, as it were, up in the air. In general they seem to take place in a kind of Victorian/Edwardian era, but one that might (say) have developed television and computers but not cars. It differs from book to book as you go from world to world. If there is a basic theme for the books I've read so far it is that of waking up, looking at the world around you, and taking control of your life.

On the personal side, Diana Wynne Jones is a British author, born in 1934, is married to a Medievalist, and has three grown children. She went to Oxford, where she studied literature under C. S. Lewis (who she thought was brilliant) and J. R. R. Tolkien (who she thought was a poor teacher, because he mumbled). She came to writing on her own. She is presently in poor health, but this late-blooming admirer hopes she is spared many years more, both for her own and her readers enjoyment.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Design Similarities 3

Big nose. Round eyes. Long nose. Blubbery lips. Clawed fingers and toes. Hunched, rubbery physique. These two water-frequenting monsters, the Troll from an old Fifties-era school reader and Gollum from the Brothers Hildebrandt 1978 Tolkien Calendar look like they were separated at birth. Could the Hildebrandts have had this book at school?