We all know which child wizard first grabbed his Elementary Spells textbook and walked the castle hallways to Magical History 101, right?
Not necessarily. Decades before J.K. Rowling put Harry and Ron in a flying Ford Anglia on their way to Hogwarts, Diana Wynne Jones sent a young enchanter named Cat Chant crashing into the local post office on a contraption of enchanted bicycles and magicked flying furniture – after, of course, he had completed his magical education classes for the day.
When Jones passed away in March 2011, the New York Times detailed her long life, her recent death, and her proliferation of kids’ fantasy literature. I probably wasn’t alone in wondering who she was. To the library I went. Not surprisingly, the selection was meager this side of The Pond. I pulled down the tallest of the six plastic-covered hardbacks, wondering what a character named “Chrestomanci” might be like. The book title was The Lives of Christopher Chant. A good choice, as it turned out.
Diana Wynne Jones is a good choice overall for anyone who’s steeped themselves in the likes of J.K. Rowling or Phillip Pullman in recent decades, or, further back, Susan Cooper. Americans may, like me, draw a blank, but most bookwormish British schoolchildren know the enchanter Chrestomanci, even if they don’t yet know that Diana Wynne Jones falls plum in the middle of Britain’s rich children’s fantasy heritage.
In that first book I brought home from the library, Jones’s Christopher Chant steps “around the corner of the night nursery wall”[i] and confidently into this very tradition. Ah, Christopher: a young boy, lonely, all but orphaned, who discovers the tear in the magical fabric of his world, carefully peels it aside, and walks through. (I’m lookin’ at you, Phillip Pullman.) I was charmed from the start. I didn’t skip a beat till I’d read to the end of the six Chrestomanci books, scouring two library systems and back-ordering the rest.
It’s rare at my age to be drawn into another world as wholly as I am by Jones’s stories. How does she do it? Believable, sympathetic characters combined with straightforward, unabashed magic. Don’t get me wrong; her books are no wild ride. Jones paces her stories moderately, meaning they move a good bit slower than Harry Potter. This works just fine for me, having developed my readerly imagination on the 1970’s likes of Cynthia Voight and Madeleine L’Engle. But Jones’s energetically resolved endings always make up for her easy pacing in a satisfyingly accelerated final rush. And all along, there is the awareness, the curiosity, the mystery, the suspense of alternate worlds to our own.
Which is the concept that works so well for Jones. And she’s got tons of worlds up her sleeve and around the corner. We catch a glimpse of them in the refractively mind-bending conclusion to Witch Week, a tale that’s almost too slowly paced. But the payoff, after making it to the end, is an exciting and thorough resolution, wherein worlds connect with worlds in one huge, kaleidoscopic “Aha!” moment:
“It was as if the world had turned into a vast curtain, hanging in folds, with every fold in it rippling in and out. The ripples ran through desks, windows, walls, and people alike. Each person was rippled through. They were tugged, and rippled again, until everyone felt they were coming to pieces. By then, the ripples were so strong and steep that everyone could see right down in to the folds. For just a moment, on the outside of each fold, was the classroom everyone knew, with the inquisitor and his huge men on the same fold as Miss Cadwallader, and Chrestmanci on another fold beside them. The inner parts of the folds were all different places.”[ii]
But Christopher Chant is the character who throws this other-worlds element into sharpest relief. At nighttime, he journeys out of his bed, around the nursery fireplace, and into The Place Between: a rocky valley that offers entrances into worlds – no, whole series of worlds! – in vaster numbers than Christopher can count.
“He set off sliding, scrambling, edging across bulging wet rock, and climbing up or down, until he found another valley and another path. There were hundreds of them. He called them the Anywheres.”[iii]
We know this other-worlds idea didn’t begin in Jones’s imagination. Two decades before the first Chrestomanci book appeared in print, a quartet of siblings walked through the back of a wardrobe into a land called Narnia. Nearly a century before that, a lesser-known fantasy character – the creation of Victorian novelist George MacDonald – entered another realm through (appropriately) a library. In MacDonald’s book Lilith, the librarian explains what it is that Lewis, Jones, Pullman, and countless others have since envisioned: “I tell you there are more worlds, and more doors to them, than you will think of in many years!”[iv]
These days, the concept of alternate worlds runs rampant on the middle grades and young adult library shelves (not to mention on prime time television). Of course, all fiction books, even the most realistic of fiction pieces, are themselves other worlds in that they are imagined renderings, recreated places. But what Jones and many of these others do differently is layer the concept, starting with the world as we know it and then working out the idea of imagined experience by giving their characters entrance from a recognizable “here” to a somehow different “there.”
Surprisingly, perhaps the most striking element of Jones’s worlds, besides the vibrantly rendered magical details they’re chock-full of, is the sheer normalcy of the characters’ experience. In Charmed Life, we read about Cat Chant’s inner dilemma, torn between brotherly loyalty and a moral obligation to tell the truth. We almost forget we’re dealing with multi-lived enchanters and magical matchsticks, because we’re caught up in recognizing how Cat feels: agonized, like a normal, conflicted eleven-year-old boy. His equivocal decisions are decisions we know; his dialogue and responses ring true. We feel empathy for Cat and, perhaps, for the part of ourselves that is so similar to him. It’s just as reading should be: entrance into a deeper Real. A deeper real, that is, and a whole lot of fun.
And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun. The more fun, I’d say, for their being so artfully crafted. With a nonchalant tone and a steady pace, with an effective honesty toward her readers and uniquely imagined moments, with playful good humor and a hint of darkness just troubling enough to be delicious, Jones’s hand wields fantasy adventure story with skill. Even we American readers who have never read her benefit from the many worlds she conceived. As we stay up too late reading The Golden Compass or The Dark is Rising (or, in the adult lit realm, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), as we watch and rewatch the Harry Potter films, we participate in the narrative legacy Diana Wynne Jones has left behind.
At the end of Witch Week, the young character Nan, a budding writer, makes the discovery that storytelling is “as good as witchcraft, any day.”[v] Later, a friend confides in her:
“Do you know what I think?” she whispered. “When you grow up to be an author and write books, you’ll think you’re making the books up, but they’ll all really be true, somewhere.”[vi]
A world where books come true? Well, that may be a stretch. But fortunately for those of us who are into this middle grades fantasy kind of thing, that didn’t hold Diana Wynne Jones back. Who needs other worlds? Not when the likes of Diana Wynne Jones waits on the library bookshelf, teeming with enchanters and griffins, witches and warlocks, schoolgirl authors, flying furniture, wild woodlands, and much more, besides.
[i] The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume I. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p.271
[ii] Witch Week, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume II. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p. 540-1
[iii] Lives, p.271-2
[iv] Lilith. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids: 1996. p.40
[v] Witch, p.540
[vi] Witch, p.547