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Authors: Diana Wynne Jones

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Fantasy Books for Children

 

A short piece on the lasting impact of fantasy, this article was commissioned by
The Good Book Guide
for an introduction to the Fiction and Fantasy section of
The Good Book Guide
's annual selection of children's books in 1991–2.

The Good Book Guide
is a subscription-only journal for everybody who wants to know about and buy books published in the UK. It was founded in 1977 to offer an informed, independent selection of outstanding books.

 

 

W
riters of fantasy for children have a heavy responsibility: anything they write is likely to have a profound effect for the next fifty years. You can see why if you ask ten adults which book they remember best from their childhood. Nine of them will certainly name a fantasy.

If you inquire further, you will find your nine adults admitting that they acquired many of the rules they live by from this book that so impressed them. This may not necessarily mean rules of morality—though it may—but wider things like what ways of behaving are wise, or unwise; or how to spot a person who is going to let you down; or what frame of mind in which to face a disaster; or possibly the way you look at life in general. For instance, when I discovered Brunhilde
1
from an antiquated retelling of Norse legends and found that she was a warrior, I was intensely excited: now it didn't matter anymore that I was born a girl.

This excitement is something all nine adults are likely to confess to, whatever else the book gave them. The book endowed them with experience which they could not get any other way, by speaking to them in a way and at a level that touches the roots of the imagination. They will also probably say the book made them laugh or cry, or both. Good. The emotions are very important. You need to acknowledge their power at the earliest possible age. It is the only way to get the rest of life straight.

As you see, it is a heavy responsibility. I think all writers of fantasy know this, but do not dwell on it. Their aim is to give children an
experience
.

The Value of Learning Anglo-Saxon

 

On August 30, 1991,
The Times Literary Supplement
published a commentary debate on the future of Old English. The critic Valentine Cunningham, who is a professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, called for an end to the compulsory teaching of Anglo-Saxon in the Oxford English course. Opposing him was medievalist J. A. Burrow, Diana Wynne Jones's husband.

That same day Diana wrote this letter to the editor of
The Times Literary Supplement
. Although there was correspondence on the topic for the following three issues (mostly supportive of teaching Anglo-Saxon), Diana's letter was not published.

 

 

Dear Sir,

As a writer, I resent Val Cunningham's implication that learning Anglo-Saxon is a dead loss to all writers. I would like to put a writer's case for being forced to learn Anglo-Saxon as part of a degree in English.

Forced is the word. I would not have chosen to learn it; I did not take to it; and I frequently fell asleep with my face on the library blotter trying to learn paradigms. In addition, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, Anglo-Saxon texts were not taught as literature but as exercises in translation and as mines for fearsome problems called “cruxes.” So it says volumes for these texts that the actual things written in Anglo-Saxon came blazing through all tutors' attempts to quench them.

Take
Beowulf
—a large poem that is thrown at you. Laboriously you realize that its writer has signaled that he is giving you an epic, a promise he proceeds to fulfill in fluid and clangorous language through linked episodes, some of them closely attentive to the hero, some ranging outward into history. Even before it had dawned on me that I was studying a masterpiece nobody had told me about, I found I was learning from it
as a writer
. I can safely say that this anonymous poem taught me more about how to orchestrate and shape a narrative than any writer of more recent date. By this I mean the “novelistic” or
engineering
part of writing: when to devote detailed attention, when to slide over, how to thunder and how to restrain, and where to do it; and of course how to dovetail a narrative into the rest of history and make it relevant. It was a privilege to watch someone from so long ago doing all this so consummately well.

I do not think you gain the same sense of privilege from reading a translation. You certainly miss out disastrously on the shorter poems, like the cloudy and emblematic “Dream of the Rood,” where part of the point is that terms from older battle epics are transferred to Christian use; or the hints and allusions in “Widsith” or “The Wife's Lament.” I forget which of the “Wanderer” or the “Seafarer” was a “set” text for us to study. I read them all avidly, realizing that here was the origin of the queer, sideways narrative manner of the Border Ballads—and again learned.

Oddly enough, the main thing I learned was that Anglo-Saxon (like the Ballads) is still very much with us today: it is English in all sorts of ways. Take “The Battle of Maldon,” where the leader, Byrhtnoth, is the first recorded example of winning the toss and putting the opposition in to bat on a perfect pitch; or, on a more serious note, take the prose of Ælfric and Wulfstan. A lot of the words are different, but the basic sentence and the basic paragraph, the sinews and engineering of it, are precisely as in modern English. And because the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary was not large, you can watch these prose writers doing much with little. They use every device possible of the rhetoric that Val Cunningham appears to believe was invented by the Renaissance or somewhen—and these of course are the stock in trade of any writer. Reading Ælfric and Wulfstan slowly in the original, I gained more knowledge of—for instance—how to build a paragraph, than I ever did from the mannered stuff in
Tristram Shandy
.

This is all personal, but I would like to add that I am by no means the only imaginative writer to be inspired by being made to learn Anglo-Saxon. There was a whole generation of us, and others after that. It seems hard on future writers, if they are not to be put to this enabling experience somewhere.

 

Yours sincerely,

Diana Wynne Jones

The Halloween Worms

 

This comic article shows how Diana Wynne Jones could find humor even in the roughest circumstance, and how incidents from her books were always returning to haunt her.

 

 

T
his is a true story, even though it came out of a book. You see, what I write in my books and think I have made up has a creepy way of coming true. I noticed it first over
The Ogre Downstairs
. When I wrote that book, we were living in a new house with a flat roof and almost no stairs. The roof turned out to dissolve in rain, the lavatories every so often flushed boiling water, and we had an electric fountain in the living room, because the builders had got confused about which were electric cables and which were heating pipes. I was so sick of that house that I invented a quite different one for
The Ogre Downstairs
—a tall, thin house with lots and lots of stairs.

Now I live in a tall, thin house with lots and lots of stairs. I didn't do it on purpose. It came about by accident, in an awful hurry. But the house is almost exactly like the house I put in that book.

After that, things out of other books started coming true too. It was quite frightening. Imagine meeting the most sinister baddie you have ever invented (or thought you had invented), and hearing him say exactly the things you had put in the book for him to say. That happened. I asked other writers whether anything like this had ever happened to them. “Oh, yes,” they said. “Isn't it creepy?” It was. I decided that in the next book I wrote I would put in so many things from real life that it couldn't come true because it had happened anyway. Ha, ha. I decided to write about my schooldays.

The book was called
Witch Week
. It takes place in a very old-fashioned school at Halloween. The thing about writing a book is that, whatever you mean to do, you find the book takes on a life of its own from the first page onward. The school in this book turned into a sort of redbrick Disneyland castle as soon as I started to write, and the headmistress was almost a monster. But one bit I firmly put in from my schooldays, and that was the custom that certain pupils had to sit beside the Headmistress at High Table every lunchtime and make polite conversation. The rule was that you had to wait until the headmistress started to eat and then use the same eating implement as she did. And she always used a fork. For everything. People were forced to eat runny rice pudding with forks. It was like a medieval torture. I was very bad at eating with a fork, and I was also very bad at polite conversation, because the mere sight of the awful food we used to have seemed to inspire me to describe it, out loud. “Fishes' eyes in glue,” I used to find myself saying. “Dead daffodils and mashed caterpillar.”

I put all this, exactly, in the book. The girl in it finds she can't stop describing the food as she sits beside the headmistress. But, in the way books do, something took over and made that dinner a bit different from the ones I used to have. There are grand visitors, so the High Table gets given a starter. The girl looks at it, and it seems to be worms in custard. Really, of course, it is seafood cocktail. And the rest of the book got less and less like my schooldays. They were all tearing about in the nights just before Halloween, some of them riding broomsticks, and the rest of them causing the most peculiar bumps in the night, and there were all sorts of goings-on in the washrooms.

The book had not long been published when I got an invitation to attend a reunion—not a school reunion, that would have warned me off; but a reunion of people who used to come to the conference center my parents ran when I was a child. It was to be the weekend of Halloween, because that was half term and everyone was free. So we said we would go.

The place was out in the country and extraordinarily hard to find. We drove round and round, and we didn't find the driveway until it was getting dark. It was a very long driveway. The first thing that warned us what we might be getting to was a set of dim, white goalposts looming out of the dusk. Then we drove round some dark trees and found huge, dark buildings ahead. There were battlements and towers. A castle? No. The last sunset came through one of the buildings and showed that it had pointed church windows, vast ones. A ruined abbey then? All the buildings were quite dark and absolutely quiet, but there was one dim orange light, low down, shining through a pointed window. We parked the car beside it and stuck our heads through a pointed door. There was nobody there, nothing but a vaulted stone corridor leading into darkness. But there was a smell. One sniff and we knew what that building was. It was a school. I don't know what makes the smell of a school always so unmistakable, any more than I know what makes the smell itself—old socks and chalk? Tests and timetables?—but it is always the same whether the building is new or old. But there was no one there. We didn't like to barge in, in case we had come to the wrong place, so we walked round the outsides of the huge, churchlike buildings, trying to find someone to ask. Owls hooted. Bats fluttered against the last brown sunset, just like the start of the creepiest horror story you have ever read, and we never found a soul. So we went round again, back to the dim orange light.

There, suddenly, there were a few people, so suddenly that I began to feel they had been laid on by magic. They were all people that I hadn't seen for at least twenty years, and that was very creepy. They all looked just the same, except they looked as if they had made themselves up to look old by powdering their hair and painting on wrinkles and sticking white beards on their faces. But they were all very friendly, and shortly we found ourselves being ushered into the grand reunion dinner. That took place in the great dining hall, which was like the biggest cathedral I had ever seen, all pointed arches stretching away into darkness. It turned out that very few people had been able to attend the dinner, so there were only ten or so of us at the High Table, which was so big that you had to shout to the person beside you. And winds blew out of the dark part of the Great Hall, bringing the school smell in gusts, like the scent of dead schoolboys. It was half term, we were told, so all the pupils had gone home.

But it was also Halloween, so, naturally, the first thing we were given to eat was a bowl of yellow stuff with little, pink, wriggly things floating in it. “Worms in custard!” I thought, peering at the stuff in the candlelight. “Seafood cocktail!” shouted the person on my left. “How delicious!”

I managed not to describe the worms out loud, but they were awfully hard to eat. That was followed by daffodil buds and shoe soles, with little yellow flowerpots someone told me were Yorkshire puddings. And all the while the winds blew, bringing the ghosts of schoolboys out of the dark hall. Just the place for things to go bump in the night, I thought, wishing we were not staying the night.

The room where we were to sleep was along corridors, up bare, splintering stairs, along more corridors, through a long room with rows of baths in it, side by side, through another long room with two rows of little tiny washbasins—here, beside each washbasin, hung the boys' towels, each neatly folded square, and the boys' sponge bags, each exactly four inches away from the towels (obviously they didn't clean their teeth while they were at home)—and then along another corridor, through a neat, neat study, and finally up a fourteen-foot ladder to a sort of loft with three beds in it. I don't know why the school bothered with beds. They were exactly as hard as the floor, except that each bed had a hair shirt on it stuffed with what felt like a gorse bush. You got bruised every time you turned over. And I did a lot of turning over because, soon after midnight, it was borne in upon me that those worms—seafood, I mean—had disagreed with me horribly. By two in the morning, I knew I was going to be sick.

I tried to put it off. I didn't know where to be sick, and whatever it was, it had to be down that fourteen-foot ladder in the dark. But being sick is something you just can't put off. I had to get up. Somehow I found the hole in the floor and fell down the ladder. Then where? The study was far too neat. I blundered out into the corridor and ran along it. There was a door I hadn't remembered at the end of the corridor, and it would only open when I backed off and ran at it like a bull. I shot out into the place with rows of washbasins. I was desperate by then. But I couldn't mess up all those neat towels, and the boys would probably be made to clean it up after me. Rows of dim baths now. No, the baths didn't seem the proper place either. I held my hand over my mouth and ran on. Showers. No. Help! Then another door which I had to butt open with my head. And there at last I found a door which I could just see was labeled
SENIOR
BOYS ONLY
. By that time I was too far gone to care and I burst through that door. I don't know what the place was—it was too dark—but I do know that as soon as I went in, it started to fill with water. Water was up round my ankles by the time I was ready to back out.

Then I had to bump and barge my way back to the ladder and climb back up to the loft. I lay down on the gorse bush feeling I never wanted to move again. But the moment I lay down, I found I was going to be sick. Up I leaped. Down the ladder, through the study, along the corridor, through the door that wouldn't open, past the washbasins, past the baths . . . I did that eight more times. Those things were either worms or they were the fingers of little boys. Each time, the only possible place I could find was
SENIOR BOYS ONLY
, and each time I went in, it filled with water again. I was still charging back and forth when it began to get light. I was still doing it when the other eight guests started getting up and wondering whether they were allowed to wash in the little washbasins.

“Must you run?” one of them shouted irritably at me as I sped wearily past. “Someone was running and banging all night!”

“That was me!” I croaked, and made it to
SENIOR BOYS
, which began to fill with water again at once. It wasn't meant to flood, I could see now. Water was gushing in from under the linoleum, probably just to spite me. No doubt the ghosts of little boys—all of whom were missing at least one finger—were laughing heartily.

I didn't want breakfast. By then, all I wanted was to get away from church windows and rows of washbasins. I left as soon as I could, and didn't feel happy until I was back home in our tall, thin house with lots of stairs, and only one washbasin, with the towels hung up anyhow. Here the windows are square and there is nothing to go bump in the night. . . .

There was a tremendous knocking at the front door.

I opened it to find a lot of people made up to look old. They had powdered their hair and stuck gray beards on their chins and painted wrinkles on their faces. One was a witch, one was a high priest, one was a devil, and the others were probably goblins. “Trick or treat!” they all shouted as I opened the door.

I had forgotten it was Halloween.

BOOK: Reflections
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