S E-G-Hopkin

Magic and laundry

A mythical work

Magic and fantasy seem to occupy an odd tract of land in the world of the novel. Despite an honourable lineage that includes William Morris, Lord Dunsany and J. R. R. Tolkien, there persists a feeling that fantasy is really for children and geeks; it is not a serious art. Perhaps this is why publishers put out editions of Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling with more sophisticated cover art, so that their readers will not be embarrassed on trains.

Diana Wynne Jones was at Oxford in the days of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and learnt a great deal from them about the power and durability of myth (though not their Christian agenda — she is also free of Philip Pullman’s soapbox atheism). Some of her books are definitely for children, and some (such as The Dark Lord of Derkholm, her brilliant satire on fantasy cliché) for adults, but most, with a nominal target of ‘young adult’ — possibly to help booksellers — are for anyone who likes stories. The astonishing Fire and Hemlock, for example, uses the Odyssey and old balladry to tell a modern story of possessiveness poisoning love — which is also a story of a girl rescuing a man from a wicked fairy queen. Howl’s Moving Castle relates a magical battle between a wizard and a witch, and also tells how a commitment-phobic man and a girl with low self-esteem learn to love one another. (It was made into a film by Hayao Miyazaki, which looked quite beautiful but rather missed the point.) House of Many Ways is set in Howl’s world (Jones does not exactly do sequels, as each of her stories is self-contained, but she often takes a minor character in one story as a starting-point for another) and introduces a rather trying young woman called Charmain, who has such over-protective parents that she has grown up ignorant of the simplest practicalities of life.

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