Author Spotlight: Diana Wynne Jones

I first read Diana Wynne Jones in 2009. My older sister got a copy of Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) from the library, and when she was finished, she passed it on to me. I read it at my aunt’s house in Boston over Christmas. I had a feeling that this book would change my life. The night I finished it I had a dream that there was a sequel. The next day I googled it and found that Diana had written two. Since then I’ve considered her to be the most versatile of fantasy authors. Diana’s novels are sci-fi and fantasy, often blurring the lines between the genres. She uses traditional fey magic and old English tales such as Tam Lin and King Arthur alongside the more modern usage of time travel and parallel universes. Her fantasy worlds are rich and unique, nothing like your cookie cutter Narnia or Middle Earth. These books came to me at the perfect time, in my late adolescence. Over the next few years I read as many of her novels as I could find in the library. In 2011, the year I read Hexwood and The Time of the Ghosts, Diana died at 76 years old. Her peers and friends, including Neil Gaiman and Robin McKinley, wrote essays on her and their friendships. The Guardian and The New York Times published lengthy obituaries. Diana wasn’t just an author – everyone who read her books considered her a friend. I cried when she died. She has been working on another novel about Howl, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But to look at her impact as an author I can’t just focus on her death, but on her life, and her vibrant, living stories.

Diana was born on August 16th, 1934 in London, daughter of two teachers. During WWII she was evacuated to Wales at first and moved several times until her family settled in Essex after the war, where her parents ran an educational center while Diana attended a Friends school. During the evacuation her family lived temporarily in the Lake District, where Diana and her sisters lived in Arthur Ransome’s home, author of Swallows and Amazons. While living there they met author and illustrator Beatrix Potter as well. Diana wrote as a child, to entertain herself and her two younger sisters. She cited her parents as academics, and uninterested in the needs and wants of their children. For university Diana left home to go to St. Anne’s College in Oxford, where she heard CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien speak during her time there. She married a student of Medieval Literature in 1956 and had three sons with him during their marriage.

dianawynneDiana did not begin her career as a fantasy author for young adults until later in her life. She began as a playwright and adult novelist, writing to “keep her sanity.” She began writing from home, where she lived with her children, husband, mother-in-law, and sister. In 1974 at the age of forty, she published her first fantasy for children, Wilkins’ Tooth, with the publishing company Greenwillow, who she continued to work with through her career. Diana was skeptical of the traditional fantasy tropes of Tolkien and Lewis. She did not want to take her fantasy too seriously – she was anti-academic in her approach to her writing. Diana wrote for young people. Some of her books are better suited to an audience of children, others such as Fire and Hemlock are written for young adults. She wrote for teenagers in a time when not many other people where. Her characters are mostly young women and men, crossing from childhood into adulthood. Her stories are emotional and visceral, philosophical but not moralistic. A self-proclaimed atheist since childhood, Diana wrote chaotic worlds, ruled by self instead of any sort of organized magical power or god.

This chaotic world view works beautifully in her novels. Anyone who has read Diana’s fantasies knows that books do not need to make sense to be incredible. Her novel are not set up on an axis of good versus evil. Instead she tells stories of self versus self, where memory, intuition, and even identity can not be trusted. In Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her more moralistic stories, the “evil” is selfishness and vanity, but like all her novels, the solution can be found within. In many of her works the villains are often revealed to have been misidentified or misunderstood, while characters you trusted are revealed to have devious intent. Diana developed a body of works with very few absolutes. I think most children and young adults are much more concerned with matters of the self than with the evils of the real world. Diana’s evils are small and mundane, but the ones that bite at children the most, like loneliness or neglectful parents. Although our Voldemort and Saurons are appealing too, Diana took small problems and put them into big, magical, strange worlds. Diana’s stories aren’t moralistic, but you come away from them with a better understanding of the self. She doesn’t teach children about the world, she teaches them about themselves.

Diana’s fantasy style pays tribute to the tales that inspire her. The real world is dark and unreliable. Good is under disguise, there is deception and confusion. In Castle in the Air, Diana riffs on One Thousand and One Nights and tales of flying carpets and djinn. The djinn who steals the princess is set up as the villain, and when Abdullah steals a genie to do his bidding, it seems unreliable at first. But then it turns out that the djinn Dalzel is being controlled by his brother, and the genie is actually the wizard Howl under a spell. The true bad guy is only revealed at the very end and easily disposed of. The conflict of the story was never just a villainous djinn, it was what happens when good people abuse powers they shouldn’t be dealing with. Hexwood tells a similar tale of deception. In Diana’s most confusing and convoluted novel, the Controller, responsible for overseeing Earth and other planets, is alerted to the fact that the mysterious machine/portal called the Bannus has been activated on an estate near London. A young girl who lives on the estate finds that the small wood near her home has been expanded – it is now endlessly large, where she finds a chamber with a skeletal man who creates a young boy out of their pool of blood. Intrigued yet? You should be.

In Hexwood Diana sets up a classic English fantasy, which she then reveals to be futuristic science fiction. The Reigners, who are our sci-fi characters, are then revealed to be the spirits of heroes of England – characters from the Arthurian legends and Beowulf. There is no villain in Hexwood. Loss of identity and memory are conflict enough. Another example of Diana using classic myths in her stories is in Fire and Hemlock. Although slightly less confusing than Hexwood, anyone who claims they understand the end of this book is lying. Diana said that her goal in this novel was “to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate.” Polly, the protagonist, realizes as she clears out her childhood bedroom, that underneath the memories of her quiet British childhood, she has another set of memories. The novel is less of a retelling of Tam Lin than a continuation of it. As Polly tries to save her friend and love Tom from his ex-wife, the Queen of the Fairies, she references Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. A quote from the book reads, “Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact in it, you know, which you can find if you look.” Diana’s fairy tales are as enduring as the original canon because she finds those true, strange facts, and grounds her stories in them.

Diana wrote over fifteen stand-alone fairy tales and sci-fi novels from the time-travel epic A Tale of Time City to Enchanted Glass, the story of a boy who discovers he is the son of Oberon. However Diana’s biggest commercial successes were her three series – the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark quartet, and the Castle series. For many people, the title of the first book in the Castle series, Howl’s Moving Castle, evokes images of the Miyazaki film. Although the novel and film are vastly different, Diana, who had no influence in the film, loved it. She said, “It’s fantastic. No, I have no input – I write books, not films. Yes, it will be different from the book – in fact it’s likely to be very different, but that’s as it should be. It will still be a fantastic film.” The film came out in 2004 and was a huge commercial success worldwide, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated film. The film exposed a new wave of readers to Diana, and the book Howl’s Moving Castle is Diana’s best-selling novel. Her other successful series Chrestomanci, which consists of six novels and several novella published between 1977 and 2006, won several awards both in children’s fiction categories and speculative fiction categories. The series has been compared to Harry Potter, as a possible influence, and centers around the life of Christopher Chant, a wizard with nine lives. “I think that she [JK Rowling] read my books as a young person… There are so many striking similarities,” Diana said of the Harry/Christopher comparison. Like all of Diana’s series, the books do not need to be read in any particular order. In fact their are four different schools of thought on that. Publication, chronological, Diana’s suggestion, and the “Updated” version, which includes all the short stories and novellas set in the world. Easy to pick up, Diana’s books are the perfect things to find while roaming a library or a bookstore. A catching title, a colorful cover. Though she isn’t a household name, among the community of readers who love fantasy and sci-fi, she is a gem.

Diana Wynne Jones isn’t just beloved among readers, she was beloved among her peers. Hexwood is dedicated to Neil Gaiman; Diana said that a conversation they had had inspired the story. The strange mix of future and past mythos is definitely Gaimanesque. Neil started reading Diana in the 1970s as a teenager, about at the same age that I discovered her. Their friendship began in 1985, and Diana championed him as a writer, promoting his work and getting him jobs. When Diana died Neil wrote, “Not only does she read aloud beautifully, but denouments which seemed baffling read alone are obvious and elegantly set up and constructed when read aloud. ‘Children are much more careful readers than adults,’ she’d say. ‘You don’t have to repeat everything for children. You do with adults, because they aren’t paying full attention.’” He was in London to visit her the week she died. Robin McKinley, author of fantasy novels including Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter, worked with the same publisher as Diana, Greenwillow, and they had a long-lasting professional friendship. Robin said that Diana had “been one of [her] my favourite people for thirty years.” And of course, Diana also knew Terry Pratchett. In a blog post Robin McKinley commented that “Terry Pratchett’s first novel was 1983.  Diana invented funny British fantasy.” That lighthearted, mystical, silly style of fantasy that we see in Discworld and Hitchhikers and so on – Diana Wynne Jones pioneered that genre.

Diana left a legacy behind. Greenwillow published in 2013 a posthumous novel The Islands of Chaldea, which was finished by Diana’s sister. Diana wrote for almost forty years, right up to her death at the hands of cancer. She left behind half-finished manuscripts and bits of unfinished ideas. She wasn’t done writing. If she had lived longer, she probably would have published at least three more novels. When you think about Diana’s body of works you don’t always remember the plot. Her complex ideas gave room for creativity and exploration. Her books are bigger than reality, more layered than my brain can handle. I still remember reading A Tale of Time City at sixteen, flipping back and forth through the book, trying to piece it together. It was like deciphering code. Her books are brilliantly challenging, each one a mystery meant to broaden a child’s horizon.

I guess for me writing this has been like writing an obituary. It’s been six years since she died, but I haven’t accepted it yet. I wanted that fourth book about Howl and Sophie. When my sister first borrowed Howl’s Moving Castle from the library she borrowed a beautiful first edition. It was in spectacular condition. Every time we went to our local branch we saw it on the shelf. We were the only people ever borrowing it. One day, after Diana’s death we borrowed it and did not return it. I declared it lost. We paid the book replacement fee – pennies compared to the emotional and fiscal value of the book we either stole or rescued, depending on your point of view. We did pay for it after all. I have it still, along with a matching first edition of The Time of the Ghosts. When Diana died in 2011 I sent a message on Tumblr to Neil Gaiman.

I wrote: “I loved Diana Wynne Jones. The last year of her life I tried a million times to write her a letter. Then she died, and now I’ll never be able to send one. This isn’t really a question, but ever since Diana died I felt like I should write you a letter because you knew her… I never really knew what to put in a letter. But I want to thank you for Shadow and Coraline because I never got to thank Diana for Charmain and Polly.”

Neil replied to me: “She was such a lovely person, and better than I am at replying to things, so I am replying to this because she would have done. And you are welcome.”

Diana Wynne Jones was that sort of person. A writer who believed in connections and promoted friendship. A woman who inspired a better understanding of self and others. A humble, talented woman who started to write fantasy for children in the middle of her life because she saw a need, a place for her stories. Diana wrote stories for children that were exciting and new, but also analytical and challenging. They’re not supposed to be easy and sometimes they’re downright frustrating. The best sort of children’s author – Diana never underestimated or patronized her audience. At sixteen, her books made me feel heard and respected. I felt like she was a friend. I think that’s her legacy.

  • “Being Alive. Mostly About Diana.” Neil Gaiman. March 27, 2011.
  • “Diana Wynne Jones.” Christopher Priest. March 27, 2011.
  • “Fame. Sort of.” Robin McKinley. September 23, 2010.
  • “Where to Start with Diana Wynne Jones.” Alex Brown. December 16, 2015.
  • “Diana Wynne Jones, Children’s Author, Dies at 76.” Bruce Weber. March 28, 2011.

Sarah V Diehl


2 thoughts on “Author Spotlight: Diana Wynne Jones

  1. Peni Griffin says:

    I do so understand the end of Fire and Hemlock!

    DWJ was the greatest 20th century writer for young people in the English language; which makes her the greatest 20th century writer in the English language. Seriously, read Howl, or Homeward Bounders, or Archer’s Goon next to anything you like by the 20th Century Canon. She leaves Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Updike, everyone, in the dust!


  2. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    Although sceptical of academics, she gave me a stuffed Calcifer puppet when my book on her work came out. I assume that means she liked it 🙂


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