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A Charmed Life: Diana Wynne Jones

26 Nov

Diana Wynne Jones (1934 – 2011) was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults. Some of her better-known works are the Chrestomanci series, the Dalemark series; the novels Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Fire and Hemlock and The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. Together with her near-contemporaries Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively, she was one of the most successful and influential of the generation of fantasy writers who rose to prominence in the ‘second Golden Age’ of children’s literature in Britain. But is some ways Jones is a different and rather baffling case from these other authors. After Wilkins’ Tooth was published in 1973, she wrote some forty volumes of fantasy, almost all of them for children. Her books, which are characterized by humour, intelligence, unparalleled technical inventiveness, and a humane but unsentimental view of human nature, have long had a devoted following, not least among other fantasy writers. Yet for all this, she has not, at least until recently, enjoyed the same centrality in critical discussions of late twentieth-century British children’s literature as the other three authors. By 1981, for example, Jones was already the author of ten full-length children’s fantasy novels, including a winner of the Guardian Award (for Charmed Life in 1978). However, of two substantial critical books on the state of children’s literature published in that year, Sheila Egoff’s Thursday’s Child and Fred Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness, both of which give considerable space to Garner, Cooper and Lively, Egoff omits any mention of Jones at all, while Inglis names her just once, in passing. Nor are they by any means unusual in their neglect. As late as 2001, Peter Hunt’s otherwise admirable Blackwell’s Guide to Children’s Literature, though citing Lively’s work on numerous occasions and devoting whole sections to Cooper and Garner, makes no reference to Jones. It seems reasonable to enquire as to the reasons for this surprising attitude from critics towards Jones.

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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

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The Fantasy World of Christmas

17 Dec

It’s that time of year again, and it’s hard to think about the holidays, particularly Christmas, without thinking of fantasy. It is particularly interesting to note just how many famous fantasy novels – particularly for children – are set during the festive period. The Dark is Rising, The Snow Spider and The Children of Green Knowe are all examples that come to mind immediately, but there are many others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whilst not set at Christmas specifically, features a suitably seasonal winter wonderland and even boasts an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) also feels like a seasonal novel, even if Christmas was quite literally the last thing on the author’s mind when he was writing it. There are also a number of more adult fantasy novels that make use of festive motifs, often inverting them in new and often anarchic ways. Examples of the latter include Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Then there are timeless classics like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which are neither entirely for adults nor completely for children, but fall into that strange twilight realm that separates the two worlds. What makes Christmas such a popular setting for children’s fantasy novels can perhaps be attributed to a number of things. The essential yuletide story of Jesus’ birth is full of fantastical elements, from the angels to the star to the three Magi. Moving to the secular (or perhaps pagan) side of things, Santa Claus is nothing but fantastical – flying reindeer, elves (which rather resemble gnomes), a fat man fitting down a chimney, and so on. Then there’s perhaps the most famous novel about Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is of course full of spirits. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Christmas continues to be explored by fantasy writers. The myths and legends of Christmas provide a rich source of inspiration for new tales, the season can be mined for its emotion and themes, and perhaps for its strange and wonderful mix of energies.

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Fantasy Masterworks: The King of Elfland’s Daughter

31 Aug

Edward Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany, is one of the most acclaimed names in the field of fantastic fiction, held in high esteem by many of today’s major writers. More than eighty books of his work were published, and his oeuvre includes many hundreds of published short stories, as well as successful plays, novels and essays. A complex and fascinating character, and an important contributor to literature, Lord Dunsany was a versatile and creative writer, with works including fantasy, drama, poetry, science fiction, prose and autobiography. Born to the second-oldest title (created 1439) in the Irish peerage, Dunsany lived much of his life amid the dramatic, romantic setting of what is perhaps Ireland’s longest-inhabited home, Dunsany Castle near Tara. Dunsany himself is cited as a major influence by many writers and artists and as an important figure in the development of fantastic literature by editors, academics and critics. His work formed part of the foundation of fantasy, along with that of Poe, Morris and Rider Haggard, and fed into later work such as that of Tolkien, Lewis and Lovecraft. The term ‘Dunsanian’ evokes a particular style and atmosphere which has, in the words of more than one commentator, been much imitated but never duplicated. It is worth noting, however, that Dunsany never confined himself to any category – ‘genres’ such as fantasy, science fiction and so on did not really exist in his time – but was respected for his overall ability, being invited to lecture on many occasions, and receiving an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. Perhaps his most famous work was The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

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