Weaving Words: The Magic of Diana Wynne Jones

By Henrietta Wilson, Lydia WilsonFebruary 5, 2022

Weaving Words: The Magic of Diana Wynne Jones
“WHEN MAGES WEAVE, what they weave is so.” These words in The Spellcoats, by fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, double up as spell and tale: the narrator, Tanaqui, has used her skill to weave them into complex and beautiful rug coats, simultaneously forming the magic that frees her family and land as well as the words of the book itself. As with Tanaqui’s weaving, so with Diana’s writing. Her wordcraft shapes captivating tales that bewitch her readers, conjuring magic as surely as the characters in her books.

2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of this prolific writer, who set up many different magical worlds, some one-off creations, some reappearing through a series of books. The Ogre Downstairs begins very firmly in our world of school and troubled step-sibling relationships when a chance gift brings magic, at first unrecognized, into the story. The slippage of magic into “our” world is also found in Eight Days of Luke, Black Maria, and others, but Howl’s Moving Castle signals a different world right from the opening — “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist” — rooting us immediately to the everyday magics of fairy tales. Magic is also front and center of the Chrestomanci series’s many worlds, most of which are inhabited by acknowledged magic users and accompanying social structures — including a civil servant dedicated to ensuring magic is not misused. Meanwhile, magic in the Dalemark Quartet series is altogether more hidden and mysterious, and characters are often surprised when they encounter it.

Despite these huge variations in Jones’s created worlds, her books share common themes about how magic works. While some magic users learn and hone their skills through apprenticeships and schools, individuality is a crucial element of both the process and the result, much like writing, art, or music. In Witch Week, Nirupam says of witches: “Each one has their own style. It’s like the way everyone’s writing is different.” He explains why two illicit spells in the school must have been done by two different witches: “Those are two quite different outlooks on life.” The Magicians of Caprona has a similar account. Its two main characters, Tonino and Angelica, are kidnapped to blackmail their families into stopping magic. Among the youngest and apparently least talented of their families, they attempt a spell to signal where they are. It doesn’t work as planned, but that reveals their origin, with Angelica’s sister commenting, “Now that is Angelica! […] I’d know her spells anywhere.” Meanwhile, in Charmed Life, the toy soldiers that Julia animates always run away from the play battle: “‘Because that’s just what I would do,’ Julia said, putting out a knitting needle to mark her place in her book. ‘I can’t think why all soldiers don’t.’”

Jones works this personal element through acute observation of and empathy with her characters. The fact that Julia, quoted above, is knitting and reading and eating sweets at the same time as directing fearful soldiers is an example of a fully fleshed-out character; though not a major player in the book, we know Julia through these small but telling details. This attention is careful and deliberate. In an essay called Characterization: Advice for Young Writers, Jones explains just how necessary the reality of characters is: “They are the things that make the plot work. Things don’t just happen. People make them happen.” She has detailed and delightful advice for young — indeed, all — writers: notice the people around you, their quirks and their body language and most of all their language. “Listen carefully, and you will find that every single person has her/his own special rhythm when they speak. […] If you have got it right,” she says of creating characters, “there will come a moment when they start acting like real, independent people.”

Personality is not a fixed quality; Jones’s characters change and learn new things about the world and themselves, and these processes drive the stories and the magic. Individuals often can’t access or control their magical abilities until they do some internal work, normally involving hard thinking to achieve self-understanding or accept the reality of their situation. This is also grounded in Jones’s insights into how our “real world” works. In a speech at a school where her son Richard taught, she told the children: “All of you sitting here have, among you, abilities that are practically countless.” They might be aware of some of them, but not all, “for the very good reason that the exact circumstances that will allow you to show these gifts have not been invented yet.”

The characters in her books frequently find they have such “hidden gifts,” though they must also work out how to use them. In Power of Three, Gair watches resignedly as his two siblings develop valued gifts. When his talents emerge, though, he still feels ordinary. His skills — rich as they are — aren’t enough, and he must continue struggling and acting in order to save his home. In Charmed Life, Cat’s gifts remain hidden. He is convinced that his sister Gwendolyn has all the magical ability in the family, and only reluctantly accepts the truth under extreme circumstances.

This aspect of magic, personal gifts, isn’t only like art forms, but is often directly linked to them. Cart and Cwidder’s Moril is already a skilled musician when he inherits an ancient cwidder (a type of stringed instrument). Like Gair discovering his gift, the ownership of the cwidder isn’t enough. Moril must understand how he, alone, can use it, which requires him acknowledging truths about himself and his circumstances. Likewise, Tanaqui’s craftsmanship — her sublime weaving skill — is fundamental to her ability to out-weave and out-spell the wicked mages that have plagued her land. In both cases, the characters’ craft, combined with hard-won understanding and personal attributes, are fundamental to their ability to work magic.

For Moril’s music and Tanaqui’s weaving, words are key — either spoken or woven — signaling another common feature of magic throughout the books. Gair in Power of Three gives perhaps the most direct account of how words work — in his world, anyway. While others perceive him to be performing magic with the things he says, for him, words are tools. “‘There’s nothing magic about words,’ he said. ‘They just do things if you say them right.’” He uses the example of “passing the bread” — if he’d just said “gobbledygook” instead, no one would pass him the bread. “And it’s the same with everything else. You just have to say the right words.”

The Magicians of Caprona extends Gair’s explanation: “A spell is the right words delivered in the right way” — which, of course, also describes good writing; a spell of sorts, enchanting readers with new experiences, a comparison Jones occasionally makes explicitly. In Witch Week, Nan’s writing is praised by the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci, who describes it as “Admirable. […] Clear and vivid.” And indeed Nan is able to use her remarkable descriptive power to create new realities.

More wordy magic comes from Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, who talks to the hats she is making, remarking on their “mysterious allure” and “dimpled charm.” When strange things start to happen, readers are alerted to Sophie’s powers, though she remains stubbornly unaware, and so continues to reinforce the spell she’s under by muttering to herself. There are other characters whose particular and personal skill with words, over and above knowing how to pass the bread, is part of their magical power, and not always for good. The matriarch in Aunt Maria envelops people in conversation flows, insidiously inserting spells straight into the subconscious to influence what people think, see, and do.

Like Sophie’s and Nan’s way with words, Diana’s descriptions sparkle with tangible details. The children in The Ogre Downstairs slowly notice that something is up with their everyday mess; it is coming to life in distinctive ways. They watch as a toffee bar “crawled steadily on until it came to a patch of sunlight in the middle of the table. There, it stopped and stretched and coiled itself this way and that with evident enjoyment.” Later, these heat-seekers are found draped over radiators, slowly oozing downward. When the children work out what’s happening, they bring their dolls to life, who are anything but grateful. “A number of them looked round irritably at the gap in the front of their house,” and, “One of the men dolls left his chair and came to the gap. He pointed […] and shouted something in a small grating voice that reminded Johnny of a tummy rumbling.”

The earthy physicality of the books means that her characters and readers are engaged in a process of discovering aspects of their worlds that feel both surprising and entirely probable. Humor also plays a role in grounding the worlds Jones creates. Nan’s way with words betrays her when she is nervously participating in a formal situation.

She suddenly knew she was going to behave very badly on high table. […] She could not stop herself.

“I think it’s custard,” she said loudly. “Do prawns mix with custard?” She put one of the pink things into her mouth. It felt rubbery. “Chewing gum?” she asked. “No, I think they’re jointed worms. Worms in custard.”

“Shut up!” hissed Nirupam.

“But it’s not custard,” Nan continued. She could hear her voice saying it, but there seemed no way to stop it. “The tongue-test proves that the yellow stuff has a strong taste of sour armpits, combined with — yes — just a touch of old drains. It comes from the bottom of a dustbin.”

Jones has written about her inclusion of humor, modeling her work on other writers such as George Meredith, seamlessly plaiting in the lighthearted with the story, telling us in Reflections: “I wouldn’t want to just tell a serious narrative, or just a hilariously silly one.” We see this through how characters experience each other. When Gair (Power of Three) and his siblings lose patience with his highly irritating cousin, his brother Ceri adds insult to injury. “‘It isn’t only that you’re stupid, Ondo,’ he explained pityingly. ‘You’re ugly. Your ears stick out.’” And Christopher’s ramblings in other worlds are peppered with humor:

The silly ladies came and sat on rocks out of the sea and giggled at him while he made sand castles.

“Oh clistoffer!” they would coo, in lisping voices. “Tell uth what make you a clistoffer.” And they would all burst into screams of high laughter.

They were the only ladies he had seen without clothes on. Their skins were greenish and so was their hair. He was fascinated by the way the ends of them were big silvery tails that could curl and flip almost like a fish, and send powerful sprays of water over him …

These often humorous details render the worlds she depicts both plausible and surprising. This quality is captured in The Crown of Dalemark when Maewen, a modern-day girl plucked out of her own time, hears familiar tales told by the bard Hestefan. Until then, “she had only read them in books. It was another thing again to hear Hestefan tell them, gravely and plainly, as if every strange occurrence were the exact truth. […] Maewen had known what was going to happen nearly every time, but it still surprised her.”

The weaving of real and imagined worlds also comes into play when she slyly brings in our world into resolutely magical ones. Even in Howl’s residence in Ingary, where magic is workaday, a John Donne poem acting as a curse is a signal from our world, and a nod to the power of literature. Power of Three also features our world, imperceptible at first. Set in a land where three communities uneasily coexist, each believing that they are “people” and the others are aberrations — Giants, Dorigs or Lymen. None of these seem to map onto our world, but about a third of the way through the book, details reveal that it is in fact present. This displacement and othering of our world also has magic at its center: what are “words” for one group is “magic” for another; while “magic boxes” turn out to be commonplace technologies for others.

As Polly finds out in Fire and Hemlock, “now here,” our reality, is just one spacing away from “nowhere,” a place she can create heroic tales and other realities. Jones wrote that she tried “to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate,” that is, she was attempting to close that space between now here and nowhere. “This is not Nowhere,” Polly thought to herself when she was sitting through a meeting between adults that she didn’t understand. “This is horribly Here Now. I wish we could go.” As an adult, she is confronted by tricky alternate memories, and has to work out what to do to fix things, though she has books to help. When she can’t quite make sense of her memories and knowledge, her Granny gives her the advice she needs. “[I]f a book set you off,” she says, “a book may help again when you’ve fetched it out of you. Try it. Goodbye. And don’t forget to write.”

Fire and Hemlock thus provides a different celebration of the magic of words: the power of reading — in fact, the entire novel is an edifice of intertextual references, from T. S. Eliot to Scottish ballads. Polly’s horrendous childhood is saved by Tom’s intermittent friendship and his steady supply of books, which give clues about Tom’s situation that he is powerless to communicate directly. A mistake banishes her to “here now,” and her ability to regain what she lost relies on understanding how to put things right. Tom’s gifts of books and reading help get her to Oxford in the “real” world, and serve as guides for the parallel reality he needs help in, to both Polly and the reader.

The integration between real and unreal was two-way: Diana documented how “what I write in my books and think I have made up has a creepy way of coming true,” the most startling of which was when she was writing A Tale of Time City. “At the very moment when I was writing about all the buildings in Time City falling down, the roof of my study fell in, leaving most of it open to the sky.” Her characters know the feeling. Estelle says to Nan in Witch Week: “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.” In The Pinhoe Egg, Marianne is amazed to come face-to-face with a princess from a story she has been writing. The phenomenon could be 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,” Jones wrote in an essay. For Polly and Tom in Fire and Hemlock, stories coming to life become nightmares.

While Jones found that her fictions came to life, Moril figures out that his cwidder works by making dreams come true, bringing the extraordinary into the everyday, and he notes that the Cwidder itself reads, “I move in more than one world.” But his Cwidder won’t work for all dreams; for them to work, they must have an essential truth or authenticity. Likewise, Tom in Fire and Hemlock, commenting on Polly’s overwritten and derivative hero epic, writes tersely: “Sentimental Drivel,” having been enchanted by her earlier creations. Polly is outraged and hurt — this epic was a heroic labor of its own — but slowly begins to understand that “there were ways of thought that were quite unreal, and the same ways went on being unreal even in hero business.” That is, authenticity and its opposite exist in the real world and in fictions. In Castle in the Air, daydreamer Abdullah is confronted with the difference between authentic and inauthentic dreams.

“It seems that Fate has decreed that I live through my entire daydream in reality,” […] Up till then he had thought he had imagined his escape from the villainous Kabul Aqba in masterly detail, but now he knew he had never even conceived of how horrible it was to stagger in blaring heat, with sweat running into his eyes.

Although her life and books celebrate books and reading, they are less impressed by grownups who make a living from writing. In Conrad’s Fate, Conrad’s mom neglects him for the sake of her books, saying in response to his questions, “Don’t bother me with things like that,” and instead demanding from him — a young boy — “What do you think of ‘disempowered broodmares’ as a description? Good, eh?” And in Archer’s Goon, Awful and Howard groan when their dad, Quentin Sykes, tells them that he has a new book coming on.

Quentin looked at them coldly.

“How else,” he said, “shall I earn your bread and peanut butter?”

“You look through me and fuss about noise when you’re writing a book,” Howard explained.

“And you go all grumpy and dreamy and forget to go shopping,” said Awful.

Diana herself was not immune to writerly absent-mindedness, confessing in Reflections that “I did one evening put my husband’s shoes in the oven to cook for supper” when she was writing Charmed Life. But unlike Howard and Awful’s reaction, her son Colin wrote about her work with affection. “When she wrote she was a picture of complete happiness,” he said, adding that “she regarded the people and the worlds she created with real love,” suggesting that she too was engulfed by the magic of her words.


Henrietta Wilson is a freelance researcher, teacher and writer, and a Visiting Fellow at King’s College London.

Lydia Wilson is a researcher at the Computer Lab, University of Cambridge, a contributing editor at New Lines magazine, and an editor at the Cambridge Literary Review. She presented the BBC series The Secret History of Writing.

LARB Contributors

Henrietta Wilson is a freelance researcher, teacher and writer, and a Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. 
Lydia Wilson is a researcher at the Computer Lab, University of Cambridge, a contributing editor at New Lines magazine, and an editor at the Cambridge Literary Review. She presented the BBC series The Secret History of Writing.


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