Diana Wynne Jones Neil Philip - Essay

Neil Philip

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As the fantasy genre fastens its grip on children's writing its landscapes seem to be growing more shadowy and indistinct. The detailed, concrete worlds of Tolkien and le Guin, in which topography, social, economic, religious and political structure, language, flora and fauna slowly and painstakingly given the solidity of the pavement outside the reader's front door, have given way to a sort of generalized other country with pseudo-medieval village or tribal communities, stark ranges of mountains, enclosed valleys, decadent cities, sinister priesthoods and wars and rumours of wars.

Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark, for instance, seems insubstantial, at the service of her stories rather than served by them. I found The Spellcoats, in which five supernaturally gifted children foil the attempt of the evil mage Kankredin to destroy the river, "the soul of the land", and thus come to power, somewhat flimsy. The central symbol of the river is a strong one, and is skilfully kept at the forefront of the book; but the characters are bland and uninteresting, their human qualities dwarfed by their magical ones.

Diana Wynne Jones's best work, Charmed Life, Dogsbody and Eight Days of Luke, has had a quirky humour which the short, flat sentences of The Spellcoats cannot convey, and a subtlety which here turns to cleverness. The magic confuses rather than clarifies.

Neil Philip, "Stark Mountains, Haunted Valleys," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3312, November 30, 1979, p. 25.∗