Diana Wynne Jones Penelope Farmer - Essay

Penelope Farmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

She is a clever and witty writer, Diana Wynne Jones—too clever in some of her books; you admire the means, ultimately not so much the ends. Not so, however, with her latest book Drowned Ammet, set like the earlier Cart and Cwidder in the mythical country of Dalemark…. Escaping plot and counterplot, the three [protagonists] sail away to the Holy Islands, assisted during storms by the two gods whose worship is centred there, and who, in the undignified guise of poor Old Ammet and Libby Beer, are carried through Holland in effigy during the annual sea festival and thrown into the harbour.

The origins of this are anthropological rather than mythological perhaps, some familiar enough but all properly rooted in a living and integrated plot. The evoking of magical powers is strong, idiosyncratic and interesting. With water the prevailing image, I am reminded of Dannie Abse's dictum on poetry, that like a stream it should be clear right down to the depths, yet leave you in the end not quite able to touch bottom. For this is clear water all right; you can see what the author is doing, follow the progression and recognize the sources of her ideas. None the less you do find yourself floating sometimes; there is enough that is whispered and hinted at, that you can almost hear and see and yet not quite. Perhaps the mythical setting helps give to it its integrity—even if there is less scope for fireworks, it does mean that the author does not have to strain to connect sceptical age and impossible event. Nor is any humour sacrificed in the process. There is no whimsy in her invented land; this book is as sharp about people as her others, sharper in some respects.

Diana Wynne Jones has always been an exceptionally inventive writer, but the invention here seems particularly unforced. I especially like villainous, yet not quite villainous Al and his somewhat ambiguous demise; and also Mitt's longed-for country which he recognizes by smell as much as sight or sound—though the description of this is nearer poetry than invention.

Penelope Farmer, "Dalemark Festivities," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3966, April 7, 1978, p. 377.