On Saturday, March 26, author Diana Wynne Jones passed away after a two-year battle with lung cancer. Though she was never as well known as writers like J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman, the woman was a gargantuan in the world of Young Adult Fantasy, publishing over 40 novels in the course of a career that spanned nearly half a century. There’s still another forthcoming, the standalone “Earwig and the Witch,” which she managed to finish in the weeks before her death. Born in 1934, Jones went on to Oxford in 1950s, where she studied English, attending lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. She is probably best known for her 1986 novel “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was adapted in 2004 for a Hayao Miyazaki film. When news of her death began to circulate on the internet Saturday afternoon, among her mourners was high-profiler Neil Gaiman, as well as countless readers and professionals in the publishing industry. These are the facts. But to any fan, the beauty of her words and worlds is far more important than these statistics.
The first time I encountered a book by Jones was in the summer after my fourth grade year. My older brother had taken me to Barnes & Noble and promised to buy me any one book in the entire store. Fresh off of finishing “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (little did I know I would have to wait over two more years for the next installment), I had my nose buried in the young readers’ section, pulling tomes at random, usually ones featuring wizards. I hit on a thick orange volume with an image of a red-eyed armored man emblazoned on the spine and the title “Dark Lord of Derkholm.” I didn’t read the plot summary, but my eye did light upon the U.S. News & World Report blurb, “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” I was mad about Harry (not to mention enamored of British slang) so I hastily made my selection.
I have to say, after reading the book I am pretty sure that the Harry tagline was chosen by HarperCollins simply to move merchandise, because in reality, the two are nothing alike. Not only is Jones’ prose more sophisticated, her wit more refined, and her names more pronounceable (Derk, Kit, Blade), but her storylines, as far as creativity, blow Rowling’s out of the water, and this is from one of those people who owns their own wand. Believe me, I am as huge a Harry Potter nerd as they come, but there is simply no denying that from a literary standpoint, Jones’ novels are in another league. In “Dark Lord of Derkholm,” our world exists alongside an alternative “magic universe,” which serves as a tourist destination for bored sightseers. To ensure that these tour groups keep paying the big bucks to take a tour of a world rife with fantasy tropes (despite the fact that the world of “Derkholm” is essentially the same as ours, minus a magic spell or two) a Dark Lord is appointed from among the magical residents to serve for a term of one year with the sole purpose of adding excitement for the tourists, terrorizing but never actually harming the adventure-seeking noobs. In a nutshell, think the “Jaws” ride from Universal Studios except with wizards and an entire magical land. But ho! The yearly tours wreak havoc upon the economy and natural resources of the magical world, bankrupting good, decent magicians like Derk and raking in the big bucks for Mr. Chesney, a heartless capitalist. On a side note, wizard Derk has griffins for children. Yep, he does magical genetic experiments. Take that, Christian fundamentalists.
Anyway, in the end, the team of heroes manages to thwart Mr. Chesney and stop these tours for good. Surely with your liberal-arts-honed mind you’ve picked up on the fact that there are more messages in Jones’ writing than any 10-year-old can begin to comprehend, but the truly remarkable thing about it is that I simply didn’t care. I thought it was a rollicking good read, and it’s only now, writing this article, that I am truly coming to appreciate just how smart Ms. Jones really was. Perhaps even more impressive is that every single one of her other books measures up. Alternate universes, dream traversing, evil stepsisters, magic universities, robots with feelings, time travel, paintings that tell the future, despicable villains and morally ambiguous protagonists with impressive top hats—she’s got it all in spades. Hearts, clubs, and diamonds, too, if we’re going to carry through with that analogy. I can truly say that I have never encountered an author with more imaginative clout (and I didn’t even have any real friends until I was in high school). I don’t really have much else to say. I can only echo the words of all those who mourn her—thanks for the books.