Witch Week Day Four: The Spellcoats (Guest Post)

Posted November 3, 2014 by Lory in events, reviews / 11 Comments

UK Paperback, Mammoth

Diana Wynne Jones did not often write “series” books, and nor did she write many in a first person voice. But she did both with The Spellcoats (1979), third of the linked sequence of four books set in the vaguely Netherlandish land of Dalemark.  As is typical of DWJ, this series doesn’t always proceed in the way you might expect, and the first-person narrative originates in a most unusual way. Tanaqui is not just telling but weaving her story, literally making a garment of words. In so doing she both reveals and transforms the meaning of her own journey, bringing home to us once more the creative power of language.

So it’s appropriate that as a storyteller herself, Cheryl Mahoney is our guest blogger today. As well as being a book blogger at Tales of the Marvelous, Cheryl is the author of two books based on fairy tales. The Wanderers, published in 2013, follows the journeys of a wandering adventurer, a talking cat and a witch’s daughter.  Her new novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, retells “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,” with twelve trapped princesses who decided to take control of their
story. Welcome, Cheryl!

When Lory emailed me about her Witch Week celebration of Diana Wynne Jones, I was happy to participate — especially since one of the books under discussion was The Spellcoats. Lory and I both agree it’s our favorite book in Jones’s Dalemark Quartet!

It’s possible that The Spellcoats is the first Jones book I ever read. Funnily enough, the other contender for the title is Witch Week. I read both of them when I was a kid, without realizing that either was part of a bigger series, and probably without connecting them to each other as coming from the same author.  This happens when you do a lot of reading by browsing library shelves. . .

It’s also easy to not realize that The Spellcoats is part of a quartet.  Of the four books, it’s by far the most independent.  It’s set centuries (maybe millennia) prior to the first two books in the series, and connects only in an epilogue (until the fourth book ties things together more).

The Spellcoats places us in a pre-industrial society, beginning in a small fishing village along the Great River. Our narrator is Tanaqui, a young woman who is a highly skilled weaver. When invaders from across the sea plunge the country into war, Tanaqui and her siblings flee down the river, in danger from their own people because of their resemblance to the invaders. At the mouth of the river they meet the true enemy, a powerful magician intent on stealing souls. Tanaqui must learn about her family’s past and her own magic to save her family and country. And all the while, she weaves her story into two spellcoats.

Like many of Jones’s books, this is a coming of age story, of a young person figuring out her role in much larger events. She can be slow to grasp things and makes mistakes, but she’s courageous and loyal too. I like Tanaqui, her prickliness and her fierce desire to do something meaningful, her occasional blindness and resulting self-reproach, and her love of the Great River. And maybe I just like her because, in her weaving, she’s a storyteller!

Arachne weaving (source: Artes magazine)

Jones had a gift for oh-so-human characters, with faults and foibles, who are still likeable and sympathetic. Here we get a family that exemplifies that ability, quarreling all along the river, often impatient with each other, but tied together with loyalty and love too. In a way that’s more meaningful than a picture-perfect family. Anyone can love perfect people, but loving someone even while you’re irritated with them means more — and is more realistic too! Tanaqui fights with her brothers and wants to shake her sister, but they all still love each other and support one another.

The Spellcoats has my favorite villain of the Dalemark Quartet too, an evil magician who is decidedly creepy. He’s a villain who’s not quite human — but is close enough to make it even more disturbing.  He’s a stealer of souls, which always creates a deep-down-shiver type of villain. I also love that he’s a weaver too, with that parallel to Tanaqui’s abilities.

I’ve read The Spellcoats several times now, both as part of the quartet and on its own. And you know the nice thing about a book that’s almost completely separate from the rest of its quartet? You can read it first if it sounds intriguing!

Thank you, Cheryl, for helping us enter into Tanaqui’s world. Tomorrow, our final guest post will look at Deep Secret, which partly takes place in DWJ’s longtime home city, Bristol. Link up your own reviews at the Witch Week Master Post

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11 responses to “Witch Week Day Four: The Spellcoats (Guest Post)

  1. It took me ages to start liking The Spellcoats — it's maybe not the most accessible of Jones's books, particularly if you're reading it as the third in a series. It IS, but it's also not as joined up as the other three books are to each other. But once I finally got into it, I LOVED it.

    • I love the different voice and tone in the book, the prehistoric quality. And I want to make a spellcoat!

  2. Spellcoats is certainly the first Dalemark book I found, and I liked it a lot from the first (fabric! I'm a sucker for fabric or anything related thereto!). For years, the only other Dalemark book I knew was Cart and Cwidder, which was one of my least favorite DWJ books ever–I have come to appreciate it more now. It was a very long time before I found Drowned Ammett, and I think I got the last one when it came out in the US. I'm a big Mitt fan. 🙂 I still like Spellcoats and Crown of Dalemark best.

    I love Tanaqui and her stubborn, loving, bad-tempered character. How she tells the story in the rugcoats and comes to understand it herself through the weaving/telling. The whole weaving and storytelling theme is very important to me. I so wish I could really see a real rugcoat!

    Every once in a while I see somebody on a message board calling herself (I presume) Tanaqui and I promptly want to be her best friend.

  3. What a great idea for an alias! Yes, anybody who uses it must be a kindred spirit. Mitt is a terrific character too.

    • I read them in the published order, so I'm not sure what that will be like. I think it could be interesting though.

  4. Mer

    It took a rereading for me to appreciate The Spellcoats, as it's a bit of a departure from the previous books. It does sound like an interesting way to be introduced to the series.

    • I'm usually a proponent of reading in the published order (with the Narnia series, for example). But in this case I think it could work either way.