March Magics: The True State of Affairs

It’s the magical month of March — time to celebrate two favorite fantasy authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, thanks to Kristen of We Be Reading who hosts March Magics each year. It’s a free-form event this time — read and post whatever and whenever you like, but be sure to visit Kristen’s blog to see what she’s up to, and connect with other fans.

This year, the selected theme is “Nothing but the shorts,” focusing on the dozens of short stories penned between the two authors. Because of my current book acquisition ban, I’m limited to the books I have on hand — and I have no stories by Terry Pratchett, and only a few by Diana Wynne Jones. So I decided to reread my copy of Everard’s Ride, a book I cherish not so much because it’s a rather valuable signed limited edition, as because it’s proof that an underrated master was finally getting some well-deserved recognition with this special production (done for the 1995 Boskone conference at which she was guest of honor).

But I also cherish it because it has one story that for some reason was never republished anywhere else, in the many confusingly overlapping compilations and anthologies of DWJ stories. And within this story is a poem I love, one of the few poems I’ve seen by her — though surely she must have written some for her own pleasure, if nothing else. At almost 100 pages, “The True State of Affairs” is more of a novella than a story, perhaps a discarded early draft for a novel. It feels unfinished, at any rate, frustratingly fragmentary — no explanation is given for the protagonist apparently being transported from modern England to a place bearing some resemblance to the universe of the Dalemark series — and tantalizingly lacking in closure.

I love it, though, because it’s a story about the risky business of expressing and defining and discovering ourselves through language. It’s written by a prisoner on scraps begged from her jailer, a prisoner who doesn’t understand the circumstances of her imprisonment, but who has to try to comprehend her predicament, remember who she is, and keep herself from going mad. In other words, it’s about life. What is the true state of affairs, for any of us?

Truth is the fire that fetches thunder
Kindled of itself, and only mine
In the heart that had its fashioning.

Looking out from her confinement, she sees another captive, and weaves stories about him that may or may not be true. From this she enters into a clandestine correspondence that leads her into further danger, emotional as well as physical. Who can say what really lives inside another person? What is truth — in our perceptions, in our ideas?

In this strange, ambiguous tale, with its uncharacteristically bleak ending, Diana Wynne Jones captures something of the mystery of self and other, without reaching any easy or comfortable conclusions. As with all of her work, she reminds me that each one of us human beings is a story in the process of being told, and makes me want to listen.

What do you plan to read this month? What are your favorite stories by these authors?

March Magics guest post

Today, I’m pleased to be taking part in the Diana Wynne Jones March / March Magics event, hosted once more this year by We Be Reading. I offered to write a post on Three Diana Wynne Jones Books You Need to Read Right Now, a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and Kristen kindly agreed to make it part of the lineup. Here’s the introduction:

In an age of conflict, confusion, and uncertainty, it’s natural to reach for facts and verifiable truths to give a sense of firm ground. We might be forgiven for setting aside fantasy literature as a form of escapism, fine for comfort reading but basically irrelevant to the tasks that face us in the “real” world. An event like March Magics — which celebrates master fantasy authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett — might be seen as a fluffy distraction from the more important tasks on which we ought to be spending our time.

I feel that this would be a huge mistake. Our current crises stem from a failure of the imagination, which alone can bridge the gap between self and other and enable us to work out of love and empathy rather than narrow self-interest. Only through the imagination can we first conceive and then create a better future. And while undisciplined, wild fantasizing can lead us astray, it’s the truths of the imagination that can guide us through a world that seems to be splitting into a million alternative realities.

All fiction exercises our imagination, but in fantasy this aspect is brought to the fore, is made into the very substance of the story itself. Maybe that’s why fantasy has long gotten little respect in a society that primarily values materialistic success, and that in turn may be why we now seem so little versed in the ability to see through the delusions that are flying so freely.

Whatever the reason, it’s all the more reason to read and learn from the works of these two authors right now, and to share them with others in your life. I have the very great pleasure of reading out loud every night to my ten-year-old son, and I’m delighted that he’s decided that Diana Wynne Jones is one of his favorite authors. As we work our way through her books, I’m struck by how much they offer as a counterbalance to the negative forces at work today.

With these stories as part of his being, I have hope that my son’s imagination will grow strong and healthy to meet the enormous challenges in store for the next generations. And I myself appreciate them as nourishment for my own fight to preserve a world that he can grow up in.

Here are three books that strike me as particularly relevant at the moment. As you read your way through this month, I hope that you will share your own thoughts and insights with us.

Please visit Kristen’s blog to find out which three books I’m recommending you read right now, and keep visiting throughout the month for more celebration of two stellar fantasy authors.

#DWJMarch: Year of the Griffin


If you’re not already aware of the fact, We Be Reading is hosting the fourth annual DWJ March event, celebrating the fantastic fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones (who, sadly, died in March, 2011). Please stop by to check out the month’s readalongs, review posts, giveaways, and many other wonderful things.

After a grueling winter, I felt that I needed some humor in my life, so this month I decided to reread one of my favorite later books by DWJ, Year of the Griffin (Greenwillow, 2000). This is a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, which has many enthusiastic fans but which I personally find a bit grim. Happily, Year of the Griffin does not suffer from this problem, being a hilarious send-up of the “magical academy” trope, and very likely the only comic novel ever to be written about a female griffin who goes to college. I thought it would be especially fun to reaquaint myself with this unique protagonist in light of this year’s DWJ March theme, “The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ.”

Elda is the magically-produced griffin daughter of Wizard Derk, who formerly played the role of Dark Lord when his world was forced to host “pilgrim parties” sent from another, non-magical world for their fun and the tour company’s profit. Now, having rebelled and thrown out the intruders, Elda’s world is in disarray, and her mother has packed her off to the wizards’ university to get her out of the way. But the university is not in very good shape either, and having a giant magical griffin thrust upon it — along with several other new students who bring difficulties of various kinds — is quickly causing headaches for the faculty, who have better things to do with their time than actually teach.

It’s hard to make a griffin look anything other than menacing, and in the cover image of the US edition Elda appears rather fierce. (As to what on earth is happening there, I can’t explain — you will just have to read the book.) This is a bit misleading. Yes, she’s huge, strong, and dangerous, but she’s also a sweetheart. In the first chapter she develops a crush on one of her professors because he reminds her of her old teddy bear: “I want to pick him up and carry him about!” she cries. Jones somehow manages to make such absurd situations seem totally natural within the context of her created world, crowding in an astounding variety of elements familiar from fantasy literature, and affectionately poking fun at them. At the same time, she never loses sight of the emotional core of her story, which is about adolescents growing up and finding their way in life. That these two strands can co-exist and be intimately intertwined — as in the passage in which Elda becomes disillusioned of her crush — is highly characteristic of DWJ, and one of the delights of this particular book.

This is one of only two school stories by Jones, the other being Witch Week, and in many ways they are very different. The school cliques and unhappy misfits that populated the earlier book are absent in Year of the Griffin; Elda easily makes friends with a diverse group of fellow first-year students who support and encourage each other through their troubles in and out of school, in quite a heart-warming way. But the underlying theme is the same: the need for young people to discover and develop their own powers, for the betterment and healing of their world, in spite of the opposing forces of mediocrity and resistance to change. Even non-magical institutions of education would do well to heed this message.

In this book Jones reserves her sharpest satire for the faculty, particularly the University head who is obsessed with his research project of flying to the moon. His blindness to every other consideration, even as Elda and her friends keep trying to break through his ridiculously self-centered perspective with their talent and creativity, gives rise to many of the book’s funniest situations.

Rather than trying to describe these, I encourage you to pick up Year of the Griffin (preceding it with Dark Lord of Derkholm, if you want to get the backstory first). If you’re not smiling by the second page, I’ll eat my wizard’s hat.