A Witchy and Wonderful Woman
What makes Diana Wynne Jones so magical? What keeps me coming back to her books for multiple rereads? Yes, her crazy complicated plots. Yes, her vivid characters. Yes, her fantastic imagination. But how about her wicked, wicked sense of humour?
DWJ has a sense of the absurdity of life that colors everything she writes and says. At the back of the 2007 Harper Collins paperback of Charmed Life is a fascinating little interview with the author—it’s worth finding. She describes writing the first chapter of Charmed Life “on paper covered with muddy paw prints and with a pen that bent and spread and splattered” in a “newly built house that had everything possible wrong with it”: “My writing of the book kept being interrupted by such things as water pouring in around the light fitments, the loos flushing boiling water and huge cracks appearing in the beams that supported the second floor.” You or I might find such circumstances frustrating or disheartening: DWJ turns them into a story.
The people who knew her say she was a lovely, warm, funny woman. Neil Gaiman called her “the funniest, wisest, fiercest, sharpest person I've known, a witchy and wonderful woman” (in this blog post, which you should read.) The humour in her books bears out this description: she can be silly—think of Chrestomanci’s dressing gowns, or Sophie and her hats—she uses slapstick—like the Willing Warlock and the invisible dog in Mixed Magics—her magic can be so weird and unexpected and just plain fun—The Ogre Downstairs is full of great examples—but she can also be scathingly satirical. Notice that her villains are terrified of being made ridiculous, while her heroes learn to be perfectly comfortable with oddity and goofiness.
The Dark Lord of Derkholm. It is a spoof of well-trodden fantasy tropes and a satirical skewering of tourists in search of “authentic” experiences. It’s also a fun adventure, a suspenseful mystery, a coming-of-age story and a family drama. Mild-mannered wizard Derk, who loves nothing better than to tinker with genetics—half of his children are griffins—is chosen to be this year’s Dark Lord for Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties, who have paid to get the complete fantasy experience on their Grand Tour of Derkholm. Derk’s son Blade is chosen to be Wizard Guide, even though Blade is too young and inexperienced. Things get wildly out of hand; everything goes seriously wrong; love, loyalty and logistics are tested to the breaking point. There are so many levels to the humour I find myself grinning foolishly and barking out into laughter at inopportune times whenever I read it. I wish I could quote from it, but I’ve lent my copy out and my library doesn’t have one, so you’re just going to have to read it for yourself!
I also love the sequel, The Year of the Griffin, which skewers higher education and has some really hilarious assassination attempts.
I think a person with a sense of humour is a person with perspective and humility, someone who can be kind and tolerant with human foibles but doesn’t put up with hypocrisy or pomposity. I think every one of DWJ’s books exemplifies this outlook on life. If we get to meet our heroes when we die, I hope I meet Diana Wynne Jones.
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Kim Aippersbach is a writer, an editor, a mother of three. She is hopelessly addicted to reading. She thinks Vancouver is the best place in the world to live, except when it rains. Her blog is called Dead Houseplants, www.kaippersbach.blogspot.com, but no plants were harmed in the writing of it.