Long Before Hogwarts, There Was The Wizard School Of Diana Wynne Jones

In 1977, the novelist Diana Wynne Jones finished a children’s fantasy novel and posted off the manuscript of the final draft to her publishers. There, an editor asked her to make further changes to the book – which she had no intention of doing. But rather than say so, Jones took her carbon copy of the draft and chopped some of the pages up into sections, pasting them back together – exactly the same words in the same order – to look as though the book had been heavily revised. She sent it back to her publishers; the book was now perfect, they declared. That was the thing: it had been all along. The book was Charmed Life, one of the wittiest, sharpest children’s fantasies ever written. There are some writers whose voices are so vividly their own that you can detect the distinctive ring of it 10 miles off in a headwind: Jones is one of them.

Jones, who died in 2011, was a true original. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Wilkins’ Tooth, her first children’s book: it would be a good year to begin reading her. You could start young, at six or seven, with Wild Robert, a book about a courteous ghost who is half magician on his mother’s side. As you get older, there is Howl’s Moving Castle, which was adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli; I know many women who cite the wizard Howl as their first love. The brilliant Archer’s Goon features seven wizard siblings and time travel. For teens, there is Fire and Hemlock; based on the Scottish ballads of Tam Lin, who was stolen away by the fairies, it has a structure modelled on TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. But the jewel in the collection, I think, is the Chrestomanci series, made up of six novels and a book of stories about a nine-lived enchanter who controls the magic of the many known worlds. They feature a magical castle, where children learn their powers: Harry Potter owes them a great debt.

What I loved most, as a child, was the salute those books offered to their reader’s intelligence. Jones’s work is galvanised by her respect for the children who read her books. They are warm, sardonic and, in places, unexpectedly elliptical. She refrains from explaining everything – the books appear to say: “Let them invent, let them work it out.” The precise way in which Howl is able to make a John Donne poem into a spell, for instance, is unclear; and in leaving spaces for her readers to fill, the books invite collaboration. A Diana Wynne Jones book becomes your own, because you participate in the building of it.

Just as the books are generous to children, so they are sceptical of notions of adult perfection. Adults, in Jones’s world, are capable of being brilliantly kind – but they’re never infallible. Jones was five years old when war broke out. Her mother, she wrote, told her that she “was ugly, semi-delinquent, but bright”. When she was eight, she knew, abruptly, what she was going to be. “I sat up from reading in the middle of one afternoon and knew that I was going to be a writer one day … In calm certainty, I went and told my parents. ‘You haven’t got it in you,’ my mother said. My father bellowed with laughter. He had a patriarch’s view of girls: they were not really meant to do anything.”

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It is no coincidence that Jones’s books are peppered with adults who are tyrannical, or vain and capricious, or simply mistaken. This, at the time, was a bold decision. She wrote to the scholar Deborah Kaplan in 1996: “When I started writing, there was an absolute rule in children’s books that ‘good’ adults were not to be questioned or criticised. I was out to abolish that rule.”

Jones didn’t have a simple road to publication. Her work was strange, and new. She wrote in her autobiographical notes, Something About the Author: “It dawned on me that I was going to have to write fantasy … because I was not able to believe in most people’s version of normal life … What I wrote was rejected by publishers and agents with shock and puzzlement.” But when she was eventually published, the books came fast: eight written between 1972 and 1975. She wrote: “I have taken eight years writing one book, and 13 days writing another.”

When I was 21, I was elected a fellow at All Souls College in Oxford. I was about to begin a doctoral thesis on John Donne and so I was assigned, as an academic mentor, the renowned scholar of the Renaissance, Colin Burrow. He asked me what I planned to do with my years in college. I said that I wanted to write for children, in a dream world. I wanted to write books that offered children vivid realms, and large ideas, and new jokes – something like Philip Pullman or Diana Wynne Jones. And he said: “Diana Wynne Jones is my mother.” I had never been so joyfully startled in my life.

I have just published the first book in a fantasy trilogy, called Impossible Creatures; a book set on an enchanted cluster of islands, hidden in the north Atlantic Ocean, where all the creatures of myth are still alive. Writing it gave me an awed respect for Jones, and for the painstaking work required to make fantasy take flight. I spent more than 100 hours in libraries reading about almost forgotten mythical creatures: about longmas – scaled winged horses from Chinese and Babylonian mythology – and Scottish lavellans, a kind of permanently irate poisonous shrew. I took notes on the karkadann (a purplish-black man-eating unicorn) and the kludde (a dog with ears of flame and unsavoury appetites). I came across eyewitness recollections of the borometz: a “vegetable lamb” first described in the 11th century, which grows from a green stalk. I read accounts that were certain that the unicorn existed, and found in Pliny’s Natural History, among his accurate descriptions of birds and fish, his record of the miniature tree-dwelling jaculus dragon. We have always yearned for the fantastical: and in a world in which narwhals and giraffes are real, to have believed in unicorns and longmas seems entirely reasonable. They are part of the continuum of wonder.

My fantasy novel has been a long time in the writing. But I never doubted that it would be worth the risk of trying; because, when fantasy works, it offers a form of delight allied to metaphorical clarity that is wholly its own. Diana Wynne Jones, and the magic she conjured, is proof of it.

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell is published by Bloomsbury. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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