Diana Wynne Jones: Children's Literature and the Fantastic Tradition

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Diana Wynne Jones: Children's Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. By Farah Mendlesohn. New York: Routledge, 2005. 240 pp.

Farah Mendlesohn's book is the first thorough study of Diana Wynne Jones's criticism and fantasy fiction for young readers. Mendlesohn's readings are aimed at presenting "not so much what Jones writes about . . . but how she writes about it" (xiii). Such a focus does enable Mendlesohn to avoid the entanglement in the thematic multiplicity of possible interpretations of Jones's works and to reveal instead a far more fascinating dimension of her output as a consistent critical response to fantasy which makes this "writer of fiction for children ... so important to critics of the fantastic" (xiv).

In the introductory part of her study Mendlesohn contextualizes Jones among other English and American fantasy authors, both classical and contemporary. She also characterizes main metafictional strands that are recurrent in Jones's work, such as the author's concept of heroism and the female hero, her approach to myth, or her awareness of constant effacement of the border between fantasy and science fiction. Already at this point Mendlesohn's argument convincingly shows that for Jones "fantasy is less the subject matter than the tool" (xxix). Well reasoned, in my view, is also Mendlesohn's discussion of her own concept of fantasy and its generic variations. Equally persuasive in their clarity are the interpretative criteria proposed by Mendlesohn: the manner in which a text emerges as fantastic, the implications this process has for the reader's role in this text, and how this quality affects the political significance of the very act of telling the story.

Mendlesohn begins her discussion of specific texts rather unexpectedly, but nevertheless justifiably, with Wilkins' Tooth, Jones's first, and generally regarded as unsuccessful, book for young readers. Still, as Mendlesohn proves, it is worth considering as "a precursor text" (2) foreshadowing "the emergence of a profoundly self-conscious and critical author" (17). Indeed, Mendlesohn draws attention to such writerly strategies and tropes that later became landmarks of Jones's "alternative cartography of fantasy" (7) as the revisioned concept of heroism or the tension between the mimetic and the fabulous and its influence on the characters' inner development. The focus of chapter 2 is Jones's evolving vision of maturation and adulthood. The author very effectively begins by positioning Jones among other fantasy writers for children, and cogently argues that whereas, for example, in the Harry Potter series the predetermined adventures of the characters deny them any awareness of their progression toward adulthood, for Jones it comes through agency-that is, "the ability to make conscious choices" (21). Of particular interest is Mendlesohn's in-depth analysis of how Jones's protagonists mature by acquiring "the ability to both comprehend and challenge apparently rigid [societal and cultural] structures" (51), an undeniable merit in times of increasing ethical relativism. As Mendlesohn signals, Jones consistently expresses her vision of maturation by transforming specific stereotypical conventions of fantasy, such as the reduction of the role of magic, typically a marker of power, to a mere tool, or the questioning of "inevitability and progress inherited in fantasy from the Campbellian monomyth" (40). Comprehensive as Mendlesohn's readings are in this chapter, the reader may occasionally become confused by the chaos of the argument caused by sudden transitions from one text to another and by the fragmentary plot summaries. Perhaps these problems can function as an encouragement for the reader to resort to the books themselves. Disturbing also is Mendlesohn's rather enigmatic term "the Rabelaisian properties of the fantastic" (23), whose meaning is never fully explained.

"Time Games" is the first of Mendlesohn's chapters on Jones's "arguments with the ossified nature of much fantasy fiction" (51). …


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