#lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: In #Fantasy #Writing, Not All Rabbits Wear Waist Coats.

Cover_of_Fire_and_Hemlock“Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy?” My friend thumbs the book’s pages as a frown spreads across her face. “I mean, it’s good, kinda, but there isn’t much, you know, different, in it.”

Blasphemy! I think. But I know what she means. There’s no spectacle about Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. It’s a damn good fantasy, but it’s subtle with that fantasy. It’s not one of those sweeping epics with sky-burning battles of global proportions, powers that can wrinkle time and send us in one earth and out another, or characters filled with magic up to their eyeballs.

Now don’t get me wrong: these can be good fantasies. Heck, I’m in the midst of editing one for publication right now. However, a common trouble with such spectacular epics is that the character doesn’t often move the story along. We’re not reading for the characters so much as for the battle, the quest, the romance, etc. When the story zooms from the epic-ness to the characters and lets them dictate the story, we have a much more personal perspective, but we then we don’t sweep the epic.

47I’d like to focus on Fire and Hemlock‘s beginning to make this point. Let’s take a classic like Alice in Wonderland for comparison. Alice enters Wonderland because she follows a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down its rabbit-hole:

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoatpocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.


(Gosh, what a long sentence.)


The image of a talking, clothed animal–who tells time!–running through our world snags a reader’s and promises some zany adventures to come. With Fire and Hemlock, the story opens with….wait for it…a girl not really packing for college.

Magic! Adventure! Alakazam, Alakazoo!

But there is magic already at work, if you listen to the heroine Polly:

And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet–here was the odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it….Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there…Why should she suddenly have memories that did not seem to correspond with the facts? (4-5)

This begins Polly’s journey back into the memories that had somehow been hidden within her. The “Rabbit-Hole” moment comes in her first memory, when she and her friend Nina are running around in black dresses for a game, get separated, and Polly stumbles onto the peculiar estate of town, Hundson House:

51lj8FZS+QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When Polly came out into the open, it was not a road after all. It was gravel at the side of a house. There was a door open in the house, and through it Polly caught a glimpse of Nina walking up a polished passage, actually inside the house…cautiously, she tiptoed up the passage. (12)

Polly finds herself in the middle of a funeral and wishes to slink out, but 10-year-olds don’t always know how to do that sort of thing. Thankfully a young man named Tom helps by offering to take her for a walk out back.

The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were, just for an instant, floating, green and growing. (23)

Here readers get their first clue that this place is not as normal as her Gran’s. She may not be talking to blue caterpillars or playing croquet with flamingos, but Polly’s definitely stumbled into a group of people where “normal” no longer applies. By the novel’s end we discover that Laurel, the woman whom Polly mistook for Nina earlier, is none other than the Queen of the Fairies, and she wants Tom to sacrifice himself for the King of the Fairies.

It’s a slow build from funeral to Fairy Court, and almost entirely grounded in normal places like Polly’s hometown. But the beauty of such a subtle fantasy is that it makes you peer at the stubborn door at your own gran’s, or sneak down that one badly lit aisle of the supermarket, and wonder:

What else is going on back there?


43 thoughts on “#lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: In #Fantasy #Writing, Not All Rabbits Wear Waist Coats.

  1. Ah t’was Thursday and I thought, T’is Lady Jean day. Personally I prefer character driven to everything. Alice of course has this big adventure but she was the kind to follow that rabbit. Now people might have said No. xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, hugs to my Lovely Shey on this day. πŸ™‚ You make a great point–it’s in Alice’s nature to follow the rabbit. what if Alice’s sister had seen it? Would SHE go after the rabbit? Doubt it. Sometimes I think we readers need a character to drag us up and out of our boring lives because we ain’t gonna do it ourselves. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do like characters. For me it has to be the character. Lol if the sister had seen it there would have been no book and then you look at Alice’s reactions to everything and everyone she meets. She ain’t exactly fazed is she?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the things I really love about F&H is the virtual booklist Polly’s given by Tom, the one he feeds her with through much of the story. My memory of them is that they were mostly about being catapulted into an adventure, disappearing down some hole, yes, but other routes feature too, all of them Unexpected Journeys (the capitals are intentional!).

    They are, in a way, word maps to navigate the fantasy world she’s got sucked into. With the promise of all these titles Polly’s adventure doesn’t need to be on an epic scale.

    But DWJ can do epic, can’t she, witness Dalemark and Derkholm. It’s just that the fantasy in F&H is more internalised. And in a way that’s truer to how all we fantasy fans really experience it.

    From all this guff you’ll gather I found your piece extremely stimulating!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh gosh, I LOVE Derkholm. And it’s so bloody brilliant the way she takes every trope and turns them on their heads, yet STILL makes them work! There’s a great moment in F&H when Polly tries to write like the Tolkien-esque stories she’s read, and then Tom poo-poos it all for not being original. The maps from other stories can inspire our adventures, but they shouldn’t limit them–I think DWJ would agree to that! πŸ™‚ Thanks so much for reading. You’ve always got the DWJ connections I crave!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Haha you’re right that Alice didn’t think too much before following that rabbit – which is all the more reason for her to be going to college for more education later πŸ˜‰ I love reading fantasy, escaping the day… πŸ™‚

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  4. I always thought Alice had very poor impulse control – bad enough to set off after a clothed rabbit, but knocking back the contents of a bottle that says DRINK ME – tsk, tsk. Silly girl! As for Fire and Hemlock – I’ve never read it. And now, after reading your wonderful article, I’m DESPERATE to do so! Have you ever read Among Others by Jo Walton? It’s a fabulous book that also has that layer of ordinary alongside the other… Another wonderful article, Jean!x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading! You sound like my friend, and I didn’t blame her, either. Every author misses the mark with readers at some point, and for me, I just can’t get behind PINHOE EGG. I love the Chrestomanci books, and was so excited to see a return of several characters, but the plot just…eh.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. I think you have nailed it. This is a novel in which the fantasy world is the platonic world, so that Polly like most humans lives in the shadow world and underneath it is this realler place which affects her experiences until she learns to affect back.

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  10. Such an fascinating review! I have had Fire and Hemlock on my Nook for some time solely because I adore Tamlin stories. I will now bump it up on my TBR list and enjoy my first taste of this author.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She’s amazing, not to mention hilarious. If Fire and Hemlock doesn’t strike your fancy, then I still strongly recommend Howl’s Moving Castle to give DWJ a second chance. She knows how to make a reader laugh. πŸ™‚


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