#Lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: #Reimagine #Mythology to #Write #Timeless #Stories

To celebrate March Magics–and because I’ve final projects to grade and two novels to crack down upon–I’m sharing a previously unposted essay I wrote a couple years back when I was compiling all my Diana Wynne Jones posts into the collection Lessons Learned. Enjoy!

In “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,” Diana Wynne Jones discusses the place of the mythic hero in contemporary story-telling, especially her own. This particular essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing struck me on epiphanical proportions. (Yes, new word. Doesn’t the fantasy genre allow for some language leniency?) In all the writing classes I had taken over the years, no one had ever broken down the echoes and inspirations between the modern and ultra-classic like that before. Jones details connections between her work and Chaucer, Spenser, and Homer, to name a few. Sure, that may sound like she’s tooting her own horn, but I don’t think so. Fire and Hemlock, one of her most critically revered novels, is so subtle with the fantastic you can literally blink and miss it. For instance, the first chapter is all about the protagonist Polly trying to remember something. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Yet as we go further into the story, we learn Polly is fighting through the memories be-spelled upon her by the villain. The first chapter shares Polly’s initial success in remembering the true past.

Tempting as it is to go in depth on Fire and Hemlock yet again, “The Heroic Ideal” contains Jones’ discussion of mythology’s inspiration F&H with far more depth and humor. Besides, she wrote two other novels that serve as marvelous examples. The first, Eight Days of Luke, is a touch more obvious than Fire and Hemlock if one knows a bit about Norse mythology. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at least not until the movie Thor came out and my father was as giddy as an eight-year-old. (It is a decent movie, for the record–and directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people!)

Granted, Marvel’s interpretation of Norse mythology is, um, loose, but you get some basics in there: the home of the gods, Thor and his dad being at odds, Loki the mischief maker, etc. Diana Wynne Jones has her own fun with these myths, and from her fun Eight Days of Luke is born.

David is stuck at home on school holiday with his horrible relations. After being reminded how he’s a wretched, ungrateful little orphan they don’t deserve to put up with, David skulks out into the garden and starts pacing back and forth, muttering what he feels are some really good curses—only, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. The garden wall cracks and out come some nasty snakes and a boy just David’s size. His name is Luke.

By this point I’m sure you know who the title character Luke is—that’s right, Loki. David has somehow freed Luke from his prison (only Diana Wynne Jones would put a Norse god’s prison beneath a marrow garden in Ashbury) and Luke’s relations are coming down to get him: Mr. Chew (war god Tiu), the Frys (fertility gods Freyja and Freyr), and Mr. Wedding (Odin, chief of the gods). Thor comes along eventually when we learn why Luke’s in so much trouble, and what David can do to help him. (Thor’s rather the giveaway, so no fancy modern alias for him.)

One of the cool things about a quest story is that they are indeed timeless. David must outwit gods and mortals alike for the sake of his friend, just like any great hero of the distant past. Sure, folks like Perseus and Beowulf may not have had pinball or cricket, but they always had someone or something worth fighting for.

Jones’ The Game puts a girl at odds with horrible relations, too, only this novella is a bit more…hmm…nonlinear, would be the best way to say it. Hayley is sent to live with a bunch of aunts and cousins she’s never met before, and she quickly learns why her grandmother never liked them. She also learns just how much her grandfather bears on his shoulders—literally. Among many worldly matters, Haley’s grandfather takes great care of the mythosphere, a place where Hayley’s cousins secretly play The Game. Once Hayley begins playing The Game with them, reality and the mythosphere are both irrevocably changed. She discovers her grandfather’s true identity: Atlas the titan. The uncle who controls them all is none other than Jupiter. And she must…well. Needless to say, I learned some more mythology thanks to this book.

Bringing past gods into the present isn’t a unique idea; Rick Riordan’s made a mint off of his various “modern kids vs. ancient gods” series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians being the first and, I believe, the most popular. (It’s the one I read, anyway.) And I give Riordan and Jones both credit for inspiring curiosity in young readers for the olden tales of heroes and gods, of the odysseys through time and beyond.

I know we all like to make that Ecclesiastic complaint that there is nothing new under the sun. Well, it’s one thing to copy, or plagiarize, but it’s another to truly reimagine. Jones proves time and again that one can look to the classics for inspiration. Even the most worn of roads will take you somewhere, if you let it.

Thanks so much for reading! If you have other grand (or not-so-grand) examples of reimaginings you’d like to discuss, please share them in the comments below.

I’m really excited to share some amazing author interviews as well as more free fiction with you come April–be sure to subscribe to my newsletter for the fiction’s password!

If you’re as big a fantasy lover as I am, I hope you’ll also check out my novel and FREE short stories, all available on Amazon. Click here for more!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#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.

1book1

(Gosh, what a long sentence.)

(Anyway.)

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?