A brief look at history and memory in the works of Diana Wynne Jones

History and memory are inextricably connected with perspective and interpretation.

All of Diana Wynne Jones’s books are concerned with perspective and interpretation, and as quite a few directly involve history and memory as well, let me without further ado introduce the following excellent books:

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

Hexwood is one of my favourites, and it is all about memory and gaining perspective through (and gaining perspective on) memory. A certain character called the Bannus, sort of a very advanced AI with a purpose, runs the other characters through scenarios (sort of like in Vivian Vande Velde’s Heir Apparent) so that they can 1. grow up, and/or 2. face their memories/personal histories, and/or 3. be brought around to the right perspective/position to win, aka/and/or 4. (endgame) achieve the goal the Bannus has in mind. Also, the Woods wants permanency, to be part of but also outside history/time. Still haven’t convinced you? How about this: Sci-fi + Arthurian legends + normal life + robots + heroes + rebellion against the evil rulers of the galaxy + time travel? + Scandianvian legends + dragons + (missing) hobbits.

Hexwood 2

Hexwood is so good that I had to include this other and also very gorgeous cover.

Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones - 2

Conrad’s Fate is a Chrestomanci book. Christopher Chant, later known by his title of Chrestomanci, is a teenager here. The main focus is, however, on Conrad, who is doomed to die before the year is out, according to his uncle and all his uncle’s friends. So he is sent to a castle with a mission. The castle, by the way, is the source of shifts, when the world sort of lurches sideways and something changes. The change may be as small as the colours of the mailboxes, but even when it isn’t, most people don’t notice. Those who do tend to forget that things weren’t always the way they are. This discontinuity in reality tears at the fabric of the world.

Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones - 1

(Yes. Another cover. Because it is so hard to choose, sometimes.)

The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones

The Magicians of Caprona is another Chrestomanci book, only he is grown up this time. He barely comes in at all, actually. The main problem, aside from young people having trouble with their magic, is that the song that will save the city has been lost, or maybe forgotten. Memory comes in another way: in the constant feuds between the two main families of Caprona. (If you’re wondering if this book is in reference to Romeo and Juliet, the answer is yes. If you’re wondering if it ends as tragically, the answer is no.)

Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Witch Week is another Chrestomanci book where he barely appears and the central characters are other people entirely. In the world of Witch Week, magic is real and witches are outlawed. A fascinating exploration of how one event going differently completely changes the social landscape of the world. It is also, possibly, an argument that (absolutely necessary) change can only come with the voluntary abdication of power. But don’t quote me on that, I only just thought of it and don’t know if it holds up or not.

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones

The Pinhoe Egg is the last of the Chrestomanci books. In it, several witch families hold tenaciously to beliefs based on misunderstood memory and false history.

Fire and Hemlock (Russian cover - literally The Knight on the Golden Horse)

This is Fire and Hemlock‘s Russian cover. Isn’t it lovely? Pages of paper have been written on looking at the intricacy of this story, so I shan’t add to them except to say that this is another book that is all about memory and history. Read it. It is very strange and also wonderful.

Year of the Griffin

Year of the Griffin is a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm and with it forms a world which takes The Tough Guide to Fantasyland literally. It works perfectly well as a standalone novel as well. Jones skewers the higher education system while examining the long-term consequences of a world exploited for Tourists on fantasy quests. Among other problems, she points out, the young wizards who have no memory of life before the Tours have no idea of how much they never learned, let alone that there is more to magic than the basic workings that will get you and your Tourists through the narrative alive. (I love this book.)

Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

Archer’s Goon is both the history of a town and the history of siblings, some of whom become aware that they have lived through the same past decade and a bit more than once. All about time and memory and history and power. And also family dynamics. (The protagonist’s younger sister is named Anthea, but nobody calls her that. She goes by Awful. Which about describes her, at times. So much fun to read!)

dogsbody by diana wynne jones

Memory (and missing memory) plays a role in Dogsbody, but I can’t say more than that. This is the only DWJ book I haven’t read more than once. It is a really good book! and it makes me sad. (But I think Yash likes this, so maybe go by her opinion instead of mine.)

A Tale of Time City – no surprise! Time and history are just about everything here. There are history ghosts. There is time travel. The two covers give rather different impressions of the book, don’t they? I like the sense of urgency and immediacy in the first. There is a war going on! The second gives a good sense of the demi-reality of Time City and how removed from actual history its citizens feel.

The time of the ghost by diana wynne jones

The Time of the Ghost has a protagonist who can’t remember which of three sisters she is. Lost memories and (possibly changing) history. One of DWJ’s eerier books.

There are far too many interesting covers for all the books of the Dalemark Quartet for me to ever choose between, so no pictures, I’m afraid. The Dalemark Quartet consists of Cart and Cwidder, The SpellcoatsDrowned Ammet, and The Crown of Dalemark. Together they are pieces of (the most significant portions of) the history of the land and of the Undying. The Spellcoats is narrated/created by Tanaqui, who weaves the story of herself and her siblings into two coats, the decipherment of which creates the written narrative you read. In the first coat, Tanaqui relates affairs, almost as an observer. By the second, she has begun to realize that her act of recording history is in itself a form of agency. She begins to interpret as well as to relate what happens. The Crown of Dalemark involves time travel (history!) and the suggestion of the ways in which the Undying deliberately obscure details about themselves (history and memory), and why.

There is also the proto-Dalemark short story (almost a novella, I think) “The True State of Affairs,” which is a fictional exploration of a real historical circumstance, and takes the side mostly forgotten by history.

Wilkins' tooth by diana wynne jones

Wilkins’ Tooth (also published as Witch’s Business) has missing memories, not to mention a rather unusual business called “Own Back.”

Wild Robert by Diana Wynne Jones

Wild Robert deserves a mention because of Wild Robert’s own history, the official family line, and the setting of a National Trust house, as well as country/local folk’s long memories. Also the story is hilarious and I persist in seeing Wild Robert as a sort of cousin or precursor to Howl. I wish there were more stories of Heather and Wild Robert; just imagine the adventures they’d get up to!



Finally, two short stories: “The Master,” and “The Sage of Theare,” neither of which can be discussed without spoiling.