I was not told about this.

So apparently if you read the blurb of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase you will be informed that the book takes place in “a time in history that never happened”, and that said alternate time involves England being overrun with wolves. WHAT. This is explained? Because it’s not explained in the book itself! Lacking this blurb you are left to make your own conclusions about whether there are or are not areas of England that are overrun with savage, daring, vicious packs of wolves that come out as soon as it’s dark and jump through train windows.

I’ve written several drafts of (but never actually posted, because I was a bit embarrassed) a post about untrue life lessons you learned from childhood books and have never quite managed to evict from your brain in adulthood. You know the sort of thing? Where you read it in a book when you are small, and because this book is the only context you have for such a lesson, you accept it as true; but it’s not something that comes up again in your regular life, so you don’t ever return to question it. And then one day, years later, something reminds you of this lesson you learned from a book, and you think, Well wait. Upon reflection that is probably not a real thing, but it’s much too late for this sort of critical thinking, because whatever it is has put down deep roots in your consciousness.

For instance (I’m procrastinating telling you the real things I still sort of believe), if C.S. Lewis had lied to me about any of the life lessons in the Narnia books, such as that you should kick off your shoes if you happen to fall into deep water, I would still believe them as an adult. I have recommended Lucy Pevensie for the post of dictator of the world; no way was I ever going to cast a critical eye upon her ideas about adventure survival. Fortunately C.S. Lewis generally only told me true stuff.

For a proper example from my real life, cwidders. Are they a real instrument? My brain and the internet tell me no, but my heart tells me yes. I always rationalize away the fact that the internet doesn’t know about them by speculating that cwidder is a variant of the more common name the instrument goes by, and I have just not been able to find it out yet; and by reminding myself that until pretty recently the internet did not know about Madame Grand-Doigts. Even today the internet only slightly knows about her, and Wikipedia not at all, so possibly the same is true of cwidders.

Or as another example, mandrakes. I read this book Lost Magic when I was a little girl — if you haven’t read it you DAMN SHOULD because it is so intense and scary and, well, I’ll reread it soon if I can find a copy and review it here so you will know — but anyway, a major plot point of the book is that mandrakes are seriously, seriously powerful. When the heroine employs a mandrake in the course of her magical duties, there’s some pretty horrific fallout, of the sort that was so lastingly creepy and chilling that I to this day am really, really frightened of mandrakes (I ran away from an entire room of Sleep No More because it contained a mandrake). I just do not like them and they are evil and scary.

And, coming to the point, I have never, despite extensive efforts in this direction, been able to stop myself from believing that wolves attack trains. As they do in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Half the plot of the first half of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is that when it gets dark, the wolves come out and you had better be prepared to defend yourself or they will eat you up. Because — presumably — the characters of this book live in wolf country. Where wolves run wild. This in particular sounds true to me:

“The train stopped with such a jerk.”

“Yes, the drivers always do that. You see, if the wolves notice a train slowing down, they are on the alert at once, and all start to run toward the station, so as to be there when the passengers get out. Consequently, if a train has to stop here, the driver goes as fast as he can to the very last moment, in order to deceive them into thinking he is going straight through.”

Previously in this chapter, a wolf jumps into the train where Sylvia is sitting, through the window, and if her traveling companion hadn’t had a gun with which to shoot the wolf, that would have been the end of Sylvia. As much as I know that this isn’t a real thing and has never been a real thing (right? probably not real?), I can’t make myself believe it. It feels true to me. Wolves attack trains. You have to slam on the brakes real hard at the end or else you will get eaten by a ravenous wolf pack. That’s just a fact of life if you happen to live in an area of the country where wolves are prevalent. I have known that longer than I have known long division.

There! Now you know! I believe in cwidders and mandrakes and train-assaulting wolf packs, and the latter is apparently due to my childhood copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase not having an explanatory summary on the dust jacket cover. And although I am officially ashamed of these beliefs, at the deepest level I think that I am probably right about all of them. Now tell me your ones please! What objectively-nonsense things do you retain from books you read too often as a kid?

The Dalemark Quartet, Part 1

Although I have charming matched blue copies of the Dalemark Quartet, the four books in this series are not among my favorites by Diana Wynne Jones. Why then, you ask, have I chosen the Dalemark Quartet as the only books to be properly reviewed during Diana Wynne Jones Week? Mainly for the exact reason that I have not loved them in the past–I wanted to give them another chance. Another reason is that they are among Diana Wynne Jones’ early YA-fantasy books, and I like seeing writers in progress. Hearts.

In Cart and Cwidder, we meet Moril, the youngest son in a family of Singers that travels around Dalemark playing in any town they happen on. Dalemark is divided into fifteen earldoms, which are further divided into North and South Dalemark; when Moril’s family travels in the South they have to remember to be careful of what they say, for fear they will be called traitors and cast into prison. Which is kind of what happens. To help his family, Moril must use his father’s cwidder, an ancient and (in this case) mythic musical instrument whose power Moril barely understands.

Drowned Ammet takes place before Cart and Cwidder, and follows a separate set of characters, although there is some overlap in time and events. Mitt is the son of a Southern freedom fighter; when his father is betrayed by his fellow freedom fighters, Mitt vows to grow up to avenge him. He gets his chance when he is fourteen, at the annual parade to honor the folk gods Old Ammet and Libby Beer; when this goes horribly awry, he stows away on a little pleasure boat owned by the grandchildren of the Earl, Hildy and Ynen. Class tension hilarity ensues.

Can we just take it for granted that everything I say this week should be prefaced by “I love Diana Wynne Jones and”? Everything. (I love Diana Wynne Jones and) I shall now talk about the Dalemark Quartet. (I love Diana Wynne Jones and) this is my week for learning about how copyrights work. (I love Diana Wynne Jones and) it’s hot outside. Thank you.

Though these books occur fairly early in Diana Wynne Jones’s writing career, she is already writing many of the themes that will recur over and over again in later books. Particularly for Moril, but hardly less so for Mitt, self-knowledge is crucial. Mitt and Moril spend a lot of time lying, whether deliberately (Mitt deceives the freedom-fighters into believing he is loyal to them) or by circumstance (Moril does not know about any of his father’s, shall we say, extracurricular activities, until well into the book). As much as their lies have protected them, it’s made clear that they cannot carry on lying to themselves, or to the people they trust. Moril cannot make the cwidder work for him, nor Mitt work out how to proceed after becoming a wanted criminal, until each of them has confronted the truth about himself and those around him.

Another common plot element of Diana Wynne Jones’s books is the thing of stories and myths coming true. It happens to Moril and it happens to Mitt. The myths start coming to life around them, whether they believe in them/understand them/want them true or not. What I like about these books as companions to each other is that while the boys live in the same country, they occupy completely different worlds, and they live by different myths. Far from making the books feel disjointed, the side-by-side mythologies expand the world of Dalemark–a traveling Singer would have different legends than a gutter boy of the South Dales.

As I remembered from previous readings, the writing and plotting in these books is not as tight as in some of Jones’s later books–Drowned Ammet peters off rather anticlimactically. I had intended to read these two for DWJ Week and worry about the second two some other time. But when I got through with these two, I found myself unable to remember what happened in the second two books and very unhappy about it. If not Diana Wynne Jones at her peak, they are still very worthy contributions to her canon.