Diana Wynne Jones: an appreciation

The Official Diana Wynne Jones Web site reports that the well-known fantasy author died yesterday. She was best known as a “young adult” author, meaning that her books were marketed to early teens, that many of her characters were teenagers, and that her books were actually driven by character and plot rather than literary experimentation. I think of Diana Wynne Jones as an author who was concerned with religion, and not just because of her fantasy series The Dalemark Quartet, which remains my favorite fictional creation story — richer than the thinly-disguised Christian creation story of Narnia, more morally complex than the bombast of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Jones herself was confused by the contradictions of ordinary dogmatic Western Christianity. At the age of nine, she had a hard time making sense out of the Anglicanism in which she was raised:

“There I sat [in York Minister cathedral], wrestling with the notion that Heaven Is Within You (not in me, I thought, or I’d know) and of Christ dying for our sins. I stared at the crucifix, thinking how very much being crucified must hurt, and was perturbed that, even with this special treatment, religion was not, somehow, taking on me. (I put it this way to myself because I had baptism and vaccination muddled, like germs and Germans.) “Autobiography” on Official Diana Wynne Jones Web site.

By the age of about ten, she cut through the Gordian knot of mid-20th century Anglicanism in a straightforward way: “I settled my religious muddles by deciding that I had better be an atheist.” Yet for all her atheism, religious and moral questions are integral to her books. At the most superficial level, the Dalemark Quartet is filled with a richly-imagined ancient paganism. Others of her books include organized religion as little more than part of the social landscape, but at a deeper level a sense of awe and wonder at the universe, which is the most basic of religious responses, pervades her books. She also wrestles over and over again with yet another basic religious issue — why is there chaos, and why is there order in the universe?

Many religious liberals rave about the atheist fiction of another young adult author, Phillip Pullman. But Pullman has always struck me as heavy-handed and strident in his atheism. I’d much rather read Diana Wynne Jones. Her fictional universes explore what it’s like to live in a universe where there is no god or goddess who’s going to bail us out if we get in trouble. At the same time, in her universes human beings do not stand at the center of everything; that would make things far too simple. In her universes, there isn’t one correct answer to each moral question; moral choices are difficult and often painful; and in her fictional universes one’s moral choices can make a huge difference to oneself and to others. This is the kind of morality that I would like to present to young adults — or to adults, for that matter.