Diana Wynne Jones was one of the most exceptionally prolific, beloved, and influential British children’s writers of the twentieth century. Born in 1934, she published more than 40 children’s fantasy books over the course of her career. She would have written more had cancer not caught up to her: at the time of her death in 2011, she was in the middle of writing a novel and already planning another.
When she passed away, a flurry of obituaries celebrating her life and work appeared in the nation’s newspapers. Writing in the Guardian, Christopher Priest described her fantasies as ‘of seminal importance for their bridging of the gap between “traditional” children’s fantasy, as written by CS Lewis or E Nesbit, and the more politically and socially aware children’s literature of the modern period.’ The Telegraph noted that ‘[her] 40 or so books maintained a remarkably high standard in both inventiveness and the elegance of their prose.’ Charlie Butler, writing for the Independent, goes so far as to say ‘that Jones never won either the Carnegie Medal or Whitbread/Costa Award is both a mystery and, in retrospect, a scandal.’
Diana Wynne Jones’s work combines a wonderful originality in concept with well-considered execution, regardless of her chosen subject matter. Many writers who produce in anything like the sort of volume she did manage it by sticking to a winning formula, but Jones continued to experiment throughout her life. She wrote mainly for children, but also for adults; she wrote stories set in our contemporary world, and stories set in fantasy worlds; she wrote her own versions of Arthurian tales, and even wrote about schools for witches and wizards before they took the world by storm. She did all this informed by a keen understanding of human nature and a clear sense of how stories are constructed.
In autobiographical material, Jones’s childhood casts a long shadow. She describes a childhood disrupted by war, and complicated by parental neglect and emotional abuse. Writing in 1988, she said ‘I write the kind of books I do because the world suddenly went mad when I was five years old.’ Although born in London, Jones lived for a time with her father’s relatives in Wales after the outbreak of the Second World War, and later in the Lake District. There she met both Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, though she was impressed by neither (according to her, they both hated children). Nonetheless, she was impressed to learn that books were something real people wrote, and she was determined from a young age to be a writer.
Perhaps echoing her difficulties growing up with her parents, her child protagonists often have complicated relationships with their parents. She resorted to writing her own stories when her father denied his daughters books and other reading material; and her relationship with her mother never recovered from their time apart during the war. In her books, these women may be loving, but distant and wrapped up in their own lives or careers, or perhaps subtly cruel. In The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988), for example, the eponymous protagonist’s mother is ambitious, but more interested in her social life than in her son.
Other family members are sometimes obstacles or villains, or good in appearance yet tarnished underneath. In Cart and Cwidder (1975), a boy’s family has revolved around his charming, larger-than-life father, who turns out to be both an underground freedom fighter and utterly without care for his wife’s individuality. So, is he a good person? That is left for the reader to decide.
Diana Wynne Jones does not condescend to her young readers and writes about the sorts of problems they face with respect and compassion. Often her plots are small dramas writ large. In Dogsbody (also published 1975), a girl’s unhappy life with her foster family is disrupted—and brightened—by the addition of a dog. The dog turns out to be the star Sirius, sent to earth in punishment. The everyday struggles of a child are contrasted, and yet wholly enmeshed, with a cosmic struggle.
(Photos courtesy of St Anne’s College)
The fantastical was having a resurgence around the latter half of the twentieth century owing, in part, to renewed interest in medieval works as pieces of literature. Indeed, when Diana Wynne Jones came to Oxford to read English at St Anne’s College in the early 1950s she found her curriculum full of dragons.
Jones very nearly didn’t make it to Oxford. She had applied to Somerville, her mother’s old college, and not been accepted, so she made a late application to St Anne’s in December 1952 and was accepted for the following autumn. Her headmistress had recommended her as ‘an exceptionally able girl’ and ‘probably the most original girl in the school’. At Oxford, her tutors universally praised her imagination, liveliness, and originality, all while lamenting her lack of effort. Rather unfortunately, her father had passed away unexpectedly during her first term, which seems to have set the tone for her university career. It was not a happy time for her, and she found it difficult—and sometimes dull—to get on with her work.
Nonetheless, it was at Oxford that she encountered Beowulf, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and Langland’s Piers Plowman, among other medieval classics, and attended lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who had both had a hand in setting this medievalist curriculum.  Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies clearly show this influence, though perhaps not as one might expect. She eschews the overt popular signifiers of medievalism—castles, serfs, noble kings—while deliberately incorporating its stories and aesthetic qualities.
Diana Wynne Jones felt that children, more than any other kind of person, looked to the future and not to the past. Children, she thought, would relate better to tales set in a ‘story time’ that was identifiable as their own, like medieval people did in their own imagination. Just as artists and writers in medieval Europe reimagined the stories of their past as happening in something like their own time, so could fantasy literature in the twentieth century be set in a world recognisable to its readers. For example, in Eight Days of Luke (1975), Diana Wynne Jones reimagines mythological figures in a small English town. The protagonist befriends the trickster god Loki, here present in the guise of another young boy, and over the course of a week successively meets other Norse gods and gets involved in their disagreements.
While many fantasies, including those by Tolkien and his imitators, look to the Middle Ages as a period of unique heroism and to a medieval hierarchical order as the rightful mode of organisation for society, Diana Wynne Jones´s work rejects this proposition. In her Dalemark series (1975-1993), which is at its core set in a pre-modern fantasy world, she openly challenges medievalist nostalgic notions of the past. Her protagonists, though imbued in a mythic past where the undying figures of folk religion wander the land, are recognisably human and flawed. In the land of Dalemark, the weight of history makes itself felt, but substantial technological and societal innovations are also welcome: the land is going through its own industrial revolution, with uprisings resulting in better conditions for workers; and the ancient roads which connect the country´s historical sites are brought to life as the foundations for modern railways.
Nonetheless, several of Diana Wynne Jones´s novels are in direct conversation with the medieval literary tradition. For instance, her 1993 novel Hexwood weaves in Arthurian myth into a twisting story set in a contemporary English wood off a housing estate, which turns out to be partly a supercomputer-generated environment under the control of a galactic empire. Jones’s reimagining of myth is a far cry from historicist narratives which place King Arthur in a version of the real past, as in the works of Rosemary Sutcliff or T.H. White. Neither do her novels present themselves as didactic, and they do not come with a neat moral at the end. Instead, they are a mirror for the world in which her readers live, raised in understanding: not an instructional manual but an opportunity for reflection.
Although Diana Wynne Jones started publishing in earnest in the 1970s and had become well-respected by the 1980s in fantasy circles—and was widely-read by school-aged children—she did not achieve worldwide success until the turn of the millennium. Following a resurgence of interest children’s fantasy as well as the popular anime adaptation of her 1986 novel Howl’s Moving Castle by Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki in 2004, many of her novels were reissued, introducing them to new audiences. They were reprinted in the UK, and published in translation in Spain, France, Germany, and Israel, among other countries.
Diana Wynne Jones’s work has been foundational for many children’s and fantasy authors writing today. Children’s author and 2019-2022 UK Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell named Jones’s The Ogre Downstairs (1974) as one of the most important books she had read as a child. Katherine Rundell, recent winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, was inspired to become a writer like Diana Wynne Jones, and believes she is underrated, as ‘infinite estimation is what she deserves’. Frances Hardinge, the only children’s writer to win the Costa Book Award besides Philip Pullman in 2001, named Jones´s The Time of the Ghost (1981) as one of the stories to have shaped her.
Fantasy author Neil Gaiman, who was her friend and protégé for several decades, considers her ‘the best writer for children of her generation’ and fondly remembered Jones’s feedback on his early work. Megan Whalen Turner, whose novel The Thief was runner up for the 1997 Newberry Medal, admired Diana Wynne Jones’s power of invention and referred to her Dalemark novels as an example for the kinds of stories she wanted to write. UK-based Malaysian writer Zen Cho, whose fantasy is part of a wave of young writers decolonising genre fiction, remembers Diana Wynne Jones as one of the great British fantasists of her childhood. There are countless more examples.
It’s hard to quantify the impact of a writer such as Diana Wynne Jones. As writer Marcus Sedgwick said in his introduction to the Folio Society’s lushly illustrated 2019 edition of Howl´s Moving Castle: ‘The seeds of Jones´s work can be seen in myriad other writers. […] We pass the tools of storytelling from generation to generation.’ I do not believe fantasy writing would look the way it does today without her contribution.
Selected Works by Diana Wynne Jones
The Ogre Downstairs (1974)
Eight Days of Luke (1975)
Cart and Cwidder (1975)
Drowned Ammet (1977)
The Spellcoats (1979)
The Crown of Dalemark (1993)
Time of the Ghost (1981)
Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988)
 Diana Wynne Jones, ‘Something About the Author’, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Oxford: David Flicking Books, 2012), p. 210.
 Jones, ‘Something About the Author’, pp. 216-17.
 Jones, ‘Something About the Author’, p. 230.
 Jones, ‘Something About the Author’, p. 214.
 For this information I am grateful to St Anne’s College, who allowed me access to Diana Wynne Jones´s student file from her time as a student in 1953-56.
 For a discussion on the English curriculum at Oxford at this time, see Maria Sachiko Cecire, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
 Diana Wynne Jones, ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Oxford: David Flicking Books, 2012), p. 165.
 Neil Gaiman, ‘Foreword’, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Oxford: David Flicking Books, 2012), viii.