book review

Diana Wynne Jones’s Truth Poems, Part 1: Context

Farah Mendlesohn writes playfully in Diana Wynne Jones: Children’s Literature and the Fantastic Tradition that “it is just possible that for Jones’s complexity to be appreciated, first she had to grow her critics.” In these posts, I’ll jump off from the chapter of this book devoted to “The True State of Affairs.” My approach to this chapter will be largely critical (honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever found literary criticism or theory with which I wholeheartedly agree), so it’s worth pointing out that Mendlesohn does a great deal to allow “Jones’s complexity to be appreciated.” She evokes (for a few examples) ways Jones’s fantasy subverts the imperialism in the traditional portal-quest fantasy, games that Jones plays with reader expectation in her immersive fantasies, and how Jones is a critic as well as a writer. A major topic in her chapter on “The True State of Affairs” — ways that Jones plays with what it means to be a protagonist and the idea that everyone must be the protagonist of their own story — has informed my understanding of Jones’s work deeply.

Mendlesohn discusses “The True State of Affairs,” the earliest installment of the Dalemark series (so early that Dalemark was only beginning to take shape in Jones’s mind when it was written, as I recall), in the context of the idea that truth is dependent on context — for instance, that the true character of a boy who is one moment “a boyish boy” and the next “a practised catamite” is “shaped by his captivity” (Minor Arcana  226-27, Mendlesohn 99). Mendlesohn largely ignores the truth poems except to interpret the line “Unbounded truth is not a thing/ Cramped to time and bound in place” as “an explanation that truth is a matter of context” (Mendlesohn 98, Minor Arcana 199). This notion ignores the density and progression of ideas in the poems. I suspect Mendlesohn of touching lightly on this key feature of the novella—indeed, of the entire Dalemark series—for some combination of concern over space constraints, fear that she is not equal to exploring them, and suspicion that the progression of ideas in these poems is too naïve to be worth critical attention. 

On these last two points, I suspect that Mendlesohn is in one way correct—neither Jones nor Mendlesohn nor I am a trained philosopher. All the same, choosing to avoid the questions Jones asks, whether out of diffidence or vicarious embarrassment, is a refusal to take Jones up on one of the challenges she offers readers. Jones, in Year of the Griffin, argues that students need to learn theory of magic, and I suspect she is referring also to theory of literature, critical theory, and philosophy. What’s more, the process by which students engage the great theorists of magic is an active one: one character concludes a renowned theorist asks all the wrong questions so that the reader will ask the right ones, for instance.

More broadly, Jones herself struggled to answer philosophical questions not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional necessity. She writes about finding confusions among the literal and metaphorical, different “types” of truth, at once creatively fruitful and tormenting. When, as a child, she conflated germs and Germans, typhoid and Twyford, imagining in terror that Germans would emerge from a water fountain, she found her distress and confusion “dissolved, not only painlessly but in a gust of delight” by an incident in Mary Poppins Comes Back in which Mary Poppins takes the children to a circus full of personified planets and signs of the Zodiac. The means by which this incident cured her confusion is far from clear, but she explains that the personified planets are “truths presented in a shape they did not really have, personifications and similes acquiring the status of fact.” Fittingly, Jones is remarkable in writing at once at a high degree of abstraction and relating that abstraction intimately and in original rather than culturally pre-sanctioned ways to her own and her characters’ lives. This is all to say that even if Jones’s philosophies are not sophisticated enough to please a scholar, a point on which I am not qualified to comment, they worked for her, and that she feels that engagement with complex questions about  representation, language, truth should be a dynamic part of life.

I will first examine the poems themselves. Then I will explore how the themes developed by the sequence of poems manifest themselves in the plots of the books in question and branch out into other questionings about truth. I do not seek to resolve the four poems and the other discussions of and meditations on truth in Cart and Cwidder and “The True State of Affairs” into a single, coherent interpretation, however complex—that is beyond my powers and may not be possible—but rather to highlight the depth and breadth with which Jones approaches these questions and inspires readers to approach them.  

The first three poems appear in “The True State of Affairs,” a  novella set in an early time in (and an early version of) Dalemark that resembles also an alternate version of England, in that Emily, the narrator, complains of the lack of Latinate words (Minor Arcana). The three poems are written by Asgrim—lord, political prisoner, and rebel against serfdom—to the narrator Emily, a woman from our world who finds herself without explanation in Dalemark. These poems are, or appear to be, love poems. The fourth poem appears in Cart and Cwidder, the first book in Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, as a song practiced, performed, and changed by Moril, the son of traveling singers and players. It is unclear whether it is to be taken as a corruption or evolution of the first three songs that developed after Asgrim’s death or a synthesis of them written by Asgrim himself.

Reading these poems is complex. On the one hand, their position is clearly central thematically. Jones signals the fact that “The True State of Affairs” is about truth so strongly it seems almost insulting to emphasize this point, perhaps another reason Mendlesohn chooses not to go this route: not only do the poems interrogate the nature of truth, but the story’s title points to the theme, as does the point Emily makes of pointing out that truth has two definitions (veracity and fidelity) in proto-Dalemark’s world, just as the word did in the precursors to English and still to some extent does, and Emily’s final observation that Asgrim in his poem meant every other kind of truth than fidelity to her (Minor Arcana, 286). The reader cannot take the poems’ positions as the position Jones takes in the story because they are written by a fictional character who is a product of a wildly different time and culture and whose point of view contrasts starkly with the protagonist’s. Nonetheless, the complexity of the poems as well as references that may point out of proto-Dalemark toward our world suggest that not only did significant effort and sincere thought go into them, but they also may even have been composed separately from the story. Reading them as straightforward statements of meaning would, thus, be risky (as other details in the story attest as well) but they, at the very least, frame questions that are critical to “The True State of Affairs,” the Dalemark Quartet, and Jones’s oeuvre as a whole.

All four poems are nine lines long, roughly iambic, and in tetrameter or trimeter (the first two lines of each poem are tetrameter, the next four trimeter, and the final three tetrameter again, although in the third poem “kindled” has to be reduced to the unstressed syllables in an anapestic substitution to fit this metrical pattern and in the fourth poem the final line is in trimeter). They have similar but different rhyme schemes and reuse words or phrases from poem to poem. The lines are usually end-stopped. As poetry I do not entirely admire them, but as records of ideas, they are remarkable, and it is primarily for the ideas they express, directly and indirectly, that I read them here.

2 replies on “Diana Wynne Jones’s Truth Poems, Part 1: Context”

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