Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cart and Cwidder


Carrying on with my Diana Wynne Jones reading phase, I finished the first (as in first published) of the Dalemark Quartet series last night. Like most of Jones' series, these books weren't written consecutively, but over a period of years. In this case, some twenty years. The one I've just read comes second in chronological order, but was the first written. Taking into account the fact that C S Lewis also wrote some Narnia series 'out of chronological order' I don't think this matters much, and for me it's better to read the books as they were produced, since this is how the author initially conceived them.

That aside, this is a different kind of story to the more magical ones that I've read previously (the 3 in the Howl's Castle series, and Black Maria.) There is magic in it - the climax is brought about by it, in fact - but in general this is mostly more of adventure yarn than a magical story. Like the other Jones books, it delves into human nature and personality more than many children's stories - into the 'why' of how people behave, and whether that's always for the best.

Here the main character is named Moril: he's a boy of about ten or eleven, the third and youngest child of a couple of travelling performers. The father is the showman, full of bluff and stories and the old songs; the mother is quieter, but not at all a wallflower, and extraordinarily decisive when the chance is there to be seized. The older brother is a composer of 'new' songs, but more retiring in his demeanour - or so it seems. And the sister - the middle child - takes after her father: capable of facing an audience and having them eat out of her hand but not so good when it comes to saving her skin, or that of her younger brother.

The family is travelling in their cart (something like a covered wagon) with all their worldly goods, which include some very valuable musical instruments - the cwidder of the title is one such. Incidentally, cwidder seems to be a made-up word (as several of the words in the book are), though it has a kind of Welsh ring about it, especially in regard to the spelling. Jones tells us, in the glossary, that it's similar to a lute, but with some features of the acoustic guitar. (Her glossary appears to be authoritative, but is as much fiction as the rest of the book.)

Though it isn't obvious to the two younger children, there is more going on at each performance by the family as they come to each town - and after - than meets the eye. The consequences of all this provide a nasty shock for the reader about a third of the way through the book. Not long after, the three children - along with a fourth who's been picked up by the father earlier on - are on their own. Their struggles to get to the North (the 'safe' part of the country) from the dangerous South, and to provide for themselves, form the remainder of the book.

Moril matures considerably during the course of the book: he's a dreamer, but instead of that being a disadvantage, his father knows that it's a gift. Moril still has to discover how it's a gift, and playing the large cwidder is part of that discovery. Part of Jones' skill as a writer is to show that while Moril uses his gift for the benefit of those he's with, and to save the people of the North from an invasion, he doesn't use his gift truthfully. On page 167 Moril realises the following: If you stood up and told the truth in the wrong way, it was not true any longer, though it might be as powerful as ever. It's to Moril's credit that he not only learns from his exhilerating but wrongly handled experience, but understands that he is still immature, and needs someone to keep teaching him.

This book takes a little longer to grab hold of you, compared to the others I've read. It seems too down-to-earth at first, and not fantastical enough - and there's less of Jones' wit and humour. It'll be interesting to see what the rest of the Quartet is like (though they'll have to wait, as I'm now reading another book that was recommended to me by the same people who enthused about Jones - The Theif, by Megan Whalen Turner.)
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