Saturday, February 27, 2016

Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones (1977)


The very first thought that occurred to me regarding Drowned Ammet was how Diana Wynne Jones captured the mind of a young terrorist.  This was written in the 1970s, before the advent Isis and Al Quaeda - but I would hazard a guess that Jones was writing (or at least dreaming up this story) in a scary  time in England, when young Irish males, not unlike Mitt, were branded terrorists by one side, freedom fighters by another side, and blowing up things and people for real.  I don't know what she was thinking at the time (I've tried to find out but haven't had any luck) but at least for me, there is this straight line between Mitt's actions and the IRA.  Reading it today, I kept thinking of the Boston Marathon bombers, particularly the younger brother, and how, like Mitt, he must have been prodded and encouraged into planting a bomb.  How romantic that must have sounded, how brave and courageous, to be a freedom fighter, fomenting a revolution against tyranny.  How sad it is that Diana Wynne Jones wasn't writing his life story (or the story of the people maimed and killed by the bombers); there wasn't a plot twist that defused the bomb in some way, and there wasn't a Hildy and Ynen in the life of those bombers to convince them their actions weren't courageous but cowardly, and that situations are always more complicated than the starry-eyed rantings of would be Internet revolutionaries.  

When DJW is good, she's good, there is no doubt about it.

Often for me, books I'm currently reading bring back memories of books read when I was an early literate young reader; in this case, the relationship between Hildy and Mitt brings to mind that of Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy. An aristocrat (in this case two) on a journey with a peon to freedom in the north.  Like Shasta, Mitt has a hidden side to him that is revealed at the end, and like Aravis, Hildy learns to become more loving (although I imagine, like Aravis, she remains a wildcat; unlike Shasta, Mitt is a wildcat too; Shasta was no revolutionary save an accidental one).  DJW doesn't need to end with "and they lived together happily ever after" though; you can fill that in or not; also, there aren't any talking animals.

(Susan Cooper's Greenwitch kept popping into my mind too; they were written at about the same time.  But the only similarity between the two is share ancient customs, which I assume the two authors gleaned and formed from actual British customs).

Was DWJ a sailor?  She pictures sailing and the sea in such emotional and breathlessly beautiful ways; and her scenes of the three (and then four) at sea are like paintings.  Here is my favorite description in the book:  

"Wind’s Road had come gently past the green hump in the mist. The mist cleared steadily as she sailed. When Mitt looked away from the sailors’ faces, he was astonished to find they were sailing among islands—more islands than he could count at a glance. Some were green and steep, with gray rocks standing above the green and trees clinging to the rocks. Some were green and low. Some were quite small. Others, in the distance, were clearly several miles long. Mitt could see houses on nearly all of them, usually near the shore, as if the sea were their road and the island their farm or garden. Sheep and cows grazed in pastures that mounted above the houses. Smoke rose from the chimneys. The sea space round them was so sheltered that it was warm and calm as a lake. Mitt could smell the salt of the sea mingling with the smell of earth, smoke, and cattle, in a close, queer mixture. He looked round, sniffing, warm and delighted, wondering why he felt so happy and so much at home, and everywhere he looked he saw the astonishing emerald green of more islands."

Her descriptive prose made me want to visit the Holy Islands myself; and you knew by her loving details that this was a safe place; something good was going to happen.  She didn't need to tell us that either; she used her prose to let us know.

I kept wondering how she came up with the concept of these four books; they are very quite short books to contain such intricate and meaningful world building.  

Drowned Ammet (The Dalemark Quartet, #2)Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of DWJ's beautifully descriptive prose in all of her many books happens in Drowned Ammet when she writes of her fictional Holy Islands; she certainly made me want to not only visit but dwell in these fantasy islands. Her descriptions of sailing, ships and the ocean gave my personal favorite writer about oceans, Richard Henry Dana Jr. a run for his money as well. But what really struck me was her perfect capturing of the mind of a young terrorist. I can only guess that when DWJ was writing this, she may have had young IRA bombers in her mind, egged on by revolution and patriotic stirrings against tyranny; I know I kept thinking of the Boston Bombers; Mitt is a likable young fool caught up in revenge and feeling grand and big; DWJ really sticks us right in his mind, and we both understand him and pity him and know he's an idiot, and empathize with him because sometimes we are idiots too, caught up in something we later deeply regret. We don't all have to be boys for that. A terrifically powerful book in a quirky series that should be better known because it's so good.


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