[DWJ] Dalemark quartet paper

Laurel lalamme at gru.net
Wed Oct 18 17:31:17 EDT 2006


Hello List,

I still don't have the newest Chrestomanci, although I am haunting 
bookstores in anticipation, but my partner just got a proposal accepted 
for a regional conference based on the Dalemark Quartet! I'm quite 
excited, and hope I get to hear it in person - doesn't it sound interesting?

Laurel




Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet:
A Resource for Creatively Engaging Polytheism

Religious thinkers in the modern West have long taken for granted the 
inherent superiority of “ethical monotheism” to other forms of religion. 
Even contemporary radical “constructive” theologians, e.g. Gordon D. 
Kaufman, assume the inferiority of polytheistic outlooks. In recent 
years, however, this bias has been reconsidered somewhat. Feminist 
scholars and theologians, in particular, have called attention to the 
potential legitimacy of visions of the divine as plural or multiple. 
This revival of interest in plurality within the divine has taken many 
forms—ranging from recoveries of the Christian “social” Trinity by 
Catherine M. Lacugna and Serene Jones; to Kathleen M. O’Connor’s work on 
the “fluid, unstable, changing and active” portrayal of YHWH in 
Jeremiah; to Naomi Goldenberg’s atheist Jewish challenge to the 
“tribalism” of “monotheisms ruled by a single male God”; and to Ruth 
Mantin’s recent contention that “Goddess, and even better, 
Goddesses-talk can facilitate challenges to metaphysical, monotheistic 
assumptions and affirm notions of diversity and fluidity in ways that 
God-talk cannot”—to name only a few. Constructive, historical, and 
comparative work on divine multiplicity has made invaluable 
contributions to date. And yet, as one attempts to understand and 
explore the implications of such thinking, it is important not to 
neglect another resource: speculative fiction, especially that written 
by women authors.
In this paper, I look at a series of four books written by British 
author Diana Wynne Jones: the so-called “Dalemark Quartet.” The Dalemark 
books are works of fantasy. Their plots are only indirectly connected, 
but all of the books deal with the same imaginary countries. More 
importantly for the purpose at hand, the volumes also share a concern 
with the gods of these lands: mysterious beings known simply as “the 
Undying.”
In Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark books, the Undying refute many standard 
Western assumptions about divinity. They are, obviously, multiple; 
furthermore they are limited in power and knowledge. They can be killed, 
although they do not die natural deaths. They have passions, foibles, 
and ambiguities. In addition, in contrast to the widespread Western 
assumption that the spiritual realm is orderly (indeed, the source of 
all order), relationships among the Undying are never reduced to a 
systematic hierarchy in Jones’ books. Indeed, their very origin is left 
obscure.
Just as important as the treatment of the Undying themselves in the 
Dalemark Quartet is Jones’ depiction of the religious tradition focusing 
on them. In the Dalemark books, religion is more a matter of practice—of 
time-honored observances and actions—and of place (shrines, sacred 
spaces) than of coherent worldviews. While lore about the Undying does 
exist, it is sometimes contradictory and is taken with varying levels of 
seriousness by the human characters. Jones, as narrator, highlights the 
fragmentary quality of traditions about the Undying in a “Glossary” 
appended to the final volume in the series. In the Glossary, Jones 
allows multiple “interpretations” of various members of the Undying to 
stand side by side, and in certain places herself disagrees with 
information previously affirmed by her characters!
My paper compares Jones’ depiction of the polytheism of Dalemark with 
what can be known about ancient and classical polytheistic traditions 
(through such secondary studies as Mark S. Smith’s recent work on 
Ancient Near Eastern polytheism, and through such primary sources as 
Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods and Pausanias’ Guide to Greece). It also 
considers Jones’ series in light of the exposition of Indian religious 
traditions in postcolonialist scholar S. N. Balagangadhara’s ‘The 
Heathen in His Blindness’: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion. 
In my view, Jones’ books bear up astonishingly well in such a 
comparison. I contend that they remain a valuable resource for anyone 
teaching a class touching on this subject, or simply trying to get a 
feel for how an age-old polytheistic religious tradition might look, 
feel, and function.
Naomi Goldenberg has suggested that in order to step outside the 
exclusive mind-set associated with monotheism, “theists [should 
experiment with trying to] live part of their lives as polytheists.” 
Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark books could be highly useful in attempting 
such a thought-experiment.





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