[DWJ] Dalemark quartet paper

Robyn Starkey rohina at shaw.ca
Wed Oct 18 17:51:36 EDT 2006

I kind of take exception to the premise that polytheism is unusual in 
Western cultures. I mean, maybe 40 years ago it was. I keep meaning to 
write a paper comparing the Dalemark books to Small Gods by Terry 
Pratchett and a couple of other things which escape me at the moment. I 
think it's far more interesting to look at DWJ's ideas in the context of 
deity being created by belief, myself.


Laurel wrote:

> 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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