Diana Wynne Jones is the reason I became a writer.
For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she was a British writer of children’s fantasy who passed away a few years ago. One of her odder and more difficult works is the novel Fire and Hemlock, which riffs on the Scottish border ballads “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer.” The friendship of the heroine and the hero, Polly Whittaker and Thomas Lynn, is built partly on the epic fantasy story they are writing together, sending chunks of manuscript back and forth in the post as each of them adds a new section.
I read that book when I was nine or ten years old. And I distinctly remember putting it down and thinking, I want to tell a story.
In Reflections, a collection of DWJ’s essays and speeches, there’s a piece called “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey” where she discusses Fire and Hemlock in depth, tying it in with her childhood reading and thoughts on heroism and gender. Naturally, given my love for DWJ’s work in general and that book in particular, I devoured this essay. It discusses Odysseus quite a bit, and in passing says this about his wife:
In the Odyssey, Penelope can only stay good by tricksy passive resistance which doesn’t do much to get rid of her suitors. But at least she was using her mind — like her husband.
I’d never thought about Penelope as a trickster before. But isn’t it by deception that she fights against her enemies? She tells them she must weave a funeral shroud for her father, but each night she undoes her work, stalling for time. The essay made me see her actions in a new light.
And then one day I thought, hmmm. Is there any way I could reinterpret Penelope to make her more active?
The story fell out of my head in a single sitting while I killed a few hours at an airport, waiting for my flight. Because of course what is weaving associated with, in Greek mythology? With fate. With the three Fates, to be precise — who in some theogonies are said to be the daughters of the goddess Ananke, “Necessity.”
What if, with her weaving and unweaving, Penelope wasn’t just trying to stop something? What if she was trying to make something happen? And failing, again and again, but she keeps on trying, because she has a gift, even if she can’t fully control it.
“Daughter of Necessity” is one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written. And I owe Diana Wynne Jones thanks twice over for it: first for making me a writer, and then for writing the lines that brought this story into being.
You can find “Daughter of Necessity” in the Book View Cafe anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted.