The DWJ Project: Cart and Cwidder

This is the first book of the Dalemark Quartet, which I know I read many years ago, but out of order and sufficiently spaced out that I don’t think I realized at the time the books made up a set.

In part, this is because — although I’ve afterwards thought of them as a Proper Series — these books are no more closely linked than, say, Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air. They take place in the same setting, and maybe once I get further on (I’m in the process of re-reading Drowned Ammet right now) there will be more immediate linkages, but so far there’s no sense in which any of these books is a direct sequel to one before. (The exception may come in The Crown of Dalemark, which I want to say builds on all three of its predecessors. Then again, I haven’t read the thing in probably twenty years, so my instinct is not what you’d call reliable.)

The other reason I didn’t notice, the first (and I think only) time I read these books, that they belonged together, was because . . . they never really made an impression on me. I know some people love the Dalemark series; there are a number of Yuletide requests for it this year. Glancing at them, though, they all seem to be for later books: I didn’t see a single one for Cart and Cwidder, though I might have overlooked it. I think it’s entirely possible I’ll like the later ones better — Drowned Ammet is already off to a better start — but yeah, this one didn’t do a lot for me. It’s one of the earlier books, published in 1975, and it feels like it never quite hit its stride.

Before I get to unpacking that, though, a plot summary. The title refers to the fact that the protagonist, Moril, belongs to a family of traveling singers; they travel in a cart, and he and his father both play the cwidder, which is (as near as I can tell) a made-up stringed instrument, or maybe just a made-up name for a stringed instrument. (“Cwidder” is a reasonably plausible morph of “guitar,” to my eye, though the image on my book cover looks more like a lute.) They’re traveling in the South Dales, which suffer under a repressive set of earls, and trying to make their way to the North Dales, where Moril and the other children were born, and people can live free.

Now we can move on to the spoilers.

It takes about a quarter of the book for the plot to get started. Yes, Kialan is part of the plot, but not much is done with him early on; he just rides along with the family and annoys Moril and Brid. I don’t feel like things really get moving until Clennan dies, fifty pages in. And even then, there isn’t a clear direction to the plot, other than “get to the North.” Compared with the other two books DWJ published in the same year — Eight Days of Luke and Dogsbody — it feels aimless. I had to look at the cover copy to see where it was going: “[Moril] must learn to harness [the cwidder’s] strange power in time to prevent a destructive civil war.” Oh, okay.

There are also three distinct points in the plot where I felt bothered by the characters’ reactions to things, or more precisely, their lack of reaction. To some extent, I think this is the operation of a tendency I’ve commented on before; Jones frequently puts awful things into the story, in such a fashion that you can see as much or as little of the awfulness as you’re prepared for. Taking the three incidents in sequence, I feel they fall more into that camp as they go along. But for whatever reason, it never quite works for me here the way it does elsewhere — not the way it does in, say, Charmed Life, which came out two years later.

Which incidents do I mean? The first is Clennan’s death, and the aftermath thereof. Nobody seems as upset by it as I feel they should be. Lenina . . . I had the Dread Pirate Roberts in my head, saying, “Tell me truly: when you found out he was gone, did you get engaged to your prince that same hour, or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?” I know she hated that life, hated going barefoot and sleeping in tents and never knowing if they’d have enough money to eat next week; I know she stayed with Clennan only out of a sense of duty. (And depending on how you want to interpret the one time Clennan made Osfameron’s cwidder work, she was magically coerced into it to begin with.) But marrying Ganner that same night? “The funeral-baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,” indeed. It’s stunningly cold-hearted of her, and the only reason it doesn’t hurt her children even more than we’re told it does is because none of them seem quite as broken up by the loss of Clennan as I’d expect. Even if nobody quite liked him — and I could see why they wouldn’t — the guy was the center of their entire world; I wanted to feel more impact from that loss.

Ditto Dagner, when Brid and Moril and Kialan drive off without him. Obviously there was nothing else they could do; I don’t object to the action. But I wanted it to seem like a harder choice for them. I mean, a week ago Moril had a father and a mother and two siblings; now he’s down to one sister and a strange kid he doesn’t like very much. Also, his father turns out to have been a spy, and if he can’t get to the North he’ll probably be killed. I wanted him to freak out more, man!

The closest he comes is in the third incident, namely, when he drops a freaking mountain on the heads of his enemies. This one, more than the others, feels like Jones allowing me to think through the horror of what he did; I’m reminded of the mermaids in The Lives of Christopher Chant. But — ye gods. Moril obliterated hundreds, maybe thousands, of men. I can’t think of a single protagonist in Jones’ books with that kind of body count. Hell, I’m having trouble thinking of a villain who can match it. Mr. Chesney? The mages of Arth? Them? But those are all less direct. I guess the closest is the conspirators in Deep Secret, who blew up the Emperor and everybody else in the palace.

Moril’s distant reaction to that event at least feels kind of like shell-shock, rather than non-reaction. And I do like the way he did it, not for a great cause, but for Olob (who kind of got Newbery’d there). I also like his feeling that he’s not ready for the power Clennan bequeathed to him. But still: I either wanted more reaction, or less of a slaughter.

None of this is to say I hated the book; I didn’t. There were touches I enjoyed a fair bit, like how Osfameron’s cwidder works, and the stories about him and the Adon. Much of the setting felt a bit flat, but those really stood out, implying greater depth that I’m looking forward to seeing in the later books. Drowned Ammet already feels richer, and I’m not very far in, so that’s an encouraging sign.

. . . I can tell I’m starting to tire out on this project; it’s been eight months and thirty-one books, and I still have a little way to go. But I’m near enough to the end that I want to finish by the anniversary of her death. I’ll do the rest of Dalemark this month, and then there will be only ten more books left (eight novels and the remainder of two short story collections). And I’ve saved a few of my second-tier favorites for nearly last. 🙂

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: Cart and Cwidder”

  1. fjm

    I first read this when I was quite young and it’s been a favourite for years. I think the kids are in trauma from the moment Clennan dies to the moment Moril brings down the mountain, and his realisation that he did it because he felt more for a horse than for his Dad is actually a remarkably accurate depiction of the way in which children can deflect grief (I wept for a year over my dog but I was mostly using my dog to weep for my grandpa).

    With regard to Lenina, she probably got this from Wellington who talked about how the camp followers were often wed the night they were widowed, and certainly in eighteenth century Jamestown women were in such short supply that most women were married within a month of being widowed.

    It is a slight book compared to the next three but I loved the dream scenes and, the classic Jones thing of the two boys discovering at the end that they have lived the adventure they always wanted and not realised, and it wasn’t actually very nice. She uses the same trope in Dogsbody.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think my issue with Moril being in shock is that I’m left with neither of the things that would really hook me into the story. If the plot were more of a driving force, I could do without more show of emotion from Moril; if I were more deeply embedded in Moril’s emotions, I could do without as much of a driving plot; as it stands, I’m not particularly touched by anything. Which is a personal mileage thing, obviously. But it’s why this one doesn’t work for me.

      Lenina, I can see going back to Markind: that totally makes sense. But she’s not a camp follower, and there’s no reason to believe Ganner wouldn’t allow her, say, a month or even a week to help her children settle into a new life before she remarries. He’s presented as being a thoroughly reasonable man. (And I forgot to mention the other thing that bugged me, which is how Lenina brushes off Brid and Moril saying they saw the man who killed Clennan. I can absolutely see why she doesn’t rush to get them away — but my god, she could have handled their fears better than telling them “oh, you must have been mistaken; go away.”)

      I do like the adventure note, yes. And I have every expectation the Osfameron/Adon thing is going to pay off again further down the line.

  2. dr_whom

    There are actually a bunch of stringed instruments with names that are more or less similar in general phonological shape to “cwidder”: guitar, zither, cithara, sitar…. I assume some of these are etymologically related, but I couldn’t tell you which ones for the life of me. But “cwidder” is an inspired coinage for that reason.

    • dr_whom

      (Okay, apparently guitar and zither come from cithara, but cittern and sitar are unrelated.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I quite like “cwidder” as a word. It’s hard to invent words that look like they could be real English, but this one works — well, okay, it looks more like a loan-word from Welsh into English, but you know what I mean. 🙂

  3. starlady38

    This was the first Jones book I ever read, and reading your post makes me think that it was probably a terrible place to start. And yes, all three do build together into The Crown of Dalemark, though I still think The Spellcoats is my favorite of the lot. I would probably appreciate TCoD much more if I reread it now. Iirc Moril gets pretty badass by the end.

    • Marie Brennan

      Do you mean you didn’t enjoy it very much?

      It has its fans, obviously, but no — if I were the one doing the recommendations, I wouldn’t tell anyone to start here.

      (And Moril is pretty badass by the end of this book, what with the mountain and all. But yes, he clearly has some growing left to do.)

      • starlady38

        I didn’t like any of the four Dalemark books very much, and so I didn’t read any more Jones. Except for Howl’s, which I read after seeing the movie and only confirmed my dislike. Which I’m willing to revise, but I’m 1 for 5 at this point. 😛

  4. Marie Brennan

    Whereas I’m enjoying Drowned Ammet quite a bit. I feel like, if the characters sailed across the ocean, they’d land in Westmark. 🙂

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