Cart and Cwidder
Reviewed: January 2, 2002
By: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Oxford University Press
186 Pages, $6.95
When Clennan the Singer boasted that he had conjured the love of his wife, Lenina, with
the power of his voice and skill with the Cwidder (a lute-like instrument) his children, Moril, Brid and Dagner thought he was just boasting. Later they decided that there might have been some truth to it, perhaps even more than their father had realized. But that was a lot later.
Before they come to that understanding, we spend a bit of time
with this family of travelling musicians and learn the trade of
the traveller. They were the media of their day, carrying news,
entertainment, scandal and personal messages to the hamlets, villages
and towns along their winding route. It was a fine life in many
ways, and pretty much all that the kids had every known.
It all came to an end on that strange a terrible day that their
father was killed before their very eyes and their mother, his
uncomplaining companion of many years, suddenly reversed course
and went home to her noble family - just as if a spell had suddenly
The kids can't take it. Their relatively free spirits can stand
to be cribbed, cabined and confined, and they feel an obligation
to the Kialan, the young man who Clennan had promised safe passage
to Hannart, a town far along on their route. Aside from that,
the woman they had known as their mother seems to have disappeared
into a chatelaine they hardly recognize, as if she's had a personality
They take the cart and their instruments, including their father's
ancient cwidder, and hit the trail again in the dead of the night.
and if they thought recent events up to that point had been strange
and terrible, they were soon to realize that they hadn't seen
Imagine finding out that your father has been living a secret
live under your nose, doing things of which you had no conception,
thumbing his nose at the authorities in plain sight without anyone
being the wiser. Clennan had managed it for years, travelling
the roads between the North and South kingdoms of Dalemark, using
the cover of his apparent occupation to mask what he was really
doing. He was a spy, THE spy, the living legend called the Porter.
Suddenly his children found themselves the heirs to his last mission,
obligated to carry on the work to make the show their own and
make their way in life.
Moril, as it turns out, has the hardest task, for it is his lit
to succeed where his father only dimly understood what he was
doing. The cwidder, it emerges, is a true instrument of power,
and Moril can use it in a deliberate way that Clennan never mastered.
It's all connected to his ability, which his brother and sister
have always found annoying, to slip in and out of focussed daydreams.
So what we have here is a novel that's one part coming of age,
one part political intrigue, one part family saga and one part
fantasy. The tale begins with Lenina's scolding, "Do come
out of that dream, Moril." Take it, instead, as an invitation
to join the boy.
Cart and Cwidder is the first volume in The Dalemark Quartet,
originally published between 1975 and 1993 and now issued in this
uniform edition. While these are good enough to have reappeared
on their own, I expect we have the resurgence of interest in fantasy
known as the Harry Potter Effect to thank for their publication
at this time.