The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)
Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).
Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.
Of especial interest is the Welsh setting and use of language and traditions away from Aiken’s usual specialities such as the southeast of England. Living in West Wales, I was particularly intrigued to see aspects of different real localities transmogrified to suit the story and the conceit of an alternative geography of Britain (Malyn Castle is like Harlech Castle transferred to the region of Aberystwyth); and the use of Welsh phrases and idioms (there is a glossary at the end) when characters speak English struck chords even for someone like me with only a passing acquaintance with the language. I also loved the puns, such as the placename Pennygaff which, although it has a Welsh look to it (real placenames include Pen-y-Fan and Pen-y-Bont, literally ‘Mountain Top’ and ‘Bridgend’ respectively), is actually taken from the name for a type of popular but seedy early Victorian theatrical show. Malyn Castle (and its Marquess of Malyn) is a wonderful composite of malign (a good description of the marquess), melyn (Welsh for ‘yellow’, perhaps a reference to the marquess’ love of gold) and Malin Head (the most northerly point in Ireland, famous from the BBC Shipping Forecast, with its 1805 Martello tower looking very castle-like).
And the story? This is the tale of Owen Hughes, son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush and the grandson of another Owen Hughes, keeper of the Pennygaff museum. Bullied at school, young Owen falls in with heroes, villains and bystanders: who to trust with the ancient harp kept in the museum? The villains are often the most memorable, ruffians like Toby Bilk (slang for ‘cheat’) and Elijah Prigman (‘thief’), and blackguards like the Marquess himself. To right the balance there are kind monks, a future king, a travelling poet and his daughter by a Maltese beauty, Arabis Camilleri. The daughter, also called Arabis (a kind of rockcress; also Welsh arabus means ‘witty’) is the same age as Owen. And we mustn’t forget a mysterious Eastern potentate and the equally mysterious cave-dwelling troglodytes under the eponymous Whispering Mountain. Which does more than whisper in the denouement, in an underground version of the famous Devil’s Bridge inland from Aberystwyth.
As I hope this account suggests, this a book worth reading for its spirited liveliness and sheer inventiveness even if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Aiken fan. Maybe after sampling The Whispering Mountain you may be tempted to try the other alternate histories in the series. There’s even a chance you might not be disappointed. To add to the delight there’s a map but, sadly, only a handful of illustrations by the inestimable Pat Marriott in the original hardback and the Puffin paperbacks. Later issues, such as the Red Fox edition, include neither map nor illustrations, a miscalculation especially with books aimed at a young adult market but no less a mistake with readers of all ages.