The Winter Sleepwalker and Other Stories
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Red Fox 1995 (1994)
This collection of eight haunting tales by Joan Aiken is one to treasure, even in the paperback edition with its dowdy monochrome renditions of Quentin Blake’s colour illustrations. They are all in Aiken’s tell-tale style, redolent of traditional fairytales but served up as an intoxicating draught, a cocktail of bittersweet outcomes, humorous touches, resonant archetypes, sly puns and chantefable verses. Aiken tells us they were inspired by a series of paintings by Jan Pienkowski, though his are not the pictures that decorate the pages — delightful as Blake’s are it would be illuminating to see Pienkowski’s original art.
The eight tales are short, some more, some less than a dozen pages, easy to savour and digest in bite-size chunks. While not consistently linked there are running themes and characters who appear in more than one tale. There are geographical features — the Cloudy Mountains, Knotty Hills, Southern Mountains, various woods and forests, the sea, the heavens — that hark back to fairytales; there are gods and goddess, heroines and heroes, that reference myths and legends from Europe; and there is wordplay in plenty, and the quixotic paradoxes that Aiken delights in for her chosen titles, such as A Basket of Water that she uses here.
The title story, The Winter Sleepwalker, is for me the most melancholy. Bernard the miller carves wood while his daughter Alyss plays a pipe he has fashioned, one of many instances of music, especially song, that occur over and over again. Barnard’s name includes the element meaning “bear”, and not for nothing is a sleeping bear involved in the storyline. Alyss seems uninterested in village boys — a motif which underscores Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin or The Fair Maid of the Mill — preferring to wander the woods playing her pipe. But the curse of a Midas-like touch threatens the well-being of all. This is a heart-breaking little account.
Many of the others are lighter and more whimsical, though don’t necessarily result in pat resolutions. Over the Cloudy Mountains involves royal siblings Teb and Scilla, whose mother has mysteriously disappeared leaving behind a pair of magic shoes which both dispense advice in rhyme and safeguard the wearer. Princess Scilla of Tahyr however wants to learn, requiring her to go to school in the neighbouring kingdom of Banzoota, a journey over the mountains fraught with danger. There is hope at the end however, even if we are not assured of a resolution — this story feels as if there is a sequel waiting to be told. Blazing Shadows has a Grimm-like feel to it, albeit with novelties like vacuum cleaners, featuring a vindictive witch called Mrs Hatecraft. Her name no doubt a nod to horror writer H P Lovecraft, it comes as no surprise that the hateful woman meets a sticky end.
Another witch appears in the next tale. Melusina borrows motifs and name from the French legend but with the usual Aikenesque twists — the heroine’s mother is absent “on a space mission” (absent mothers are rather a feature of these tales), and the witch who curses Melusina to turn into a serpent one day a week turns out not to be so bad after all, just anxious. There’s even mention of a King of the Sea here, and Neptune — another (or even the same) King of the Sea — appears in A Basket of Water: he woos and marries a sailor called Josslyn Abelsea. Josslyn, who belies her surnames by being a midship-person and not an able seaman, promises to love him “until the birds fly backwards and fish swim upside down and water can be carried in a basket”. Of course, this promise is bound to be circumvented, partly thanks to a Krakatoa-like volcano.
Josslyn gets to be an Admiral, which means that her mother, old Mrs Abelsea from Norfolk, gets to look after Josslyn’s boys Mat and Rod in The Liquorice Tree. In this tale Aiken weaves her magic with elements from the Perseus myth (with its human sacrifices and fearsome dragon) and the old motif that “music soothes the savage breast”. Extinct animals like dinosaurs are stranded on Earth instead of a Venusian moon called Earda. Interestingly, a phantom moon of Venus called Neith was long believed to exist, but it wasn’t till 2002 that a co-orbital quasi-satellite asteroid called, thrillingly, 2002 VE68 was located by astronomers; I’d like to believe this is the Earda of Aiken’s tale. You’ll need to read the story to find out where the Liquorice Tree comes in.
The tales now get a little darker. Furious Hill is a bleak Northern narrative mixing in elements about Odin, the Well of Urd and mysterious runes from Norse myths. What did my father say to his son as he lay dying? This gnomic question is never answered, another instance of Aiken’s clever refusal to resolve all the issues thrown up by her stories and so leaving the reader to be part of the creative process by imagining possible outcomes. Finally, after the title story The Winter Sleepwalker we get the creation myth of Catch a Falling World, where the prophecy that the protagonist will only stop falling “when a single dog howls for pity at his plight” finally leads to a satisfying ending of sorts. But we are still confused by her mixing of Greek, Jewish and Christian mythology, and the final sentences show Aiken at her enigmatic best: “Because it had grown so big, they never did return the football. And that led to a whole lot of trouble later on.”
I love this collection of tales, not least for the proactive female protagonists such as Scilla, Trilla, Melusina, Josslyn and Alyss. This is a cup of never-ending delights from which I shall be drinking again and again.