Dido Twite and the idée fixe

How Google celebrated The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Joan Aiken really was an extraordinary author, one whose work I’m still exploring but for whom I have the greatest of respect as well as fondness. She had a gift for composing in different genres and for different audiences, displaying now a sense of poignancy, now a touch of mischief, by turns sprinkling magic dust or holding a mirror up to human nature. And she accomplished all this with no hint of the grandeur or hauteur often associated with the archetypal Great Writer.

Though she frequently wrote for adults Joan remains best known as a children’s author, especially for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. I’ve promised myself a reread of all twelve titles but I’ve been an ardent fan for some years now, making copious notes, some of which I’ve already included on this blog.

Attached are some draft notes on common motifs I’ve noticed in the series; they’re not complete, and I know there must be mistakes, but you can see where I’m heading with this. Joan will have been familiar with international folktale types and motifs, but I’ve not consciously followed these; instead, I’ve just listed some of the more obvious patterns Joan seemed to reiterate in most of the books. Now I know that throwing motifs together is not a substitute for good storytelling, rather a way of structuring the narrative to conform to audience expectations; used clumsily it too often smacks of cliché and lazy authorial habits. Nevertheless, when employed in conjunction with wit and imagination and peopled with characters you can really care about (like the near ubiquitous Dido Twite) a solid framework of motifs can only help a story’s architecture to withstand all the withering attention that the critic will condescend to heap on it.

Whether you’ve read any — or indeed none — of the Wolves Chronicles (also called the James III sequence) you might still enjoy seeing how the idées fixes I’ve identified permeating the series are echoed in other literature, from myths and legends through fairytales and classics to modern novels and films.

WARNING: by nature most of these entries constitute spoilers. If you don’t want your future enjoyment ruined by having denouements revealed and villains unmasked please look away now.

BHB Black Hearts in Battersea
Is Is (Is Underground in the US)
Lake The Stolen Lake
Lodge Limbo Lodge (Dangerous Games in the US)
MWN Midwinter Nightingale
NBN Night Birds in Nantucket
Pa Pa and Dido
Road Cold Shoulder Road
Tree The Cuckoo Tree
Witch The Witch of Clatteringshaws
WM The Whispering Mountain
WWC The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Young Joan Aiken (photo: http://joanaiken.com/pages/gallery.html)
Young Joan Aiken (photo: http://joanaiken.com/pages/gallery.html)

Resourceful child
Dido (passim)
Is (Pa, Is, Road)
Owen Hughes (WM)
Bonnie (WWC)
Pen (NBN)

Mistaken identity
Boy / girl: Cris (Tree)
Man / woman: Talisman (Lodge)
King / Manoel (Lodge)
Piers fostered (Witch)
Holystone / Arthur (Lake)
Pa / Boris Bredalbane / Desmond (Pa)
Simon / Lord Bakerloo (BHB)
Miss Slighcarp / Aunt Trib (NBN)

Drowning or shipwreck
By flood or tsunami: Roy in River Wash (Is)
At sea (WWC, BHB)
Whirlpool (Witch)
River in flood (WM)
North Sea: Dido from Dark Dew (BHB)
From sea cliff: Miss Slighcarp (NBN)
‘Cap’n Casket and Nate’ (NBN)

Downfall of villain (a bad falling off)
Miles Tegleaze (down well, Tree)
Col Fitzpatrick (off St Pauls, Tree)
Ginevra (in Caer Sisi, Lake)
Roy (thrown by train into Wash, Is)
Mrs Slighcarp (off cliff, NBN)
Malyn (down vent in Fig Hat Ben, WM)
Lot, Titania, Minna (off viaduct, MWN)
Manoel (off Cliff of Death, Lodge)
Fishskin and Miss Twite (Road)

New Blastburn (Is)
Nant Agerddau, Castle Malyn (WM)
Talzen’s Cave (Witch)
Chelsea Bridge tunnel (BHB)
Well: Tobit (Tree)
Rotherhithe (Pa)

Scrobbling, child labour, slavery
Bonnie and Sylvia (WWC)
Dido (MWN, Lake, Lodge, Pa)
Children in New Cumbria (Lake)
Simon (BHB)
Dido and Pen (NBN)
Children in Holdernesse mines (Is)
Phrygians in gold mine (WM)
Dilendi from Angrians (Lodge)

Language, dialect
Thieves’ cant (WM)
Welsh (WM)
Scots (WM, Witch)
US English (NBN)
Portuguese / Aratu (Lodge)

Malyn's chaise
Malyn’s chaise

Placenames in titles
Willoughby Chase
Limbo Lodge
Cold Shoulder Road

Animal names in titles
The Cuckoo Tree
Midwinter Nightingale
Night Birds in Nantucket
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Bird names
Twite (a kind of thrush)
HMS Thrush
Frigate Throstle (a kind of thrush)
St. Arling (starling)
HMS Philomela (nightingale)
Arctic Tern (Lake)

Four Elements, escape from
BHB: fire (theatre box), water (Thames barge), air (balloon)
Lake: Escape by air (‘floater’, hang glider), volcanoes (fire), earth (Ellen), water (melting of glaciers)
Lodge: Lass of Cley (all four elements)
Road: Throstle (water), fire (gunpowder), earth

Prophecies etc
Sam Greenaway (Pa, Is)
St Ardust, St Arling etc (Witch)
Whispering Mountain: verse
The Return of the King (Lake)
Tante Sannie: reads hands (Lodge)
Margrave’s Luck in 61st year (Pa)
Mme Lolla: Clapham Fair fortune teller (BHB)

Book references
Journal of Natural Philosophy (Lodge)
Tom Dando, ‘The King at Caerleon’ (WM)
Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (WWC, Lake)
Ladies’ Magazine; Maids’, Wives’ and Widows’ Penny Magazine (BHB)
A Harp of Fishbones (actually a story collection by Joan Aiken)

19 thoughts on “Dido Twite and the idée fixe

    1. The good news, Simon, is that much of her work though long out of print (apart from the more popular stuff) is now being republished by the likes of Virago in the UK and Small Beer Press in the States, though I’ve been lucky to pick up many titles secondhand in the interim.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Lizza, really chuffed you liked this and, yes, so many possible lines of enquiry suggest themselves for several PhD studies! As I progress through my promised reviews this year I hope to be commenting on a likely Wolves timeline — we did have some initial discussion about it a few years ago but then it all fell into abeyance on my part. And, sadly, time is not hugely on our side though I shall give it my best shot!


  1. earthbalm

    This is a great resource and I’m going to print it out on actual paper with real ink (no virtual web net stuff) to keep and make notes over as I read if you don’t mind. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, of course I don’t mind, Dale, I’m so pleased you’ll find it helpful as a resource (your posts on the Wolves series were actually a spur for me to get these out). As far as I’m concerned any stuff published on this blog is consciously made freely available to all and sundry, though an acknowledgement is always hoped for if the ideas are quoted and expanded on elsewhere. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really loved Midnight is a Place when I was at school, though I’ve never read Wolves. Sadly skipped your post (spoilers!) as I hope to read more Aiken in the future.


    1. There is some overlap between places (Blastburn especially) and themes (child labour for example) and period (an alternative 19th century) between Midnight is a Place and quite a few of the Wolves books, so you might anticipate some feelings of familiarity; but the Wolves title have much more that is fantastic and unfamiliar. Good not to see the spoilers though before you start!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The more I hear about the series, the more I want to read it. Aiken was a very interesting writer, wasn’t she? And people think that raising ‘issues’ in childrens’ books is a recent phenomena!


        1. There’s a real tussle going on between real-life issues such as child labour and physical abuse and the fantasy/alternate history scenarios that she conjures up — a tussle that I think helps a child audience to understand and form judgements on the issues without necessarily succumbing to the despair or cynicism that an adult audience might entertain. She is a past mistress at engaging heart and mind on these concerns without pushing an overtly moral stance, allowing her readership to come to their own positions and make up their own minds. Just the right way to approach an authorial responsibility, I think.


  3. Liz

    I feel as though I have been introduced to a real treasure trove here… What a great resource; I look forward to exploring it in more detail. Thank you.


  4. Like the others, I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts about Aiken’s series, Chris. Just an aside on one of the themes: I’ve always been struck by the similarities between Is Underground and The Golden Compass. Has anyone else seen these?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I had noticed the striking parallels between Gobblers and children being ‘scrobbled’. I suppose it comes from the same quasi-Dickensian-cum-steampunk backgrounds both authors devised for their series, though of course Pullman and Aiken take the theme in rather different directions, Pullman more Miltonic and Aiken more, well, social I guess. The General Oblation Board represents institutionalised abuse perhaps, while Aiken’s villains often stand for capitalist exploitation, corporate power or sheer individual greed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ll definitely have to reread. None of this jogs my memory and even His Dark Materials is a bit hazy now. Another series to reread…
    By the way, I think I know where Adele comes from. Simple word association—a girl in my class at school was called Adele Aiken.

    Liked by 1 person

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