Ego and Id

Mortimer and Arabel by Quentin Blake
Mortimer and Arabel as depicted by Quentin Blake

Joan Aiken Mortimer’s Tie
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
BBC Publications 1976

The fourth of Joan Aiken’s Arabel and Mortimer books, Mortimer’s Tie is also the first I’ve ever read, but not being acquainted with what preceded the events here was, I felt, no barrier to following what was happening. And what a lot happens! You don’t need to know quite how Arabel (who is “still too young for school”) acquires her pet raven Mortimer, you just need to know what results when the corvid is introduced into a human environment. One word: chaos.

The plot involves Mr Jones’ taxi being cleaned out, what Lady Dunnage lost in it, a cruise ship with a full compliment of crew and passengers, and an unfortunate episode with a grand piano. Oh, and the green tie that Mortimer has as his snuggy or comfort blanket. Going from Number Six, Rainwater Crescent, Rumbury Town to somewhere off the coast of Spain and back is the arc of the story, a sequence of related events that is rarely aided but always abetted — usually for the worse — by Mortimer. Only Arabel has some control over him, but sadly that’s not always enough. (But if she did there would be no story!)

The heart of this story is not the mayhem but the characters. Mortimer is a most disarming individual, totally self-centred as wild creatures tend to be but with an innocence that displays none of the more devious aspects of the Trickster Raven in the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. If, as the author suggested, Mortimer is the Ego that many young readers could easily identify with then Arabel is the complimentary Id trying her darnedest to ameliorate the situation or mitigate the excesses of Mortimer’s actions. Arabel’s mother, meanwhile, is an anxious latter-day Mrs Malaprop — she believes at one point that Mortimer has been “magnetised by one of those hypopotanists” and that the cabaret singer Miss Brandy Brown is “a very silly historical girl to fly off the handle” with her claim to have “an algebra about birds, or an agony”. And we mustn’t forget the good guys such as Mike the friendly steward, or Mr Fairburn the chief engineer with his idiosyncratic Scottish turn of phrase, or Henry Mainbrace the captain’s son …

zanni mask
Zanni mask for the Commedia Dell’Arte

Joan Aiken of course plays on the folkloric characteristics of many of the crow family — Mortimer has the corvid ability to mimic (“Nevermore!” is his chief and only phrase) and the tendency to thieve anything that catches his fancy, from a diamond ring to potato crisps — but her intended audience may often be unaware of this reputation; in fact the raven’s association with doom, gloom and death is not even hinted at. To me the type that Mortimer most resembles is a Zanni (“zany”) character in the Italian commedia dell’arte who usually — and maybe not coincidentally — wears a dark or black mask with a beaky nose, and whose role in to create chaos in a household.

Finally, the cruise ship itself is the perfect theatre for Mortimer’s strain of havoc: The Queen of Bethnal Green becomes a closed system where the bird can unwittingly create a train of disorder and confusion. Like a talented composer of miniatures Aiken skillfully reintroduces thematic material throughout the seventy-odd pages, even adding a pastiche popular song or two, all to the accompaniment of a doomed grand piano. Created for the popular children’s TV series Jackanory in the seventies, the Arabel and Mortimer stories were programmes that I somehow missed even though the first of our children was growing up at the time. Thank goodness then that there are another dozen stories still available for me to explore.

The Queen of Bethnal Green
The Queen of Bethnal Green … maybe
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17 thoughts on “Ego and Id

    1. Quentin Blake isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but to me he’s virtually synonymous with authors like Roald Dahl, and his lightning-quick sketches and watercolour washes capture the essence of whatever text they’re illustrating. Mortimer is executed with such basic strokes but they tell you all you need to know, don’t they?

      1. I agree with every word you have typed, oh to have an original painting, a large one of that wonderful raven 🙂 Funnily enough, we went to the river festival in Middlewich at the weekend and there were morris dancers dressed as crows, apparently they come from one of the nearby villages. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo or the name of the village, but they did look rather corvid like and a little bit like Mortimer 🙂

        1. I was intrigued about your crow dancers, so I looked it up! According to the Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival site (http://www.midfest.org.uk/dance16.html) “The Moulton Crows were formed in the 1920s when many of the men were laid off from the surrounding salt works. The original crows were all male and dressed in black suits with bright yellow beaks and wings which they flapped to imitate birds swooping and diving.
          Originally the crows also took part in local carnival and fetes and were banned from some because they won all of the prizes! Though it fell by the wayside in the 1970s many villagers remembered the dance with pride and fondness, and popular demand led to the formation of the Moulton Events Committee and the crows returned in 2006.”

          Well, fascinating stuff — and I can see the resemblance to Mortimer!

          1. Yes thats them, thank you for the info and they are Mortimer look a likes 🙂 It was interesting that it was their first time at the festival, which seems to be growing each year. Well something else to add to your crow collection 🙂

  1. earthbalm

    Great!
    For me, part of the joy of Arabel and Mortimer was the Jackanory story telling by Barnard Cribbins.
    Precious childhood stuff.

  2. I never thought of the Commedia connection, although it seems obvious now, and I actually trained as a mime and studied these masks…! This was classic clowning, those stories were enacted by fixed character types – rather like the fairytale stereotypes that Joan enjoyed sending up in many of her other stories.
    Another of your innovative and alternative insights for me to follow up – thank you!

    1. It was Quentin Blake’s depiction of Mortimer with that large dominating beak that put me in mind of rooks, Lizza, which then reminded me of this Venetian mask we got in Limone by Lake Garda and had me then thinking of Commedia disguises in general:

      I think I’m right in believing there are two main types of Zanni, the devious and the innocent — naturally I imagine Mortimer to be the second type! I’ve always loved Joan’s playing around with (and sometimes subverting) stereotypes and I’d like to think that a small bit of her immensely creative mind — whether consciously or subconsciously — included the Innocent Fool archetype in Mortimer’s make-up.

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