Tall tales and tropes

whaling-ship
19th-century whaling ship (credit: http://inupiaqadaptationrecovery.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/this-whaling-ship-is-in-full-sail-as.html)

This is the last of the posts I’d planned on Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket, the third in the series commonly known as The Wolves Chronicles. I’ve previously posted about the personages in that novel and on the voyages of Dido Twite, and also given an update on her colourful language. Now I’d to draw your attention to the motifs I’ve noticed in the series that occur in this installment, motifs that pop up elsewhere in her other fiction but which become increasingly plentiful in subsequent Dido Twite chronicles.

As I’ve mentioned before, Joan will have been familiar with international folktale types and motifs, but I’ve not consciously followed these, listing instead just some of the more obvious patterns. I’ve also since been aware of that wonderful reference resource TV Tropes (http://tvtropes.org) which describes itself as “the all-devouring pop-culture Wiki”. A trope is usually regarded as a figure of speech but this online resource tells us that, “for creative writer types, tropes are more about conveying a concept to the audience without needing to spell out all the details.” For them a named trope is shorthand for anything from a simple plot device to a full-blown narrative.

Now, folktales have long been classified according to the Aarne-Thompson Folktale Types and Motif Index, but TV Tropes aims to have a lot more fun, drawing from popular culture in all of its forms (and not just TV). If you’re interested I’ve linked to pages that roughly correspond to the motifs I’d previously noted in my early notes on the Wolves Chronicles. As always, here is the accustomed warning about spoilers to follow.

Resourceful child or Plucky girl
Dido of course turns out to be the sine pari resourceful child in this series, though others will be not too far behind (Bonnie Green and Simon in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for example, and Dido’s half-sister Is in a couple of later novels). Dutiful Penitence in Night Birds starts as wimpy as Sylvia Green in Wolves but by the end of the novel she has morphed, with Dido herself as an apt role model. I wouldn’t however go as far as saying that Dido is a kickass heroine — she’s much too kindhearted to be knowingly violent.

Mistaken identity
Miss Letitia Slighcarp is familiar to those who have read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase as the wicked governess who tries to steal Bonnie Green’s patrimony from her. In that earlier novel she had posed as a distant cousin, and here she is at it again: she pretends to be Dutiful Penitence’s Aunt Tribulation, the sister of Captain Jabez Casket. And very nearly gets away with it.

Drowning or shipwreck or Lost at Sea
At the end of Black Hearts in Battersea Dido doesn’t make it to shore as Simon does, and her friends may be forgiven for thinking that she has perished in the North Sea after the wreck of the Dark Dew. But as we find out in Night Birds on Nantucket, she is plucked from drowning by the crew of the Sarah Casket. However, the Hanoverian conspirators on the Dark Diamond, inadvertently sunk by the sperm whale Rosie Lee, are not so lucky …  Captain Casket and young Nate also appear to have been lost at sea when they are rescued through an unlikely source and deposited on Sankatty beach on the east coast of Nantucket.

Downfall of villain (a bad falling off) 
Mrs Slighcarp gets her final comeuppance falling off a cliff into the Atlantic, a typical fate for villainous types in several of the Wolves Chronicles but which first makes its appearance here. Aiken was not averse to killing off characters in her novels, but as far as I know she always spares the reader the gruesome details.

Scrobbling 
‘Scrobble’ (to use the term that John Masefield introduced into The Midnight Folk in 1927 and which Aiken borrows) means to kidnap. With Dido this usually involves a sack thrown over the head, and this is what happens to Dido and Penitence in Night Birds (Simon had already been subjected to this in Black Hearts).
The TV trope Bag of Kidnapping lists some other examples in various media — not to be confused with the internet term now in use to mean publishing one’s music listening habits online.

Placenames in titles
Nantucket is the third placename to be used in the titles of the Wolves Chronicles, following Willoughby Chase and Battersea. Others would include Limbo Lodge, Cold Shoulder Road and Clatteringshaws. This is a common ploy in many of the 19th century novels Aiken admired, such as Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights and so on.

Animal names in titles
Night Birds in Nantucket is the second of the novel sequence to reference animals following The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, while others are The Cuckoo Tree
and Midwinter Nightingale. Allied to this, perhaps, are the bird names that crop up frequently in the stories: Dido’s own surname Twite means a kind of thrush, while
HMS Thrush makes its first appearance in the series.
(*** In chapter 31 of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park Fanny Price is told that, after seeing his uncle — who’s an admiral — her brother William has been made second lieutenant on His Majesty’s Sloop Thrush. This is probably Joan Aiken’s direct inspiration for the name of the naval ship in the Chronicles.)

Four Elements, escape from 
Earth, air, fire and water are the traditional four elements, and the Battersea family all escaped from Hanoverian plots in Black Hearts in Battersea involving each of the elements. Here it is not so straightforward: Dido of course is one of those who escape from water, and Nantucket Island itself escapes being forcibly driven towards Atlantic City on the mainland by the recoil when the giant cannon fails to be fired. Earth and air don’t appear in this instance to be represented, though.


The next text to be examined will be The Stolen Lake, in which our young heroine finds herself not back in England but in the Andes mountains of South America. As is becoming customary we will find that Dido seems to attract danger and adventure to herself in no small measure.

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10 thoughts on “Tall tales and tropes

  1. Very enjoyable and adds meaning to my own reading of the book. I’ll add scrobbling to my vocabulary and look forward to The Stolen Lake; which, miraculously, I have also read.

    1. ‘Scrobbling’ is my current favourite word — the sound, of course, not the deed — and The Stolen Lake was, I think, my first ever Dido novel! Glad you enjoyed this, Simon, I’m proving to be a bit obsession about all the books in the series …

  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking review, Chris. I’m looking forward to your take on *Is Underground*, especially given the tropes it shares with Pullman’s *Northern Lights* — and I realize it’ll be a while before you get there.

    1. Thanks, Lizzie, I’m having fun with this mini-project. Sorry it won’t be sooner that I’ll be tackling Is but I’ll bear in mind the overlaps (scrobblers and Gobblers especially!) with Northern Lights when I start my analysis. 🙂

    1. I suppose you have to have writers with work to edit in order for us to have something to read! Still, hope you manage to get round to reading these, they really are fun, I think. 🙂

  3. Oh my! There I was thinking The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was all there is – how much I’ve been missing! Thanks for enlightening me; I’ve got a lot to explore now!

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