Joan Aiken The Kingdom and the Cave
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1960)
This, the earliest of Joan Aiken’s published novels, written during the Second World War — when she was only seventeen –naturally has themes which reflect her times. War features of course, with ruthless tyrants, invading armies, aerial bombardment and a plucky state bumbling along. But also, from her teenage point of view, a certain optimism is evident, a sense that the young saw things more clearly than an older generation who were either wicked or well-meaning, duplicitous or incompetent.
If this all sounds very heavy stuff for a novel for the young it’s as well to know that this is a modern fairytale and not an allegorical history of a conflict. Thus, here we have a young prince, magic helpers in the form of talking animals, a device for making wishes come true, a prophecy, a quest and a journey to the underworld, just as in many fairytales. Michael is the young prince struggling with the Latin vocabulary set by his tutor, when he discovers that Mickle his cat is not only able to talk but has urgent news concerning the danger his country faces. It remains to Michael and his animal friends to find a way to defend Astalon.
It’s extraordinary how this teenage tale — which betrays faltering steps in some slightly uneven storytelling — still manages to display many of Aiken’s mature trademark features: a resourceful child, an unpredictable rollercoaster plot and an indebtedness to themes that come from the wide reading the home-schooled author undertook as a child. In particular a love of doggerel and words — especially neologisms and puns — shines through: for example, there is a sorcerer called called Borlock (whose name no doubt derives from ‘warlock’), a destructive leader named Wyburn (why indeed?), a pet cat called Mickle (which conversely means large or great but also recalls Michael’s own name) and a kingdom called Astalon (a compound possibly of Arthurian sites Astolat and Avalon and the Crusader battle of Ascalon).
Incidentally, the subterranean country ruled by a dubious monarch is a staple of much folklore and mythology, including a widespread Italian legend of Arthur in just such a role.
For me there is a particular delight in seeing autobiographical elements in this story, for instance the King, Michael’s father, may be a caricature of Joan’s own writer stepfather who too was known to disappear into his library and must have also appeared impossibly elderly, being nearly 60 when Joan wrote this tale. But for its intended audience this will have been principally a whimsical story of good versus evil with a generous dollop of magic infusing it throughout. The too few illustrations by Peter Bailey exactly capture that whimsy; their timeless style suggests a subtle mix of Edward Ardizzone, Pat Marriot and Janet Ahlberg, but is no worse for that.