Children of Silence

The Children of Silence: map diagrammatic, not to scale

I apologise for the length of this post: do please skip it if you want, I won’t be offended! And I apologise for neglecting recent posts from blogs I follow, I’ve got a bit behind because of ‘stuff’ cropping up — nothing bad, I hasten to add.


In a series of posts I’ve been exploring the country of New Cumbria and its capital of Bath Regis. You won’t find these on conventional maps because they appear in one of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s series of alternate history novels set in a 19th century where Britain is stilled ruled by the Stuarts. The Stolen Lake places the young heroine Dido in an alternative South America, part of which is ruled by a mysterious Queen Ginevra. I’ve previously looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’), and following three posts on New Cumbria’s geography (the ‘where’) I’d like now to examine some of the themes that permeate the novel (the ‘what’) — but that also requires us to consider a bit more of the geography of this Andean landscape.

Lake Arianrod

The enigmatic body of water that is the ‘stolen lake’ of the title is Lake Arianrod, also called Dozmary Pool. Naturally enough both names continue Joan Aiken’s referencing of Celtic and Arthurian motifs. The first takes its name from Arianrod or Arianrhod, a figure from the Fourth Branch of the collection of Welsh native tales called the Mabinogion. It’s often argued that she is semi-divine, her name possibly meaning Silver Wheel and thus linking her with the Moon. Lake Arianrod is described as lying in a “vast star-shaped basin lying among the four mountains” — big, black, twin-headed Arrabe; dome-shaped Damyake, covered in glaciers; cloud-girt Calabe; and smoke-belching Catelonde. Aiken deftly brings out all the lunar imagery in her story: the sacrificial Princess Elen to be drowned “when the new moon holds the old one in its arms,” the four points of the star-shaped basin like the spokes of the silver wheel, and the constant reminders of the silver mined from beneath nearby mountains, all these are designed to reiterate the symbolism.

Caer Arianrhod lying off the Gwynedd coast south of Anglesey

Joan may also have been aware of Welsh legends of sunken lands in her stolen of the stolen lake. Caer Arianrhod is a reef lying two miles offshore off the Llyn peninsula in Gwynedd, North Wales, often interpreted as the ruins of a submerged town and therefore a sort of mirror image of the empty lake basin. The lake’s alternative name of Dozmary Pool brings in Arthurian legend from Cornwall: the Cornish lake is where modern romantic fancy places the casting away of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur by Bedivere, to be received back by the Lady of the Lake. Unsurprisingly it is here that Dido spots a rusty discarded sword, which she then returns to Mr Holystone, the returning King Arthur. All the elements which were prefigured in the Tenby monument near the start of the tale — sword, stone, king and young woman — come together now near the end.

Also noteworthy is the contiguity of other water motifs. Underground water heated geothermally is the source for the spa waters of Bath Regis and provides the power that slowly turns the revolving palace of Caer Sisi. The adjacent countries of Lyonesse and Hy Brasil are named, respectively, from Arthurian and Celtic sea-girt lands, as was Caer Arianrhod: Lyonesse was imagined as a sunken land off Cornwall, Hy Brasil was a phantom island lying to the west of Ireland. Joan Aiken was to return to the sunken lands theme in Is, inspired not just by Dido Twite’s half sister Isabett but also by the Breton sunken city of Ys, made famous by Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie.

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia and Peru (1985): NASA image public domain

What other model did the author use for the lake? It’s clear that she had Lake Titicaca in mind when planning her novel: not only is it the largest lake in the Andes but at over 3,800 metres or 12,50o feet it is close to the altitude of Lake Arianrod which we’re told is 14,000 feet high. It’s also commonly claimed to resemble a puma chasing a rabbit when viewed from the air, a notion which Joan may have borrowed for one extraordinary image, when the snow leopard** Hapiypacha chases and catches a mountain hare near the City of Sul on Mount Arrabe. I can’t help also looking at the aerial shot of Titicaca and, as with a Rorschach image, seeing the figure of Elen riding on the back of her big cat and escaping to safety.

The Children of Silence

We come now to the mountains, many of them active volcanoes, that feature so much in The Stolen Lake. Joan Aiken has brought Dido up here to the Andes for many reasons but their importance can’t be overemphasised; the last sentence in the novel has Dido

“looking her last at the thirteen great volcanoes, saying goodbye to them in her mind: Ambage and Arrabe, Ertayne and Elamye, Arryke, Damask, Damyake, Pounce, Pampoyle, Garesse, Caley, Calabe and Catelonde.”

The Cheesewring, near Minions, Cornwall (Wikimedia Commons) which is an alternative name for New Cumbria’s Mount Catelonde

When she first sees them they are “reared against the sunset like ghost castles,” and they then haunt the landscape of the narrative. It’s a near impossible task to map these volcanoes according to the descriptions in the text. I took a number of clues to recreate the geography, but I can’t say I’m convinced by the result. Readers may find it of some help though in orientating themselves.

The Children of Silence, as these thirteen volcanoes are called, are ranged between New Cumbria and Lyonesse.
• As Dido arrives at Bewdley she sees the sun setting between the cratered peaks of Ertayne and Elamye.
En route to Bath Regis the railway passes between Elamye and Arryke.
• At the Sydney Hotel, Dido sees the whole of Bath Regis “nestled in the scooped-out summit of a low hill in the middle of a high, flat plateau encircled by a ring of thirteen volcanoes.” Six of these are active, including Catelonde, with the larger of the smoking peaks 30 or 40 miles away.
• South of Bath Dido travels over Odd Down, here a foothill of the “vast slope of Mount Damyake“. The plain she travels over is covered in lines and figures, similar to those in the Nazca plains lying far to the west of Titicaca in our world.
• Passing through a rocky defile round the back of Damyake the party comes in sight of the lake basin. Zigzagging down to the lake Dido sees the sun rising behind Catelonde. A route along the dry lake bed takes the party between Calabe and Catelonde to the Pass of Nimue at the south end of the lake.
• On Dido’s return journey by floater from the City of Sul on Arrabe, she travels along the valley between Catelonde and Calabe, then over the shoulder of Damyake towards Bath. Damask is “close at hand” and erupting, spewing lava out to menace Bath Regis from the west. Eventually Catelonde blows its top, and the glaciers on Damyake become a wall of ice hurtling to cut off Bath on the east.

Whence all these strange names? Unsurprisingly, Aiken has gone to Arthurian lore for inspiration. Here is a passage — slightly edited — from the Winchester manuscript of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which the Roman Emperor Lucius summons troops from all over the empire to enforce tribute from the upstart King Arthur.

Than the Emperoure sente furth his messyngers of wyse olde knyȝtɤ vnto a Contrey callyd Ambage And Arrage And vnto Alysundir to Ynde to Ermony that the Rever of Eufrate rennys by.
And to Assy Aufryke and Europe the Large and to Ertayne and Elamye to the Oute Yles to Arrabe to Egypte to Damaske and to Damyake […] and to noble deukis & erlys.
Also þᵉ kynge of Capydos and þᵉ kyng of Tars and of Turke and of Pounce and of Pampoyle  And oute of Preter Joɧnes londe.
Also þᵉ sowdon [sultan] of Surre and frome Nero vnto Naȝareth, and frome Garese to Galely there come Sarysyns and be com sudgettis [subjects?] vnto Rome So they come glydyng in galyes [sailing in galleys]
Also there come þᵉ kynge of Cypres and þᵉ Grekis were gadirde & goodly arayed wᵗ þᵉ kynge of Macidony and of Calabe and of Catelonde bothe kyngɤ and deukɤ. And the kynge of Portyngale wᵗ many thousande Spaynardis.

You will immediately spot the borrowings Joan has made for the names of her volcanoes. (Malory had already ‘borrowed’ this section from the Alliterative Morte Arthure.) Ambage and Arrage (Ambyganye and Orcage in the Morte Arthure) I haven’t been able to identify; possibly Algiers is meant, while Arrage — Joan’s Arryke — may derive from the medieval polity of Ifriqiya (centred on modern Tunisia). The other names, luckily, are easier to identify as most are lands familiar to the crusader knights who roamed out of Europe looking for infidels to fight.

The list includes Alexandria, India, Armenia (where the Euphrates flows into Asia), (North) Africa and Europe the Large. Further east we have Ertayne and Elamye (Hyrcania and Elam, both provinces of Persia), Arabia and Egypt, then Damascus (now capital of Syria), Damietta (a port on the Nile) and Cayer (Cairo). In modern Turkey we note the provinces of Cappadocia, Tarsus, Pontus and Pamphylia, and nearby Syria and Galatia come next. Also subject to Rome are listed Greece, Cyprus and Macedonia in the Balkans, Calabria in the toe of Italy, and Catalonia, Portugal and other parts of Spain. The origin of Mount Caley I can only assume must be from the phrase “glydyng in galyes“, where the name of a medieval ship has been taken, or perhaps mistaken, for a country.

Joan may have had in mind Malory’s phrase (which I now paraphrase) about the Once and Future King as a prototype crusader — “some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of Our Lord Jesus into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the Holy Cross” — and therefore naturally turned to Malory for placenames to purloin for her Andean mountains. Though Aiken’s returning Arthur isn’t motivated by religion, in reclaiming his kingship great transformations are set in train which will literally change the face of New Cumbria — as well as effect regime change!

What, though, is the significance of the collective name given to these peaks, the Children of Silence? The author doesn’t directly tell us, nor are there obvious clues in the text. Here however I’m going to speculate.

When The Stolen Lake was being written in the mid-1980s massive injustices were being perpetrated in South America. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo were Argentinian mothers whose children disappeared between 1976 and 1983 under the military dictatorship’s state-sponsored terrorism. Similar atrocities and human rights violations were happening between 1973 and 1990 in Chile under the military junta led by General Pinochet, including children being stolen from their natural mothers shortly after being born. Over the years these missing young Chileans have been dubbed the Children of Silence.

Though the term has only become familiar from media reports in recent years it’s possible that Joan knew of it when writing The Stolen Lake. After all, despite the title, this novel is really about stolen children. Children in New Cumbria were rare things: in Tenby Dido spots placards in windows with plaintive messages in mixed Latin and Spanish saying Puella perdida, Niña perdida or Infans absens; and in Bath Regis she is treated to angry stares and comments. Whether these children have been snatched by flying Aurocs (as is officially claimed) or kidnapped to work down the silver mines or, worse, sacrificed in Lake Arianrod, the theme of Abducted and Enslaved Youngsters is one that Joan Aiken returns to time and again in the Wolves Chronicles.

Other motifs

There’s little space left to discuss other themes in details but I must just mention two in particular. The Chronicles deal extensively with jeopardy in its many forms, and one I call Escape from the Four Elements is especially prominent in The Stolen Lake. Dido escapes from Earth (when she’s drugged, taken underground and dumped on a barge), from Air (when she’s rescued by means of a ‘floater’ or hang glider), from Fire and from Water (when Bath Regis is threatened simultaneously by volcanic lava and by a swift moving glacier).

The second Wolves motif worth mentioning is that of Mistaken Identity. At least seven of the Chronicles features someone who is discovered to be someone else, and here it is the ship’s steward Mr Holystone who is revealed — to his surprise as much as everyone else — as the returning King Arthur.


** There are plenty of big cats in South America but no snow leopards. “Young Mr Darwin” would indeed be surprised to find an Asian big cat in the Andes, as one character is made to say. The name Hapiypacha is, I surmise, from a phrase Joan Aiken found — presumably with all the other Inca-sounding names for flora and fauna — in Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Yncas (edited for Cambridge University Press in 1873 by Clements R Markham from early explorers’ accounts).

‘The Roman War Episode’, transcribed and edited by Jennifer De Lillo, Pip Willcox, Gavin Cole, Zoë Enstone, and Takako Kato, in The Malory Project, directed by Takako Kato and designed by Nick Hayward(http://www.maloryproject.com/winchester_viewer.php?folio=Folio 74r&pos=7&section_id=8, accessed March 15 2017)

Eugene Vinaver (editor), The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Oxford University Press (1954)

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21 thoughts on “Children of Silence

  1. earthbalm

    Love the point about the “Escape from the Four Elements”. Time to re-read the adventures of Ms Twite, I think! Another interesting post Chris. Thanks for taking the time to write and publish it.

    1. This was one of the Chronicles with the biggest range of thematic details — and I could have added so much more, such as her inclusion of varied flora and fauna, or local vocabulary for example. But I’m glad it’s inspired you revisit Dido’s exploits!

  2. Pingback: More on the Stolen Lake – Earth Balm Music

  3. Just curious Chris, would any of Joan Aiken’s books have been dramatised for the radio. I haven’t read any of her books, but seem to remember listening to something very similar, quite a long time ago now, with the name Dido in it, most likely not, but maybe 🙂

    1. …and to earthbalm, see below,thanks! Yes Black Hearts in Battersea, second in Joan’s ‘Wolves’ Chronicles where Dido first appears as a small ‘brat’ was broadcast on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve 2009

      1. Many thanks Lizza, my, I thought it was a while ago, but I wasn’t too sure if it was the same…..glad it is. I do remember being quite intrigued by it, must read the books one day 🙂

          1. Ha ha, I am actually reading a book at the moment and I have nearly finished it. ‘The Secret of Skara Vhore’ by Jennifer M Calder…its a young persons book, but wow its brilliant, a fantasy trilogy set on a Scottish Island. I bought it because we were in Dornoch in Scotland last week and in a wonderful bookshop, and it was book of the week, as the author lives there. At the moment there is only one of the trilogy, hope she does write the other two 🙂 So maybe I will get around to Dido, as I am in the mood at the moment 🙂

            1. I do like a good Young Adult book, many are so much more engaging than many serious or contemporary literary fiction titles — less cynical, less world-weary, and generally less pretentious. Not that I don’t enjoy the occasional cynical and world-weary fiction now and again! Anyway the Skara Vhore sounds the perfect way to conjure up the atmosphere of a magical trip, much as your photos do. 🙂

    1. Lizza has kindly given the answer above, an answer I didn’t know but which I feel I ought to have known as it sounds familiar — I may even have intended to listen but never got round to it. Wonder if it’s available as a podcast, hmm.

  4. I would love to reply, in blog form, but am buried up to my neck in a thousand cross- references…you are of course spot on in many ways!
    However I thought you would like to know that a Philosopher niece refers to Joan as the ‘Once and future Aunt’, so I live in hope, and of course the name of her last home and resting place was The Hermitage.

    1. Sounds like Joan wasn’t in a position to resist the lure of Arthurian lore, Lizza! (Isn’t there a story where Mortimer finds Excalibur? I’ve yet to read it, though!)

      On a side note, thank goodness for Google Books, a fount of information for obscure facts like the name of Dido’s Happy Chappy cat — I’m assuming that she must have had access to that Ynca book for this and other names like rumirumi leaves and the curious Initial Double C spellings like Ccapac.

  5. I’m so glad you made the connection to los desaparecidos. I thought of them, as well as of the heart-wrenching photos plastered all over Manhattan after 9/11, when Dido commented on the “Lost Child” notices. Aiken takes her readers through some harrowing events here, mixing the absurd with the all-too real. If it weren’t for Dido, I don’t think I could read this novel as often as I do.

    1. I wasn’t aware of The Disappeared when I first read this in the 80s, and it was only with this recent reading that I made a connection. It was only after I’d googled ‘Children of Silence’ that I saw that a 2014 CNN documentary had made this phrase better known in the English-speaking world. Chileans though had had to live with this tragedy for a lot longer.

      I agree that it takes a real skill to allow the reader to somehow cope with events you rightly call harrowing. And it really down to the irrepressible figure of Dido with her positive attitudes and actions in the face of injustice and cruelty.

  6. One more thing: Becky Sharp, upon leaving Miss Pinkerton’s school, tosses out of her carriage the copy of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary she’s just be handed. It’s a lucky thing Elen didn’t follow Becky’s example.

    1. There you have the advantage over me as I’ve never read Vanity Fair; but no doubt Joan, with her wide reading in childhood, was very familiar with this incident.

      Incidentally, I was fortunate in being able to peruse, though only briefly, an old edition of Johnson’s Dictionary in the Cathedral Library of St Davids in Pembrokeshire. I could have so easily spent hours doing so!

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