Troublesome games

Jain version of Snakes & Ladders called Jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, gouache on cloth (image: public domain)

Games, thought Dido, they sure cause a lot of trouble.
Limbo Lodge, chapter 8

Joan Aiken’s 1999 novel Limbo Lodge was entitled Dangerous Games in the 1998 US edition, and this gives us one clue for a singular way to approach this instalment in the Wolves Chronicles. In the novel Lord Herodsfoot is James III’s roving ambassador on the hunt for new and entertaining games, but as well as the games that get mentions in these pages there is the game that is life-or-death, the winning of which Dido Twite and her companions must clinch. It could be argued that Joan Aiken fashions Limbo Lodge as a board game metaphor, with Aratu as the board and individuals as pieces. Is it possible to justify this?

First of all I must reference the late Robert Charles Bell, one of whose slim books on board games I had for many years. In it he put board games into broad categories:

Race games such as Ludo, where the object is to get your piece(s) to a goal before anyone else.
War games such as chess or draughts/checkers, which involve strategy.
Positional games such as tic-tac-toe (noughts & crosses) or Nine Man’s Morris.
Mancala games, a two-player board group of games where the object is to capture all your opponent’s store of beans or similar counters.

Bell also gave attention to Dice and domino games (to which the villain Manoel was partial) and number/word games, but they are only peripheral to the novel. Card games are also peripheral except for one exception, the Tarot, which I’ll discuss later. Many games cross these category boundaries, of course, with chance and strategy skills required in varied measure. Joan Aiken refers to a number of games, some of which I now list.

Hyena. A game of African origin also called ‘Send mother to the well’. This involves a spiral track and dice with players racing their pieces along the spiral from the outside (the village) to the centre (the well) and back. The first player to finish wins the hyena, which also travels along the spiral and back, eating players it passes on the return journey. Dido wonders if Modreda, who is among the first and last Angrians mentioned, finally turns into a hyena.
Cottabos or Kottabos. Ancient Greek game of skill involving lobbing wine into a floating shell. Played by Talisman and Manoel in Naples and again in Regina, Aratu.
Fighting Serpents. Game played by Zuni Indians of New Mexico, a four-player modification of the Spanish game Alquerque.
Mulinello Quadruplo. Strategy game for two players, one of the “Five-in-a-row” family of games using an Alquerque game board.

Empty Alquerque board: two players each with twelve pieces oppose each other, one empty space remaining in the centre of the board.

Four Field Kono. Strategy game from Korea played on a four-by-four board, with each player tries to capture their opponent’s pieces by jumping over their own piece and landing on the opponent’s piece.
Pong Hau K’i. Cantonese version of Horseshoe, a two-player strategy board game with only two pieces per player.

Pong Hau K’i and its Horseshoe version

Senat. “Similar to Serpents” but perhaps actually Senet, an ancient Egyptian board game comparable to backgammon.
King Crocodile (also King & Crocodiles). Aratu game similar to Viking game of Hnefatafl, a war game.
Friends & Strangers. A game from the Loyalty Islands.
Fish, Prawn, King Crab. Molucca Sea game.
Cows & Leopard. Played by Talisman’s jailers.

Tricotin. “Game” played by Jane Kirlingshaw, I assume with a tricot de bobine (Knitting Nancy or Bizzy Lizzy), a process called spool knitting or French knitting. Whether it counts as a game though I rather doubt.
Devil among the Tailors (also called Dead Wall). A table skittles game with the ball (‘devil’) on a pendulum and the nine men (‘tailors’) arranged in a 3 x 3 square. A play called The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather occasioned a protest in August 1805 by tailors, who were dispersed by a troop of Horse Guards as though they were skittles.

A major key to the whole novel is, I think, the Persian game-cloth given by Mr Brandywinde to Dido which she then passed on to Lord Herodsfoot. I have an inkling that this is an early version of the game of Snakes & Ladders known in India as Jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, often played on a game cloth rather than a board. Not only is it a perfect metaphor for the changing fortunes of Dido and her companions in their quest to find John King but both snakes and ladders are evident throughout Limbo Lodge: Aratu itself is known as the Island of the Pearl Snakes, one of which threatens Dido when she is ‘scrobbled’; another serpent, a 12-foot long tree-snake threatens Dido’s young friend Yorka; and, from the companion-ladder that’s lowered from the Siwara onto Regina dockside to the Kai rope bridges and the perilous way up and down the Cliff of Death, it’s clear that there are as many ascents as there are descents on Aratu. Long term fans of the Wolves Chronicles may also remember the Snakes-and-Ladders inn sign Dido’s friend Simon painted at one point on the long journey from Blastburn to London in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Maison Dieu

I come now to playing cards, specifically the Tarot, a game which Herodsfoot directly alludes to. Its significance is reinforced by the references to the “white petals of flowers” which Dido sees “scattered across the stone paving” from the harbour to a building for the returning John King. Then she sees that the “pale shapes were playing-cards with all kinds of emblems on them: bulls, leaves, clubs, swords, hearts, pikes, paving-tiles and trefoil.” And the name of the building that the path leads to? The Maison Dieu. No doubt Joan Aiken had in mind Dover’s early 13th-century Maison Dieu, a hostel for Continental pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, as a model; but it is also the name of the 16th card in the medieval Tarot Major Arcana.

It’s the fortune-telling pack, Dido remembered. That my aunt Tinty Kirlingshaw used to fetch out when she told folks’ futures. And the trump card in that was called the Maison Dieu, with a picture of a tumbledown tower. I wonder why?
— Chapter 11, Limbo Lodge

These details made me wonder if it was possible to assign other people and places to the remaining cards in the Arcana. Some suggestions that spring to mind are

  1. Magician. Jane Talisman Kirlingshaw.
  2. Priestess: Aunt Tala’aa.
  3. Empress. John King’s wife Erato.
  4. Emperor. John King / John Kirlingshaw.
  5. Pope. Desi, Yorka’s uncle or Asoun the elder.
  6. Lovers. Luisa and Kaubré, the unfortunate lovers.
  7. Chariot. The Lass of Cley.
  8. Justice. ?
  9. Hermit. Mario Ruiz?
  10. Wheel of Fortune. Kerala, the Place of Stones.
  11. Fortitude. Dido.
  12. Hanged Man. Tylo rescued by Dido from down the well.
  13. Death. The skull returned to the Place of Stones.
  14. Temperance. Brandywinde and Ta’asbuie are both alcoholics.
  15. The Devil. Manoel.
  16. The Tower. The Maison Dieu in Regina.
  17. Star. ?
  18. Moon. The sun and moon are said to be in ekarin, that is, withdrawn.
  19. Sun. Manoel’s bane the baby Miria’s name means ‘daughter of the sun’.
  20. Judgement. ?
  21. The World. Aratu as the axis of the world.

And what of the ‘zero’ card known as the Fool? Is this Dido herself? Or does it represent the reader and their journey through the maze of the narrative? I don’t think that Joan meant to be prescriptive with these Tarot allusions. But I like to think of the plot of Limbo Lodge as the spiral path of the game of Hyena, perhaps in the more complex pattern of a maze, full of twists and turns and with the path waymarked by the face cards of the Tarot; if this is so then Joan would not be the first author to be inspired by a sequence of cards.

Finally, there are echoes of other narratives, aren’t there? I will mention just two: the theme of the Once and Future King and the story told in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. John King restored to rule on Aratu after his sleep under the mountain is so redolent of King Arthur in his various caves, in Wales and even under the smouldering Sicilian volcano of Etna. And it doesn’t take a genius to pick out some of the parallels with the play: Aratu as Prospero’s Isle, King as Prospero himself ’rounded with a sleep’, Talisman as a proactive Miranda, Herodsfoot as a wimpish Ferdinand, Modreda and Mario Ruiz as Sycorax and Caliban, the Dilendi themselves as the spirits of the island. The parallels aren’t exact, of course; but enough resonances remain for the reader to listen out for.

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