Raven mad

Mortimer and Arabel by Quentin Blake

Joan Aiken: Arabel, Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Barn Owl Books 2002 (1973)

Chris Cross comes to babysit preschooler Arabel Jones and her pet raven Mortimer but, this being an Arabel and Mortimer book, mayhem naturally ensues. The comedy of errors plays itself out, of course, and all’s well that ends well, but potential tragedy stalks our hapless innocents because this, after all, is a Joan Aiken book. Does it explain anything that there is no actual black mamba involved?

The action is initiated by a desire to procure some replacement milk for Chris while Mr and Mrs Jones are out at the Furriers’ Freewheeling Ball in Rumbury Town. Joan’s inventiveness includes Mortimer’s head being stuck in a trumpet, hitting the jackpot on an arcade fruit machine and a pair of shady characters with guns. But while Arabel, Mortimer and Chris wander the streets, Mrs Jones’ increasingly hysterical imagination and malapropisms make a drama out of a minor crisis. Quentin Blake’s minimalist illustrations perfectly capture the insouciance of the babysitter and the babysat, along with the confused adults trying to make sense out of the chaos.

When the Halloween season approaches our minds turn to the supernatural, the spectral and the sinister, with ravens often symbolising the spooky atmosphere of graveyards and haunted houses. Luckily Mortimer only reflects the ungainly aspect of these marvellous corvids, their possibly undeserved reputation for shiny things fully exploited by his search for diamonds in the most unlikely places, like airing cupboards and coal scuttles. Joan’s sense of the ridiculous surely appeals not only to this series’ young readership but also anyone who still harbours that inner child.

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12 thoughts on “Raven mad

    1. Quentin Blake is best known here for illustrating many of Roald Dahl’s children’s books. Not everyone rates his style, but they’re just fuddy-duddy poo-poos without an ounce of childishness in them.

  1. Can’t keep up with you…or Joan! I meant to say on your earlier A & M piece, that I am fairly certain that Mortimer was intended as the unfettered ID – the thankless task of trying to rationalise his actions falls to Arabel as the EGO. Quentin Blake also reversed them in an interview, and the mistake seems to have gone on unchecked! Joan imagined that every tantrum-prone toddler was the embodiment of the ID and would happily go on that way if not tamed by the rigours of life! But yes, the Trickster Raven very timely for Hallowe’en!

    1. A & M as ego and id I quite understand as I probably recognised that subconsciously,** but it perfectly encapsulates what I’ve read of the series. (The grown-ups also seem like overgrown kids!) I suppose that’s why A & M must appeal to children, with Mortimer appealing to their instinctive side and Arabel being the sensible but still quirky aspect they know they should and would be.
      A Tiffany Aiken — I mean Aching! — review coming up next!

      ** And now I check, I see that that previous review was titled Ego and Id, so I would have already picked up that clue — probably from your blog! Duh!

  2. Pingback: Trick or Treat? Life with Joan Aiken’s Mortimer the Raven… | Joan Aiken

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