Mountain people

 

A Bridge near Brecon (1809). Image: public domain

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain (1968) is very firmly set in the early 19th century in mid-Wales. Having done her research she evokes placenames, legends, speech-patterns, history and people in this alternate/alternative history fantasy, all within the parameters of a tightly-plotted narrative.

In this post I want to introduce the Welsh characters who inhabit these pages, leaving outsiders, incomers and nobility to a related post. As with so many of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken has created a rich background for her story, including a large cast of characters, but so many of the main players are distinctive enough that it’s not too hard keeping track of who’s who. As is my wont, in these notes I aim to suggest possible inspirations for how the author created her alternative history timeline.

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Times out of joint

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust,
Volume One: La Belle Sauvage

Illustrated by Chris Wormell
David Fickling Books / Penguin Books 2017

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is an exceptional young man, bookish yet practical, hard-working yet imaginative. Living in a world parallel to ours, near an Oxford which is not quite the same us ours and in times very different to ours, he has to call on all his innate resources when the times prove to be out of joint. Will he prove instrumental in helping to set it right?

Pullman’s long-awaited new trilogy The Book of Dust, set in the same frame as His Dark Materials, in my view looks like living up to its promise. If we can accept the existence of daemons, those anima/animus beings in the form of animals that humans all have in this world, then at first this narrative starts off as a straightforward thriller. Those familiar with the earlier trilogy and its associated works will not be surprised to discover that this instalment provides further details of Lyra Silvertongue’s backstory; but new readers will not be unduly disadvantaged because our focus is almost entirely on Malcolm and the deep water — literally — he finds himself in.

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What the mountain whispered

I posted a review of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain with a promise of further discussion based on copious notes I did a few years back, and with this post I’m starting to fulfil that promise. Expect a kaleidoscope of background info on this winner of the 1969 Guardian Award!

The first thing I want to draw attention to in this instalment of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence is the author’s use of themes, some of which link with other novels in the chronicles — with such a device Joan provides threads across the series which help to loosely bind them into a pleasing alternative history of the early 19th century.

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How to spot a reader

The surefire way to identify an eager beaver young reader is to listen to them.

How do they pronounce the words they’ve seen in print but never heard?

Do they — as I remember being sniggered at for doing — say “causal” instead of casual? Does that understandably precocious child pronounce “foregin” in place of that odd-looking word foreign? And — as I heard an adult enunciate when expanding his horizons into less mundane topics — does “esoteric”sometimes emerge (by analogy with “expectorate” perhaps — with the stress on the second syllable?

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Lively and inventive

cambriae_typus.jpg
Cambriae Typus: map of Wales by Humphrey Llwyd 1527-1568 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Aiken
The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)

Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).

Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.

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Like a Hyena

Eftsoones out of her hidden cave she called
An hideous beast, of horrible aspect,
That could the stoutest courage have appalled;
Monstrous misshaped, and all his back was specked
With thousand spots of colours quaint elect,
Thereto so swift, that it all beasts did pass:
Like never yet did living eye detect;
But likest it to an Hyena was,
That feeds on women’s flesh, as others feede on grass.

— Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Book III, Canto VII, 22

In Spenser’s extraordinary allegorical epic in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and her government he comes up with striking image after image and kaleidoscopic incident after incident. I’ve only dipped into The Faerie Queene now and again but this incident came to mind when I was reading Philip Pullman’s first follow-up to the His Dark Materials trilogy, La Belle Sauvage. For those struggling with Spenser’s language, here’s a prose version of the circumstances surrounding the creature’s appearance, which includes a young innocent maiden fleeing from perils:

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Parallels

Cover art Chris Lovegrove for Pendragon: Journal of the Pendragon Society XIV/3 1981

Geoffrey Ashe: “A Certain Very Ancient Book”;
Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History.
Speculum 56, 2: 1981

Geoffrey Ashe
in association with Debrett’s Peerage
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage Limited 1985

A recent guest post by Katie Wilkins of Doing Dewey on Lory Hess’s blog Emerald City Book Review introduced a 1985 publication that stimulated some discussion. It prompted me to look up some reviews I penned of Geoffrey Ashe’s book at the time, plus one of the academic papers that preceded it.

Below is the slightly edited texts of those reviews with some linking commentary, for those who like to muse on the historical origins of the Arthurian legends. The Speculum review is from Pendragon XIV/3, summer 1981, and the book review appeared in Pendragon XVII/4, autumn 1984 (published February 1986). Of necessity the arguments are involved and rather complex — I hope it all has a little more than just historical curiosity!

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Rex Futurus

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron

I have a confession: I’m not a fan of Arthurian fiction.

There, I’ve said it. Why so? It comes from a half century of involvement in Arthurian matters, from archaeological research to editing a society journal, during which I came into forced contact with innumerable theories about ‘rex quondam’ in fiction, in non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Some were plausible, most were speculative, and whole libraries of them were, frankly, preposterous. So in a way I’m the last person to be enthusiastic about this particular literary genre.

And yet, there are aspects I delight in. In amongst the many servings of clichéd tropes (many even falling far short of Steinbeck’s 1976 Malory-inspired The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights) there are gems that catch the eye. Three overlapping areas I’ve noticed concern the King himself, Merlin and the Grail, so I shall divide this discussion into these three sections. Also, along the spectrum shading from history to legend is another axis taking us from an imagined past to a future via a notional ‘present’. To keep things a little focused I shall confine myself to the 20th century; needless to say this is neither a comprehensive survey nor an impersonal one.

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Heart and soul

Philip Pullman: Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Corgi Yearling Books 2004 (1996)

Delicious fun is how best to describe this tale within tales. Here we find Pullman telling a story, in which a storyteller tells a story, out of which frame a character steps into life. Like an old-fashioned clock the mechanism of Pullman’s fairytale fantasy gets wound up and “no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can’t.” And by story’s end we find out exactly how the characters all, literally, “wound up”.

This story is set one winter’s evening in a German town called Glockenheim (“home of the bells”). Glockenheim has a great clock overseen by the town’s clockmaker Herr Ringelmann (“ringing man”), whose apprentice Karl is supposed to be installing a mechanical figure for the clock on the morrow. On the eve of the installation worthies and others gather in a tavern to hear the traditional ghost story told by Fritz the local author. Unfortunately neither apprentice nor writer has completed his creation. Can lowly serving girl Gretl provide the key to completing the tale?

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Literal rather than literary

chevalier

Three Arthurian Romances:
poems from Medieval France

Translated with an introduction and notes by Ross G Arthur
Everyman 1996

The three poems offered in translation here are Caradoc, followed by The Knight with the Sword and The Perilous Graveyard. Dating from around the first half of the thirteenth century, the language of the original poems doesn’t come across well in this English prose translation, as evidenced by clunky passages such as this one, chosen at random from Caradoc [line 10090 ff]:

This is the vow which the King made. He rose quickly and set out on his voyage at once. I tell you that he crossed the sea with a sorrowful heart, so anxious about Caradoc that his body and soul grew weak.

At least with this version, literal rather than literary, the lack of fluency may be a mark of honesty: no attempt to impose a mock High Medieval language as a Victorian or Edwardian rendering might have been tempted to offer.

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