Joan Aiken and King Arthur

Sugar Loaf (Y Fâl / Mynydd Pen-y-fâl) at an elevation of nearly 600 metres in the Black Mountains

Joan Aiken’s award-winning novel The Whispering Mountain is chockfull of Arthurian allusions, some of which I’ve adverted to in previous posts. Here is where I bring these and other relevant themes together to point out how thoroughly this book is soaked in what used to be called the Matter of Britain. The usual caveat applies in this as in all my other discussions of the James III sequence: spoilers, minor and major, are more than likely.

The Whispering Mountain

First, the novel’s name. Many of the titles in the Wolves Chronicles reference places, some real, some notional: Battersea and Nantucket, for example, are the first kind, and Willoughby Place and Limbo Lodge are the second. Here the name refers to a prominence in what makes Wales physically distinctive: its mountain ranges, from the Brecon Beacons in the south, via the Cambrian Mountains in Mid Wales to Snowdonia in the north. The Whispering Mountain is a translation of the Welsh Y Mynydd Sibrwd. Sadly, it’s a peak only in the world of Joan Aiken’s imagination.

What it does is call to mind all those hills, hillforts and mountains associated with the Arthurian legend, specifically the motif of the Sleeping King. Motif D1960.2 in Stith Thompson’s Motif-index of folk-literature (“King asleep in mountain […] will one day awake to succour his people”; 816/2497) is one of a group of motifs headed as Magic sleep. While there is no specific ruler sleeping here — it’s rather the mountain itself that rouses at the climax of the narrative — the hollow mountain with the king’s warriors, in this case supporters of the Prince of Wales as future king ready to do battle, is altogether redolent of many King Under the Mountain legends in Britain. These ‘mountains’ include Y Lliwedd in Snowdonia, Castle Mound in Caerleon (actually a Norman motte), South Cadbury hill in Somerset, Alderley Edge in Cheshire, Sewingshields on Hadrian’s Wall and the Eildon Hills near Melrose in Scotland.*

I should add that Arthur is also seen as a giant in Welsh folklore: he sits astride Arthur’s Seat at the summit of the Brecon Beacons, for instance, and the pebble he removes from his shoe turns out to be the capstone of a Neolithic tomb called Arthur’s Stone on the Gower peninsula. I fancy the Whispering Mountain (Fig-hat Ben in local lore) is itself the sleeping giant.

The Once and Future King

Owen and his companions, en route from Pennygaff to Malyn Castle on the coast, come across a man, apparently dead, lying on an island in the middle of the River Gaff. This turns out to be David, Prince of Wales, who has been missing since he went out alone to hunt boar in the Fforest Mwyaf  (‘Great Forest’) which covers the land between the Black Mountains and the sea. This is the man of whom the locals at Nant Agerddau whisper:

Lost, can he be? Only fancy if his royal highness do be fallen down a pothole! They do say the old king is ill, with him, on his deathbed, and calling for his son! There’s pitiful, poor old James Three! Terrible, it is, and not a soul can say where by Prince Deio is at!

With this conjunction of pothole, deathbed and missing king-that-is-to-be, surely the author is slyly suggesting the Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus (as Thomas Malory sells it to his readers) ready to emerge to save his kingdom?

In addition, another sleeping culture hero from Welsh legend is the historic Owain Lawgoch (Owain of the Red Hand). A descendant of Llywelyn the Great and a claimant of the title of Prince of Wales, he was assassinated in France in the late 14th century. Folklore has it that he was once discovered in a cave near Ceredigion, where he appeared as a seven-feet tall figure with a red hand, said to be sleeping “until the appointed time; when he wakes he will be king of the Britons”. It may only be a coincidence that the young hero of The Whispering Mountain is also called Owen.

The boar hunt

When Owen and his party find the prostrate prince they discover ranged around him several dead boars. We are doubtless expected to recall the famous episode in one of the Welsh Mabinogion tales, Culhwch and Olwen, where King Arthur and his men chase the giant boar Twrch Trwyth all across south Wales, from Pembrokeshire to the River Severn. The Twrch (“boar”) kills several of Arthur’s men on the Preseli Hills, but by the time he’s been chased onto the Brecon Beacons his own progeny in the form of giant piglets start also to be killed: “Of all his pigs there went with him alive from that place [Dyffryn Amanw, the Amman Valley] none save Grugyn Gwallt Ereint, and Llwydawg Govynnyad [survived].”

I think that Joan would have been very familiar with the region around the Brecon Beacons from her research for The Whispering Mountain in Brecon Library in 1967; and that knowing that Twrch’s piglets were killed in this area (the Amman Valley is in the south of the Brecon Beacons National Park) she chose to set the Prince of Wales’ boar-hunt in a similar environment, a river valley, this time to the north of her Mountain.

The Harp of Teirtu

As part of this Mabingion tale Culhwch and Olwen the young prince Culhwch (pronounced ‘Kil-hookh’) is given a list of objects he has to obtain before he can marry the daughter of Ysbaddaden Pencawr, “chief giant”. (In keeping with the explicit humour of this native Welsh tale Ysbaddaden seems to derive his name from Welsh ysbaddu, “to neuter” — and he does come to a sticky end.)

“There is yet that which thou wilt not get,” says Ysbaddaden. “The harp of Teirtu to play to us that night. When a man desires that it should play, it does so of itself, and when he desires that it should cease, it ceases. And this he will not give of his own free will, and thou wilt not be able to compel him.”

“It will be easy for me to compass this,” replies, Culhwch, “although thou mayest think that it will not be easy.”

The medieval text doesn’t mention the harp (telyn) again, so we aren’t much the wiser except that it’s like the Giant’s harp in the English tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. (“Play!” says the Giant, and the harp plays by itself, lulling the Giant to sleep. Like Teirtu, the Giant will not give up the harp of his own free will so Jack steals it. The golden Harp of Teirtu in The Whispering Mountain is also much stolen.)

Joan Aiken gives us her own version of the harp’s history. It’s first taken from Castell Teirtud to Caerleon, then to the castle of Ysbaddaden, after which its lost. After being rediscovered by St Dunstan (who, you may remember, tweaked the devil’s nose with a pair of tongs at Glastonbury) it’s reportedly given to St Ennodawg, passing to the Order of Ennodawg (founded around 1630). Owen’s grandfather unearths it from the island monastery of St Ennodawg in the River Gaff and places it in the Pennygaff Museum. It’s frequently stolen by nefarious figures during the course of the novel, beginning with Bilk (‘cheat’) and Prigman (‘thief-man’).

Who exactly was Ennodawg? He appears to be the same as the Cornish St Enodoc or St Guinedoc, commemorated in a 12th century church near Trebetherick in Cornwall where poet John Betjeman is buried. The building is said to be above the site of a cave where Enodoc lived as a hermit. Joan may have come across the name and the site when she and her young family lived for a short while in Cornwall; and the confluence of poet, waterside setting and ecclesiastical structure may well have suggested certain details for this novel.

The King at Caerleon

The epic poem mentioned in The Whispering Mountain is the life’s work — and, as it turns out, swansong — of Arabis’ father, Tom Dando (who is finally revealed as the rightful owner of the Harp of Teirtu). He has entitled his masterpiece The King at Caerleon, a reference to King Arthur’s supposed connections with the Roman  Isca Augusta, now the town of Caerleon. The old amphitheatre has long been dubbed King Arthur’s Round Table and the Norman motte was supposed in the 19th century to be where the king was sleeping. Caerleon was also the birthplace of novelist Arthur Machen, author of works which featured the Holy Grail, and Tennyson stayed in the village while he was writing his Arthurian sequence Idylls of the King.

All these connections — Roman fortress, Round Table, sleeping king, literary figures — not only conspire to render the town a modern contender for Camelot in the popular mind but also make it an ideal subject for Aiken’s mystic poet and healer.

* We mustn’t of course forget that Arthur was also claimed by Normans to be sleeping under Mount Etna in Sicily, arrogating the role role formerly ascribed to Vulcan, the Latin equivalent of Hephaestos.

The reach of the Matter of Britain stretched wide in the Middle Ages! As Wikipedia succinctly has it, the Matter of Britain (not to be confused with “the matter with Britain”) is “the body of Medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain, and sometimes Brittany, and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur.”

Why such a term? The Matter of Britain was “one of the three great story cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology.”

Thus British folklore and legend took a pivotal role in medieval culture, surviving subsequent caricature, parody and decline to revive dramatically in the 19th century and provide a basis for much of the fantasy that developed in the 20th.  

Afterword. Last year I promised posts on topography and chronology in this novel and, yes, they will indeed appear. Just not quite yet!

12 thoughts on “Joan Aiken and King Arthur

  1. Wow, I find this all so fascinating…even though I don’t really know what you’re talking about! It’s like a carrot dangling in front of me to learn more. Do you think someone without all this background information would still enjoy this and other’s of Aiken’s books?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do indeed, Laurie, very much so! With Joan the story’s the thing, first and foremost, and all these kinds of allusions have the dreamlike familiarity that comes of much childhood reading of fairytales and adventure stories, so that we all — children of all ages as we are — can enjoy her fiction without the extensive research this post seems to imply.

      But as this blog aims to ‘explore the world of ideas through books’ I can’t help but delve into the byways of her likely inspirations, just as I do with most authors! And as this novel won a Guardian award for children’s fiction when it was published I’m sure they knew its worth and appeal for its target audience. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. earthbalm

    Another great post. I love the way you research the background to narratives and draw connection between apparently disparate elements in books. Extremely sad hearing about UKLG’s passing today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Dale, I very much appreciate your praise of this. With this novel (as with The Stolen Lake) it very much helped that I was au fait with much of the Arthurian strata that appeared to be underlying the plot!

      Yes, I was saddened too on hearing that news about Lee Guin; I hadn’t realised she’d been in failing health as all her public pronouncements (not to forget reviews in The Guardian in recent years) had led to me to think she was still robust, physically as well as mentally. A real loss, despite the NYT opining (perhaps accurately) that her work was becoming more didactic as she lost patience with people’s seeming inability to learn any sensible lessons.

      At least there’s her body of work to revisit and praise for its wisdom and worth.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So much fun. I love Aiken’s books and someday, when I’m rich, I will collect them all and read them all at once. I am still too inclined to have a vague feeling that there really was a Jamie Three! It’s been a very long time since I’ve read The Whispering Mountain, and I recall nothing at all; I probably didn’t catch the Arthurian layers at the time, and I’m glad to know they are there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The fact, Jean, that you weren’t aware of any Arthurian influences is in its favour, I think! Anyway, I’m glad that you enjoyed this gallumph through the novel’s substrate, and if it encourages you to reread it so much the better. And you can always do what I first did and buy the books in this sequence as and when you get to them!


    1. Thanks very much, Daphne! My knowledge is relatively deep in certain areas but these are few and far between, and to continue the analogy I feel that the excavated material only covers up another area I should be investigating!

      But I’m glad you find this accessible, I do worry that what I present and how I do it may at times be too obscure and incoherent.


    1. So glad you enjoyed this, Lizza, always a delight to hear from you! I’m not yet done with TWM so a couple more posts still in the bag!

      And thanks for the reference, very apposite with UKLG’s passing. I’ve been meaning to post about Iona Opie (she died late last year) but may have to include Ursula too in that — perhaps quite appropriately, what with one having anthropological associations and the other in the field of folklore.


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