Themes and variations

Joan Aiken at the Cuckoo Tree, West Sussex

We come now to my final post analysing aspects of Joan Aiken’s 1971 instalment in the Wolves Chronicles.

Here I want to examine themes in The Cuckoo Tree that not only distinguish it from other titles in the series but also show it sharing memes and tropes common across the Chronicles.

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Of conspirators and kings

Rose Alley, Southwark, London around 1910, site of Dido’s old home

The latest in a series of posts about Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Cuckoo Tree

In previous posts we’ve looked at Dido Twite‘s friends, acquaintances and enemies in Sussex and London; we’ve seen where she travelled and precisely when and where her adventures began and where they have now ended up.

Before we wrap up our discussions on the timeline of Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree it may be pertinent to ask what may have inspired her to invent a storyline that would culminate in an attempt on a royal life at a coronation.

Let’s have a look at some key dates in this uchronia or other reality as well as some in our own times to see if we can spot some possibilities. I promise it’s more intriguing than you might imagine, even if you’re a newcomer here and you’ve no idea what I’m talking about!

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Tying up threads

The Sham Castle, Bathampton, Bath from an old postcard

Garth Nix: Goldenhand
Hot Key Books 2017 (2016)

As I would expect from one of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom novels Goldenhand is chockful of suspense, bravery and fortitude. What I didn’t see coming were the inklings of young love, not once but twice, but what I did hope for were resolutions of threads that had been left slightly hanging from previous books in the series, and in this I was not disappointed.

If in the end I was disappointed it was in the actual execution of those resolutions, which felt a bit perfunctory in the last few chapters. This isn’t to detract from the otherwise masterful storytelling which had this reader continually tempted to read just a few more pages, and perhaps a little bit more after that; or from the convincing worldbuilding that has suffused and sustained the Old Kingdom sequence now for five novels and a couple of novellas.

Lirael, the sympathetic protagonist of the second of the novels, is now Abhorsen-in-Waiting and a powerful Charter Magic necromancer. When the Abhorsen Sabriel (focus of the first book in the series) decides to take a well-earned honeymoon with King Touchstone, young Lirael is left in charge to take responsibility for dealing with reanimated dead creatures plus a Free Magic entity which suddenly emerges to create a crisis to the south of the Wall. Meanwhile, in the far north of the Old Kingdom a young woman named Ferin is being pursued by malevolent beings who track her flight to the south. Is her mission linked with the troubles Lirael is facing further south? You can guarantee it. And what else is it that binds the fates of these two resourceful young women?

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Dido’s homecoming

‘The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.’ The image shows the Vulture, with a lorcha in tow, passing the Weiyuan Battery on Anunghoy Island in the Bocca Tigris, 9 April 1847 (image: public domain)

In recent posts we’ve been looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel The Cuckoo Tree (1971): the people involved, the geography of the narrative, and so on. We now come to a more tricky aspect of the story, the chronology, and we shall find that things are even less straightforward than ever.

But first, a recap of events so far.

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Remember my name

Clay mask of Huwawa/Humbaba depicted as a coiled intestine: British Museum, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

The Epic of Gilgamesh
English version by N K Sandars
Penguin Classics 1971 (1960)

It’s extraordinary and rather humbling that the core of a story over four thousand years old, large parts of which have miraculously survived in the form of sunbaked tablets, can still be deciphered by scholars and translated into modern language for the edification and enlightenment of all.

The fact that it tells the kind of story we’re familiar with from our own fairytales, novels and film is both surprising and yet reassuring, surprising given its age and reassuring because human frailties and virtues clearly haven’t changed much over three or four millennia.

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I Spy

My attention was drawn to a post which that wonderful literary gourmet Helen at She Reads Novels put up in June. In it she highlighted an I-Spy challenge that had been doing the rounds of the blogosphere and which rather appealed to me too. She limited her choice to historical titles, however, while I shall be looking at the whole gamut of my shelves, non-fiction as well as fiction. Here’s the challenge:

Find a book that contains (either on the cover or in the title) an example for each category. You must have a separate book for all 20, get as creative as you want . . .

Thus it was that I set out to waste spend a few precious moments minutes wildly carefully honing my choices for your possible delight. In a couple of cases I really did have problems fitting title to category, so I certainly had to exercise my spindly creative muscles…

See what you think.

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Dido and the Elephant & Castle

Sussex from an old map, showing roads, railways and canals

In Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree we saw Dido Twite in the West Sussex town of Petworth coming to terms with plaguy coves and being aided by kind well-wishers. Dido now has to find a way to circumvent more shenanigans to ensure that the urgent naval dispatch she has been guarding for Captain Hughes gets to London before the coronation of the new King Richard IV.

This post follows Dido’s course by road and her smuggler friends the Wineberry Men’s journey by canal from Sussex to St Paul’s Cathedral, and back again.

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The bells, the bells

Garth Nix’s Goldenhand (Hot Key Books 2016) is the latest addition to a long-running fantasy sequence generally known as the Old Kingdom series. This post is a short overview of what preceded Goldenhand for those in the dark about the series, and looks forward to what questions may be addressed when in due course I post a review.

If you haven’t come across the Old Kingdom before, or even find fantasy tedious or derivative, I may still be able to persuade you to at least consider the novels for their, ah, novel approach to all things magical.

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Dido in Petworth

Modern road map of part of West Sussex

The latest in a series of posts exploring the background to Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree, set in an alternative history in which Hanoverian kings never reigned in Britain, despite attempts to usurp the Stuart throne

We last saw Dido Twite flitting between Tegleaze Manor and Dogkennel Cottages in an effort to ensure Captain Hughes’ recovery from illness and a road accident while also attempting to get an urgent dispatch to London. We now turn our attention to the West Sussex town of Petworth, where Dido meets more obstacles. In addition it’s the town where Joan Aiken herself had a strong connection, as we shall discover.

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Big Magic and a Quarkbeast

Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) from Edward Topsell’s The History of Serpents (1608)

Jasper Fforde: The Last Dragonslayer
Hodder & Stoughton 2010

‘Mr Digby? My name is Jennifer Strange of Kazam, acting manager for Mr Zambini. We spoke on the phone.’
He looked me up and down.
‘You seem a bit young to be running an agency.’
‘Indentured servitude,’ I answered brightly, trying to sidestep the contempt that most free citizens had for people like me.

Jennifer is barely sixteen, a foundling destined to play a pivotal part in the history of a corner of England that is nearly Wales. Sensitives all over the Kingdom of Hereford and beyond are getting premonitions that the demise of the last ever dragon Maltcassion is imminent, and citizens and mega-corporations alike (Consolidated Useful Stuff in particular) are planning to stake claims in the deceased dragon’s land. As it turns out Jennifer is predisposed to take the side of the dragon, which is rather awkward: she is the one chosen to succeed the official dragon-slayer when all she wants to be is a dragon-sayer.¹

As much as any genre but possibly more so, comic fantasy is a troublesome literature. Humour being what it is — highly personal but liable to be hit-and-miss — not every exponent of comic fantasy is going to tickle the funny-bone of each and every reader. Even fans of the genre can get very picky as to what works and what doesn’t in the latest offering from their favourite author. The Last Dragonslayer is principally aimed at a young adult comic fantasy readership, so does it meet the criteria and merit high approval?

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Tegleaze

The Dolphin & Anchor, Chichester (credit: J D Wetherspoons)

Those who’ve been following my vademecum as I explore Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree will realise that, unlike some of the other Wolves Chronicles, the author has based many of her fictional places on ones still existing in our world. For example, the Dolphin Inn in Chichester, where Dido hired a carriage for the wounded Captain Hughes and herself, is an 18th-century coaching inn just north of and opposite the cathedral, and now a Wetherspoons pub known as The Dolphin & Anchor. It’s from here that landlord Ben Noakes lent two of his horses and where ‘Bosky’ Dick proved the least reliable carriage driver to take the pair overnight to London.

In this illustrated post we’re going to follow the hapless passengers through a small part of West Sussex; later we’ll be plotting Dido’s journey through Petworth and on towards London.

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A little of what you fancy

A midsummer sunset, from a garden

To the Reader, confused at my Inconstancy

Here we are, at the start of the second part of the calendrical year (no fanfare as far as I’m aware). I’m not one to boast but I offer this post as both apology and excuse in the spirit of glasnost: I’m not being contraire — I really do care that of late I’ve been remiss (had a lot on my plate) in missing your posts. Note, I’m not really a ghost follower

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