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.

Birds

The title of the novel itself references the cuckoo, its name formed from the male’s repetitive call which, heard in or around April each year, traditionally marks the first day of Spring. The female cuckoo is also known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests, their shape, colour and form apparently closely resembling the host birds’ eggs. The Cuckoo Tree itself shelters two ‘orphans’, Cris (who happily discovers she has a brother and a grandmother) and Dido herself (who feels bereft, betrayed by her own father and lacking ‘someone of her own’ to love and be loved by).

Dido’s surname Twite derives from the little finch, Carduelis flavirostris, not so common as it once was (with numbers dangerously low in Britain). Dido is also the archetypal ‘Cockney sparrow’ though she is never ever called that.

This novel has almost the last, if not the last, mention of HMS Thrush, the naval ship under Captain Hughes’ command in which Dido has sailed around the world. Nominally described as a sloop, it has taken Dido from Nantucket to South America and across the Pacific Ocean to Easter Island and the Spice Islands before finally landing at Chichester on the south coast of England.

St Paul’s Cathedral — where the coronation is due to be held — is code-named the Wren’s Nest, presumably on the basis of it being designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren. Its launch into the Thames is circumvented by Yan and Rachel the elephant creating a giant cat’s cradle of ropes and cables around it, an echo of the cat’s cradles that Tobit taught Cris on board the Gentlemen’s Relish.

There is a passing mention of a parrot named, appropriately for such imitative birds, Polyglot — Tobit and Cris recall knowing such a bird when they were toddlers on Tiburon Island in the West Indies.

Finch, thrush, wren, parrot — all birds but presented in such a variety of contexts it would be easy to miss any connections or associations.

Downfall of villains

The endings of many of the Chronicles are distinguished by the fate of the principal villains, which frequently involves a quite literal downfall. So far we’ve seen Miss Slighcarp, Queen Ginevra, Manoel Roy and Lord Malin (along with his two cronies Prigman and Bilk) fall off cliffs, down abysses or in collapsing towers.

The Cuckoo Tree follows these chronological precedents, and flags up that it will do so in a rather bold way: the villains plan to sell the Tegleaze heirloom (a miniature painting featuring a collapsing Tower of Babel) to the Margrave of Bad Fallingoff. As it happens, the two principal evil-doers do indeed have a bad falling-off: Miles Tegleaze trips and falls down a well, while Colonel FitzPickwick is precipated (or perhaps precipitates himself) off the precipice that is the west front of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Scrobbling

‘Scrobbling’ is a term borrowed from John Masefield’s two related children’s novels, The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights. In effect it means kidnapping. Poor Dido is indeed a youngster who is somewhat scrobbled, but she’s not the only one. Cris is one who, though not captured in the strictest sense, is nevertheless kept under virtual house arrest from a young age. Tobit is also apprehended after a hue and cry, falsely accused of theft and illegally sentenced to transportation, then surreptitiously abandoned down a well. Finally, Dido is scrobbled by or through the machinations of her own father before being rescued by a tiger.

Drowning, and being underground

The Chronicles feature a lot of instances of drowning, or at least the threat of it. In The Cuckoo Tree Tobit fortunately escapes drowning in the well near the prison, but Miles doesn’t. In a sense the well also counts as incarceration underground. Later on, Tobit follows Mrs Lubbage’s rat underground from a cellar to the void created for the rollers under St Paul’s Cathedral. And of course, the conspirators’ plan was for the king and congregation to drown in the Thames as the cathedral slid inexorably on the rollers down to the river.

Miniatures

The Cuckoo Tree has a theme that so far in the series is unique: the focus on miniatures. It’s as though Dido, having (as we now know) circumnavigated the globe, is required to consider the microcosm in the paracosm that is her world.

First there is Cousin Wilfred’s doll’s house, located in Tegleaze Manor. Then there are the glove puppets from the puppet theatre — what Miles Tegleaze refers to as his ‘marionettes’, though they are nothing of the sort — which seem to take a life of their own for anyone under the influence of Tante Sannie’s hallucinogenic joobie nuts.

Next there is the Tegleaze Luck-piece, revealed as a miniature painted on ivory by no less an artist than Pieter Bruegel the Elder; it is of the Tower of Babel at the point of collapse.

Finally we note that the Dean of St Paul’s and the King are seen building a house of cards, though presciently it keeps collapsing following a gust of wind or a shake of the cathedral.

Mistaken identity

Somebody appearing to be other than they are is a recurring theme in the Chronicles, and The Cuckoo Tree is no exception. The butler Gusset, for instance, mistakes Dido for Lady Rowena Palindrome (he clearly has seen neither young woman before). Gusset later even has problems getting Dido Twite’s name right.

There are more misidentifications to come: Cris is mistaken for a boy when Dido first meets her; Miles Mystery is revealed to be Miles Tuggles and then Miles Tegleaze, a dubious (and devious) claimant for the Tegleaze estate; the hidden hoboy player for the puppet theatre turns out to be Dido’s Pa; the smugglers hide under the collective name the Wineberry Men while individually bearing ciphers borrowed from sheep-counting traditions. In addition the footmen at Tegleaze Manor prove disloyal to their employer, and Colonel FitzPickwick turns out to be no trustworthy family lawyer, having cheated Lady Tegleaze out of her money over some considerable time.

Voyage and Return

Like some kind of endless board game nearly all the Wolves Chronicles involve an arduous journey to resolve a life-threatening issue, followed by a return to the starting point after completion. Bonnie and Sylvia come back in triumph to Willoughby Chase, for example, Dido treks across islands or to and from a mountainous kingdom, or Owen returns to his grandfather’s home in Pennygaff after a hectic crisscrossing of Mid Wales. In this novel it is Dido working her way back to Sussex and the Cuckoo Tree after an overland race to London.

Quest

To a greater or lesser extent all the Chronicles exhibit aspects of most of the so-called ‘seven basic plots’ that some commentators have identified as common to most human narratives. Overcoming the Monster, to name just an obvious example, refers as much to inhuman human adversaries as non-human ones, of a type evident in each volume of the series.

I’ve already mentioned Voyage and Return above so I’ll just note the Quest theme to finish off this discussion: Dido has to get the naval dispatch to the First Lord of the Admiralty, whatever the cost and regardless of severe obstacles impeding her progress. Less a quest for an object and more to deliver it, Dido’s difficulties continue right up to and beyond the figurative eleventh hour.


Unusually, this instalment of the Chronicles is followed immediately by the next, Dido and Pa, though Joan wasn’t to write it until a good many years later. However, those who aren’t diehard Dido fans may be relieved to hear I shan’t be revisiting Dido and her adventures just yet.

One thought on “Themes and variations

  1. Pingback: Themes and variations — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.