Over the past few weeks I’ve been exploring aspects of Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa, focusing on chronology, places and people.
To complete most of the picture this post will look at the novel’s tropes and themes, motifs and memes (there are subtle differences between all these, I know, but I’m choosing to bundle them all up together) to see what the stand-out ideas are and how they might relate to what has gone on before in previous Wolves Chronicles.
This season of the year is almost a character in its own right, here in Dido and Pa as well as in some of the previous novels (or rather their particular time frames). All the chronicles set in Britain have so far included either winter or the lead-up to it.
The pattern was of course set by The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (skating on the estate’s river, the bleakness of Blastburn), followed swiftly by Black Hearts in Battersea (wintry conditions in the Duke of Battersea’s castle at Loose Chippings). Night Birds in Nantucket opened with Dido coming out of her coma within the Arctic Circle, though to be sure it ended in the mists of a Nantucket summer. The same year saw her in the grip of icy weather in the high Andes mountains of South America before an eventual return (via the warmer South China Seas) to late autumn in East Sussex, prelude to the winter conditions recounted in Dido and Pa.
I say the season is almost a character with a part to play in the drama, but it’s fair to observe that events might not pan out quite the same if wintry conditions weren’t butting in. In another sense winter and snow are a kind of Greek chorus, accentuating the bitterness attending the villains who try to thwart the course of justice, and enunciating the Principle of the Pathetic Fallacy, whether in poetry or in prose.
A lot of children’s fantasy relies of course on snowy conditions at Christmas to set the mood: C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for example, and also John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and even Northern Lights (though Christmas isn’t referenced in Pullman’s novel it’s possible that its climax is set around midwinter).
Eurasian Wolf By Mas3cf (Own work [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Hand in hand with the Winter trope come the Wolves (the human types as well as the vulpine). They’re menacing one of the protagonists on the train from London up to Willoughby Chase and besieging the youngsters in young Simon’s underground retreat, as well as symbolising the villainy of Miss Slighcarp and her dodgy colleagues. Packs of wolves besiege Loose Chippings Castle and the streets of London.
Though other dangerous beasties threaten Dido and her friends in the Andes and on a Maluku island, the wolves return, sneaking back through the Channel Tunnel in the weeks after the new king’s coronation, overrunning Kent and London until the snows retreat in Dido and Pa.
These predators are unlike those of our world: so ravenous from bitter Continental winters are they that they invade locust-like, predating without fear on anything that’s in their path, even leaping through train windows and charging doors of castles or shacks; it’s especially not advisable to wander alone across a London park in a daze when they are abroad.
Bearing in mind that the Margrave von Eisengrim displays both vampiric and werewolf-like characteristics (as well has having a name that is borrowed from the wolf of medieval fables) it’s worth recollecting that in the Balkans the werewolf (vroucolocha or vourdoulakas) was synonymous with the vampire, as Polidori’s The Vampyre (published 200 years ago this year) hints.
Dido and Pa features a motif utilised before in the Chronicles, that of having doppelgangers or individuals masquerading as someone other than themselves. Sophie cross-dresses to plausibly pass herself off as her twin Simon; more obviously the Dutchman Van Doon has plastic surgery on his nose (and is coached by Dido to adopt a Scottish accent and phraseology) to pass himself off as the new king Richard IV.
Also, Dido herself shrugs off her midshipman’s clobber to appear as a page at the Margrave’s ball, and Penelope — Dido’s unmarried sister Penny-lope who eloped with a faithless buttonhook salesman –is better known as ‘Mrs Cade’ when she makes dolls in her Blackheath shack. And of course both girls’ Pa is known under a variety of aliases—Abednego Twite, Desmond or Denzil Twite, and the name he finally adopts, Boris von Bredalbane.
Escape from four elements
Dido is the one here who’s slated to escape peril in the form of the ancient ‘elements’.
Earth: she prompts the mass break-out from the cellars under Eisengrim’s residence, Cinnamon Court.
Air: in a death-defying move Dido attempts to flee from the topmost storey of Bart’s Building, narrowly avoiding drowning in the freezing river; unfortunately, after this daring exploit, she is caught by Pa.
Fire: Bart’s Building is owned by the Cinnamon Court’s Margrave, and it’s here that Lily Bloodvessel sets off a conflagration, with Dido bravely rushing in and saving her half-sister Is and others from the flames. Interestingly, the mythical phoenix combusts and is then resurrected in a nest of cinnamon sticks — a detail that may have tempted the author to include this incident — though unfortunately for Mrs Bloodvessel she doesn’t have phoenix characteristics.
Water: when Dido sets off across the frozen Thames she is captured, along with Wally, by the Margrave’s henchman, who intend to drown her in the freezing waters; the resourceful child stymies this dastardly scheme.
I’ll mention now the underground motif that regularly reappears in the Chronicles (most notably in the US title Is Underground). As well as the passing reference to the wolves using the tunnel under the English Channel there is the Thames Tunnel through which the procession passes during the official opening ceremony. And we mustn’t forget the cellars under Bart’s Building and Cinnamon Court where various lollpoops are given ‘lodging’, either paying or as involuntary guests of the Margrave.
Joan Aiken is ever concerned about child exploitation, a theme which runs steadfastly through the Chronicles. In Dido and Pa the lollpoops or street urchins who run the stalls in the East End are constantly in danger of being harassed by toughs in leather jackets, their temporary businesses broken up just for the hell of it.
Born in 1924, Joan was of an age to have been aware of the so-called Battle of Cable Street in 1936, in which a march by Oswald Mosley’s fascists through the East End was eventually broken up through strong opposition to it. The threat of far right thuggery has never entirely gone away, as we unfortunately are aware these days. (Cable Street crossroads was also where John Williams, the suspect in the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, was buried with a stake through his body after he’d apparently committed suicide, another tenuous link with Eisengrim the vampiric werewolf Margrave, one which may have appealed to the author.)
Drowning by shipwreck
The Chronicles are full of reports of vessels foundering at sea and of missing persons (whether they’re rescued or not) and this instalment is no exception. As well as Lord Forecastle, Sir Percy Tipstaff and the Dean of St Paul’s being drowned in a wherry on the Thames, thanks to the Margrave, Dido is due to be the next watery victim when Eisengrim’s men capture her in an ice-yacht. Spoiler: she escapes.
Prophecy or prediction
As the Chronicles are essentially fantasy as well as alternate history, fate or destiny along with prophecy remain a constant factor. Here we find blind old Sam Greenaway, father of Wally and Podge, is the source of predictions concerning Pa, Dido and the Margrave. Unsurprisingly, it ultimately all comes true, but never quite as expected.
Kindness overcomes all
Despite being herself constantly scrobbled or snabbled, in all the Chronicles Dido is never involved in plotting the death of the principal villain, nor is she ever motivated to do so. On the other hand, she is constantly trying to ensure the safety and rescue of innocents, and giving shady characters the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. These instincts help make her the attractive figure that she is. In Dido and Pa, for example, she is conflicted about her father whom she recognises is both a Hanoverian conspirator and careless of other lives and yet capable of writing exquisite music that transports the listener and which can heal body and soul.
She later rushes into the burning Bart’s Building to see who’s in need, regardless of her own safety; and in Cinnamon Court she works hard to ensure the Chelsea Pensioners and lollpoops escape from its cellars or risk drowning and/or rats.
Music and rhymes
There is one final category I want to touch on, but as it is integral to Dido and Pa but not entirely absent from other titles in the series I want to devote one final post to it. As a trained musician I am fascinated by Boris von Bredalbane’s various compositions and Desmond Twite’s songs and hobboy-playing so, as this novel is stuffed with mentions of them, they deserve a longer exposition.
I am nearing the end of my posts on this chronicle so I shall presently moving on. My obsession takes me next to a novel often seen as peripheral to the series, Midnight is a Place; as I hope to show, we may have to reconsider its significance in the sequence and how it may therefore affect subsequent titles in the Chronicles. More later!
A link to a heart-warming post on a recent anniversary of Joan’s death.