Detail of Pigot & Co.’s New Map of England & Wales […] &c.: Wales in 1830
As part of my anticipation of March’s Wales Readathon (or Dewithon) this post revisits and expands a little on an idea I first posited in the post Parallel lines — the possible connections between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the alternate Wales of Joan Aiken
Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain was first published in 1968, based on research she’d conducted in Brecon public library, undertaken (I’m assuming) the year before. Coincidentally 1968 was also the year that the authorised one-volume UK edition of The Lord of the Rings was issued, which I personally remember purchasing that autumn as a student (and avidly reading when I should have been studying).
LOTR of course was originally published between 1954 and 1955, and I fancy that Joan Aiken, just in her thirties, would have been familiar with the three-volume hardback edition before she embarked on the so-called prequel to the Wolves Chronicles, The Whispering Mountain. Why do I suggest this, in the absence of any written evidence that I’m aware of? Just consider the following coincidences.
1. Hero. The young protagonist has a typically Welsh name: Owen is the medieval Owein or Owain, and like the Breton Ywain is ultimately from the Latin Eugenius meaning well-born. However, I’m struck by Joan Aiken’s choice of the first name beginning with ‘O’, which immediately reminded me of the hobbits Bilbo and Frodo, whose names end in ‘-o’. Too far-fetched? Unconvinced? Well, nor am I convinced really, if that were all—but it’s not all.
2. The Return of the King. Early on in The Lord of the Rings Frodo and his companions come across the mysterious Ranger called Strider, who later turns out to be Aragorn, the man who will be king at the end of the epic. In The Whispering Mountain Owen and other boys from Pennygaff come across an unknown hunter in a wooded river valley who turns out to be Davie, Prince of Wales, and who in a later novel is crowned king in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.
3. Loathsome creature. Gollum is the onetime (and now long-lived) hobbit Smeagol who’s obsessed with the One Ring, which he once found in the caves under the Misty Mountains and which he is determined to take back from the nasty noser Baggins who’s now carrying his Precious. In Wales, the diminutive troglodyte is called Abipaal, obsessed with the golden Harp of Teirtu which he succeeds in stealing from the ruffians (who in turn stole it from Owen) before restitution is eventually made. Gollum and Abipaal: two equally obnoxious characters whom, at times, we can’t help feeling sorry for.
4. Precious. In Tolkien’s trilogy Frodo is tasked with returning the One Ring to its rightful place, Mount Doom, although it is sought by Sauron, by the Dark Lord’s minions and, of course, Gollum; while in the Wolves chronicle it’s Owen who’s tasked with finding and returning the much-coveted Harp of Teirtu to the museum in Pennygaff. The tasks prove extremely burdensome to both protagonists.
5. Dark Lord. Sauron, formerly known as the Necromancer in The Hobbit, is the malign antagonist who wants to get his hands on the One Ring, sending out servants to find the Ringbearer and retrieve the desired object; but despite his best efforts [spoiler alert!] he is ultimately defeated. Similarly, the Marquess of Malyn is the villain in Wales who’s obsessed with obtaining the musical instrument to join his collection of golden artefacts, sending his servants to the Hughes’ museum and elsewhere to obtain it; like Sauron he too is defeated, and also like Sauron he is utterly despicable and feared.
6. Troglodytes. Dwarfs (or, to use Tolkien’s spelling, dwarves) are associated with underground caves and mines, and in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are most at home below the earth; they are prepared to associate with hobbits, but reluctantly. Their equivalents in Aiken’s fantasy are the equally diminutive and secretive Fur-Niskies or Phoenicans who live in the tunnels connecting Malyn Castle with the Whispering Mountain, Fig-Hat Ben.
7. Mountains. High eminences play a significant part in both narratives. In Middle Earth we get acquainted with ranges such as the Misty Mountains and the Iron Hills, as well as more solitary peaks such as Erebor and Mount Doom. In alternate Wales we have the Black Mountains and the slumbering Fig-Hat Ben. In both tales the climactic scene takes place within the most spectacular of the mountains, respectively Mount Doom and Fig-Hat Ben.
8. Journey. In Tolkien’s fantasy world the two hobbit heroes travel there and back again, to the Shire they call home, though at the very end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes on a final sea voyage westwards. In The Whispering Mountain there is some reversal: Owen’s back story involves a sea voyage from the South China Seas before his Welsh wanderings finally take him back to his family’s village where the novel began. In addition, Bilbo and Frodo travel eastwards towards mountains in their respective quests whereas Owen works his way westwards from his mountain village to the sea before his eventual return.
9. Two Towers. At the climax of each tale a stronghold is destroyed: in one it is Sauron’s tower in the southeast, Barad-dûr in Mordor, in the other it is Malyn Castle in the west, by the sea.
10. Elder guide. The two narratives feature characters who stand in the same advisory role to the protagonist that Merlin has with Arthur. In LOTR it’s Gandalf of course, while Owen has Brother Ianto, newly returned from China: the latter’s wizardry is less to do with magic, however, than in fashioning replacement glasses for Owen who is helpless without them.
The Whispering Mountain (1968) has always been treated as an outlier in the Wolves Chronicles because it seems to stand apart from the first three novels, involving none of the main participants we’ve already met in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), Black Hearts in Battersea (1964) and Night Birds in Nantucket (1966) although it too is set in the reign of James III.
Perhaps part of its oddness comes from a different rag bag of influences: while the earlier novels drew from Dickens or the Brontës or from Joan’s own experiences in New England, for example, this Wales-set novel seems to have deliberately mined not only historical Welsh culture and Arthurian tradition but also—as this post argues—Tolkienian motifs. Surely I’m not the only person to note that the ferocity of the wolves in the sequence has a lot in common with the fierce Wargs of Middle Earth?
Finally, as in LOTR, few females are involved in The Whispering Mountain. We only really have Arabis Dando who plays an active role. Arabis to me seems like a cross between Eowyn and Goldberry: at times she is proactive like the warrior princess of Rohan, at others she is more fey, being learned in herbal lore like her father Tom, who I fancy may be the equivalent of Tom Bombadill in some of his aspects.
Please note that I’m not proposing that Joan Aiken determined to produce a faint imitation of The Lord of the Rings: the fact that, as far as I’m aware, no one else has noted as close a correspondence as the one I’ve proposed above may indicate otherwise. I’m sure it wouldn’t have won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for 1969 if those giving the award suspected anything of the sort!
But equally it may confirm that Joan Aiken was a consummate writer who could take motifs and tale-types from wherever she chose and meld them into something new and of itself. The only question remaining, I think, is whether she was consciously influenced or inspired by Tolkien’s great epic, and that’s one I’m not in a position to answer.
- A little piece of Middle Earth reviews a study of how a small part of Wales may have directly inspired an episode in The Lord of the Rings.
- A study examining how the Ranger known as Strider morphed from a hobbit into a future king is reviewed in The Evolution of Aragorn.
- Middle Earth Ring Cycles reviews an overview of LOTR in book, in film and on radio.
- Finally, “This dismal place” discusses the geography of Aiken’s alternate Wales in relation to the Wales of our world.