For many years now, as many of you know, I have on this blog been exploring one of Joan Aiken‘s alternative worlds with its alternative history, set mainly in a paracosmic Britain of the 1830s and 1840s. This ‘Wolfish Villains’ post is a fairly rare overview, looking at a set of character types whose anticipated defeats provide the impetus for much of the action.
Should young readers be presented with really hair-raising villains? I believe so. They love to be scared, and are more robust than adults…
—Joan Aiken: ‘The Way to Write for Children’ (1982)
This post for Witch Week examines some of the villains the late Joan Aiken created for the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a sequence which — thanks to Lizza Aiken — we now know as the Wolves Chronicles.
Almost every one of the novels that comprise this alternative history — eleven, twelve, or thirteen of them, depending on which ones are regarded as belonging to this alternative world — has at least one villain as the main antagonist pitted against the principal protagonist (who is invariably a child or young adult).
Like fairytales or classical comedies, the Chronicles fit the pattern of the protagonist overcoming all vicissitudes, usually defeating the villain, followed by a happy ending of sorts. Aiken’s antagonists, on the other hand, are frequently archetypal bad ‘uns — pantomime villains, almost, twirling their metaphorical moustaches — yet that doesn’t stop them being chillingly portrayed as not just sociopaths but psychopaths.
A century ago noted anthropologist ClaudeLevi Strauss came up with a theory of binary opposites, a theory which suggested that many narratives are focused on contrasting characters who are opponents: they are the binary opposites who initiate and advance the plot.
Here is a rundown of the principal malignant entities, as found in the novels (which I shall tackle in publishing order, with links to my reviews so far). Though this won’t be spoiler-free the first appearance of the baddies rarely comes as a surprise to the innocent reader; to each young protagonist there are usually some initial clues that they are meeting some havey-cavey cove, something about them that renders them as untrustworthy.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962).
Here we meet the first of the books’ dubious relatives, the fourth cousin once removed of the young cousins Bonnie and Sylvia. The evil Letitia Slighcarp masquerades as a governess, supported by her sidekicks Josiah Grimshaw and charity school director Gertrude Brisket from Blastburn.
Black Hearts in Battersea (1964).
Here we have a plethora of Hanoverian co-conspirators, the chief of which are the adults in the extended Twite family from Southwark in London, headed by Abednego Twite; here too we meet young Dido Twite, one of the author’s best-loved creations.
Night Birds on Nantucket (1966).
Mostly set on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, the novel reintroduces us to Letitia Slighcarp, now converted to the Hanoverian cause and eager to assassinate the Stuart King — by long-range missile.
The Whispering Mountain (1968).
Owen Hughes is faced with a malign individual, the aptly named Marquess of Malyn who will stop at nothing, including murder, in his quest to acquire an ancient harp to add to his collection of gold treasures. Toby Bilk and Elijah Prigman are his incompetent yet still dangerous emissaries.
The Cuckoo Tree (1971).
Back home after years at sea, Dido is determined to meet up with her friend Simon. Instead she ends up in another Hanoverian conspiracy headed up by a quartet of nasties: Tante Sannie, a West Indian witch and her cruel accomplice Daisy Lubbage, along with American puppeteer Miles Tuggles and crooked lawyer Colonel FitzPickwick. And we meet again Dido Twite’s Pa, Abednego Twite, turning up like a bad penny. Typical of all these individuals is their propensity to ‘snabble’ or kidnap youngsters like Dido; here too, for perhaps the first time, we encounter villains with a touch of the uncanny about them.
Midnight is a Place (1974).
As if pulling back from any hint of magic or steampunk, the next novel set in this alternative world returns to the Dickensian or Brontë-esque feel of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Now we have mad pyromaniac Sir Randolph Grimsby driven demented by gambling debts and relative immobility, mad scavenger Tom Gudgeon, Mr Throgmorton — yet another crooked lawyer — and wily extortionist Bob Bludward, dangerous even though confined to a wheelchair.
The Stolen Lake (1981).
Joan Aiken’s next foray into this world took us back in time to Dido’s adventures before The Cuckoo Tree. Here is the horrendously bloated figure of Queen Ginevra, spider-like in her lair, partial to youngsters’ blood to retain her youth. This cannibal’s accomplices are Mrs Mag Morgan and Mrs Nynevie Vavasour, witches able to shapeshift into owls.
Dido and Pa (1986).
The action of this novel follows immediately after The Cuckoo Tree, and introduces us to the werewolf figure of Wolfgang von Eisengrim; it also gives us our final view of Dido’s Pa under the pseudonym of Boris von Bredalbane. Pa is perhaps the most human of the villains so far, a gifted musician and yet one who cares not a jot for his daughter, nor anyone unless they can advance his career. We feel for Dido, torn between pride and admiration for her father’s talents but disgusted by his cavalier treatment of anyone not furthering his cause.
Is / Is Underground (1992).
Dido’s half-sister Is also has to face up to the adult sociopaths in her family, in this novel her uncle Roy Twite, so-called Moderator of Humberland, who forces children to work in coal mines.
Cold Shoulder Road (1995).
Is Twite comes up against a more distant relative, Dominic de la Twite, who being in charge of the Silent Sect is like a character transposed back a century from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and every bit as hateful, matched in guile by his sister Mevrouw Twite.
Limbo Lodge / Dangerous Games (1999).
Another backtracking instalment in Dido’s adventures, this novel has Paul Kirlingshaw attempting to play the fratricidal and regicidal role of the young prince’s uncle Claudius in Hamlet: this time there is a niece in place of the villain’s nephew.
Midwinter Nightingale (2003).
Dido’s principal antagonist here is Baron Magnus Rudh who, being descended from a Midsylvanian family, can only be a vampire.
The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2004).
In Joan Aiken’s final (and all too short) novel the wonderfully-named villains Sir Angus McGrind and Sir Fosby Killick play a less important role than might be supposed, the author’s intentions being to try to resolve elements in her long-running saga: the key thing to note is that they are present as the antagonists.
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I apologise for this lengthy catalogue, the purpose of which was to show that Aiken’s wolfish villains cover the short continuum from sociopath to psychopath, from amoral to immoral, whether or not there was something supernatural about them.
Narratives such as fantasies can routinely feature individuals at either end of a spectrum in terms of age, power or morality. Aiken’s binary opposites — and hers are often similar to others in such genres — usually involve youngsters pitted against adults, suffering from that imbalance of power while somehow occupying the moral high ground.
Now it seems to me that the Chronicles’ baddies largely appear in the guise of adversaries who are traditionally associated with holding power over young innocents: adversaries such as the strict governess, the robber baron, the conspirator who’s also an assassin or terrorist, the cannibal, the usurper of the throne, the crone who is revealed as a witch, and on to the werewolf and the vampire.
Most of these are archetypal figures from a rogues gallery and, as such, can be seen as so ruthless as to be lacking any redeeming feature. Not just the customary megalomaniacs but those desiring fame or notoriety, greedy for spoils or drunk on cruelty — they can all be found prowling Aiken’s pages, many with a coterie of henchman, bully-boys and ne’er-do-wells.
More sinister, because so insidious, are family members — is anything more chilling than a close relative who not only can’t be trusted but in fact means you harm? The Chronicles abound in these: cousins, uncles, even fathers who may betray you as quick as look at you: selfish sociopaths perhaps more than the overtly murderous psychopaths who desire absolute power — the marquesses, margraves and barons of the young Twites’ world.
Now, while binary opposites may be seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes, Aiken knew the value of following fairytale patterns in her fiction: such tales principally “deal with basic human problems … poverty, jealousy, loss of parents, fear of the unknown, initiation into adulthood” and so on.
Thus, while villains may seem to be there only to contribute to one of the seven basic plots, Overcoming the Monster, foils to the invariably female protagonist — Bonnie Green, Dido or Is Twite — they are one of the elements Aiken identifies as being “at the root of children’s anxieties, which are none the less real for being, mostly, unconscious.”
“Villains can be even more important than heroes,” she wrote. “But your villain is no use at all unless he poses a real threat, and has the power to put the reader in a fright.” So their obduracy, their persistent cruelty and selfishness, all contrast with the heroine’s moral indignation and adherence to the Golden Rule, with her being proactive and an agent of positive change.
But note, the villain never dies at the hands of the heroine: their often literal ‘downfall’ is brought about by their own failings, mainly because, having been given the chance to recant, apologise or make good their evil deeds, they refuse, only to suffer fatal consequences.
The vicious packs of wolves that run through the series, though real, are symbolic of an ever present threat, even though we know that real wolves have redeeming features and were the ancestors of ‘man’s best friend’. As a recurrent theme they really deserve a discussion dedicated entirely to them, their natures and their significance in the Wolves Chronicles.
On the other hand the villains’ wolfish natures — and they are mostly ‘lone wolves’ — are (unlike the beasts in, say, Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls) totally externalised. Their mantra is ‘Might is Right’ in contrast to the heroine’s certainty that behaving well is true strength. Though the Chronicles seem to display little or no moral ambiguity, just like the fairytales on which they are modelled they know where they stand on good and evil.