‘And did he — by any chance — let fall the cause — er, that’s to say, the regime, nostrum, jorum, physic, diet, whatever it is he does or takes — to which he attributes his great number of years?’ — Roy Twite to his niece, chapter 5
The so-called Matter of Britain — la matière de Bretagne — permeates Joan Aiken’s marvellous Wolves Chronicles. The term comes from the prologue of the Chanson des Saisnes (“song of the Saxons”) by Jean Bodel (d 1210) in which he distinguishes three thematic strands suitable for epics: the myths and legends of Rome; the stories arising from the heroic Carolingian period in France; and the Arthurian and Celtic romance tradition associated with Britain and Brittany.
The Arthurian strand has continued to thread through literature since it emerged in the pseudohistorical History of the Kings of Britain by the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. Joan Aiken somehow couldn’t help but introduce Arthurian motifs into her fiction, whether Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur for younger readers or several times in the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
She’d previously included Welsh Arthurian motifs such as the Hunt of the Giant Boar in The Whispering Mountain and the Return of King Arthur in The Stolen Lake. In Is Underground (Is in the UK) one particular Arthurian legend comes to the fore — that of the Holy Grail, sometimes called the Sangreal — but, as we’ll see in due course, it isn’t the only recurring Chronicles theme that we will meet in these pages.
I’ve already pointed out the Arthurian names that occur in connection with Blastburn — Lancelot, Joyous Gard, Wasteland — all designed to alert us to the Grail legend. Then there is the ailing king, Roy Twite, alias Gold Kingy, Moderator of Humberland: his name comes of course from the French word for a king, roi. Despite his apparent success in carving out a kingdom for himself in the North, and the economic power he’s accrued from employing child labour in his coal mines, he hankers after something even more lasting — eternal life — and it’s eating him up inside.
Meanwhile, Is Twite (like her sister Dido before her) is discovering that she has no end of relatives she never knew existed. Back in Blackheath she’d tried to help save the mortally-wounded Hosiah Twite, and then went north to save her cousin Arun. Once in Blastburn she meets her great-aunt Isabetta (Ishie), her great-grandfather known as Grandpa Twite, and of course the nefarious Roy, brother to her deceased father and equally deceased Hosiah.
Now, Roy is intrigued as to why Grandpa Twite has managed to live to the ripe old age of 102, with no immediate sign of letting up. What is the secret of his long life? Does he have a potion that allows him to live forever? And does Is also know what it is?
The object of Gold Kingy’s quest — spoiler alert! — turns out to be saloop. Popular in 17th- and 18th-century England it’s derived from the Turkish salep, a drink made from the roots of orchids ground into flour (though North American sassafras was later substituted in Britain). As well as coffee houses offering it as an alternative to coffee or chocolate — tea being very expensive, taxed heavily for a long while — many street stalls dispensed them.
“Saloop, the subject of this etching, has superseded almost every other midnight street refreshment,” commented John Smith in Vagabondiana in 1839, “being a beverage easily made, and a long time considered as a sovereign cure for head-ache arising from drunkenness. But,” he added, “no person, unless he has walked through the streets from the hour of twelve, can duly paint the scenes of the saloop stall with its variety of customers.”
Charles Bryant in 1783 wrote in his Flora Diætetica, or History of Esculent Plants, “saloop is a celebrated restorative among the Turks, and with us it stands recommended in consumptions, bilious cholics, and all disorders proceeding from an acrimony in the juices.” In the early 19th century Charles Lamb mentioned a Salopian shop in Fleet Street: a basin of saloop cost three-halfpence, a slice of bread-and-butter added a halfpenny, the two together held up as an ideal breakfast for a chimney-sweep. Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) confirms that “the vending of tea and coffee, in the streets, was little if at all known twenty years ago, saloop being then the beverage supplied from stalls to the late and early wayfarers.”
In what way was saloop seen as ‘restorative’? Its reputation for having invigorating properties dates back to the classical period: because the orchid’s underground tuber roots (or tuberoids) come in pairs the Romans gave the plant the name orchis meaning ‘testicle’. By what James Fraser called sympathetic magic or the Law of Similarity it was regarded as both an aphrodisiac and a knd of pick-me-up.
Mary Eaton’s The Cook and Housekeeper’s Dictionary (1822) gave a recipe for the concoction:
Boil together a little water, wine, lemon peel, and sugar. Mix in a small quantity of saloop powder, previously rubbed smooth with a little cold water. Stir it all together, and boil it a few minutes.
It was also made with milk and sugar, often with a sprinkle of cinnamon over the top. In chapter 12 Is tells Uncle Roy that “It’s a kind of warm milky drink. Made from powdered orchid roots.” Grandpa Twite drank it every day, brewed down in his cellar, what he called his long-life essence — though Is thought that he was just a tough old codger and that it was as much “his own ginger that kept him going.”
So the secret of this tale’s holy grail is saloop, revealed at last by Grandpa’s final riddle. But the original 12th-century grail epic by Chrétien de Troyes was as much about family relationships as a mysterious relic: Sir Perceval gets to meet relatives he never knew existed.
A hermit and a maimed figure in a boat (known as le riche roi, sustained by the grail) are Perceval’s uncles; the angler in the boat (who is also the lord of the Grail Castle) is his cousin, the Fisher King; and he also gets to meet his female cousin, who upbraids him for not asking questions.
In Aiken’s novel we have echoes of those grail family relationships. The man mortally maimed by wolves in Blackheath is Is’s uncle Hosiah Twite; Arun Twite, who eats fish like a cat, leaps across a mill stream and is named after a river in Sussex, is her cousin; the centenarian who appears sustained by saloop is her great-grandfather; and Gold Kingy, who is knocked into a river to his death, is her wickedly rich uncle Roy Twite. Unlike the Maimed King of the grail legends Uncle Roy is not wounded through the thighs, and so a warm milky drink of ground orchid roots may not have been sufficient to restore his twisted mindset.
* * * * *
Before we leave Arthurian influences in Aiken’s novel I want to look at the fate of the underground city of New Blastburn — or as Gold Kingy prefers to call it, Holdernesse. I’m sure this variant spelling of Holderness, the low-lying promontory east of Hull, was meant to reference the Arthurian land of Lyonesse. Tennyson had waxed lyrical about this sunken realm, what he called “the sunset bound of Lyonesse”:
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
In legend Arthurian Lyonesse, formerly off the coast of Cornwall and possibly identical with flooded regions of the Scilly Isles, was one of a number of fabled inundated Celtic lands. Cantre’r Gwaelod in Wales’ Cardigan Bay was one such, the evidence for which supposedly comes from the remains of preserved trees exposed after storms, rather like the Mesolithic remains revealed in 2014 at Newgale in Pembrokeshire.
Another submerged entity is the medieval Breton city of Kêr-Ys or Ys, referenced of course by Debussy in his piano piece La cathédrale engloutie. Like Cantre’r Gwaelod the demise of Ys was viciously ascribed to a woman’s folly* but there is also a hint of righteous destruction — a parallel with Sodom and Gomorrah — when the land is inundated.
The Breton placename Ys (also known as Is) is related to the Welsh word ‘is‘ meaning below, under or beneath, indicating that Kêr-Ys was the city below sea level (the legend has that it was originally protected by a dyke). When, at the end of Aiken’s novel, it’s planned that old Blastburn would be rebuilt as the town of Is (“after that city Aunt Ishie told of”) it’s no wonder that Is Twite gets emotional. And it explains why the titles for this novel, both Is and Is Underground, have a resonance beyond the mere name of our redoubtable heroine.
A follow-up post on further common Wolves themes is in preparation
* Similar calumnies are told elsewhere, as with the Scottish witch of Ben Cruachan (the Cailleach nan Cruachan) and the origin of Loch Awe