My first is in Abion, never in Blastburn,
My second’s in twisting but never in return,
My whole is a lass who is brave, true and bold
In a tale of old times which Joan Aiken once told.
I come now to the second part of a pair of posts about themes in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles Is (also known as Is Underground).
Last time I drew out Arthurian motifs such as the quest for the Holy Grail and the sunken land of Lyonesse; this time I draw attention to themes in this novel common to others in the Chronicles as a whole, a feature which helps to give an identity to the series.
Do these repeated themes mean a sameness, and are they symptomatic of a paucity of ideas? I would of course dispute any such accusation; for if a critic were to censure classical composers for laziness in respect of movements entitled Theme and Variations we would label them an utter philistine, would we not?
Like many another chronicle this novel introduces the names of publications, if not real (where our world is concerned) then imaginary and imaginative. At their home in Blackheath, for example, Penny and Is Twite keep The Horse Doctor’s Handbook: “I guess folk ain’t so very different from horses, when you get down to it,” thinks Is as she helps Blastburn’s Dr Lemman on his rounds.
Later, when she sees Grandpa Twite working at his printing press, “Croopus, Grandpa,” she says, “you really could print a book of stories on this!” — stories such A Harp o’ Fishbones which sister Penny had told her back on Blackheath Edge, and others including
the crocodile who swallowed the dark, and the glass dragon, and the girl who talked to the dead king.
These were the kinds of tales that Joan Aiken was herself to include in collections such as A Necklace of Raindrops, The Last Slice of Rainbow and, of course A Harp of Fishbones and Other Stories — delicious titles for delicious pieces.
Joan also introduced the age-old lure of riddles into Is Underground, a feature which has resonances with Tolkien’s The Hobbit (especially the chapter entitled ‘Riddles in the Dark’) in which the protagonist plays a dangerous game with Gollum down in the mines of Moria. In Is Roy Twite is a kind of troll king under the mountain (Holdernesse Hill in this case) hoping to pry a ‘precious’ secret of long life from Grandpa Twite.
That secret is the answer to Grandpa’s final riddle, a kind of holy grail as I discussed in a previous post.
As backward you go, take a turn round the pond
If your threescore-and-ten you would pass beyond!
It’s a cryptic clue, of course, familiar from crossword puzzles: ‘as’ backwards is SA and ‘pond’ or rather ‘pool’ turned round is LOOP, saloop being the elixir sought by Roy — but in vain.
Joan acknowledges quotes from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (‘assembled’ by Iona and Peter Opie in 1955) which in fact has a section on riddles near the end, but all of Grandpa Twite’s puzzlers seem the author’s own invention, even if they seem traditional:
Black and white and red all over
Truth and lies in me discover
A hundred characters under one cover.
The resourceful child here is, of course, Is. In previous chronicles it was Bonnie, Pen, Owen and Dido. Is makes the decisions to steal a ride on the Playland Express, to be Dr Lemman’s assistant, to stand up to Roy, to go down the mines and to help rescue the children.
Child labour and abduction
A major leitmotiv in the Chronicles is the injustice and cruelty of child labour, slavery and abduction. Whether it was the laundry work in Gertrude Brisket’s school, working down the mines in the Andes, forced labour in the Spice Islands or, as here, the London children lured to Blastburn’s mines and foundries, Aiken’s indignation against stolen childhoods was fierce and unrelenting. Is, like Dido before her, gets snabbled (‘scrobbled’ as Masefield has it).
Another theme was that of an individual mistaken for someone else or known under an assumed name.
In Is King Richard’s missing son is merely known as Davie Stuart, while the cat-like Arun Twite calls himself Bobbert Ginster from a name he sees on a gravestone.
Escape from the four elements
Traditionally the four elements are fire, water, earth and air, and it is from two or more of these that a protagonist escapes in many of the Wolves Chronicles.
In Is some are more obvious than others: young Twite leads the rescue of the child workers from the mines and their subsequent flooding, but she also tended to those injured in the explosion at the ironworks earlier in the novel while escaping hurt herself.
The final element, air, eluded my efforts at identification, however.
‘When you foretell the weather that’s coming — how do you do it?’
‘I begin to have a kind of prickle, or a tingle, and then I can feel the cold — or the heat, or the wind, whatever is coming. Sometimes I can see sky or snow, or clouds–‘
‘See them? How?’
‘In my mind’s eye,’ said Ishie, and Is nodded.
A feature of many of the Chronicles is the existence of a prophecy, or something rather more than just an inkling of the future. There was a detailed verse prophecy in The Whispering Mountain, a prediction of the Return of King Arthur in The Stolen Lake, and in The Cuckoo Tree Tante Sannie read people’s fortunes in their palms, for example. Such foretellings are part and parcel of much fantasy, the fulfilment of which mark the resolution of the story.
Aunt Ishie’s Breton mother Isabett had a dream of the Houses of Parliament burning down (this actually happened in 1834) and Ishie’s ambiguous dream foresaw Roy’s death. These dreams are an aspect of supernatural gifts which many fantasy characters have — gifts like clairvoyance, ESP, sensing presences and so on — and that’s the case in this novel too. As well as Aunt Ishie and her friends forecasting natural events like weather, eruptions and tsunamis, Is herself is able to use telepathy to communicate to other sensitives across distances and even underground: it’s almost like a heightened empathy that is taking place.
Drowning and shipwreck
The Chronicles involve a fair few shipwrecks or instances of drowning, and that is the case here as well. Roy Twite’s wife had sailed to Holland but her ship was wrecked (reportedly on Gold Kingy’s orders) with Mrs Twite losing her life. Captain Isiah [sic] Podmore’s ship the Dark Diamond gets into trouble at sea but it is Gold King — Roy Twite himself — who comes a cropper, thrown off the railway bridge over the River Wash into the sea, leading us towards the next Chronicles theme.
Joan’s favourite method of dispatching an archvillain in the series is treating them to a literal downfall, usually from a great height. An offstage villain in The Cuckoo Tree is actually called the Margrave of Bad Fallingoff: six previous baddies before Gold Kingy plummet to their death in various inventive ways — off a cannon, down a cliff, off St Paul’s Cathedral roof, down a well, in a collapsing building and down a volcanic fissure — and there will be more to come.
Roy’s demise is particularly grisly, a triple death by being hit by a train he’d hoped to dynamite, falling off a railway bridge and drowning in the sea: a threefold death was traditionally an ancient ritual sacrifice in the Celtic legend, foreseen by Myrddin (or Merlin) for one particular unfortunate and surmised from excavated bog bodies like Lindow Man.
Such a gruesome ritual might involve a mix of fatal ends such as hanging or garotting, poisoning, a blow to the head, or drowning, so Gold Kingy’s apt end, being hit violently, falling from a height, and drowning (the last poetic justice because of his wife’s untimely death at sea) follows the folktale motif.
The final theme I want to mention is a running motif that appears intermittently, the creatures that give their name to the series. They don’t appear in every instalment but are frequently in evidence when the story is set during the winter months. Their irruption into a narrative may initiate the action (as in Is), may result in a death (as in Dido and Pa) or signal that villainy is afoot (as in Black Hearts in Battersea).
Following on from discussion of themes there’ll be a prosopography or Who’s Who in the novel, plus a consideration of the difficulties of establishing a reliable record of the Chronicles’ timeline, or rather the impossibility of an authoritative chronology.