A nightingale sang

Print engraving of the Isle of Athelney in 1898

Joan Aiken, born 4th September 1924 in Rye, East Sussex; died 4th January 2004 in Petworth, West Sussex

‘The most immediate manifestation of Aiken’s inventiveness is to be seen in her plots.

These are wild, intricate farragos in celebration of improbability, involving the skilled manipulation of a large cast of colourful characters and held together by a style which is a blend of the humorous, the satirical, the parodic and the melodramatic.

Chance, luck and coincidence are accorded significant roles in these narratives in a manner frequently reminiscent of Dickens or Hardy, though neither of these has quite the Aiken degree of recklessness.

There is a further Victorian influence in her fondness for exploiting the surreal possibilities when the totally logical confronts the totally nonsensical.’

— from ‘The Twite Stuff’, a 1999 piece in praise of Joan Aiken’s writing by the late Robert Dunbar in The Irish Times

This post will be looking at some of the themes in Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale a title in the series known collectively as the Wolves Chronicles — which we have been exploring in a review and in related discussions. We start with the avian motif that has characterised so many of the instalments.


Even more than cats, perhaps, birds abound in the author’s books, either as flying creatures or through their names (one collection of stories was called The Faithless Lollybird). For example, Dido Twite’s surname derives from a small brown finch related to the linnet: Linaria flavirostris, distinguished by a streaky body, has a call that sounds like ‘twit’. Avian motifs in this novel include Simon’s owl Thunderbolt and his horse called Magpie, and various messenger pigeons, but it is the nightingale that features most strongly. An early indication is the young woman called Jorinda, who takes her name from the Grimms’ fairytale ‘Jorinda and Jorindel’ in which as a witch’s captive the heroine gets turned into … a nightingale.

And that’s not all. The vessel on which Dido has voyaged around the seven seas is HMS Thrush (the name borrowed from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), and bird titles in the Chronicles include Night Birds in Nantucket, The Cuckoo Tree and, of course, Midwinter Nightingale. But when Dido appears aboard ship in this novel it turns out to be not the Thrush but HMS Philomela. Why this vessel rather than the usual warship named after a songbird?

Now there was actually a brig in the British Royal Navy called Philomel, launched in 1842 as a surveying vessel and which until 1846 was under the command of hydrographer Sir Bartholomew Sullivan, who’d previously sailed with Charles Darwin in the Beagle (Bartholomé Island in the Galapagos was named after him). You may remember that Dido’s earlier circumnavigation of the world partly shadowed Darwin’s when she visited South America (The Stolen Lake) before travelling on to the Spice Islands (Limbo Lodge).

The simple answer as to why Dido travels on a different ship is that Philomela was a character in classical legend who was metamorphosed into yet another songbird. Her Greek name was interpreted as ‘lover of song’ (φιλο- plus μέλος). It may be, however, that the second element is not from μέλος, ‘melodic song’, but from μῆλον (either ‘fruit’, possibly an apple, or ‘sheep’). Then when the Roman writer Ovid retold the Greek legend he depicted Philomela as a nightingale instead of the swallow which she had originally become, on the basis that that the name was derived from the word for song instead of apple. Or indeed sheep.

Unattached male nightingales are apparently wont to sing to attract a mate in the hours before dawn (hence the connection with ‘night’ in the name) but, unlike in this novel, this happens in the warmer months of the year, before autumn arrives, as Shakespeare indicates in Sonnet 102:

Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days.

But it is with live nightingales that we meet, as Robert Dunbar suggested, “surreal possibilities when the totally logical confronts the totally nonsensical”. The totally logical is that nightingales sing in a beautifully inventive way; the totally nonsensical is that they should sing in winter when it’s the wrong season to attract mates; the surreal possibility is that they sing out of season because there is a prophecy concerning the succession to the throne.

The Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) from the ‘History of British Birds’ Volume I (1797) by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)


By Darkwater so stille, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale for human ears tell out her piteous tale.
— Midwinter Nightingale, chapter eight

Simon, Duke of Battersea hears about these birds from Lady Titania when he attends the ailing king at his Wetlands retreat, Darkwater Farm. These lines were supposedly written by Geoffrey Chaucer in his (fictional) Book of the Forest, written when he was King’s Forester of the Wetlands. “And there is a well-established local legend that when the King of England lies on his deathbed, all of them will sing all night.” When Simon wonders how the story was started Lady Titania cheerfully admits she herself began it: “I have the gift of prophecy.” But it later turns out Chaucer adapted the lines from those penned by another 14th-century poet, Gregory Pollard of Wan Hope, indicating that the birds would instead sing elsewhere:

“And bye the Middel Mere, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale to human eares tell out Hyr Piteous Tale”

Another Nightingale reference comes from Dido: Joan Aiken loves quoting rhymes supposedly made up by Dido’s Pa, including these lines sung by Dido in desperation when being interrogated at Fogrum Hall:

‘Heck, sirs! Just listen to the nightingales sing!
Jug jug! Tereu! Hey ding-a-ding-a-ding!’

“Jug jug!” is one of the telltale calls of the Nightingale, as indicated in this verse from a poem by Thomas Nashe:

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king,
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing:
Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

Finally, when the nightingales do actually sing on St Lucy’s Day, which in olden times marked midwinter, the self-fulfilling prophecy does indeed come true.

I shall now mention briefly a few more themes common to the Chronicles before looking in depth at a couple of other major themes. But those will be for another post, along with a continuation of a Who’s Who begun in an earlier piece.

Drowning; and Downfall of Villains
There are a few unfortunate deaths in Midwinter Nightingale: two innocents die horribly in the moat at Fogrum Hall, an adversary dies in a waterfall of molten silver, and four other ne’er-do-wells have a literal downfall off a viaduct into Middle Mere.

Scrobbling, and Child Labour
Dido, the ever resourceful child, is nevertheless frequently abducted in the Chronicles, and here is no exception. Meanwhile, a few schoolboys have been kept on at former school Fogrum Hall to labour for the evil Magnus Rudh.

Escape from the Four Elements
Dido only encounters three elements from which she has to escape: the underground ice house accessed through tunnels under Fogrum Hall; the fire started there by Lothar; and the frozen pool of Middle Mere which she has to cross to get to Otherland Priory.

Fictional books
We have, of course, already met this: The Book of the Forest. In truth Chaucer never wrote a work with this title, but he did write The Book of the Duchess, an early poem. In it a poet, who has been ill for some years, lies in bed reading the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone, who are later transformed into kingfishers. Then he dreams of a knight lamenting over a game of chess. Perhaps the combination of the motifs of noble lady, invalid, birds, and games in the medieval poem are more than coincidental when we consider the themes of Midwinter Nightingale.

And now a final quote from Robert Dunbar about Joan Aiken, who would have been 96 today, on this her birthday:

‘In the earlier Is, a character called Dr Lemman, in the context of explaining why many adults dislike children, suggests that this may be because of envy: children “have so much energy, imagination, hope, enjoyment.” For those, of whatever age, lucky enough to embody such qualities Aiken’s novels will provide the perfect reading.’ — Robert Dunbar

4 thoughts on “A nightingale sang

  1. Lovely!! Almost an outpouring of song in itself with all its rhythms and cross-references…and my favourite Lady Titania quote – ‘I wrote it myself’ – a very Joan Aiken joke!


    1. Glad you liked this, Lizza — I particularly admired Joan’s not-Chaucer pastiche (which had me searching frantically for the original, but in vain!) and discovering instead the existence of ‘The Book of the Duchess’ with its suggestive themes. A great Joan Aiken joke indeed!

      And the nightingale itself — so often I’ve sung the tenor line in the Ernest Moeran part-song ‘Spring, the Sweet Spring’ with the jug-jug refrain, and though in the end I went with the popular ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ as a reference, the songbird has really inspired lovers, poets and musicians alike, hasn’t it?


    1. His descriptions — “wild, intricate farragos in celebration of improbability” and so on — are wonderful, aren’t they! I particularly love the way that what he points out as very welcome features (“chance, luck and coincidences” for examples) are those very things which would normally be disparaged as weaknesses in an author; but Joan fairly revels in it all as narrative aspects that have stood the test of time in myth, legend and fairytale.


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