Midwinter Night’s Dream

Some scribbled notes on genealogies and chronologies for Midwinter Nightingale

Yet another in my detailed and lengthy examinations of Midwinter Nightingaleplease don’t yawn; and pay attention at the back! — in which I complete the prosopography or Who’s Who of the people we met in the novel. Among other matters we shall touch on alternative history, on Shakespeare, and on legends.

Following a review we’ve also so far looked at the alternative geography in this novel and some major themes; still to come are further themes and motifs that the author Joan Aiken plays with and an attempt to make sense of the complicated timeline that has led the reader from around 1832 in this alternative world to some unspecified (and maybe unspecifiable) year in the early-to-mid-1840s.

Then it’ll be on to the remaining two novels in the Wolves Chronicles, a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and will end with The Witch of Clatteringshaws. If you want to find out what further fun and wit the author had with names and personages in this instalment, read on. If not, move along please, nothing to see here.

All the action in this chronicle takes place in the reign of one Richard IV, affectionately known as King Dick. It is instructive to see what The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has to say about the term ‘Dick’:

DICK. That happened in the reign of queen Dick, i.e. never : said of any absurd old story. I am as queer as Dick’s hatband ; that is, out of spirits, or don’t know what ails me.

It may be helpful to bear some of these archaic explanations in mind as a guide to what follows.

Darkwater Farm
A late medieval moated building in the part of the Wetlands known as the Devil’s Playground, perhaps modelled on Athelney, Somerset

Richard IV. Son of James III, suffering (like his father, we’re told) from ‘suppurating quinsy’. Peritonsillar abscesses may now be rare but in the days before antibiotics bacterial complications from tonsillitis were dangerous. Simon Bakerloo has come incognito to see his dying royal cousin because the succession is in doubt — Richard’s only child David having not long died in Blastburn, Humberland — and because the disunited kingdom is further menaced by invasion by Burgundian and Saxon forces. Richard wants Simon, now well known as a talented painter, to paint a final portrait of the royal family whose members are now nearly all deceased.
Also (and this is a spoiler) he hopes, according to a prophecy, to hear the nightingales sing at midwinter as he hands King Alfred’s coronet to his successor with the Archbishop of Winchester and Wessex present, before finally expiring. (He’s only in his late forties.)
Richard’s portrayal here, as we will see, is influenced by a number of monarchs. First is Arthur, because Richard’s final passage west through the Wetlands to Otherland Priory is patterned by the legendary king’s final voyage to the Celtic Otherland, the Isle of Avalon, traditionally associated with Glastonbury Abbey in the Somerset Levels. Second is Alfred, who retreated to the Isle of Athelney to regroup before challenging and defeating the Danish Vikings. Third is his namesake Richard III, whose succession was claimed by a number of pretenders including Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel, who each claimed to be one of the Princes in the Tower supposed murdered by their late uncle; Lot, the child of Richard IV’s wife’s first marriage, tries out variations on these names to adopt when he believes he’ll inherit the throne.

Lady Titania Plantagenet. Called by Simon ‘Madam’, Titania is Richard’s great-aunt and nurse, sister to King Henry IX and daughter and granddaughter of (unnamed) kings. Judging from her appearance she may have been born sometime in the 1770s, but the exact nature of her kinship with Richard is never made clear; it’s possible that James III (reigned 1832 to 1835 / 1836) was Henry IX’s legitimate son, thus making Richard Titania’s great-nephew.
She declares herself a cousin of Adelaide, the late wife of the king; she addresses Magnus the werewolf as ‘brother’; she is also related to the Duchess of Burgundy — as aunt or great-aunt maybe — and to Magnus’ son Lot, because the Duchess is Lot’s aunt. Another cousin is Aelfric Bloodarrow of Bernicia who plans to invade the Wetlands from Barnard Castle. Again, the specifics of all these relationships are very vague, and at at times contradictory.

She appears to be loyal to Richard but simultaneously treats with Magnus and the Duchess of Burgundy, and eventually suffers a final (and literal) downfall. She also has the gift of prophecy, originating the belief about the midwinter nightingales presaging the monarch’s death. It’s possible, even probable, that the anonymous pedlar woman who visits Jorinda at Edge Place is Lady Titania in disguise; she is also the tall woman in the headdress whom Dido sees warning Magnus in the fatal ice chamber of Fogrum Hall.
Titania Plantagenet’s name was not chosen lightly by Joan Aiken. She knew that the last Plantagenet king was Richard III, so it’s fitting that this tale of a dynasty seemingly ending in a fictional Richard IV has a Plantagenet present. Secondly, the name Titania has a Shakespearean association, but Joan Aiken chooses to subvert convention in the transition from play to novel:

  • Midsummer Night’s Dream gets transformed into Midwinter Nightingale
  • Titania in the former is Queen of the Fairies while in the latter, though not a fairy, she is in fact clairvoyant
  • In the play Bottom the mechanical changes into an ass, in the novel Magnus the lycanthrope changes into a wolf (as also will Lothar)
  • Shakespeare’s Titania — who declares “I am a spirit of no common rate” — has two guises, as Queen of the Fairies and, involuntarily, as Bottom’s lover; following the common Wolves Chronicles motif of Mistaken Identities, the dissembling Lady Titania goes one better by being a friend to the king, an unnamed acquaintance of Magnus and Minna, and doubtless the anonymous pedlar woman.

Mrs Wigpie. The housekeeper at the Farm.
Perhaps the name is related to Wigsby: in the late 18th century Mr Wigsby was not very witty slang for “a man wearing a wig”; incidently “a man wearing a large wig” was a ‘wigannowns’. Does this say something about the housekeeper?

Harry is the gatekeeper here, while Damon is a boy who helps. Mr Dewdney is the chimney sweep from Low Edge, who visits the Farm twice a year (in May and November).

Tammas Lee. Sent by the king to Simon with an urgent summons, in London he was made drunk and killed when he fell beneath two carriages in Westminster Palace yard, we suspect due to the machinations of Sir Fosby Killick and Sir Angus McGrind.
The name Tammas is reminiscent of Tammuz, a Sumerian divinity whose death was mourned annually, a practice mentioned in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.

Fr Sam. Resident priest at the Three Chapels of St Ardust, St Arfish and St Arling — all within a couple of miles of the Farm — who later becomes Archbishop of Winchester and Wessex.

Otherworld Priory
Religious house facing west some 300 feet above the sea. Founded by King Alfred, at its height it numbered two hundred monks, now reduced to nine

Fr Mistigris. Priest at the Priory.
Another joke name: a card game, from ‘mistigri’ or ‘mistigris’, a French nickname for a cat or kitten and referring to the Jack of Clubs, used as the highest trump and, like a Joker, as a wild card in a form of poker. Perhaps the equivalent of the archaic English word greymalkin or grimalkin, a cat’s nickname.

Brother Isaac. The cellarer. Brother Matthew. Kitchen duties. Brother Mark. Novice monk.

Barnard Castle (1825) by J M W Turner

Other players
Some of these personages are introduced to set up circumstances and events in the final instalment of the Chronicles

Aelfric Bloodarrow. Another of Lady Titania’s cousins, Aelfric’s base is Barnard Castle in the principality of Bernicia (now County Durham), whose overlord is Oswin Cantaguzelos, a friend of Richard IV. Aelfric plans to land an invading army at Marshport on the Wetlands coast within a few weeks after an early winter in Bernicia, but the weather prevents sailing till later. The name Ælfric means elf-ruler or elf-king (the suffix ‘-ric’ is cognate with rex, the Latin for ‘king’).
An old Durham saying — “come, come, that’s Barney Castle” — is slang for a pathetic excuse, supposedly originating when an owner refused to leave the safety of the Barnard Castle during during a rebellion in the North. Eric Partridge’s ‘Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’ cited the 19th-century Denham Tracts for this meaning, and perhaps this is Joan Aiken’s source for Aelfric’s seeming tardiness:

Haakon Hardrada. Adelaide of Thuringia’s father, titled Commander, is from his names presumably a Norwegian (harðráði is Old Norse for a giver of stern counsel). Known for exploring the fabled Umbrage Isles.

Egbert Wetwolf. Leader of URSA, the United Real (= Royal) Saxon Army, which practices a form of transcendental meditation while hovering above the ground.
‘Ursa’ is Latin for ‘bear’; coincidentally, in an inversion of the famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (‘Exit, pursued by a bear’), the climax of this novel’s action comes on the unfinished viaduct to Otherland Priory with the entrance of two bears. Also, Joan Aiken is reinforcing the Arthurian strand here because the first element of the legendary king’s name, ‘arth’, means bear in Welsh.

Gregory Pollard. An older contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, he was a local poet from Wan Hope whose lines about the midwinter nightingale are quoted towards the end of the novel.
His name, I believe, is a reference to calendar changes that took place after St Lucy’s Day (13th December) ceased to coincide with midwinter’s day (which now fluctuates between 21st and 22nd December). His forename refers to the Gregorian calendar which started superceding the Julian calendar in the 16th century; his surname refers to the practice of pollarding trees such as willows, because adopting the new calendar meant ‘lopping’ days off the older calendar — as much as eleven days in the 18th century, twelve days by the 19th. More discussion on this will take place in a future post on the chronology of the novel.


If you have got this far you’ll have realised (if you hadn’t already) that behind Joan Aiken’s apparent whimsy in the Wolves Chronicles there lurks a mix of a kind of logic and a smattering of free association. Whether I shall ever be able to distill all my ruminations into a planned guidebook, provisionally entitled Croopus! A Dido Twite Companion, and more importantly whether anybody would be interested enough to buy let alone read it, remains to be seen.

6 thoughts on “Midwinter Night’s Dream

  1. Phew… well done. I have to admit to no memory at all of Angus the Silent…
    I can’t believe you haven’t made use of that Barnard’s Castle quote about people “making very bad excuses in worse cause” and its very topical use this year, or maybe you did and I missed it! I can’t believe the current mis-appropriator actually knew its historical usage – smacks of an unlikely degree of education?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I think, Lizza, that Angus gets his one and only mention in Chapter Fifteen: “King Richard’s grandfather, Angus the Silent, had decreed that the railway be extended from Marshport to the priory land so that the cargoes and wreckage from foundered ships could be transported inland. […] But it was never finished during the lifetime of King Angus…” I’m guessing Angus must have preceded Jamie Three, though I don’t know if we ever hear of him again, as his remark about “Yon canny monks” is the only thing he is reported to have said!

      I’m hoping to get more of a handle on genealogies when I finish The Witch of Clatteringshaws, but first I have to tackle the second Is novel.

      I fancy I may have referred to Barnard’s Castle being the goal of modern short-sighted visionaries somewhere online when it was all over Twitter, or maybe in reply to a comment in an earlier post; the Partridge quote can be found in Google Books though I took the screenshot from someone’s tweet. Yes, hard to know whether this legend was known to a certain adviser, though as he’s Durham-born and bred I suspect he may well have done.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! It sounds more daunting than it is, Karen, a fair number of these are passing references which don’t substantially affect the main narrative, there to provide local colour as it were! I’m just trying to show the kind of fun Aiken is having with names and significances — and though there are dark bits in these chronicles I have to smile at the situations that she concocts to keep the reader entertained.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Aha! I feel it is coming on time for me to return to Joan Aiken. I’ve read 4 of this series I think. If memory serves The Stolen Lake was the last I read and that was a few years ago. I’ve just ordered Dangerous Games on the strength of this article. At this rate, it will be a while before I get to Midwinter Night’s Dream but when I do (and I will!) I shall be using this post as my guide. Brilliant piece!

    Liked by 2 people

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