Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

An aestel, we now know, is a pointer, glossed in Latin as indicatorium, an indicator functioning like a digit; in other words, a finger. What did it point to? Well, words, specifically those on a page, much like a laser beam on a whiteboard or a pole for an old-fashioned blackboard. The most famous of these Anglo-Saxon pointers (there are seven known in total) is the so-called Alfred Jewel, identified with the words Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan, literally “Alfred had me made”.

Inserted into the socket of the Jewel would have been a sliver of bone, ivory or wood; in Latin this was a hastula or ‘little spear’, which then became aestel in the Saxon of Alfred the Great’s time. Compare this combo with a conductor’s baton, which has a bulb of cork or wood as a handle, or indeed with a sorcerer’s wand as in the Harry Potter novels: the Jewel was just such a handle, missing its stem.

Now the find spot of this ancient objet d’art was North Petherton, Somerset, only a couple of miles or so from the Isle of Athelney, where Alfred had his base, secluded during a lull in fighting the Danish Vikings. (And where, incidentally, he supposedly burnt the cakes.) Athelney Farm, I surmise, is a model for Darkwater Farm where the king in Joan Aiken’s story was holed up, hiding from invaders. Now in Midwinter Nightingale there is no aestel involved, but there is … King Alfred’s coronet.

The mystery of the missing coronet, ceremonially produced to indicate the monarch’s successor, is solved when it’s revealed it was formerly used as part of a circular embroidery frame: after the frame is dismantled the inner hoop is seen to be made of “twisted dark copper studded here and there with pale-green peridots”, thus a kind of filigree diadem adorned with green gemstones. Modelled on wreaths, most coronets were less intricate than medieval crowns; and the description of this coronet reminds me most of Bronze Age and Iron Age torcs.

Snettisham torc, Norfolk, 1st century BCE (image: Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, slightly edited)

It’s worth adding that, historically, the original Edward the Confessor crown used in English coronations was claimed to be King Alfred’s Crown, described as “of gold wire-work set with slight stones and two little bells”; but it disappeared, either sold or melted down, around 1649 when the monarchy was abolished. In this alternative history the Stuart lineage continues unbroken down to Richard IV, meaning Alfred’s Coronet (‘little crown’) has survived for a millennium.

When the King is moved from Darkwater Farm to Otherland Priory King Richard’s parallels with Alfred are dropped, replaced by similarities with King Arthur. No boat or barge conveys King Richard, however to faërie; instead a conveyance is improvised from a dilapidated sedan chair. The seaside Priory takes the place of Glastonbury Abbey where medieval legend claims Arthur was buried, while the pool known as Middle Mere reminds us of the Meare in Somerset not too far from Glastonbury. The author is setting things up to make the comparisons easy: Glastonbury Abbey was claimed as the Isle of Avalon, which was supposedly the Celtic Otherworld, while Otherland Priory on its isthmus is also deliberately recalling both Glastonbury and the Otherworld.

When the legendary King Arthur disappeared from this world there was some mystery about his death. As Sir Thomas Malory wrote, “Yet som men say … kynge Arthure ys nat dede” but lives on to return and save his country when it’s in peril; others say that he lives on in the form of a bird, a raven (according to Cervantes) or a Cornish chough. No corvids are associated with Richard IV, however, but there are of course birds involved: the midwinter nightingales of the novel.

Two dozy bears, attached to the Merrie Men of URSA (the United Real Saxon Army), appear around this point. They are a reminder that Arthur’s name contains the Welsh word arth, related to Latin ursa, ‘bear’; also, the related notion that the undying King Arthur lies asleep in some cave or other waiting for the call to arms when the island is threatened by invasion, is paralleled by the belief that many bears hibernate underground until spring, much like many a sleeping hero. Sadly, Richard won’t be hibernating.

Now, when Richard is dying Dido hears part of a hymn chanted by Dr Sam, the new Archbishop of Winchester and Wessex, particularly the words “ubi non praevenit rem desiderium”. These are from a hymn written by the 12th-century Breton scholar Peter Abelard, O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata.

“Vera Ierusalem est illa civitas,
cuius pax iugis est, summa iucunditas,
ubi non praevenit rem desiderium,
nec desiderio minus est praemium.”

A more or less literal translation reads:

“Truly Jerusalem is the city
whose peace is eternal, whose delight is the pinnacle,
where desire does not pre-empt fulfilmemt,
nor is the reward for desire less.”

The words were freely translated by John Mason Neale (d 1866), set to music composed by François de La Feilée, as O What Their Joy And Their Glory Must Be. The key line comes in the third verse: “What are the Monarch, His court, and His throne?” The Latin is Quis rex, quae curia, quale palatium, which, literally translated, reads “Which king, which court, which palace?” Its relevance to the appointing of Simon as Richard’s successor is crystal clear and doubtless was behind the author’s insertion of this obscure detail.

Count Magnus Gabriel De La Gardie (d 1686)

The time has now come to slightly more briefly consider the few remaining themes which, as it happens, concern magic and the supernatural.

First, we deal with lycanthropy. Magnus Rudh is self-evidently a werewolf, and his son Lot dramatically manifests as one at the end. His daughter Jorinda doesn’t exhibit any obvious traits, though she dies before it becomes at all evident. Joan Aiken had featured a villain who had lycanthropic tendencies before in the Wolves Chronicles in Dido and Pa, Baron Eisengrim — whose name alluded to the wolf of medieval German fables — but she was keen to show in the sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase that not all the wolves featured were animals, indeed most were humans of a distinctly wolfish nature.

Magnus Rudh’s Cornish, Breton and ‘Midsylvanian’ connections have previously been mentioned, and the possibility that the author was aware of Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy in which featured a magician called Magnus Eisengrim. But there is another literary influence to consider.

In 1904 the horror writer M R James published a ghost story called ‘Count Magnus’. As was his wont he had taken circumstantial details from history for his titular character, principally from Count Magnus Gabriel De La Gardie, a 17th-century noble of French descent who played a big role in Swedish military and political history; among other acts he provided a solid silver throne for Queen Christina of Sweden’s coronation and donated an antique bible to a university after having the volume bound in silver. But James chose to make his Count Magnus an alchemist, one who wrote:

“If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the Prince [‘of the air’]…”

Chorazin (or Chorazim) is one of the settlements cursed by Jesus, as recounted by both Matthew and Luke in near identical words:

” Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”

Joan Aiken has borrowed many of these details in her account — the name of Magnus, the silver associations, the long life, the fabled Black Pilgrimage to the cursed city of Chorazim — but has omitted the Swedish connection and the Lovecraftian ‘faithful messenger’ or familiar which James includes. (There is a Jamesian figure in a black robe and hood whom Dido meets, though luckily he isn’t one of the Baron’s henchmen.) But the details she does include from the ghost story give this chronicle a further tinge of horror to add to unspoken tortures and sudden deaths.

We now finally come to witchcraft. King Richard’s great aunt, Lady Titania, has taken her name from Shakespeare’s Queen of the Fairies but instead of having a potion poured into her ear (as in the play) it is she who drugs the ailing King to hallucinate what isn’t there, as Simon discovers. As we’ve also noted, she has the gift of prophecy (rather like the three weird sisters in Macbeth) and in the guise of a pedlar woman she contrives for Jorinda to buy a witch bottle, which appears as

a bulging stoppered bottle of thick green glass seamed over with silvery scratches. It bore a kind of rainbow bloom. It was corked, sealed over the Cork with red wax and had a cloth cap tied on over the wax.

What’s in it? “Piss! And hair from where the piss comes from! And an eyelash from that same person, and nine bent brass pins.” And if you bury it under your enemy’s house it will “make him sick to death. Or his house will burn down. Or both.” This will be the cause of Fogrum Hall’s demise, along with the Baron. Though no cakes will be burnt, as was the case with Alfred the Great, poisoned cakes will feature in the story. Thus does the author take elements from the stories that inspire her and reconfigure them into new narratives.

This more or less exhausts what I want to say concerning themes in this novel; next time I shall conclude this series of posts by considering the ever convoluted and confusing chronology

4 thoughts on “Uneasy lies the head

    1. Thanks, Jean! What my long perusal of the Wolves Chronicles has shown me is that nothing is included there for no reason, that Aiken thought carefully of what threads or extraneous material needed to be added to the weave to create a rich tapestry that hung together.

      Without delving deeper some choices may appear arbitrary, but while I grant some aspects may be there for whimsy’s sake, it’s often likely that there is an underlying association that prompted her to insert them in the first place (often, I might add, at the risk of overcomplicating the narrative thrust). But I love it all! 🙂


  1. ‘Dido knew no Latin’ so how did she know it was Latin???

    When we were writing Mortimer scripts for the BBC and getting carried away with some over complicated joke, a common margin note would be O – for obscure. ..😂

    How Joan would have loved your bloodhound persistence, you are truly a writers’ reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “How did she know it was Latin?” Another conundrum for me to chase, Lizza, thanks so much!

      And ‘O’ could also stand for ‘over-complicated’ — but then these are the kinds of things dedicated readers like to nose out, and why there are Wiki fandoms for Harry Potter, Discworld, Moominvalley, Middle Earth and so on! Have you seen Laurie Frost’s compendium for the His Dark Materials trilogy? There’s a truly writer’s reader, absolutely everything is cross-referenced…


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