The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken,
illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)
What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.
In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.
And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.
Aiken’s plot hinges on Nonnie’s eldest sister, Una, who Nonnie discovers has disappeared from her place of work in Rumbury Town, London. With the aid of an alchemist ghost, her cousin John Sculpin and her Aunt Daisy’s lodger Colonel Njm she uncovers a dastardly plan to change history by trapping key historical figures before they accomplish their greatest achievements.
In this seemingly slight work Joan Aiken reveals her superlatively inventive imagination, even as she borrows freely from narratives of the past. Among them I note fragments taken from Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queene (names like Una and Duessa), Norse mythology (the apples of Iðunn), even Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (Aiken slyly includes Siberian witches, one of whom has the name of Azriel). Set at the start of the cold season The Jewel Seed is a retelling of the myth of spring’s return which we know from the story of Persephone, and the hope that it won’t be the perpetual freeze-up of a Norse Fimbulwinter.
But in amongst a series of crises we have much to smile about: Nonnie’s grandmother is called Granny Smith, a sly reference to the apple motif which will become more evident as the story unfolds; a running gag about fish that ranges from the surname of Nonnie’s relatives to their cat’s preferred dish and on to an abandoned supper of fish and chips; and the unpronounceable names of Colonel Njm and his odd cat Hrjgff. Do I also detect the slyest of hints of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time?
Extra delight comes from the fact that Rumbury Town features in Joan and Lizza Aiken’s Mortimer and Arabel stories. Loosely based on London NW3, with geographical bits borrowed from Regent’s Canal, Primrose Hill, Camden Town, Hampstead and so on, Rumbury Town is
an ancient, dusty, twisty, cobbly, narrow-lane quarter of north London. It has a canal, a hill, several venerable rail stations, an overgrown cemetery, a stretch of marshland known as Rumbury Waste, rows of little shops selling very odd goods, and some extremely ancient houses.
Having somewhere that feels — however vaguely — real, to me helps to make a novel seem grounded when so much else may be fantastical. In The Jewel Seed Norse myth furnishes much of the fantastical element, with a certain personage making a guest appearance; Aiken’s treatment is very distinctive compared to, say, those by Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, or Hilda Lewis, in which that certain individual interacts with characters in a modern setting.
Finally, The Jewel Seed emphasises how central the cauldron of story is to what it means to be human. In the final couple of pages we are even offered the start of a new story which Nonnie falls asleep to:
Once upon a time there was a poor shepherd. And he found an opening leading into a mountain glacier, and ventured inside, into a great cave, whose walls gleamed with precious stones. And a lady greeted him, who held in her hand a little bunch of blue flowers . . .
However, like Scheherazade postponing the conclusion of her tale, Joan Aiken cunningly leaves us guessing where this new beginning may lead.