Shouldering themes

The Great Storm of 1703 when hundreds of ships were wrecked off the Goodwin Sands

By internal chronology one of the penultimate instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Cold Shoulder Road (1995) nevertheless shares several of the thematic motifs of the preceding volumes, one of the features that helps to characterise the whole sequence. As is my practice I shall be listing and discussing these, with a certain big proviso …

Kindness overcomes all

As with her sister Dido, who’s the main protagonist in most of the previous chronicles, Is Twite is a character whose heart is in the right place. She gives most people the benefit of the doubt but is quick to spot dubious characters. Her charitable attitude is most obvious when it comes to Pye, the hostage known as the Handsel Child, who proves to be such hard work that Is is tempted more than once to give up on her.

Unfortunately she can’t save everyone, and far too many innocents are not only put in danger but fall victim to murderous smugglers the Merry Gentry during the course of the novel, making this one of the darker instalments. Above all, neither Is nor Dido are directly or indirectly involved in the injury or death of villains: these latter are quite capable of unwittingly engineering those ends for themselves, usually from happenstance or by a form of poetic justice.

Drowning and/or shipwreck

Right from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase shipwrecks and drownings, reported or otherwise, featured strongly. According to this novel Queen Henrietta’s treasure ship, the Victory, was wrecked on the Goodwin Sands in the early 17th century, providing the coins and jewellery which Is and her cousin Arun discover hidden in the tunnel from Admiral Fishskin‘s dene-hole. Then there is the 33-gun frigate Throstle, swept inland by the tidal wave and gale in January of that year, lodged in the chestnut tree near the village of Womenswold.

Luckily the Dark Diamond, the ship that brought Is and Arun to Folkestone, had been able to shelter in Poole Harbour, Dorset, during the storm. We only towards the end of the novel hear about the fate Micah Swannett, set adrift in the Channel in a sailing boat by the Merry Gentry to die from exposure or drowning. Finally, the smugglers’ ship the Merry Gentian is sunk when Fishskin’s quarter-acre garden, cunningly cantilevered over the cliffs, breaks away and crashes onto the vessel.

Underground

This novel is no exception when it comes to featuring an underground sequence. Here it takes two forms: Is and Arun are trapped by Fishskin in a chalkpit or dene-hole; and later Arun and his mother are transported through the Channel tunnel to France, walking back the twenty-plus miles overnight. (The real Channel Tunnel was opened in 1994, the year before Cold Shoulder Road was published. The year after, in August 1996, Folkestone suffered a ‘1 in 600 years’ flood in the Foord Valley, not too far from the Folkestone entrance to the Tunnel.)

Escape from the Four Elements

The four elements of antiquity were earth, air, fire and water, and the Chronicles often feature escape from two or more of these during the course of the story. Interestingly, the church of St Margaret of Antioch, Womenswold, is dedicated to a saint who legend says came away unscathed from some of these elements: refusing to renounce her faith, she escaped from a burning pyre as well as a cauldron of boiling water, and when cast into prison she also freed herself from a dragon which had swallowed her.

Is and Arun in their turn get free from the ancient elements, whether from imprisonment underground in a chalkpit, or from a fiery explosion which sends the Throstle at Womenswold flying through the air, only to crash onto a cromlech they were heading towards; they even survive a journey under the waters of the Channel, though without getting wet.

Magpie: engraving by Thomas Bewick

Bird

In most if not all of the Chronicles the author features birds and bird names: it may be through the family name Twite, a nightingale, or a holy man called St Arling; and through ships called HMS Thrush, Arctic Tern, Philomela or, as here, the Throstle (the song thrush). Even the bird-shaped clay instrument which the child Pye learns to play, the ocarina, has an Italian name meaning ‘little goose’, and is instrumental in sending a spider and her sisters into a trance.

Pye, incidentally, thereby starts to display one of the attributes usually associated with Dido and Is, namely becoming the Resourceful Child, after a period when she is merely difficult and almost unlovable; also, as one of hostages known as the Handsel Children, she illustrates the abduction theme so often met in the Chronicles, for which the author borrowed John Masefield’s term scrobbling.

Finally, though the child’s real name is Abandella she is called Pye (in this she encapsulates the theme of mistaken identity) after the chattering black-and-white bird the magpie: the latter element is from the Latin pica which became medieval pye, with a nickname for Margaret added in front. Joan Aiken clearly had a thing for magpies, writing for example a short story called ‘Kiss Your Hand to the Magpie’, published in 1977.

Wolves

Not all of the Chronicles feature wolves, of course, but they do put in a brief appearance here when a few of them escape out through the Channel Tunnel entrance, and others are reported to have attacked and eaten an innocent man staked out in Shadoxhurst Forest. But every instalment does include its share of human wolves, and Cold Shoulder Road is no exception.

Language

The Chronicles feature a range of languages, slang and dialect (these include thieves cant, Welsh, Scots, Cockney, New England phraseology, Spanish and Portuguese) though sometimes their presence in a narrative is slight. In Cold Shoulder Road there is the minimal appearance of French — in words such as château, déjeuner and quoi — as spoken by the Comte du Puy and his daughter Annette.

Downfall / death of villains

Villains in the Chronicles meet their end in spectacular fashion, often by a literal downfall — a rapid descent from a monster cannon, the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, a train viaduct or down a cleft in a volcano, for example. In Cold Shoulder Road this is how Percival Fishskin and Merlwyn de la Twite die, falling with a cantilevered garden down the White Cliffs of Dover onto an anchored ship.

A more unpleasant death awaits Dominic de la Twite, the result of his greed. For twenty-four hours he wears round his neck a necklace of brown diamonds the colour of tangerines. These originated from Brazil, which from 1730 to 1870 was our world’s largest diamond producer. The Comte de Puy informs his listeners that brown diamonds “acquire their colour from exposure to powerful rays which are transmitted through the rock in one especial region of Brazil” (Minas Gerais, in actual fact) though it was only in 1904 that it was shown that after immersion in radium salts alpha particles caused pure diamonds to discolour, thus making such precious stones unwearable. As a thoroughly cruel and unpleasant villain de la Twite thus meets a cruel and unpleasant fate from radioactive poisoning — poetic justice given his poisonous nature.


A narrative which began with a disembarkation from the Dark Diamond therefore concludes with the death of one person from brown (and therefore ‘dark’) diamonds. While the novel on a first read may appear quite diffuse, subsequent reads and some analysis indicate how precise Joan Aiken was in including a range of overlapping motifs, and how consistent she was in ensuring each chronicle shared points in common with others in the series.

A Who’s Who or prosopography of individuals in the novel will be split into two parts next, the final instalments in discussions of this chronicle.

4 thoughts on “Shouldering themes

    1. “She pulled out the chain and studied the beads: pale, clear, brownish stones, the size of acorns, the colour of milkless tea” (Chapter 3). That’s more like it! Dominic looked less of a twit with stones that size, though small joy that brought him. I’ve emended the record. 😁

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