The Witch of Clatteringshaws
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox 2006 (2005).
Malise is the District Witch of Clatteringshaws, sometime in the 1840s of a Caledonia not of this world. She almost held the key to who was to be the monarch after the death of King Richard IV, if only she hadn’t been distracted by a tune composed by Dido Twite’s father. And if that last piece of a puzzle isn’t recovered, Dido’s friend Simon won’t be fully convinced he need not be King any longer.
This, then, is one facet of the final instalment of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, a series which ran to a dozen or more titles and which this novella, even in its seemingly truncated form, attempts more or less successfully to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.
But, as with each and every episode, the story is like a intricate mosaic: seen in a cursory way from a distance it presents a strong image with a narrative, but when examined closely its tesellated pieces give hints of different materials and unexpected relationships.
The main story begins in St James’s Palace in London where King Simon is chafing at the bit not only because of his tedious duties but because he’s expected to marry a giant Finnish princess whom he’s never met. Dido, who doesn’t want to be queen, declines to marry him. But circumstances dictate that she needs to travel with another friend, known as Woodlouse, to the railway terminus at Clatteringshaws in Scotland, the very same location where Malise is ensconced in a former convenience at a disused coach park.
In due course Dido and the Woodlouse are followed by Simon, the royal jester, the Archbishop of Canterbury and sundry ne’er-do-wells. In less than a hundred and fifty pages they are confronted by treasonous plots, an invading army, ravenous folkloric creatures called Hobyahs and a monster which is equally comfortable in Loch Grieve, in the air, or in its hidden mountain cave. Will Clatteringshaws be the end of the line for any of these people?
In other words, this is a classic fantasy from Aiken in which outrageous coincidences, traditional motifs, incredible prophecies and fantastical creatures interact in completely satisfying ways with quirky characters and drag us along, willy-nilly, in their wake. It is a coat of many colours and contrasting materials, woven together in the author’s distinctive way.
And did I mention humour, and compassion, and music? When Dido’s last words are ‘Pa’s songs! They’ve really come in handy at last!’ this Aiken fan just wants to turn back to the first page and start anew, picking out the nuances missed the first time and reliving the joy and exhilaration of the tumultuous ride. Any sadness that this is the end of the written saga is mitigated by the sense that Dido and Simon and their friends will live on in our imaginations.
Read for Novellas in November #NovNov
As is now the case this review will be followed up by a series of discussion posts looking at people and places, themes and timelines.