A dark tale for a dark age

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)

It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?

This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?

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Questions and quests

An imaginary city by Albrecht Durer

Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976);  Heir of Sea and Fire (1977);
Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)

Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.

The first part begins portentously enough:

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?

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Troublesome games

Jain version of Snakes & Ladders called Jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, gouache on cloth (image: public domain)

Games, thought Dido, they sure cause a lot of trouble.
Limbo Lodge, chapter 8

Joan Aiken’s 1999 novel Limbo Lodge was entitled Dangerous Games in the 1998 US edition, and this gives us one clue for a singular way to approach this instalment in the Wolves Chronicles. In the novel Lord Herodsfoot is James III’s roving ambassador on the hunt for new and entertaining games, but as well as the games that get mentions in these pages there is the game that is life-or-death, the winning of which Dido Twite and her companions must clinch. It could be argued that Joan Aiken fashions Limbo Lodge as a board game metaphor, with Aratu as the board and individuals as pieces. Is it possible to justify this?

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Forest peoples

Map of the Moluccas by N Sanson (1683)

There’s too much blame mysterious about this island.
— Dido’s observation in chapter 6

This is another post in the series giving the background to one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Limbo Lodge. This instalment focuses on the islanders of Aratu, the island that Dido finds so full of mysteries. I can’t help being reminded of some of the issues that are raised in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Alison Croggon’s The River and the Book, issues about land exploitation and deforestation and the effects they have on local populations and ways of life. In Limbo Lodge we sense there may be some rapprochement between communities towards the end, a rapprochement that sadly doesn’t seem to be common in our own world.

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Who’s who on Aratu

The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island.  A steam-powered frigate similar to the ThrushHMS Vulture is here seen passing Weiyuan Battery, Anunghoy Island near Canton (Guangzhou) April 1847 (image: Royal Museum Greenwich)

In Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge we meet with a number of individuals who haven’t appeared elsewhere in the Wolves Chronicles. Joan (see, we’re all on first-name terms!) is adept at making these individuals distinctive so that we don’t get too confused as to who’s who on the island of Aratu. Linking it all together is of course Dido Twite, whom we first encountered as an 9-year-old London urchin in Black Hearts in Battersea but who now dresses as a young sailor lad after more than two years at sea.

Here follows a prosopography of the main named characters in the novel, a sort of index raisonné in which I try to account for Joan’s choices for her dramatis personae. Remember, look away now if you don’t want massive plot spoilers revealed!

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The Island of Pearl Snakes

Banda Api volcano erupting May 1988. The most recent activity began in April 2017

Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge (1998) is one of the most detailed of the Wolves Chronicles to date, certainly in terms of the chronicles’ internal chronology if not their writing history. I have copious notes taken over the years on the characters, on the Aratu language, on board games around the world, on the novel’s timeline and on its literary connections. Here I want to talk about the geography of the fictional island of Aratu, on Joan’s possible inspirations for it and why she may have set her story in this part of the southern Pacific.

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Dido in danger

HMS Pomone (c 1820) naval frigate built 1805 at Frindsbury; colour lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John (public domain image)

Joan Aiken: Limbo Lodge
(Dangerous Games in the US)
Red Fox 2004 (1999)

On the back cover of my edition of Limbo Lodge is a quote from Philip Pullman:

What I relish in particular is the swiftness of the telling, the vigour with which brilliant moments of perception seem to be improvised in the sheer delight of the onward rush of the story. Joan Aiken is a marvel.

This adulatory comment (said to be from The Guardian) is cited everywhere online but I can’t discover if it’s actually part of his review for this particular book. It’s certainly true of Limbo Lodge, as for all of the Wolves Chronicles, but for me what stands out most is how much rich detail Aiken includes, and how many corridors leading off from the main narrative avenue just beg to be explored. For example, board games are everywhere, a metaphor for the moves that Dido Twite and her companions have to constantly make if they are not to lose their lives. Twists of fate, as illustrated by the Tarot, can also determine outcomes. There are stern critiques of misogyny, racism and colonialism, not unexpectedly, but also parallels with Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest, whether consciously introduced or not is hard to decide. And — given that Arthurian themes pervaded The Stolen Lake, the title that chronologically precedes Limbo Lodge — there are faint echoes here too of the Once and Future King in Aiken’s tale, of the medieval sin of accidie and of restoration.

But Pullman’s description of swift storytelling and the spontaneous vigour shown in brilliant moments of perception is spot on, strengths which lead one to first rush down that corridor, leaving the side passages to explore in a later rereading.

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