Mountain people

 

A Bridge near Brecon (1809). Image: public domain

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain (1968) is very firmly set in the early 19th century in mid-Wales. Having done her research she evokes placenames, legends, speech-patterns, history and people in this alternate/alternative history fantasy, all within the parameters of a tightly-plotted narrative.

In this post I want to introduce the Welsh characters who inhabit these pages, leaving outsiders, incomers and nobility to a related post. As with so many of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken has created a rich background for her story, including a large cast of characters, but so many of the main players are distinctive enough that it’s not too hard keeping track of who’s who. As is my wont, in these notes I aim to suggest possible inspirations for how the author created her alternative history timeline.

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Times out of joint

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust,
Volume One: La Belle Sauvage

Illustrated by Chris Wormell
David Fickling Books / Penguin Books 2017

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is an exceptional young man, bookish yet practical, hard-working yet imaginative. Living in a world parallel to ours, near an Oxford which is not quite the same us ours and in times very different to ours, he has to call on all his innate resources when the times prove to be out of joint. Will he prove instrumental in helping to set it right?

Pullman’s long-awaited new trilogy The Book of Dust, set in the same frame as His Dark Materials, in my view looks like living up to its promise. If we can accept the existence of daemons, those anima/animus beings in the form of animals that humans all have in this world, then at first this narrative starts off as a straightforward thriller. Those familiar with the earlier trilogy and its associated works will not be surprised to discover that this instalment provides further details of Lyra Silvertongue’s backstory; but new readers will not be unduly disadvantaged because our focus is almost entirely on Malcolm and the deep water — literally — he finds himself in.

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What the mountain whispered

I posted a review of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain with a promise of further discussion based on copious notes I did a few years back, and with this post I’m starting to fulfil that promise. Expect a kaleidoscope of background info on this winner of the 1969 Guardian Award!

The first thing I want to draw attention to in this instalment of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence is the author’s use of themes, some of which link with other novels in the chronicles — with such a device Joan provides threads across the series which help to loosely bind them into a pleasing alternative history of the early 19th century.

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Heart and soul

Philip Pullman: Clockwork, or All Wound Up
Illustrated by Peter Bailey
Corgi Yearling Books 2004 (1996)

Delicious fun is how best to describe this tale within tales. Here we find Pullman telling a story, in which a storyteller tells a story, out of which frame a character steps into life. Like an old-fashioned clock the mechanism of Pullman’s fairytale fantasy gets wound up and “no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can’t.” And by story’s end we find out exactly how the characters all, literally, “wound up”.

This story is set one winter’s evening in a German town called Glockenheim (“home of the bells”). Glockenheim has a great clock overseen by the town’s clockmaker Herr Ringelmann (“ringing man”), whose apprentice Karl is supposed to be installing a mechanical figure for the clock on the morrow. On the eve of the installation worthies and others gather in a tavern to hear the traditional ghost story told by Fritz the local author. Unfortunately neither apprentice nor writer has completed his creation. Can lowly serving girl Gretl provide the key to completing the tale?

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Chalking it up to experience

Detail from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855–64) in Tate Britain

Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men
Illustrated by Paul Kidby
Corgi 2012 (2003)

‘The thing about witchcraft,’ said Mistress Weatherwax, ‘is that it’s not like school at all. First you get the test, and then afterwards you spend years findin’ out how you passed it. It’s a bit like life in that respect.’

Terry Pratchett listed his recreation on Who’s Who as “Letting the mind wander” — which is as good a description of young witch Tiffany Aching’s hobby in The Wee Free Men as any. Better, in fact, since Tiffany’s thoughts and experiences are loosely based on Pratchett’s own early memories of growing up. Tiffany’s story is set on the Chalk, an allusion to Pratchett’s adopted county of Wiltshire — where he finally settled, near Salisbury and not far from Stonehenge. You won’t be surprised to know that trilithons like those of the monument feature in The Wee Free Men, nor that wandering shepherds and their sheep, once a common sight on the Wilshire downs, are also a prominent motif in the novel.

Stonehenge and shepherd’s flock, from an old print

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Raven mad

Mortimer and Arabel by Quentin Blake

Joan Aiken: Arabel, Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Barn Owl Books 2002 (1973)

Chris Cross comes to babysit preschooler Arabel Jones and her pet raven Mortimer but, this being an Arabel and Mortimer book, mayhem naturally ensues. The comedy of errors plays itself out, of course, and all’s well that ends well, but potential tragedy stalks our hapless innocents because this, after all, is a Joan Aiken book. Does it explain anything that there is no actual black mamba involved?

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Spellbound

Horatio Clare: Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot
Illustrated by Jane Matthews
Firefly Press 2015

An only child, Aubrey lives with his parents in a small town somewhere in mainland Britain. From birth he has proved himself outstanding in refusing to live down to expectations, and gets on with doing things which aren’t always beyond his capabilities. Until the day that he becomes convinced that his father has been put under a spell. Followed soon after by realising he can talk to animals.

I can’t emphasise how much I enjoyed this children’s book, focused on a rambunctious boy. (You knew, of course, that rambunctious means someone who is uncontrollably exuberant or boisterous!) The spell Aubrey’s father has fallen under is depression, a state that does indeed often feel like some kind of curse called down by some malevolent being. Often depression is characterised as a black dog, but Aubrey is a boy with little time for clichés — he discovers that his father is preyed on by the Terrible Yoot.

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