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.
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 trilogyThe 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.
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.
Joan Aiken The Whispering Mountain
Puffin 1970 / Red Fox 1992 (1968)
Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).
Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes — such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.
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.
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!