I apologise for the length of this post: do please skip it if you want, I won’t be offended! And I apologise for neglecting recent posts from blogs I follow, I’ve got a bit behind because of ‘stuff’ cropping up — nothing bad, I hasten to add.
In a series of posts I’ve been exploring the country of New Cumbria and its capital of Bath Regis. You won’t find these on conventional maps because they appear in one of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s series of alternate history novels set in a 19th century where Britain is stilled ruled by the Stuarts. The Stolen Lake places the young heroine Dido in an alternative South America, part of which is ruled by a mysterious Queen Ginevra. I’ve previously looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’), and following three posts on New Cumbria’s geography (the ‘where’) I’d like now to examine some of the themes that permeate the novel (the ‘what’) — but that also requires us to consider a bit more of the geography of this Andean landscape.
Another post looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) with its wonderful amalgam of history, alternate history, legend and whimsy. This one will look at the persons mentioned in the novel, saying who they are, what they do and, in some cases, why they may have been given the names they have; discussion follows below.
As I’ve found, Joan’s whimsical-looking names aren’t always what they appear, and there’s often a logical reason for why they’re applied to a particular character.
With Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake I am continuing my exploration of Dido Twite’s voyages and the world as it was in James III’s day, during the 1830s. This is in the nature of a taster post as I shall of course be reviewing this, the fourth of the Wolves Chronicles, and discussing the geography, history, people and peculiarities of this alternate world. Joan tells us in her prefatory note
Everybody knows that the Ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had. But Brazil did get its name from the old Celtic idea that there was a beautiful magic country called Breasal’s Island, Breasail, or Hy Brasil, somewhere out in the Atlantic, west of Ireland, where the sun sets.
I would only dispute that the country of Brazil derives its name from this mythical land — it’s actually from the Portuguese pau-brazil, the red brazilwood tree — but it’s true that belief in this land, downgraded now to an island, persisted until the mid-19th century.*
The note also informs us that this book “follows the adventures of Dido Twite, after she sets sail for England at the end of Night Birds on Nantucket, and before she gets there, in The Cuckoo Tree.” But Joan calms us by reminding us that this is “a separate story, and you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.”
The White Trail is one of Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion, a retelling of the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This early Arthurian story described the quest of Culhwch (pronounced Kilhookh) for Olwen, a girl he had fallen violently in love with the moment he had heard about her. But to gain her hand he has to fulfill several impossible tasks set for him by Olwen’s father, tasks he is only able to complete with the help of Arthur and his knights.
It is the longest of the native tales contained in the collection known as the Mabinogion and is a rich and complex narrative, with elements of folklore, fairytale, placename onomastics, Rabelaisian lists, black humour, grotesquery, puns and ritual all thrown in. A modern retelling will have to work very hard to include even a handful of these elements whilst also making it relevant and comprehensible to the reader. Fflur Dafydd makes a fair stab at this, to the extent that she reinterprets the action in a way that throws new light on the Dark Age tale but sensibly excises details that anchor Culhwch only to pre-modern times; on the other hand there are aspects of her narrative that for me technically don’t work, whatever genre you choose to call it.
This king [Arthur] lodged at Camylot over Krystmasse with many a fair lord, the best of men, those noble brothers in arms all worthily of the Round Table, fittingly with fine revelry and care-free pleasures. On very many occasions they tourneyed there; these noble knights jousted very gallantly, and afterwards rode to court to dance and sing carols. For the feast was the same there for the whole fifteen days, with all the meat and mirth that men could devise.
Such raucous fun and merriment to hear, noise by day and dancing by night, all was utmost joyousness in halls and chambers with lords and ladies as best delighted them. With all the joy in the world they abode there together, the most famed knights save Christ himself and the loveliest ladies that ever lived, and the comeliest king reigning, for all these fair folk in the hall were in the prime of their life.
The most fortunate under heaven, the king the greatest in temperament — it would now be hard to describe so sturdy a host on that hill.
• Literal translation of an extract from the 14C poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the unique manuscript of which is in the British Library.
Christmastide — which runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany (January 5th) — represents the original Twelve Days of Christmas; this traditionally marked the seasonal turnaround after the dark days of midwinter. To the medieval mind a legendary Arthurian court would naturally have celebrated it too.
Also known as Yuletide, this was a time when, in historic times, carollers would go round wassailing, wishing neighbours and drinking their health from a wassail bowl. However, unlike with this Arthurian Christmas, there wouldn’t usually be an offer from a Green Knight to chop his head off, so long as he could do the same to you a year and a day later …
In the words of the Gloucestershire Wassail I wish you, my fellow bloggers, the very best for this holiday season, with a promise to resurface sometime between Christmas and the New Year:
Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year And God send you a Happy New Year.
Diana Wynne Jones The Merlin Conspiracy
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2004 (2003) No 2 in The Magids mini-series
Until I first read this in 2004 my only previous acquaintance with Diana Wynne Jones was through her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Vista 1996), a thoroughly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek encyclopaedic tour of the conventions of post-Tolkien fantasy writing. This outing for the much-published children’s writer includes much of that irreverent humour (we meet an elephant called Mini and a coffee-addicted SF-detective writer called Maxwell Hyde, for example, whose name seems to be a compound of a well-known instant coffee brand and a literary split personality). And it all starts with the title, which is about a conspiracy concerning the Merlin.
From this we gather that the main setting for the plot is not Earth as we know it but an alternative world in a fictional multiverse. Nick Malory, supposedly originating from ‘our’ world, is eventually propelled into this other Britain which goes by the name of Blest; Blest is a rather apt name, not only for its Otherworld echoes in Greek and Celtic mythology but also because many of its denizens are witches and others adept at natural magic (such as the story’s other principal protagonist, Arianrhod). The conspiracy involves the replacement of ‘the Merlin’ — chief wizard of the country of Logres, England in our world — with a false Merlin. Naturally this has repercussions on Blest, its wider world and on parallel worlds. Oh, and did I mention time-travel as well?
Right up to its apocalyptic conclusion this is a very readable novel, despite its convoluted plot, and one you may well get through in very few sittings. For those with a penchant for legends a lot of the fun comes from spotting both the overt and subtler Arthurian references, along with undertones of William Blake and others. Then perhaps it’ll be time to search out those other titles of hers — such as Deep Secret, this book’s prequel in the Magids mini-series, or her posthumous The Islands of Chaldea, set in another bizarre Britain the equal of the Isles of the Blest.
March is remembered by Jones fans every year as an occasion to celebrate her work in the month of her death. DWJMarch (the brainchild of Kristen of the We Be Reading blog) — has now been expanded to include Terry Pratchett and has therefore morphed into March Magics! This then is a DWJ taster in case I don’t get round to (re)reading one of her novels in March. By the way, this is an edited repost of an online review I did a few years ago for LibraryThing and Goodreads, adapted from a journal review I did around ten years or so ago
Owen Sheers Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)
‘What is it?’ she asked.
Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’
Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.
All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.
Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?