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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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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Lively and inventive

cambriae_typus.jpg
Cambriae Typus: map of Wales by Humphrey Llwyd 1527-1568 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

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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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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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