Wolfish Chronicles

Thomas Bewick, The Wolf

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s Cold Shoulder Road — the first of a series of discussion posts about this entry in the Wolves Chronicles — but before concluding with an examination of the very last chronicle of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, I want to do an overview of the series.

Long term followers of my posts will be well aware of my obsession with the Wolves Chronicles, for far too long an underrated sequence which, I think, deserves as much love and attention as, say, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter stories or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unless you’ve sampled these often complex yet diverting novels for yourself it may be hard to work up enthusiasm for them, and I can understand why my in-depth explorations of people, places, timelines and themes in the dozen or so titles attracts little comment or interest when I’ve posted about them. (It’s me, not you!)

But if you were to at least try the first three or five titles you might start to understand why they are special and, perhaps, hopefully, may even be persuaded to try some more. In which case this post is an attempt to provide the bare bones of where to start and where to go on next.

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Mums and kids

Shingle beach overlooking the English Channel, Dungeness © C A Lovegrove

Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox Books 1996 (1995)

Mums and kids better stick together
Hang in there whatever the weather
Hold in a chain that none can break
Hold together for the future’s sake …

The sequel to Is (US: Is Underground) is another of Joan Aiken’s unputdownable novels in her Wolves Chronicles. The villains are as villainish as ever, with few redeeming features, the young (and not-so-young) protagonists are regularly scrobbled, and much of the fairytale action which would normally be regarded as implausible acquires a degree of reality through Aiken’s powerful storytelling.

Rich in details, the novel dovetails chronologically into the rest of the series but can be enjoyed—just about—as a standalone. Most of the action takes place in Kent, along the coast from Aiken’s beloved Sussex, but in Aiken’s usual timeframe where the 1830s and early 1840s are not quite as the history we are more familiar with.

Young Is Twite, fresh from saving child miners from drowning when a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla floods their undersea coal mine, comes south with her newfound cousin Arun to his hometown of Folkestone in Kent in a bid to reunite with his widowed mother Ruth. But, true to the ways of this alternative world, nothing is straightforward; and heartache, danger, villainy and death will be experienced before natural justice reassert itself.

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The mother of invention

The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken,
illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)

What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.

In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.

And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.

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Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

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Midwinter Night’s Dream

Some scribbled notes on genealogies and chronologies for Midwinter Nightingale

Yet another in my detailed and lengthy examinations of Midwinter Nightingaleplease don’t yawn; and pay attention at the back! — in which I complete the prosopography or Who’s Who of the people we met in the novel. Among other matters we shall touch on alternative history, on Shakespeare, and on legends.

Following a review we’ve also so far looked at the alternative geography in this novel and some major themes; still to come are further themes and motifs that the author Joan Aiken plays with and an attempt to make sense of the complicated timeline that has led the reader from around 1832 in this alternative world to some unspecified (and maybe unspecifiable) year in the early-to-mid-1840s.

Then it’ll be on to the remaining two novels in the Wolves Chronicles, a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and will end with The Witch of Clatteringshaws. If you want to find out what further fun and wit the author had with names and personages in this instalment, read on. If not, move along please, nothing to see here.

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Wetlands to the Edge

Nunney Castle, Somerset

This is a continuation of the Who’s Who in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale, in which we looked at personages met on the Wetlands Express and the Tower of London, and those associated with HMS Philomela in the Thames Estuary.

This time we shall examine those people we encounter, in person or by repute, at Fogrum Hall and Edge Place. (However, Darkwater Farm, the Three Chapels and Otherland Priory will have to wait till a final post). As usual we shall see what flights of fancy and ingenuity Joan Aiken incorporates in her characters’ names, behaviours and natures.

Of course this is part of the usual series of posts following a review that I treat each instalment in the Chronicles — the link will take you to these so that you may peruse them at your leisure. Or not.

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A nightingale sang

Print engraving of the Isle of Athelney in 1898

Joan Aiken, born 4th September 1924 in Rye, East Sussex; died 4th January 2004 in Petworth, West Sussex

‘The most immediate manifestation of Aiken’s inventiveness is to be seen in her plots.

These are wild, intricate farragos in celebration of improbability, involving the skilled manipulation of a large cast of colourful characters and held together by a style which is a blend of the humorous, the satirical, the parodic and the melodramatic.

Chance, luck and coincidence are accorded significant roles in these narratives in a manner frequently reminiscent of Dickens or Hardy, though neither of these has quite the Aiken degree of recklessness.

There is a further Victorian influence in her fondness for exploiting the surreal possibilities when the totally logical confronts the totally nonsensical.’

— from ‘The Twite Stuff’, a 1999 piece in praise of Joan Aiken’s writing by the late Robert Dunbar in The Irish Times

This post will be looking at some of the themes in Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale a title in the series known collectively as the Wolves Chronicles — which we have been exploring in a review and in related discussions. We start with the avian motif that has characterised so many of the instalments.

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Werewolves and nightmares

Stockton and Darlington locomotive 1840

“An adult reader […] greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door.”
— John Crowley, ‘Forget Harry Potter, Adults Should Read Joan Aiken’s Wolves, Boston Review

In this post, part of a series looking at details of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (one of the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite) we shall be looking at some of the personages met in the novel’s pages.

Many are only given the briefest of mentions, so don’t be too alarmed at what seems a rather lengthy cast list (though for reasons of brevity it’s split between a couple of posts). Along with details of individual characters and functions, a few entries will call for some discussion of the meaning or joke implied in names.

Many readers will of course by now be familiar with the customary advice: beware of spoilers.

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Other lands

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, ‘St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’, engraved by J Stephenson (1836)

Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.

As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.

Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.

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Geognostic

Map from Frank Ferneyhough’s ‘The History of Railways in Britain’ (Osprey Publishing 1975)

[H]e has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis […]. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said […] there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.

A few chapters into George Eliot’s Middlemarch I came across this hapax legomenon,* the word geognosis (géognosie in French) uttered by Edward Casaubon when describing his second cousin Will Ladislaw.

Will’s preference for unknown regions remaining accessible only by the poetic imagination is analogous not only to George Eliot’s own setting of her novel — in an imaginary Loamshire — but to the paracosms that fantasy writers conjure up, such as the virtual world described in the Wolves Chronicles.

Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) has the geography and geopolitics of her offshore island in the 1840s heading in a very different direction from that in our world. This post attempts to start charting that alternate Britain using what we might therefore call virtual or alternative geognosis.

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“Hyr piteous tale”

Joan Aiken:
Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)

The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.

As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.

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Playland

Title page to Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’

Dedicated Joan Aiken fans among you will know I have been exploring her novel called Is (1992) over several posts now; less enamoured readers will naturally have passed over them, and I don’t blame them. For what can be more tedious than discussion of a book one has neither hear of, let alone read, nor has has any intention of reading?

However, I have tried hard to show what a rich little volume this is, both for its own sake and for the fact that it has overtones of so many other motifs. Among these have been the Arthurian legends and Brontë juvenilia, child labour and Dickensian names, social customs and industrial conditions, rhyming riddles and nursery rhymes, folklore and fairytales, natural disasters and classics of children’s literature, among much else.

In this post I want to expand on a few final thoughts. If final they turn out to be…

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Holdernesse

Holderness and the Humber Estuary

Following a post about some of the characters in Joan Aiken‘s 1992 novel Is, also known as Is Underground, I want to examine the remaining characters, most of whom live in a town constructed in caverns below a hill.

But before launching into completing the Who’s Who of this Wolves Chronicle I want to add to comments I’ve already made about the town in earlier posts, so as to explore some of the literary influences that may have contributed to this fiction.

WARNING: spoilers follow

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Is Overground

Another post for die-hard fans of Joan Aiken and her Wolves Chronicles.

Also for readers who love words and the names authors give their characters.

And for those wondering how far down a rabbit hole a curious blogger is prepared to go.

This post is the first of two discussing the people of Joan Aiken’s fantasy Is, a kind of prosopography* or Who’s Who of the individuals we meet, plus a bit of speculation about what inspired their creation.

Even if you don’t intend to read the novel you may still find the personages curious enough to wonder a bit about them, as I did.

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Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

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