Goya’s haunting picture and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys. Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert – following the news of the day about scientific discoveries or global disasters, and the work of other artists and writers past and present, who shared her concern about the ever changing world in which we find ourselves, and our ability to keep up with it.
Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century. Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth, nearly twenty-five years ago.
In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.
These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children. Joan Aiken, like Goya, and the current breed of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.
But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces, in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.
Here Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities, asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:
It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –
not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness
all we have to do is stay awake….
Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:
“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”
Here are seven more stories about the Jones family and their riotous raven!
Arabel and Mortimer are back to cheer your autumn evenings in a bumper edition of Joan Aiken’s crazy tales with all the wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations.
Last seen on Jackanory read by the wonderful Bernard Cribbins, these stories have not lost any of their humour over the years, but you may have to explain a few things to younger readers – Joan Aiken couldn’t resist giving the Joneses some of the craziest inventions of the time for Mortimer to wreak havoc with in their house in Rumbury town London NW3-and-a-half…
When dreadful spoilt cousin Annie comes to stay, Joan Aiken supplies her with radio-controlled tiddlywinks, a solar powered skateboard and a computer guitar that makes up its own music – she was ahead of her time, but not by very much! And of course these terrible toys soon lead to trouble:
I will leave you to imagine what happens next!
In another story Mortimer makes a very unexpected new friend – we meet Archibald, who in his younger days had been a cracksman’s mog (that is, a burglar’s assistant!) and was able to open any door or get down any chimney… Archibald is summoned to the Jones house in Rainwater Crescent, because Mrs Jones, while preparing to entertain the Rumbury Ladies’ Kitchen Club to a coffee morning, and frantically busy trying to make an enormous number of prawn fancies and iced macaroons, has seen a mouse!!! And not just any mouse, but the Advance guard and A.A. Scout for an army of starving mice from Cantilever Green who are desperately looking for pastures new, and who has been lured into the Jones kitchen by the delightful smell of all those macaroons:
So Arabel is sent to Mrs Catchpenny’s corner shop to borrow Archibald, and of course Mortimer goes along for the ride. The combination in Mrs Jones’s kitchen of Archibald, Scout F stroke B7, a fantastic amount of ill-fated ‘cordon-blue’ cookery (made with the help of all the Jones household’s trouble saving electrical equipment) and Mortimer, makes a great tale… oh yes, and also there is a certain Professor Glibchick desperate to record Mortimer making his famous one word pronouncement…except this time Mortimer says Nothing.
But when Mortimer confronts Archibald, who is by now happily well fed (he opened the larder door and found the prawns, then slept on the trays of warm macaroons in the airing cupboard and is now covered in crushed macaroon, clotted cream and feathers) he is entranced, and thinking he is a giant owl, starts pursuing him up the stairs:
Did we know Mortimer had a mother? Nevermore!
This is a mere ‘taster’ of the delights on offer in this wonderful long lost collection, which also includes Mortimer’s Cross and the fantastic Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass, where Mortimer meets an ancient ancestor in Ireland. I have to confess these stories still make me laugh out loud, but these days, something we absolutely need is a bit of craziness….
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Puffin edition also has added Extras – Do you remember…?
and Much more!
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This year Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 95th Birthday; how could she have known that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative kingdom, but of the one we live in today? Her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history.
Fifteen years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books as a new generation of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work.
One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published – for fans who had followed his series set in his own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell. Amanda Craig in her review of The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work when published after their death: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”
Can it be a coincidence that the heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – of Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles, the series which she had produced during her entire writing life, was also, years before Pratchett’s, a down-to-earth social worker witch who in Aiken’s book visits her flock on a flying golf club, and who has been charged with the task of saving her kingdom? The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, are moved to do so much more explicitly.
Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’
Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm. But despite its connecting rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, the disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions now with railway border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit? Invading tribes are more like waves of immigrants – the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, decide, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, that this would be a better country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of our Island’s history.
The solutions to dangerous situations in all the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS. In an earlier book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. In the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – their homelessness and gambling addiction are two of today’s everyday stories of childhood – but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to combine their thoughts together they are able to create an astonishing force and find their freedom…
This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of and only began a month after her death, but Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, communicated only through the airwaves. At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:
Towards the conclusion of the series, her dangerous and fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before. Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, ever willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends on her own note of joyful forgiveness for her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.
Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today, and what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it illustrates the pattern of history, in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.
As she said:
“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “
People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself, stories don’t have a tell by date…
Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series
Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!
(Post originally published pre-Brexit vote in 2015 – updated in 2019 – where next?)
Illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving
a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago
Some of Joan Aiken’s favourite books
Looking back at the creation of her popular children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken said her intention in writing it had been to share all the happy times she had spent as a child within the pages of her favourite books.
With her acute memory, and what some have called ‘her magpie mind’ she deliberately included all sorts of references to delicious, poignant, terrifying and otherwise hugely satisfying moments from the classics she had herself enjoyed, and to which she returned again and again. Where would you find the most delicious picnic, the most alarming train journey, the most heart stopping family reunion, the most vivid dream come true?
“I loved Dickens and the Brontes, so my book would be set in their grim nineteenth-century England – but it would be even grimmer. There would be a sinister school, where the pupils suffered atrocious tyrannies – worse than Lowood, worse than Dotheboys Hall. The key to the whole book, I realised, would be exaggeration – everything larger than life-size – and it would be funny.
Bonnie, my heroine, would be quite impossibly brave, truthful, and high-spirited, while her cousin Sylvia would be equally frail, delicate, and timid. Their nursery would be a hundred feet long. They would not have just one lace trimmed silk petticoat, but twenty. The cushions of the window seats would be so well-sprung that when Bonnie bounced on them she would almost hit the ceiling. My Duke wouldn’t just have a coach and six; he would have the first train of the nineteenth century run straight to the door of his castle.
Ideas for the book bubbled up inside me. There would be all kinds of hair-raising adventures – wolves, shipwrecks, murders; the villains would be ferociously villainous, the good people positive angels. In fact I thought of so many things to put in the story that several of them had to be left out and used in later sequels.”
So here’s a Quick Quiz for the followers of this Summer’s online #WilloughbyReads and anyone who recognises moments like these from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Answers are from the titles in the picture above!
* Who was preyed upon in a train carriage by mysterious men, and warned about wolves?
*Who studied a cookbook and tried desperately to make beef broth, and was later rewarded with one of the most idyllic and heavenly rural walking holidays?
*Who had many more than a dozen silk petticoats, had to deal with a hideous instructress at a ‘Select Seminary’ and dreamed that she was no longer freezing but sleeping under a warm feather quilt and woke to find her dream had come true?
*Where would you find two schools where the pupils’ hardships were even more terrible than those of Bonnie and Sylvia – and where the author’s sisters even died at a similar establishment…
*Where can you find (actually in two of her books!) the most heart-stopping and unexpected reunion with a long lost relative?
*Who after a heartbreaking parting from a dying Mama, is left in the care of an Aunt more terrifying than Miss Slighcarp, cries more than Sylvia, is teased and tortured by a companion more beastly than Diana Brisket, but at least enjoys an even better breakfast than the one cooked by Mr Wilderness?
*And who survives all manner of slights and privations, keeps her spirits up until the end, astonishingly wins the love of, and forgives the unkindest character in the whole book, and finally finds a true friend who loves the natural world as much as she does…
Answers in the Illustration above!
P.S. for ‘alternative’ history buffs, Joan Aiken added a note about her own ‘chosen’ period:
“Best of all, it occurred to me that the story should be laid, not in the reign of Queen Victoria, but under a different line of kings – supposing Bonnie Prince Charlie had become King of England and his descendants had kept the throne, then all the Georges, who should have come next would be lurking over in Hanover, plotting to dislodge them. This would leave me free to invent whatever I liked in my own bit of history.”
This of course led her to invent some lovely song parodies – here’s part of a children’s game:
‘Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over the water
He don’t rule over this land though he oughter
Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over in Hanover
Oh, why won’t some well wisher bring that young man over?’
Finally: Huge thanks to Ben Harris who instigated it and wrote all the quizzical questions
Louise Birchall who drew the delightful Willoughby
and all who have contributed to this splendid Summer Readalong!
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