This year Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 91st Birthday, and would probably have been astonished to see the outpouring of love, gratitude and admiration honouring her, in this, her birthday week.
Perhaps even more astonishing is that more than ten years after her death, this year has seen reprints and new digital editions of nearly thirty of her books. A new generation of parents are passing on books which were childhood favourites, and new generations of writers still acknowledge her ever fertile influence.
One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a posthumously published final book – for fans who had followed his series set in an alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell. Amanda Craig in her review of The Shepherd’s Crown suggests that an author’s last work when published posthumously “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 of The Witch of Clatteringshaws, Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to the ‘Wolves Chronicles’ which she had been producing for her entire writing life, was, like Pratchett’s, a down to earth social worker witch who in this case visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is also charged with the task of saving her kingdom? The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read reader – they are both sharing their world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and at the last, much more explicitly. Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’
Joan Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her imagined historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times (even pre-historic with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – Hobyahs, and the Tatzelwurm) but despite the rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, it has been drawn and quartered into separate regions with railway border guards, not unlike in today’s Europe. Invading tribes, the Wends in this case, after fraternizing with the English troops, decide this would be a better country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheesemaking inhabitants of Wensleydale.
The solutions in all the ‘Wolves’ episodes involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the thought transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS. This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book published in 1992; Facebook only began a month after her death, but many years before, Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children cut off from each other by the dangers of 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:
“Hold in a chain around the earth/Life to death and death to birth.”
At the end of the series her imaginary fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers saw Joan Aiken’s view becoming darker 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 this last crazy 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 unable or unhappy, ends on her own note of joyful forgiveness for her murderous father, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.
Dark this world of her creation may have been, but no darker than the real England or Europe of today, and what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy – they were able to show through storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, 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…!