This haunting picture, and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter Goya, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys. Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert, moving between the news of the day, scientific discoveries that were changing the world, and the works of other artists and writers from the past and present, who influenced her own writing with their responses to the world in which they found themselves.
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 the dereliction of human awareness that led to this threat to life on our planet, leads to an invasion of monsters – the cockatrices of her story – who are descending on 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 need to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies carelessly or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children. Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a new current breed of writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, can 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 the 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….