‘One may smile and smile and be a villain…’


‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’    Joan Aiken wrote. 

Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the villain in question has murdered the hero’s father and married his mother.

Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of disguised but really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions in her writer’s guide The Way to Write for Children, was to show a quick glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One might think of Miss Slighcarp, or Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase who, while pretending to good manners and civil behaviour, show sudden alarming flashes of temper or violence, barely controlled. Another example of this uncontrolled viciousness in a character that she describes is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici –  who first shoves an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then has to descend thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…

One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles,  her series of twelve books which contains a whole catalogue of wolfish villains, was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit. Not only did he have her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his selfish purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgave him time after time.

It is only after he leaves Dido’s younger sister Is, her slapdash mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and then calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, to set her up as a puppet Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:

End ofPaEnd ofPa2

Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, and a horribly suitable one too, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.

Joan Aiken was aware of the dreadful power of family members and the powerlessness of children supposedly in their care; many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:


By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:


In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fellow children’s writer Katherine Rundell quotes Joan Aiken and adds her comments:

Aiken said in an interview: ‘What scares me? Gangs, irrational rage, people who can’t be reasoned with..’ 

“‘People who can’t be reasoned with’: that, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the true horror; people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives like kindness or good jokes. It’s the wolfishness of Miss Slighcarp that gives the book its power.”

Should children be presented in their reading with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed that they should, that being scared was a useful and sometimes even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that exercising their imaginations in this way might even help children to enhance their powers of discernment, should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Want to discover a few more?

See a complete list of  Joan Aiken’s  Wolves Chronicles here


and find her extremely entertaining ( and useful!) guide The Way to Write for Children here


3 thoughts on “‘One may smile and smile and be a villain…’

  1. Joan’s villains were, with one or two exceptions such as Pa, thorough blackguards (or ‘blackhearts’, as I think Joan softened it to). Worse than pantomime baddies, they were really threateningly godawful, creating both mayhem and murder. Should Joan have presented kids with such nightmare creatures? I agree that she was well within a writer’s rights over this — best not to mollycoddle kids — and she did it by a deft mix of fantasy and realism.

    She was certainly ahead of her time, somehow operating under the radar of any children’s thought police; but she followed in a long romance and fairytale tradition, and all those 19th-century literary bogeymen, from Stevenson’s Long John Silver and the memorable Scissor-Man from Struwwelpeter, find their counterparts in, for example, Tim Burton’s films (The Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas and so on). To suggest that such villains are clowns or easily fooled is to do children no favours.

    By the way, I love all the doggerel rhymes that find their way into the pages of the Wolves stories and elsewhere, and often find myself trying to fit a tune — traditional or composed ad hoc — to each of Pa’s wonderful verses, or imagining what dance melodies he made up that got the audience’s feet tapping…

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  2. My daughter and son and I are working our way through the Wolves Chronicles. It’s so much fun to see and hear their righteous indignation over the deeds of the Slighcarps, Twites (some of them, anyway), Briskets and other Hanoverians. Whenever one of them first shows up on the page, my childrens’ hackles are raised. Joan Aiken’s villains are smart and can even be charming when they choose, but they never fail to reward the suspicion they attract in young readers. And the payoff is sweet, if not often unsettling. The only thing more fun than witnessing my children’s outrage at Hanoverian misdeeds is seeing their satisfaction and certainty in the inevitable justice that will, eventually, come to each of those villains.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How lovely – that’s exactly the right way to enjoy the series – reading together and sharing the righteous indignation! When Joan was first writing these books she would read aloud instalments to me and my brother when we got back from school…we even got a chance to chip in! I’d love to hear from your two – they can get in touch via the website?

      Liked by 1 person

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