Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..

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.’  This was a story she was determined to complete.

Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century 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.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants; the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal 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 Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

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 the previous 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 nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now, by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the ether.

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:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, 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, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her endless adventures, and even from 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; 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 can illustrate the patterns 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…’

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Witch page

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…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

*   *   *   *

Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?

13 thoughts on “Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

  1. You’ve said so much of what I believe about Joan’s writing and about fantasy in general, and you’ve said it so well, Lizza. I won’t add anything superfluous to this post except to say that I shall be revisiting (for the umpteenth time!) the chronicles in the new year. It can’t come soon enough for me.

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  2. Stories without a Tell By Date
    LOL! That’s an absolutely cracking pun! But the real reason I dropped by is to let you know that Google have dedicated a doodle to Joan’s writing today, which I think is brilliant as well as well-deserved. 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Of Interest (13 September, 2015) | Practically Marzipan

    • Thank you Tony, she did put a lot of herself into her adult novels, and her own voice – also the settings and places that meant a lot to her, like the North of England where Deception is set. Those are certainly two of her more heartfelt books.

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  4. Pingback: Joan Aiken’s farewell to Dido – The Witch of Clatteringshaws | Joan Aiken

  5. I shall be embarking on a read on Pratchett’s four Tiffany Aching books, starting in the second half of this year, especially as a fellow blogger compared Tiffany to Dido Twite. Now I am wondering if Tiffany’s last name was a closet reference to the author of the Dido Twite stories? Watch this space!

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  6. Hoping someone can help me. Where can I find a list of the Wolves Chronicles books in order? Every site I look at has them in a different order and they list the series either in 10 books or 13 books. I’ve seen the order of the books jumbled from site to site. Is “The Whispering Mountain” even part of the Wolves Chronicles? Seen it listed as book 4 in the series but its omitted on many lists. I’m so confused. Want to read them in their proper order. Not sure why this is turning out to be such a difficult quest.

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    • Hello Pearl, Thanks for getting in touch! I’m Joan’s daughter and hope I can help.

      Two things help to explain different ideas about the order – firstly Joan wrote the books out of sequence, she went back later and filled in some gaps in Dido’s adventures abroad, and secondly, as the series was written over such a long period of her life, (and without the help of a computer!) there are a few glitches in the historical sequence of events – besides, she was making it all up, so had every right to have inconsistencies in her own world – many readers have had fun spotting some of her madder mistakes!

      In her introductions to some of the books, she wrote that each one was complete in itself, and you didn’t need to have read the whole series to enjoy any one of them, but there certainly was an order, which followed the reigns of the Kings, and the ages of the main characters, Dido and Simon, and following the whole series, or reading them aloud as a family is a wonderful journey.

      On the Joan Aiken website, which I have created, you will find the most logical order. I include The Whispering Mountain as a prequel,and a good introduction to the series, because here we do meet the Prince of Wales, and he plays an important part in later books when he comes to the throne. Some of the books also travel back in time to fill in gaps – like the introduction to Midwinter Nightingale.

      Here is the Wolves page from the website with what I think is the best reading order – the list should start with the prequel The Whispering Mountain – the publishers had already listed ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ as Book 1, as it was the first one to be published so I had to compromise with the numbers!
      http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/wolves_chronicles.html

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