“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

This haunting picture by Goya and its resonant title quoted above, was often taken as the Spanish painter’s manifesto, and was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy novel The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was ever alert to the news of the day, about scientific discoveries or impending disasters, and she followed the work of other artists and writers, past and present, who shared her concern about our ever changing world, and our inability to keep up with it.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist,  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,  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 a current trend 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.

Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, is sent on the train with The Cockatrice Boys a raggle taggle army of survivors, to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities. Here, she asks her fellow traveller, the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

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.”

Now out as an EBook, click to find this gripping Y.A.Fantasy novel













7 thoughts on ““The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” – Joan Aiken’s timely warning.

  1. I’d not come across this before, Lizza, but I’m going to have to read it! Goya’s print seems to have inspired quite a few creative types, including Ursula Le Guin, who mentions it in her SF story Newton’s Sleep, a review of which I illustrated with the very same image (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-p6). The idea of chimerical monsters emerging into everyday life has also been re-visited by the Barrowmans’ Hollow Earth (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-55).

    I see in the Guardian Review that there is a sub-genre of dystopian novels involving climate change which have now, on the analogy with sci-fi, been dubbed cli-fi, though of course (as Joan’s novel testifies) the sub-genre has been around for some time.


      • Hi Lizza, I am Dan Bloom the guy in the Guardian article who coined the CLI FI term and has been busy popularizing it from NPR to the Christian Science Monitor to the Guardian to the FT in the UK, and Alison Flood also did a very good post at her blog in London on cli fi, and next I hear the New York Times is getting ready to do a story on it. re ”see in the Guardian Review that there is a sub-genre of dystopian novels involving climate change which have now, on the analogy with sci-fi, been dubbed cli-fi, though of course (as Joan’s novel testifies) the sub-genre has been around for some time.”

        And yes, it’s nothing new. JG Ballard’s The Drowned World was pubbed in 1962. So not new at all. Just a new term, with a sci fi cli fi ryhmying sound to it, catchy, nice to ear and eye, so it might catch on and help writers and readers (and agents and editors and publishers) perceive climate issues in fictional settings in a new and positive way. I didn’t really coin a new term, i just borrowed the sci fi rhyming sound and segued over the climate fiction cli fi. So it’s not MY word. I am just doing background PR for the term, in hopes it might help wake people up about the climate issues we face….as the world BURNS…..sigh….danny bloom, (1949-2032)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. re fear of weather phobia, one source tells me ”atmophobia” but i am not sure that is real term,. others:

    There is no scientific term for the fear of severe weather. There are names for specific fears, however:

    Ancraophobia: Wind

    Astraphobia or Astrapophobia: Thunder or lightning

    Lilapsophobia: Tornadoes and hurricanes

    Ombrophobia: Rain

    SOURCES: Stormphobia.org; Phobialist.com

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Danny ( and Leinad!) Joan would have loved some of those – and been with you all the way about our truly disastrous ostrich attitude to the changing world and our part in it – perhaps ten years’ of rain (and melting ice caps) will convince?
    And then we’ll be able to travel from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea again like the ancient Greeks…?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Creating Alternate Worlds… | Joan Aiken

  5. As you say, Lizza, an apt repost for Earth Day 2021, and a severe rap on the knuckles for me as I got a hardback copy of The Cockatrice Boys a couple of years ago and have still not read it!

    Interesting to read what Danny says about the origin of the term cli-fi, I can hardly believe his comments were as long ago as 2013: I do hope that Biden’s warning today that we’re in a “decisive decade” where tackling the climate crisis is concerned doesn’t fall in deaf ears as it too often does.


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