Sometimes Joan Aiken would write at the end of a story: “I know, because I was there.”
Now I feel the same way about these stories – because I was there when she first told them to me, on walks, on train journeys or at bedtime, from my earliest years onwards, I had no idea how these stories were going to shape my life, I know I shall never forget them, and now I’m delighted to pass on the gift of this collection of favourites to you, and give you a taste of some Aiken magic…
Author Katherine Rundell wrote:
“The voice that tells these stories is wiser and braver than us…someone who knows the ways of the world and loves it anyway.”
Joan Aiken knew hundreds of stories, and could weave them together and make them her own – she filled them with all the elements that the young imagine and desire – whether it be friendship or delectable food, magic or hilarious mayhem, wild adventure and danger, or a warm and happy ending.
One of Joan Aiken’s literary heroines was E.Nesbit, who had an equally wicked way of making hay with traditional Fairy Tales; in their ‘modern’ versions of familiar tales you’ll find a brace of unfortunate Royal Christenings and some very feisty baby princesses. For example when Grisel, one of Aiken’s ‘dreadful old fairy ladies’ pops out of a vase on the mantelpiece (without an invitation of course!) and hooks the baby out of its cot:
“…the baby hit her a fearful whack on the front teeth with its heavy silver rattle. There was a terrible scene. The King and Queen were far too well bred to laugh, but they looked as though they would have liked to…”
At another unfortunate christening two feuding Fairies saddle the baby princess with a list of dire prophecies that mean she spends most of her life as a pig (although an extremely elegantly brought up one!) and has to find a one legged husband who has spent all his life out of doors… Even the supposedly helpful Fairy Godmothers, or aunts in one case, turn out to be a terrible liability when their wishes won’t stop coming true. When poor Matilda is told that “all her way will be strewn with flowers” she clogs up an escalator in the tube station with ‘blooming lilies’ and has to spend a year in hiding in a greenhouse with an axe to keep the luxuriant foliage in check until the wish finally expires…
Real family members can be just as formidable, or unforgettable. John Sculpin’s mother cannot get her hapless son to remember how to get rid of a witch (the countryside where they live is sadly infested with them) but when one of them, in disguise of course, sells him a poisoned toothbrush, and a fly drops dead after landing on it, his mother knows he can’t have brushed his teeth! Joan Aiken creates the warmest and most loving mothers and grandmothers who show their care by giving up their greatest treasures, or passing on their wisdom in unexpected ways.
There are deaths too, and great sadness for those left behind, but hope and help are offered for ways to remember the love and wisdom of those we have lost. A Joan Aiken heroine may lie down and cry her heart out, but she’ll accept her loss, and make use of the gifts that came from that relationship – whether it is learning to speak to the bees and teaching songs to a bird, or helping to make a flute that brings back a forgotten melody and restores a family tradition.
Music is often the key to a mystery in these stories:
“As soon as Ermine put the needle down and the disc began to revolve, a strange thing happened…she found herself walking down a steep narrow lane, in between two high walls…an archway led to a small lawn in the centre of which grew a huge tree all covered with blossom..she started to cross the grass to it, but at that moment the music slowed down and came to an end…”
There are delicious meals – sometimes the simplest are the best. On a hot day there is “a bunch of radishes soaking in a blue bowl of water, ready for anyone who came in to take a cool peppery bite” or “an apple and the special birthday cream cheese which her mother had left for her” or “a tiny birthday cake decorated with pink candles and silver balls.” Or a supper in front of the kitchen fire: “a cup of cocoa, piece of dripping toast, and the crusty end of the loaf spread thick with globby home-made yellow plum jam.”
There is that slightly wicked smiling voice:
“‘The sea promised to come and help me if ever I was in trouble. And it’s coming now.’ Sure enough, the very next minute, every single wall of the house burst in, and the roof collapsed like an eggshell when you hit it with a spoon. There was enough sea in the garden to fill the whole Atlantic and have enough left over for the Pacific too.”
There is language for all ages – ‘The Ministry of Alarm and Despondency’, the ‘Ballet Doux’ – composed of blue blooded little girls, and lovely word-play, often on misread notices like: ‘load of spinach goes begging’ or:
LOST: FIVE MINUTES.
FINDER PLEASE RETURN TO WORMLEY MUSEUM. REWARD.
Joan Aiken beautifully conveys the storyteller’s – and the listener’s – love of stories. One of her bewitched princesses finds herself in an oasis with a dragon:
“During their simple meals of dates he often looked hopefully at the book, and sometimes pushed it towards her with the tip of his tail, as if asking for more.” An old car begs: “Oh won’t some kind soul tell me a story? I have such a terrible craving on me to hear another tale!” And at the moment when the boy Seb pauses in his reading aloud to the sea: “a thin white hand came out of the green water and turned over the page…”
The voice that tells these stories is wise, and funny, and generous in the wish to pass on everything she has learned from reading and loving stories herself. There is treasure here, and wisdom, and a sense of what it is we sometimes only half-remember from the mysteries of childhood. These stories will take you there again.
Here is a taste of Joan Aiken mystery:
At the end of the story these children, and all the other inhabitants of the village, have parted with their own dearest treasure:
“They do not speak about these things. They are used to keeping secrets. But if anything at all hopeful is to happen in the world, there may be a good chance that it will have its beginnings in the village of Wish Wintergreen.”
Or in a Joan Aiken story?
My grateful thanks to Virago Modern Classics for re-publishing these stories, and to Peter Bailey for his delightful illustrations.
Read more about The Gift Giving and find a copy here
More Joan Aiken classic Fantasy story collections coming back in 2023!