Joan Aiken’s once and future Kings…

Mediaeval King

Joan Aiken’s History of the Kings of England was more than alternative, by the time she drew near the end of her ‘Wolves Chronicles’ it was running backwards. From the steam-punk century of Wolves and Black Hearts with its railways and hot air balloons, she had sent her last monarch back to the middle ages, to a retreat in the marshes like that of Alfred the Great, a mediaeval manor house surrounded by wetlands, and a mythical end serenaded by Nightingales.

In Midwinter Nightingale, the penultimate instalment of the saga, old King Dick is in hiding, as Burgundians from the continent, or even Bernicians from Northern Caledonia in the now divided Kingdom with its internal borders and rival factions are mustering their armies ready to put a new royal line in place. From the Tudor-Stuarts, we have gone back to the Plantaganets, and even to the West Saxons and Uther Pendragon.

But unless Simon – who first appeared as the goose boy from Willoughby Chase, and is now one of the few recognised Royal heirs as a cousin of the old King – can find the ancestral crown, no coronation can take place…

The King’s Great Aunt, the elderly Lady Titania Plantaganet explains:

‘There is an old copper coronet – legend has it that it once belonged to King Alfred, and it has come to be the regular practice that when the King of England is on his deathbed, he must pass the coronet – which Alfred is supposed to have worn round his helmet when he fought the battle of Wedmore – the dying King must hand the coronet over to the Archbishop, who then puts it on the head of the heir to the throne.’

‘Oh. But is the crown not here?’

‘Most unfortunately my nephew seems to have forgotten what he last did with it. It is like the Christmas tree decorations,’ the old lady went on impatiently. ‘Used only once a year – less frequently than that in this case – ’

‘Then,’ said Simon, ‘His Majesty keeps referring to nightingales. Is that—’ He hesitated, then went on firmly, ‘Is that because his mind is – is distracted by fever? Or are there, in fact, nightingales in the woods around Darkwater, even at this time of year?’

‘Have you not read your Chaucer?’ enquired Lady Titania rather severely.

‘I beg your pardon, ma’am?’

‘Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. His Book of the Forest, written when he was King’s Forester of the Wetlands?’

‘My lady, I’m afraid that my education was mostly lacking. A large part of my childhood was spent in a cave, you see, along with some geese.’

‘Was there no public library at hand?’ she demanded.

‘No.’

‘Oh! Well, this poet, Chaucer, wrote some lines about Darkwater in his forest poem:

“By Darkwater so stille, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale for human ears tell out her piteous tale”.

Darkwater has always been famous for its nightingales.’

‘I see. When was Chaucer?’

‘Fourteenth century.’

‘And the nightingales are still here?’

‘They do not, of course, perform their full repertoire in winter,’ acknowledged Lady Titania. ‘But even so, you may hear them sing from time to time. And there is a well-established local legend that when the King of England lies on his deathbed, all of them will sing all night.’

A thoughtful silence fell between them. Then Simon said, ‘No wonder His Majesty is so concerned. Midwinter Nightingale. That would be on St Lucy’s Day?’

‘Yes.’

‘I wonder how the story started?’

‘Oh, I started it,’ said Lady Titania. ‘I have the gift of prophecy. Sometimes I can look at a hand, or a face, and tell what is going to happen to that person in the future. Not always – but sometimes. Would you like me to look at your hand?’

Like Lady Titania, Joan Aiken seems to be able to run her history both backwards and forwards, and celebrate her freedom to do so with any number of delightfully odd anachronisms; taking her cues from many favourite authors of her childhood reading from Dickens to Dumas, or in this case from Mallory or the Mabinoggion to the tongue-in-cheek Arthurian tales of T.H White, where his wicked Queen Morgause wanders into the future for a copy of Vague magazine…

Quenell History 1

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Some of Joan’s historical images (like this one!) were probably drawn from an early exploration of the Quennells’ History of Everyday Things in England: for instance she revels in a slightly altered description of a mediaeval manor house, re-modelled by a recent owner:

“The kitchen of Edge Place was a modern installation; that is to say, it had been improved by Sir Thomas’s wife, Theodora, after their marriage fifty years earlier. The lady came from the ancient Palaeologos family and could trace her forebears clean back to the tenth century, when they were highnesses of Byzantium. She wished her food to be properly cooked and demanded a high-class Roman cuisine requiring charcoal braziers instead of an open fire in the middle of the kitchen.”

The current owner, Sir Thomas, while enjoying these modern conveniences is also being plagued at breakfast by a series of chain letters from the Knights Templar of Palestina:

“Chain of heroic love and good luck around the globe. All sanctified by His Reverence the Ninth in Succession to the Throne of the World Soul given on the fourth day of revelation at the New Olympus…”

‘What the deuce is all this drivelling balderdash, may I ask?’ –  Sir Thomas, dangerously purple, stared at it in furious perplexity.

Only Joan Aiken would know… as she runs rings around history…

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Find all the Wolves Chronicles here

Midwinter Nightingale

 

 

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Christmas at Willoughby Chase – a Joan Aiken Happy Ever After?

Willoughby Christmas

Could this be a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green and Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Bonnie must be off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and perhaps bag her another wolf stole?) or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising Mrs Shubunkin and the kitchen staff and being adored and spoiled with sugar plums as they prepare the gigantic Christmas turkey and dozens of figgy puddings, with diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences…

Could this ever be possible? Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it was too tongue in cheek, even by her wild standards to ever see the light of day:Halloween at Willoughby 1aWhen she imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken was planning to replicate the eye-watering reading of her own early childhood, full of oubliettes and haunted castles, blunderbusses and shipwrecks, as it was these wild adventures that she had most enjoyed, not some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children in the 1920’s. But when she herself became a children’s writer she was always very concerned for the well-being of her readers, as she wrote in her spirited guide The Way to Write for Children:

Endings Way to WriteVery good, but happy endings? Not necessarily, besides they so rarely last for long in real life, and if you have polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

In this festive tale that Joan once cooked up, the puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali – now seen off with her fiendish highwayman friends by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with crossbows.

Halloween end 1The ever resourceful Bonnie turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea, Simon’s Aunt Hettie, who was to have provided the diamonds for the puddings saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end finalEven now Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a happy ending – let’s hope the ever capable Mrs Shubunkin has some spirits of Rhubarb on hand for poor Aunt Hettie – like many a Happy Christmas Day, this one might end with the need for a dose of salts!

indigestion

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I hope you (and Joan Aiken!) will forgive me for this bit of festive nonsense!

Find out about the real Wolves sequels here

 

 

We have met the enemy, and he is us…*

game

Joan Aiken’s take on War & Peace, elections, immigration etc. in a nutshell…

Those of us still reeling from the events of 2016 have maybe looked for comfort or understanding from history or literature.   When Joan Aiken had to wrap up the history and sort out the future of the world she had herself created in one last short sweet episode of The Wolves Chronicles,  she came up with a narrative that speaks volumes to our current situation, although written over ten years ago. The Witch of Clatteringshaws shows a dark world, with an unwilling and slightly inept leader, King Simon, challenged on all sides by antiquated systems of government and ageing traditions, in a country about to be invaded by a wave of marauders from overseas. How does he sort it out? With his own version of Henry V’s Agincourt speech and a game called Hnefatefl…

*******

THE TROOP TRAIN had backed away from Clatteringshaws station, and was now out of sight. The men of the English Ninth Army were squatting on the heathery ground in a circle round Simon, waiting for him to address them.

‘Men of the Ninth Army,’ he began. ‘By the way, what happened to the other eight?’

‘It was back in Owd King Jamie’s time,’ someone told him. ‘When we was fighting against the Frogs in the year thirteen. All got wiped out.’

‘Oh. I see. Well, listen. Men of England. What you have to do now is walk a distance of about fifty miles to where the Wends have landed in Tentsmuir Forest. Does anybody here know the way, by any chance?’

Dead silence was his answer to this.

‘Oh. Well, it’s about due east of where we are now, so the rising sun will be a help presently. I hope you are all good walkers.’

More silence.

‘Now. We don’t want our country inhabited by a lot of Wends, do we?’

‘Dunno,’ somebody said.

Ignoring this, Simon went on: ‘We don’t know how many Wends there are, but there are not very many of us, so we all have to be extra brave and tough. I’m not particularly brave myself, but I like to think that all of you are with me, backing me up, and that perhaps, in a hundred years’ time, this day will be remembered by our grandchildren as the day when a not very large force of English beat off an attacking army of Wends who wanted to turn this island into a place where everybody spoke Wendish. Don’t you agree?’

‘What’s Wendish like, then?’ one of the men enquired. Rodney Firebrace spoke up. ‘Wendish is an awful language. It’s highly inflected – there are nine declensions of nouns—’ ‘What’s inflected?’ somebody shouted.

‘When words have different endings to express different grammatical relations. And Wendish has thirty different kinds of verbs. You have to decline them as well as conjugate them.’

‘What’s verbs?’

‘I hit. You run.’

‘Who says we run? We ain’t a-going to run!’

‘No way!’

‘Hooray for English verbs!’

‘We don’t want no foreign verbs!’

‘Are you all with me, then?’ called Simon.

‘Sure we are!’

‘Let’s go!’

‘We’ll show those Wends the way back to Wendland!’

‘Let ’em wend their way!’

The men jumped up and started bustling about, picking up their arbalests and re-packing their hard-boiled eggs. In ten minutes the whole mass of them had drifted off down an eastward-facing valley (Rodney Firebrace had prudently brought a compass) and were out of sight of the station. Simon and Rodney walked alongside the lengthy, straggling column, talking to the men, telling them jokes and stories to keep their spirits up, and encouraging them to sing marching songs.

‘We need Dido here,’ Simon said. ‘She knows all the tunes her father made up – “Grosvenor Gallop” and “Penny a Ride to Pimlico” and “Light-hearted Lily of Piccadilly”—’

‘Well, I expect a lot of the men know those anyway.’

So it proved, and the men of the Ninth Army marched eastwards in a gale of song.

*******

As dawn began to break, Simon decreed a rest for the Ninth Army. He reckoned they might have marched about half of the distance they had to cover. The men sat down and dug their way into the sacks of hard-boiled eggs donated to the army by kind ladies when the train stopped at Northallerton station.

Simon overheard a few grumbles: ‘Thirsty work, hard-boiled eggs is, on their own. Wouldn’t mind a nibble of cheese or a sup of beer!’

‘All right, you lot!’ Simon shouted after ten minutes. ‘Let’s be on our way!’

The track they were on clung to the side of a valley. Ahead, it curved round a hill. A grey parrot came flying from behind them, and alighted on Rodney’s shoulder. Simon, ahead of the others, rounded the bend on the road, then came to a startled stop. Ahead of them, on the other side of the valley, was the force they had come to fight. The track ran down, crossed a bridge, then rose again to where the foreign army was stationed, glittering red and gold, with the new-risen sun fetching flashes from muskets and shields, spearheads and musket barrels. They had horses. And small cannons mounted on wheels. And they out-numbered the English force by at least two to one. The cannons, which looked very impressive, were drawn by wide-horned oxen. Like the English army, the Wends had apparently paused to eat breakfast and water their beasts, which were being led in groups down to the river which ran along the valley bottom.

‘Humph,’ said Rodney Firebrace, who had walked up beside Simon. ‘I reckon this is where you need to negotiate.’

‘Negotiate what? They could beat us hollow. Look at them. There are twice as many of them. And their guns—’

‘True. But we are on higher ground. Ah, look – they want to talk . . .’

The foreign force had now caught sight of the advance part of Simon’s army on the opposite slope. They could not see it all, because of the fold in the hillside. They could not see that they had the numerical advantage. A group of leaders, down by the bridge, were shaking their heads, obviously discussing the situation.

‘Look, here’s someone who wants to parley,’ said Firebrace.

‘Aaarkh,’ said the bird on his shoulder. ‘A castle that parleys is half taken.’

‘I’ll go down to the bridge and see what they have to say,’ said Rodney. ‘That fellow is waving a yellow flag.’

‘I’m coming too,’ said Simon.

‘This is where you have to remember King Canute and Edmund Ironside.’

‘Why? I never met either of those guys . . .’

Several of the group at the bridge fell back, leaving a tall rangy fellow in a steel helmet with wings, and a fat, compact little dark-bearded man in royal-looking clothes.

‘Ah, good morning,’ he said in fluent, though heavily accented English. ‘I am Albert the Bear, Count of Ballenstedt, founder of the Ascanian line, Margrave of Brandenburg and heir of Pribislav.’

‘Good morning,’ said Simon. ‘I am Simon Battersea, King of England. Er – can I enquire about your intentions – what you mean by arriving here in this warlike manner?’

That should have been better put, he thought. I’m no good at this kind of thing.

‘You like to fight?’ said King Albert the Bear. ‘Ve Vends enjoy fighting. But this is not a good spot to fight.’

‘Why did you stop here?’

‘Vell, ve have to. Because the sign say so.’ Albert pointed to a triangular road sign. It said:

STOP

TOADS CROSS HERE

Behind Simon, Firebrace muttered, ‘This is definitely a case for Canute and Ironside.’ Simon suddenly remembered about them. Father Sam had told him.

‘I’ll tell you what, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘Instead of involving our troops in a battle in this narrow, muddy spot, why don’t you and I have a personal combat? Like King Canute, son of Sweyn the Dane, and Edmund Ironside? Don’t you think that would be more – more sporting and economical?’

‘Quarter-staff or small-sword?’ said King Albert alertly.

‘Whichever Your Majesty prefers.’ And heaven help me, thought Simon, for I know as little of one as of the other. ‘Can you find my small-sword?’ he said to Firebrace. ‘I think I left it somewhere in the baggage train.’

‘Certainly, Your Majesty. And I’ll cut a quarter-staff out of that holly bush.’

‘Vun moment,’ said King Albert, who meanwhile had been conferring with his adviser. ‘Vilf Thundergripper reminds me that I have been suffering from severe cramp in my left leg. Not good, not good for personal combat!’

‘Oh, that is a pity,’ said Simon. ‘Then what about—?’

‘Vilf Thundergripper suggest that instead of combat ve play a game of Hnefatefl.’

‘Oh, certainly,’ said Firebrace. ‘My King will be delighted to take Your Majesty on at Hnefatefl.’ A Wendish gentleman-in-waiting was sent off at the double to the supply cart at the rear of the Wendish armed column.

‘For heaven’s sake!’ whispered Simon urgently to Firebrace. ‘What is Hnefatefl and how do you play it?’

‘Oh, it’s a Saxon board game. You’ll very soon get the hang of it. There is a board with eighteen squares . . .’

The board – a very handsome gold and leather one – was quickly brought and set out with its pieces on a handy tree-stump.

The pieces were set out on the board. They were made of bone, and the king-piece, the hnefi, had a gold crown round his stomach. Two stools were brought from the Wendish camp for Simon and King Albert. They tossed a Wendish pfennig for colour, and King Albert won and chose white.

(Afterwards Simon discovered that the Wendish pfennigs had heads on both sides.)

‘Ve play best of nine games, yes?’ said King Albert.

‘As you wish, Your Majesty.’

‘You vin, I take my army back to Vendland. I vin, you find us Vends nize home in beautiful English countryside – yes so? Not too far from my cousin Bloodarrow of Bernicia.’

‘Very well,’ said Simon. I wish Dido were here, he thought. I bet she’d be good at this game.

‘Don’t play with a straw before an old cat,’ said the parrot.

*******

King Albert the Bear was evidently an old hand at the Hnefatefl game and won three rounds in quick succession. But by this time Simon was beginning to get the hang of it, and now he started to win. When he had won four games running, King Albert suddenly said: ‘I now getting again this bad bad cramp pain in my leg. Ve must stop playing! At vunce!’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry about that, Your Majesty. Shall we fight a duel, then? Or would you rather have a battle?’

‘I tell you vot,’ said King Albert. ‘Vot you say, I get my men to vote. Vuns that vant to stay in Engel-land, you let them stay. I think I go home. Men that vish to go home, they go home vith me. Vot you say?’

‘Sounds all right,’ said Simon cautiously. ‘If we can find a place that’s big enough for the ones that want to stay. What do you think, Firebrace?’

‘It might be arranged,’ said Firebrace with equal caution. ‘When the train stopped at Northallerton, I remember hearing talk of an unoccupied valley in Yorkshire. That might do for some of your men, Your Majesty. What do you think?’

‘Goot enough. Let them vote. Bring two baskets.’

Massive Wendish baskets were used to carry arrows and bullets. Their contents were all tipped out onto the heather.

‘Men who vish to go back to Vendland put cheese in basket. Those who vish to stay in Engel-land put egg in basket. Understand?’

While the two leaders had been playing Hnefatefl, a good deal of fraternization had been taking place among the troops. Simon’s army, who had been supplied with more hard-boiled eggs than they could use, had been happy to exchange these for the Wendish soldiers’ ration of little hard round blue-veined cheeses the size of golf balls, which were found to be very tasty by the English troops.

‘Made by adding the cream of one day to the entire milk of the next,’ the Wendish quartermaster told them. ‘Makes cheese extra rich.’

When the vote was counted, it was found that three hundred men wished to remain in England. The rest preferred to go home.

‘Good! Some go, some stay. I go home now, to Vendland. You come, Simon, you visit me some time, we play more Hnefatefl. You play not bad, not bad at all,’ said King Albert.

So the arrows and bullets were bundled back into the baskets, the eggs and cheeses distributed to those who wanted them, and the two armies prepared to go their ways.

‘If I could borrow a horse,’ said Firebrace, ‘I could ride down directly into Yorkshire and make arrangements about that valley. There may be a bit of rent to pay.’

‘Vell, vell,’ said King Albert. ‘Ven you vant some rent, you let me know. No vorry! Goodbye. Ve go now. To the again-see!’

And he mounted his horse and rode eastward with the main part of his army. Simon, with his men and the rest of the Wendish army, turned back westwards, singing Abednego Twite’s song ‘Raining, Raining All the Day’, which had a very catchy chorus:

 ‘I reign, you reign, he reigns, they reign when the skies are grey.’

A large number of toads, who had been hesitating at the side of the road, now decided that it would be safe to cross.

*******

In Joan Aiken’s universe humour, pragmatism and even an understanding of grammar save the day – the Men of the Ninth do adapt their language to understand the newcomers with new words ‘Wending’ their way into the language, and new foods – presumably Wendsleydale? – happily absorbed into their diet.  The cheerful lack of front, or side, in the two leaders allows everyone to get what they need, and all faces to be saved. Now all Simon needs is to find someone willing to take over the crown so he can retire into happy obscurity again with his dear friend Dido…  To find out the rest of the story you’ll have to read on…

walt-kelly

*Thanks to Walt Kelly and Pogo for a great title

Excerpts from The Witch of Clatteringshaws (The Wolves Chronicles series)

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Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

Creating her own period of alternate history gave Joan Aiken the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also provided her with the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  Use of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a  prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

‘ “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -‘

‘Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, although it was presumably bewildering to the children of her own home village, still fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she did become a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, the prequel to the Wolves Chronicles is now published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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