Giving a voice to women – Joan Aiken’s folk tales for the next generation.

The furious tree

Old ladies, browbeaten wives, silent mothers, unhappy daughters – all are given a chance to speak their thoughts, and even practise a little magic in Joan Aiken’s modern folk tales,  particularly in a late collection called Mooncake.  Dark and modern these tales may be, dealing with the evils of our own current society,  but they call up the voices of the past in order to share their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly and these days rather recognisable property developer as the villain of one of her stories:

Sir Groby's Golf course

But the aptly named Mrs Quill has her resources; after the destruction of her orchard, her house and her livelihood, she moves into the world next door, from where she haunts Sir Groby until he repents of his greed and the despoiling of his own world, and realises he must try to put back what was lost. You will notice that Mrs Quill has inherited her wisdom, and her orchard from her mother and her grandmother and so is trebly unwilling to break the chain.

However, what is interesting in these socially resonant folk tales with their mysterious women bringing messages to the world, is that in almost all cases, the recipient of this wisdom is a boy – a son, or grandson, a protester who goes to live in the woods, a young man who appears and is prepared to tune in to the wisdom of his elders, and specifically to women. The boy who arrives to pass a message from Mrs Quill to Sir Groby from the apple orchard in the other world, is called Pip.

In Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his mediaeval island castle from invaders:

The witch's magic

In Hot Water Paul inherits some ‘speaking’ presents from his grandmother (one of them is a parrot!) and learns what they mean in true folk tradition, by making his own mistakes.  The Furious Tree in the illustration above is of course  an angry wise woman who must bide her time in disguise until Johnnie, the great-great-grandson of the earlier villain comes to live in the tree and stop it being cut down.

The voice of the tree

“The only way to deal with guilt or grief is to share it.” The tree tells him: ” Let the wind carry it away.”     And that is what these stories do, pass on the wisdom, or the grievances – the equally speaking experience of the old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a boy who was unable to hear his mother’s last words when she dies, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak, and at last he seems to hear a voice:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books…

Mrs Quill

Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson

Read more about the book here

 

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Creating Alternate Worlds…

Sun God's castle

Why do we want them? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

One of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose death this week has brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin says:

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which had threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – you can read more about it here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustration by Jan Pienkowski above comes from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales – The Kingdom Under the Sea. In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but after a brush with the Sun God and having fallen into grandiose ideas about their earthly powers and prospects they are rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Sun God ending

Cross over into fantasy, or ignore it, but only at your own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

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Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here

 

 

 

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 their adopted niece 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…

Many readers hoped to meet the heroines of Willoughby Chase one more time, and have them meet Simon’s new found family, and here Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it was too tongue in cheek, even by her own pretty 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 these were the kinds of wild adventure that she had most enjoyed, not some of the more saccharine tales generally recommended for children growing up 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 what about actual happy endings? They are not necessarily believable, because they so rarely last for long in real life; besides, if you have polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

In this madcap short festive tale that Joan has cooked up, the puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali – who is seen off, together with her fiendish highwayman friends by Bonnie and Sylvia who luckily have been practising with crossbows:

Halloween end 1The ever resourceful Bonnie, determined that the Christmas preparations will not be spoiled, turns to the newly arrived Duchess of Battersea (Simon’s Aunt Hettie) who was bringing the pudding diamonds from London, saying:

Halloween end 3Halloween end finalEven for Christmas 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

 

 

The best stories of Joan Aiken – The People in the Castle wins five stars!

People paperback

Now out in paperback, this ‘haunting and wondrous book’ has stories drawn from Joan Aiken’s entire career; from the fantastic to the funny, these stories show her gift for mixing the everyday and the magical, the spooky and the  surreal. If you haven’t discovered Joan Aiken yet, this is the perfect place to begin…

Here are some readers responses:

“To read the stories in this most recent collection is like coming home to my quirky ancestral mansion and spending time exploring the trunks in the attic. There are dark corners and sunbeams shining through the dust motes. Faint fragrances evoke memories and emotions long forgotten.” OverReader: Amazon review

“Renowned fabulist and children’s author Joan Aiken had a long and prolific career, and it’s easy to see why her career endured across decades. Her stories have a timeless feel, whether screwball romantic comedies about ghosts, or tales of confounded faerie royalty. If you’re an Aiken neophyte, this offers an amazing starting point, with stories running the gamut of fantasy, horror, comic fantasy, reimagined fairy tales, and legends. If you’ve experienced Aiken before, this is a selection of her best work. Either way, The People in the Castle is a great example of why her stories still hold up.”
Joel Cunningham Barnes & Noble: 7 Essential New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Story Collections

“For readers unfamiliar with Aiken’s work, its ice-and-stars clarity, naturalism, and unerring dialogue can be described as hypnotic: “Empty and peaceful the old house dreamed, with sunlight shifting from room to room and no sound to break the silence, save in one place, where the voices of children could be heard faintly above the rustling of a tree.” [from “A Room Full of Leaves.”] William Grabowski,  See the Elephant

“Fans of Wolves will recognize the honorable orphans and cruel guardians who populate these tales. Typically the wicked meet with fitting fates and the innocent triumph, though for Aiken, a good death counts as a happy ending. She plays with the contrast between the eldritch and modern culture and technology: ghosts and dead kings out of legend who contact the living by telephone, a doctor who writes prescriptions for fairies, a fairy princess who’s fond of Westerns. Her metaphors and similes surprise and delight: “the August night was as gentle and full as a bucket of new milk”; “He was tall and pale, with a bony righteous face and eyes like faded olives”; across a field, “lambs [followed] their mothers like iron filings drawn to a magnet in regular converging lines.” Sprightly but brooding, with well-defined plots, twists, and punch lines, these stories deserve a place on the shelf with the fantasies of Saki (H.H. Munro), Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Susanna Clarke.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There’s so much to love about this slender collection… The juxtaposition of mundane and magical…feels effortless and fresh. The language is simply splendid, so evocative, as though the stories were actually very dense poems. And it brilliantly showcases Aiken’s affectionate, humorous, deft portrayals of female characters… Aiken’s prose is extraordinary, impossible to do justice to in this small space. Her skill with the language of folk tales—specifically the oral storytelling native to the British Isles—is unparalleled… These stories both feel very 20th century and somehow timeless.”
— Publishers Weekly Rose Fox, Senior Reviews Editor

*****

Read the title story here, and the introduction by Kelly Link, Pulitzer Prize nominated short story writer and half of the publishing team at Small Beer Press

Read the introduction to Joan Aiken’s Strange stories by daughter Lizza Aiken