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

Furious Tree 2

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 pass on their wisdom.

With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a now rather familiar sounding bully –  a golf playing millionaire 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 another story, Wheelbarrow Castle, Colum has to believe in and understand his Aunt’s magic  powers to save his medieval island castle suddenly threatened by 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 – even literally getting into hot water…

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 in order to 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 speaking experience, of the older generations, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use that experience and move on.

In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent out of the room, and so  missed his mother’s last words when she died, visits her grave and enacts a charm so he can hear her speak; at last he hears her voice. telling him what to do:

Last words

And in my case, lots of books, and things are always falling out of them…

In one poem she wrote:

‘Listen for my voice if for no other, when you are all alone.’

With all these voices to listen for, we are never alone.

Mrs Quill

Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson

Read more about the book here

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The Aiken Family – living with Ghosts…

Writing has been the Aiken family trade for several generations, and provides a lasting framework for all our stories, real or fictional. So much of our history and family memories have been stored for posterity in books – in stories, novels, letters, lectures, poems, plays and papers of every kind, which happily means that it is always there to revisit…

Another kind of memory lingers on as well, the dreams,  which were always a family fascination and were often shared at the breakfast table; these became a  treasured souvenir that one always hoped would come again,  dream visitors returning in the night for a secret meeting, or in the case of long lost  family members, a re-meeting.

Ghosts have their story to tell too, and some of these are just as welcome; in one very special case I have in my home a lasting echo of a long lost furry friend who used to jump in through my bedroom window at night, and on this occasion picked his way through the wet white paint on the windowsill and so left his mark forever.

Cats have always been important members of our family, and yet another channel of communication. Joan wrote about visiting her father Conrad, aged about ten, after a gap of some years when her parents had divorced:

CA &amp; JA &amp; Cats

This piece and two others by Joan’s older brother John, and sister Jane, both published novelists, can be found in a little book they produced called Conrad Aiken Remembered  – published in 1989 to mark the centenary of his birth. The siblings met in Rye, in the house where Joan had been born in 1924, Jeake’s House on Mermaid Street,  to unveil a blue plaque which now commemorates the former Aiken family home, and that of Squidge, January and other unforgettable cats…

CA Remembered

Find the book and more about the life of Joan Aiken, and some of her special cats at Joan Aiken.com

The cover picture of the book is taken from a painting by another Rye resident and friend, Ed Burra.

The current whereabouts of the painting itself is unknown.

Jeake's House

Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and writer partner Kelly Link of independent American publishers Small Beer Press offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, and they are certainly some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in this collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, to help provide useful story material as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press