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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Joan Aiken’s farewell – The Witch of Clatteringshaws

US Witch

Is this Joan Aiken’s self portrait?

The cover illustration of the U.S. edition of Joan Aiken’s last book shows the Witch of Clatteringshaws (who is also the incumbent district visitor, rail inspector and general dogsbody caring for her thankless small Scottish community) brandishing her golf club – not as the alternative broomstick that she rides, but as a pen. The artist, Jimmy Pickering has caught a nice double metaphor, because, just as there is a good deal of the young Joan Aiken in her fictitious alter ego, Dido Twite, whose energy and curiosity had driven so many of the earlier Wolves Chronicles stories, so there is quite a bit of her philosophical, older, writer self in Malise, the title character of The Witch of Clatteringshaws. 

Malise is unwittingly responsible for an unfinished story; she is in fact being punished for failing to bring it to a conclusion – just like Joan Aiken as the author of the Chronicles, she has set a mystery in motion but is still far from finding the solution. Exiled to a small town in far away Scotland, she works as a lowly District Witch, having failed in her special task to hear the last words of a dying Saint…she was supposed to record and pass on his prophecy for the future good of the the Kingdom, and now it is in trouble. Joan Aiken, like Malise and her cousin, Father Sam in his Grotto, was also living alone and wrestling with her own penance in her house aptly named The Hermitage.

Last words were very much on Joan Aiken’s mind; knowing that she didn’t have the strength to go on writing much longer, she was determined nevertheless to bring a conclusion to her own alternative history of England, and to the story of its enduring heroine, Dido Twite and her friend, now ‘King’ Simon.

The harrowing ending of Midwinter Nightingale, the previous and penultimate story in the series, had been written at a time of personal darkness, the ailing elderly King was deeply informed by her own dying husband and his haunting ghostly dreams; care for him took much of her time, but her dark mood had its effect on the book, and  by ending it so tragically she had broken many of her own rules for her fellow children’s writers:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

The heartbreak of Dido could not be left as the end of the series into which she had poured so much of her own heart over the last fifty years, nor could she abandon her own world, leaving it in a state of division and disharmony, when she alone was responsible for the characters she had created, and the restoration of justice for the people in her world.

Joan Aiken spoke often about being haunted by the responsibility she felt to free Simon from the burden of Kingship, and therefore able pursue his friendship with Dido, and run away with her to new adventures. The obvious way would be to invent a new branch of the Royal Family Tree, create a long lost heir, someone with a better claim to the throne of England who would free Simon and therefore Dido, to return to their own lives…  This was like finding the last piece of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle of her own making over the last fifty years.  Her last task,  like that of Malise was to come up with the right words…

Her solution was to turn The Witch of Clatteringshaws into a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, as in Shakespeare’s Royal plays, who gives forthright but veiled advice to his master the King, and a talking parrot whose riddles everyone ignores throughout at their cost. Her alternate historical Kingdom of England now seems to be travelling backwards in time – there are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, but also forwards, with the introduction of A Roads and public conveniences. As readers have remarked, the book is perhaps short on description, but never on invention, with new characters like the marvellous Finnish Princess Jocandra, an eight foot troll who luckily finds England too provincial with its lack of reindeer, and so spares Simon from a disastrous Royal marriage. The Wendish invading armies are more like immigrants who become the backbone of a now emerging nation, and although Simon does struggle to rise to his Henry V moment with a mock Agincourt speech to his humble troops, he finds he can win his battles with a hilarious game where no one need die. The long suffering Dido Twite, continues indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and even the elderly residents of a hellish care home, (another Aiken prophecy reflected in our desperate Covid ridden society?) and now in the person of Malise we meet another, painstaking, unassuming heroine who has the wit, but struggles, sympathetically, to find the words to save the world.

 So by hook and by crook, everything is finally brought to its happy conclusion, found, if not entirely fleshed out, and made buoyant by its humour and courage; villains are despatched, unfortunate victims are saved, and even the magical prehistoric creatures are dealt with or found new homes. Old friends are visited, or old villains reprieved, and those who know the Wolves Chronicles will feel they have had one last journey to the world of Joan Aiken.

Her English publishers, however, felt that this last book, written against the clock due to illness and exhaustion, did not perhaps tie up all the loose ends, or clear up all the conundrums set up over the years in The  Wolves Chronicles, and so she was persuaded to add a postscript, a letter to her readers, a last word of her own, a kind of Apologia which sadly was not included in the American edition.

So here, for all of you who hadn’t heard it before, is Joan’s farewell to you, and to Dido.

Afterword1

Afterword2

Afterword3

Joan Aiken died in January 2004

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With the recent publication by Open Road  of the missing three novels in

The Wolves Chronicles Series

readers in the USA can now collect the complete set!

  Find them all on the Joan Aiken Website

P.S.

I was interested to see similarities between Joan Aiken’s last book, and that of Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown, which he wrote ten years later.  Both have Witch heroines devotedly caring for their societies and shouldering enormous responsibility – perhaps speaking for their authors who felt they owed their readers one last story…?

Read about it here – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/joan-aiken-stories-without-a-tell-by-date/

For fellow writers seeking Joan Aiken’s sympathetic and cheering advice there is the invaluable

The Way to Write for Children

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A Winter Solstice Poem – Midwinter Song

Hedgehog

Many thanks to all of you who have visited and shared your thoughts here throughout the year!

I do hope you will come again  – and bring your friends…  Here is a poem and drawing by Joan to celebrate the Peace of  Winter and the return of Spring.

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Visit the website to see more of Joan’s Art

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

Willoughby Christmas

Can you imagine that this might be a Willoughby family Christmas card showing a festive stroll in the park for Sir Willoughby and Lady Green with their adopted niece Sylvia, taking gifts to Aunt Jane in the Dower House? Perhaps Bonnie is off shooting wolves with Simon in order to safeguard Lady Green’s new herd of deer (and maybe bag her mother another handsome wolf stole?) Or maybe she is back home at Willoughby Chase, tyrannising the Cook, 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 a sprinkling of diamonds due to be concealed inside them instead of sixpences, when Aunt Hettie brings them down from London…

     Many readers always hoped to meet the two heroines of Willoughby Chase one more time, and have them meet the Duke and Duchess of Battersea – Simon’s new found family, and so here Joan Aiken did have a go at a merry sequel, but it turned out to be too tongue in cheek, even by her own pretty wild standards to ever see the light of day…

So I’ll take the liberty of sharing a taster or two of her imagined

Christmas at Willoughby Chase!

Season's Greetings

Halloween at Willoughby 1a      When Joan Aiken imagined the famous first volume of the Wolves Chronicles, she was planning to replicate the eye-watering dramatic 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, rather than 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:

Tragedy Endings Way to Write

      So did she believe there must always be happy endings? These are not necessarily a good idea, she realised, because if you have tidied everything up and polished off all future adventures for your characters, then where is the next story to come from…?

Season's Greetings

     And so in this madcap short festive tale that Joan has cooked up, everything goes wildly wrong, and there is certainly a spot of misfortune, if not total tragedy!  The puddings turn out to have been poisoned by an impostor cook called Mrs Svengali, who has lured Mrs Shubunkin away with a false message, and the festive diamonds meet an unfortunate fate when the Battersea coach is held up by  the impostor’s fiendish highwayman friends – these, luckily, are seen off in tremendous style by Bonnie and Sylvia who have been practising with their crossbows on the battlements!

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

Halloween end 3Halloween end final      Season's Greetings

      Even for Christmas Joan Aiken can’t quite allow herself a completely 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, 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!