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

 

 

 

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Trick or Treat? Life with Joan Aiken’s Mortimer the Raven…

Mortimer & Jones Fam.

A typical day for the Jones Family – mayhem with Mortimer, or occasionally miracles; although Joan Aiken described him as the personification of a wonderfully childish ID to the sensible Arabel’s Ego, his wilful mischief which severely tried their patience was just as likely to turn up lost treasure and bring delight to his weary but ever-loving family!

As a couple of Mortimer fans have observed, ravens have a long and significant history in legends and literature, there is much fascinating material to be found about them, whether as ‘tricksters’ or all knowing clowns, or prophets of doom; Joan Aiken would have been familiar with many of these myths and stories. She was also an early reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and even won a china bust of the writer as an award for one of her own mysteries – and Poe is obviously responsible for Mortimer’s one and only utterance of ‘Nevermore!’ taken from his poem The Raven.

In fact Joan Aiken’s raven is as much a parody of Poe’s aggravating night time visitor, as he is a figment of Aiken’s own imagination; but he also owes a good deal of his insouciant character and the wicked twinkle of his eye to his artist creator, Quentin Blake who drew the characters of the Jones family and their ‘great awful bird’ for the first Jackanory stories where he appeared.

Mort Poortrait

In this one, ‘Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass’ which has luckily been preserved, he is also given voice (as, charmingly is Arabel too) by the great Bernard Cribbins in a fantastic tale of a typical Jones family holiday which includes the gleeful destruction of a glass factory and the discovery of a dinosaur…

Joan Aiken had an enormous amount of fun incorporating the worst disasters that could occur in or out of the family home in a way that is deeply cathartic to the parents of small children, and which all can enjoy sharing at any reading aloud session.

Thanks are also due to the amazing puppet team led by Francis Wright,  with designs by Malcolm James for the BBC who brought several series of the stories to life on CBBC, and built wonderful sets that even took Mortimer back to his ancestral home at The Tower of London.

2016-10-30-16-26-02

These delightful puppet films are now available to download here, although sadly the BBC store itself will be closing down soon. (Or even more fun – in Spanish here! )

So if you are out Trick or Treating over the Hallowe’en season, one door you should perhaps not knock at is that of the Jones Family in Rainwater Crescent, London NW3 and a half…like the burglar from that story above coming back for his sock…?

You are likely to get more of a trick than you bargained for!

Mortimer & pirate.

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Other recommended reading for Mortimer fans:

a lovely blog on Three Sets of Ravens  by Nick Swarbrick,

and  posts from the always erudite Calmgrove

Quentin Blake can also be seen here talking about working with Joan Aiken

 

 

On Holiday with Joan Aiken and friends…

Sea Monster

“Down, sir! Heel. Go home now, good serpent.”

What would you wish for on your holiday, apart from lazy days of  sunshine, rest and relaxation and a good book? Joan Aiken’s Armitage family have an unfortunate knack of wishing for things that come true when they least expect it; in this case Mrs Armitage is finding her honeymoon a little too peaceful, and idly slips a round white stone with a hole in it on to her finger, remembering:

“When I was little I used to call these wishing stones.”

She goes on to speculate happily about the future, imagining ‘a beautiful house, in a beautiful village… with at least one ghost…two children who never mope or sulk or get bored…and a few magic wishes…and a phoenix or something…’

“Whoa, wait a minute…you don’t really believe in that stone, do you?” Mr Armitage said anxiously.

“Only half.”

“Well how about taking it off, now and throwing it in the sea, before you wish for anything else?”

Armitage honeymoon

And of course some of those wishes will certainly come true!

To read more about the amazing adventures of the Armitage family – perfect Summer reading for all – try Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

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UK edition from Virago illustrated as here by Peter Bailey

US edition from Small Beer Press with pictures by Andi Watson

A Japanese Joan Aiken Picture Post

jap-whaler

A Pop up Nantucket Whaler from Japan.

Joan Aiken has inspired, and herself created, some beautiful art work, often with Japanese  and also sea-faring connections.

This exquisite cut out card came from a devoted Joan Aiken fan, Kayoko, and arrived fittingly on Valentine’s day. A new edition of the Dido Twite adventure Night Birds on Nantucket has recently been published in Japan – a labour of love for the translator who had to to convey Dido’s cockney slang, nineteenth century whaling jargon, and the little island’s old fashioned Puritan speech patterns…

Joan Aiken’s books have flourished in Japan and inspired some beautiful editions:

jap

Another translation, of Cold Shoulder Road, a later book in the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido’s younger sister Is, was stunningly illustrated by graphic artist Miki Yamamoto. Here in a dramatic sea scene she captures the moment when a Tsunami rolls into town:

yamamoto

Joan’s early memories of her father, poet Conrad Aiken included being carried on his shoulders to look at, and listen to his stories about, the many Japanese prints on the walls of their old home in Rye; a favourite was known as ‘The twenty-seven drunken poets.’ Here are twelve of them:

drunken-poets

Conrad also supplied her with some very fascinating picture books, which inspired some of her own drawings – here’s an early Christmas card –  it could almost be a Night Bird?

books-bird

Rye, an old sea port also inspired an illustrated poem she produced for her father:

rye-ships

Although the sea and sailing ships often feature in Joan Aiken’s books, one story which was particularly near to her heart, was set in the countryside close to her childhood home.

The Cuckoo Tree, another of the Wolves Chronicles, in which Dido Twite returns from her various voyages at sea, has inspired unknown numbers of Japanese followers to visit this part of the Sussex countryside and try and find the miniature tree that is the setting of the story. That was how I came to meet Kayoko, who I took there, and who later sent the beautiful whaling card. Near the village where Joan grew up, it was a favourite private haunt of her childhood, a place to sit and draw or write, and perhaps appeals to these particular fans  because Joan herself was so diminutive – there is just room for one small person:

writing cuckoo tree

Joan Aiken would probably be astonished to know what devotion, and artistic creation her writing still inspires…long may it continue!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and many thanks for the lovely letters:

japk

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Find out about all the Wolves Chronicles on the Joan Aiken website

Read more about visitors to the Cuckoo Tree here

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