Joan Aiken’s Musical Inspiration in dark times

Japanese Touch of Chill

    “Heard melodies are sweet,” Keats wrote, “but those unheard are sweeter.” For Joan Aiken this idea provided the inspiration for stories full of  music, in times when it was especially needed, which the reader can hear only in his imagination.

She created some wonderful magical music, like a tune which when whistled or sung brings a cardboard cut-out garden to life in her unforgettable story of The Serial Garden, or a record which quietly turns itself over while sending the listener into a mythical garden of her own, in More than you Bargained For; or a kingdom so dedicated to music that when the people forget to honour their goddess, they are stricken with a burning, freezing curse until she can be summoned back by notes from a harp that comes from deep water, a harp that no man has ever played,  A Harp of Fishbones.  In many of her stories, music is understood to be a powerful and healing force, which is almost better when you have to imagine the tune.

Brought up in a household with only a piano to provide music, where her mother regularly gathered the family to sing, and before anyone had a record player or even a radio, as there was no electricity in their village, Joan Aiken became musically literate enough to make use of ‘heard melodies’ that stirred the imagination of her readers too.

One of her earliest stories, The Mysterious Barricades, is inspired by a piece of  François Couperin  harpsichord music which for years she played on a 78 record. (I vividly remember her small but colourful record collection in an old tin box, which included Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Beethoven’s Rage at a Lost Penny, some saucy songs by Jean Sablon, and the Red Flag among its treasures.) The Mysterious Barricades inspired a fantasy she set in a Transylvanian territory that might have come from  Mary Shelley, except that it was also a wry comment on the kind of Government Department where she had worked in the 1940’s, helping to keep the wheels of Britain turning during World War Two.

The gloom of the restrictive red tape and deadening bureaucracy of those times could only be lightened by one of her typical flights of fantastic imagination.  In Joan Aiken’s story of their musical quest to escape from it all armed only with a cup of tea and a biscuit, two civil servants and a canary finally arrive together on a mountain top and play a piece of music ‘of more than mortal beauty’ which causes those Mysterious Barricades to open and let them through.

Mysterious Barricades

Illustrations here and below by Pat Marriott

Music was a great support to her at that time – going to concerts and singing in London churches provided solace in those dark days, but she wasn’t afraid to parody the over seriousness of the musical establishment of the time either. In the 1950’s Joan Aiken worked at the short story magazine Argosy first editing, then writing, or finding,  copy to fill odd corners and producing a monthly ‘log book’ full of imaginary news items.

   It is perhaps not surprising that the first story of hers that was accepted for publication by Argosy in 1955 also had a musical inspiration; called Some Music for The Wicked Countess,  it has as its hero a serious young composer who finds himself in the wilds of Ireland earning his living as a music teacher in a village school, but who is utterly unaware that the surrounding forest is not only ‘stiff with enchantment’ but also contains a magical castle inhabited by a scheming Countess determined to lure him up to her bower for a musical soiree…

He fails to fall for a whole series of her magical entrapments, and in the end the enraged Countess is forced to appear to him in person while he is out in the forest collecting moths. Slightly bewildered he follows her up ‘half-a-hundred stairs’ to her tower,while she sends a couple of leprechauns to fetch his piano, and having unwittingly avoided drinking another magic potion he sits down to perform:

Wicked Countess

Countess   The  cover illustration at the top is from the Japanese edition of another collection of Joan Aiken stories, A Touch of Chill. The story called A Rented Swan was also originally published in Argosy  and tells of a composer who finds an apartment with a grand piano, but discovers too late that it also includes a swan. “It’s in the lease, Sir, didn’t you read it? Furniture, fittings, appurtenances, and one swan; care of aforesaid swan to be undertaken by the hereinaftermentioned Henry Wadsworth Oglethorpe.”

(and of course it isn’t an ordinary swan, but an unfortunate piece of enchantment, and the story was originally, fiendishly, entitled Lease of a Gold Banded Pen…)

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Read here about a collection of these early stories  The Monkey’s Wedding  with an introduction about Joan’s Argosy days

Monkey's Wedding

And find these and more mysterious stories in the new Joan Aiken collection from

Small Beer Press

The People in the Castle

Now out in Paperback

People paperback

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‘One may smile and smile and be a villain…’

Dido&Pa

‘A smiling villain, with some sympathetic traits, can be very much more terrifying than one who is merely hostile, because the reader does not know what he or she will do next,’    Joan Aiken wrote. 

Even more alarming when this is someone who should command your trust, someone who is even perhaps a member of your own family, as in the title quotation above from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the villain in question has murdered the hero’s father and married his mother.

Joan Aiken recognised the awful power of this kind of disguised but really dangerous villain, and she herself certainly possessed the power to create a few who would haunt the reader, and her hero or heroine too. One of her story development suggestions in her writer’s guide The Way to Write for Children, was to show a quick glimpse of the villain’s true nature early on, as the plot begins to build. One might think of Miss Slighcarp, or Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase who, while pretending to good manners and civil behaviour, show sudden alarming flashes of temper or violence, barely controlled. Another example of this uncontrolled viciousness in a character that she describes is Dumas’ Catherine de Medici –  who first shoves an unfortunate messenger through the oubliette, then has to descend thousands of stairs to retrieve the letter he was carrying…

One of the most duplicitous, and heartbreaking villains in the whole of The Wolves Chronicles,  her series of twelve books which contains a whole catalogue of wolfish villains, was Dido’s own Pa, who really took the biscuit. Not only did he have her kidnapped, left to drown, entrapped and scrobbled in every possible way that suited his selfish purposes over the course of several stories, but because of his cheery banter and heart rending songs, she, and we, forgave him time after time.

It is only after he leaves Dido’s younger sister Is, her slapdash mother, and a cellarful of sleeping orphans to be burned to death, and then calmly announces to Dido that he is colluding in the murder of her friend Simon, to set her up as a puppet Queen, that Dido is forced to see him as he really is:

End ofPaEnd ofPa2

Pa eventually gets his comeuppance, and a horribly suitable one too, but to the end of her days Dido will never understand how anyone could be so callous, so utterly greedy and self-serving, even to his own flesh and blood – his cold-blooded heartlessness, combined with his apparently heavenly gift for healing and soul stirring music made him a simply unbearable character.

Joan Aiken was aware of the dreadful power of family members and the powerlessness of children supposedly in their care; many of the most appalling villains in the series also turn out to be members of the Twite Family – hideous Gold Kingy, alias Uncle Roy, who Is meets in the freezing wastes of his Humberland Kingdom, memorably threatens her:

Kingy

By the time we meet the next Twite Uncle, with Is and her cousin Arun in Cold Shoulder Road, we are becoming distinctly wary:

DomdelaTwite

In her introduction to the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fellow children’s writer Katherine Rundell quotes Joan Aiken and adds her comments:

Aiken said in an interview: ‘What scares me? Gangs, irrational rage, people who can’t be reasoned with..’ 

“‘People who can’t be reasoned with’: that, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is the true horror; people who refuse to recognise basic human imperatives like kindness or good jokes. It’s the wolfishness of Miss Slighcarp that gives the book its power.”

Should children be presented in their reading with really hair raising villains? Joan Aiken believed that they should, that being scared was a useful and sometimes even pleasurable experience, certainly within the confines of a story, and that exercising their imaginations in this way might even help children to enhance their powers of discernment, should they have the misfortune to encounter anyone similar in real life…

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Want to discover a few more?

See a complete list of  Joan Aiken’s  Wolves Chronicles here

 

and find her extremely entertaining ( and useful!) guide The Way to Write for Children here

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The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski

End paper from Joan Aiken’s Tale of a One Way Street

The wonderful Jan Pienkowski has been honoured with a lifetime award by the BookTrust for his work in creating and illustrating over a hundred and forty children’s books – even more than one of his long time collaborators, Joan Aiken. Together they produced four outstanding collections of stories – one of which The Kingdom Under the Sea won the Kate Greenaway medal. Another book of very sinister ghostly tales, A Foot in the Grave had stories written by Joan to go with a series of haunting illustrations by Jan.

The story she wrote for this one, called Bindweed, tells of a family cursed by a miserable old Aunt and the nephew who has taunted her getting his comeuppance from a terrifying invasion of garden creeper…

Mostly though, Joan wrote the stories, and Jan embellished them with the most astonishing imagination, adding details and quirks to characters which perfectly matched her imagined worlds. In this picture from Tale of a One Way Street, the portrait of an old professor with his fuzzy slippers, dangerously trailing wires and half unplugged lamp with fraying cord create the perfect atmosphere of unworldliness.

For a collection of bedtime stories based on nursery songs, called Past Eight O’Clock Jan created simpler bolder coloured block prints with his famous silhouettes on top. Here is Hushaby Baby on his tree top, being protected by a giant crow in a marvellous sunset sky.

Text and illustrations were often beautifully aligned, here for instance as a small girl and her grandmother climb to the top of a tower block, looking for someone who turns out to live in the little house on its rooftop. You can see it on the right in the first picture up above; here we follow their journey upwards in Jan’s imaginative stairwell and lift-shaft.

Jan’s inexhaustible creativity always managed to add quirky detail to Joan’s vision, and between them they created a world that has remained in readers’ memories long after childhood, and meant that these books have been treasured and re-read over the years until they fell to pieces…

Let’s hope there will be some new editions coming out before too long to delight the next generations!

necklace

Perennial favourite A Necklace of Raindrops is happily still in print!

 

Find all the books here on the Joan Aiken Website

 

         The original Puffin editions of the four younger story collections

Pienkowski Covers

 

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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, make the attempt to imagine what if…? You ignore this opportunity 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