Joan Aiken’s take on War & Peace in a nutshell…
Those of us reeling from current events are maybe looking for comfort or understanding from history or literature. When Joan Aiken had to wrap up the fifty year history and sort out the future of the alternative world she had created for her readers in one last short sweet episode of The Wolves Chronicles, she came up with a narrative that speaks volumes to our current situation, although it comes from many years ago.
The Witch of Clatteringshaws shows a dark world, with an unwilling and modestly inept leader, King Simon, challenged on all sides by antiquated systems of government and ageing traditions, in a country about to be invaded by a wave of marauders from overseas. How does she sort it out for him? By giving him a comic version of Henry V’s Agincourt speech to encourage his tiny army, and introducing a game called Hnefatefl…
* * * * * * *
Here’s the story:
“THE TROOP TRAIN had backed away from Clatteringshaws station, and was now out of sight. The men of the English Ninth Army were squatting on the heathery ground in a circle round Simon, waiting for him to address them.
‘Men of the Ninth Army,’ he began. ‘By the way, what happened to the other eight?’
‘It was back in Owd King Jamie’s time,’ someone told him. ‘When we was fighting against the Frogs in the year thirteen. All got wiped out.’
‘Oh. I see. Well, listen. Men of England. What you have to do now is walk a distance of about fifty miles to where the Wends have landed in Tentsmuir Forest. Does anybody here know the way, by any chance?’
Dead silence was his answer to this.
‘Oh. Well, it’s about due east of where we are now, so the rising sun will be a help presently. I hope you are all good walkers.’
‘Now. We don’t want our country inhabited by a lot of Wends, do we?’
‘Dunno,’ somebody said.
Ignoring this, Simon went on: ‘We don’t know how many Wends there are, but there are not very many of us, so we all have to be extra brave and tough. I’m not particularly brave myself, but I like to think that all of you are with me, backing me up, and that perhaps, in a hundred years’ time, this day will be remembered by our grandchildren as the day when a not very large force of English beat off an attacking army of Wends who wanted to turn this island into a place where everybody spoke Wendish. Don’t you agree?’
‘What’s Wendish like, then?’ one of the men enquired. Rodney Firebrace spoke up. ‘Wendish is an awful language. It’s highly inflected – there are nine declensions of nouns—’ ‘What’s inflected?’ somebody shouted.
‘When words have different endings to express different grammatical relations. And Wendish has thirty different kinds of verbs. You have to decline them as well as conjugate them.’
‘I hit. You run.’
‘Who says we run? We ain’t a-going to run!’
‘Hooray for English verbs!’
‘We don’t want no foreign verbs!’
‘Are you all with me, then?’ called Simon.
‘Sure we are!’
‘We’ll show those Wends the way back to Wendland!’
‘Let ’em wend their way!’
The men jumped up and started bustling about, picking up their arbalests and re-packing their hard-boiled eggs. In ten minutes the whole mass of them had drifted off down an eastward-facing valley (Rodney Firebrace had prudently brought a compass) and were out of sight of the station. Simon and Rodney walked alongside the lengthy, straggling column, talking to the men, telling them jokes and stories to keep their spirits up, and encouraging them to sing marching songs.
‘We need Dido here,’ Simon said. ‘She knows all the tunes her father made up – “Grosvenor Gallop” and “Penny a Ride to Pimlico” and “Light-hearted Lily of Piccadilly”—’
‘Well, I expect a lot of the men know those anyway.’
So it proved, and the men of the Ninth Army marched eastwards in a gale of song.
* * * * * * *
As dawn began to break, Simon decreed a rest for the Ninth Army. He reckoned they might have marched about half of the distance they had to cover. The men sat down and dug their way into the sacks of hard-boiled eggs donated to the army by kind ladies when the train stopped at Northallerton station.
Simon overheard a few grumbles: ‘Thirsty work, hard-boiled eggs is, on their own. Wouldn’t mind a nibble of cheese or a sup of beer!’
‘All right, you lot!’ Simon shouted after ten minutes. ‘Let’s be on our way!’
The track they were on clung to the side of a valley. Ahead, it curved round a hill. A grey parrot came flying from behind them, and alighted on Rodney’s shoulder. Simon, ahead of the others, rounded the bend on the road, then came to a startled stop. Ahead of them, on the other side of the valley, was the force they had come to fight. The track ran down, crossed a bridge, then rose again to where the foreign army was stationed, glittering red and gold, with the new-risen sun fetching flashes from muskets and shields, spearheads and musket barrels. They had horses. And small cannons mounted on wheels. And they out-numbered the English force by at least two to one. The cannons, which looked very impressive, were drawn by wide-horned oxen. Like the English army, the Wends had apparently paused to eat breakfast and water their beasts, which were being led in groups down to the river which ran along the valley bottom.
‘Humph,’ said Rodney Firebrace, who had walked up beside Simon. ‘I reckon this is where you need to negotiate.’
‘Negotiate what? They could beat us hollow. Look at them. There are twice as many of them. And their guns—’
‘True. But we are on higher ground. Ah, look – they want to talk . . .’
The foreign force had now caught sight of the advance part of Simon’s army on the opposite slope. They could not see it all, because of the fold in the hillside. They could not see that they had the numerical advantage. A group of leaders, down by the bridge, were shaking their heads, obviously discussing the situation.
‘Look, here’s someone who wants to parley,’ said Firebrace.
‘Aaarkh,’ said the bird on his shoulder. ‘A castle that parleys is half taken.’
‘I’ll go down to the bridge and see what they have to say,’ said Rodney. ‘That fellow is waving a yellow flag.’
‘I’m coming too,’ said Simon.
‘This is where you have to remember King Canute and Edmund Ironside.’
‘Why? I never met either of those guys . . .’
Several of the group at the bridge fell back, leaving a tall rangy fellow in a steel helmet with wings, and a fat, compact little dark-bearded man in royal-looking clothes.
‘Ah, good morning,’ he said in fluent, though heavily accented English. ‘I am Albert the Bear, Count of Ballenstedt, founder of the Ascanian line, Margrave of Brandenburg and heir of Pribislav.’
‘Good morning,’ said Simon. ‘I am Simon Battersea, King of England. Er – can I enquire about your intentions – what you mean by arriving here in this warlike manner?’
That should have been better put, he thought. I’m no good at this kind of thing.
‘You like to fight?’ said King Albert the Bear. ‘Ve Vends enjoy fighting. But this is not a good spot to fight.’
‘Why did you stop here?’
‘Vell, ve have to. Because the sign say so.’ Albert pointed to a triangular road sign. It said:
TOADS CROSS HERE
Behind Simon, Firebrace muttered, ‘This is definitely a case for Canute and Ironside.’ Simon suddenly remembered about them. Father Sam had told him.
‘I’ll tell you what, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘Instead of involving our troops in a battle in this narrow, muddy spot, why don’t you and I have a personal combat? Like King Canute, son of Sweyn the Dane, and Edmund Ironside? Don’t you think that would be more – more sporting and economical?’
‘Quarter-staff or small-sword?’ said King Albert alertly.
‘Whichever Your Majesty prefers.’ And heaven help me, thought Simon, for I know as little of one as of the other. ‘Can you find my small-sword?’ he said to Firebrace. ‘I think I left it somewhere in the baggage train.’
‘Certainly, Your Majesty. And I’ll cut a quarter-staff out of that holly bush.’
‘Vun moment,’ said King Albert, who meanwhile had been conferring with his adviser. ‘Vilf Thundergripper reminds me that I have been suffering from severe cramp in my left leg. Not good, not good for personal combat!’
‘Oh, that is a pity,’ said Simon. ‘Then what about—?’
‘Vilf Thundergripper suggest that instead of combat ve play a game of Hnefatefl.’
‘Oh, certainly,’ said Firebrace. ‘My King will be delighted to take Your Majesty on at Hnefatefl.’ A Wendish gentleman-in-waiting was sent off at the double to the supply cart at the rear of the Wendish armed column.
‘For heaven’s sake!’ whispered Simon urgently to Firebrace. ‘What is Hnefatefl and how do you play it?’
‘Oh, it’s a Saxon board game. You’ll very soon get the hang of it. There is a board with eighteen squares . .’
The board – a very handsome gold and leather one – was quickly brought and set out with its pieces on a handy tree-stump.
The pieces were set out on the board. They were made of bone, and the king-piece, the hnefi, had a gold crown round his stomach. Two stools were brought from the Wendish camp for Simon and King Albert. They tossed a Wendish pfennig for colour, and King Albert won and chose white.
(Afterwards Simon discovered that the Wendish pfennigs had heads on both sides.)
‘Ve play best of nine games, yes?’ said King Albert.
‘As you wish, Your Majesty.’
‘You vin, I take my army back to Vendland. I vin, you find us Vends nize home in beautiful English countryside – yes so? Not too far from my cousin Bloodarrow of Bernicia.’
‘Very well,’ said Simon. I wish Dido were here, he thought. I bet she’d be good at this game.
‘Don’t play with a straw before an old cat,’ said the parrot.
* * * * * * *
King Albert the Bear was evidently an old hand at the Hnefatefl game and won three rounds in quick succession. But by this time Simon was beginning to get the hang of it, and now he started to win. When he had won four games running, King Albert suddenly said:
‘I now getting again this bad bad cramp pain in my leg. Ve must stop playing! At vunce!’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry about that, Your Majesty. Shall we fight a duel, then? Or would you rather have a battle?’
‘I tell you vot,’ said King Albert. ‘Vot you say, I get my men to vote. Vuns that vant to stay in Engel-land, you let them stay. I think I go home. Men that vish to go home, they go home vith me. Vot you say?’
‘Sounds all right,’ said Simon cautiously. ‘If we can find a place that’s big enough for the ones that want to stay. What do you think, Firebrace?’
‘It might be arranged,’ said Firebrace with equal caution. ‘When the train stopped at Northallerton, I remember hearing talk of an unoccupied valley in Yorkshire. That might do for some of your men, Your Majesty. What do you think?’
‘Goot enough. Let them vote. Bring two baskets.’
Massive Wendish baskets were used to carry arrows and bullets. Their contents were all tipped out onto the heather.
‘Men who vish to go back to Vendland put cheese in basket. Those who vish to stay in Engel-land put egg in basket. Understand?’
While the two leaders had been playing Hnefatefl, a good deal of fraternization had been taking place among the troops. Simon’s army, who had been supplied with more hard-boiled eggs than they could use, had been happy to exchange these for the Wendish soldiers’ ration of little hard round blue-veined cheeses the size of golf balls, which were found to be very tasty by the English troops.
‘Made by adding the cream of one day to the entire milk of the next,’ the Wendish quartermaster told them. ‘Makes cheese extra rich.’
When the vote was counted, it was found that three hundred men wished to remain in England. The rest preferred to go home.
‘Good! Some go, some stay. I go home now, to Vendland. You come, Simon, you visit me some time, we play more Hnefatefl. You play not bad, not bad at all,’ said King Albert.
So the arrows and bullets were bundled back into the baskets, the eggs and cheeses distributed to those who wanted them, and the two armies prepared to go their ways.
‘If I could borrow a horse,’ said Firebrace, ‘I could ride down directly into Yorkshire and make arrangements about that valley. There may be a bit of rent to pay.’
‘Vell, vell,’ said King Albert. ‘Ven you vant some rent, you let me know. No vorry! Goodbye. Ve go now. To the again-see!’
And he mounted his horse and rode eastward with the main part of his army. Simon, with his men and the rest of the Wendish army, turned back westwards, singing Abednego Twite’s song ‘Raining, Raining All the Day’, which had a very catchy chorus:
‘I reign, you reign, he reigns, they reign when the skies are grey.’
A large number of toads, who had been hesitating at the side of the road, now decided that it would be safe to cross.
* * * * * * *
In Joan Aiken’s universe, humour, pragmatism and even an understanding of grammar save the day – the Men of the Ninth do adapt their language to understand the newcomers with new words ‘Wending’ their way into the language, and new foods – presumably Wendsleydale? – happily absorbed into their diet. The cheerful lack of front, or side, in the two leaders allows everyone to get what they need, and all faces to be saved. Now all Simon needs is to find someone willing to take over the crown so he can retire into happy obscurity again with his dear friend Dido…
To find out the rest of the story you’ll have to read on…
Excerpts from The Witch of Clatteringshaws (The Wolves Chronicles series)
- With thanks to Walt Kelly and Pogo for a great title