This year Joan Aiken would have celebrated her 95th Birthday; how could she have known that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative kingdom, but of the one we live in today? Her stories, particularly this series known as The Wolves Chronicles, seem meant to become part of the fabric of our history.
Fifteen years after her death there continue to be reprints, translations and new digital editions of the books as a new generation of parents pass on their childhood favourites – and new generations of writers acknowledge the influence of her memorable writing skills on their own work.
One of these, perhaps less obviously, seems to have been Terry Pratchett, who like Joan Aiken left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published – for fans who had followed his series set in his own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell. Amanda Craig in her review of The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work when published after their death: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”
Can it be a coincidence that the heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – of Joan Aiken’s short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles, the series which she had produced during her entire writing life, was also, years before Pratchett’s, a down-to-earth social worker witch who in Aiken’s book visits her flock on a flying golf club, and who has been charged with the task of saving her kingdom? The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – and they are both sharing their real world view however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books, are moved to do so much more explicitly.
Joan Aiken even added an afterword to hers, completed just before her death in 2004, acknowledging and apologising for the shortness of the book, saying ‘a speedy end is better than an unfinished story.’
Aiken had an extraordinary prescience – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted to Saxon times, almost to the pre-historic age with the inclusion of some strange and magical creatures – the mysterious Hobyahs, and the flying Tatzelwurm. But despite its connecting rail-roads, which like Pratchett’s iron rails, criss-cross the country, the disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions now with railway border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit? Invading tribes are more like waves of immigrants – the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, decide, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, that this would be a better country in which to settle, and Joan Aiken imagines them as the early cheese-making inhabitants of Wensleydale, whose Scandinavian culture then becomes part of our Island’s history.
The solutions to dangerous situations in all the ‘Wolves’ stories always involve community and communication, whether through language in song or story, or even in the shared thought-transference that is able to unite the enslaved children in the underground mines of IS. In an earlier book, Dido and Pa, we had seen the homeless children of London, the lollpoops, who had to beg or work to pay for a night’s shelter, but who created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. In the following story they are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – their homelessness and gambling addiction are two of today’s everyday stories of childhood – but when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to combine their thoughts together they are able to create an astonishing force and find their freedom…
This in itself is extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of and only began a month after her death, but Joan Aiken had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, communicated only through the airwaves. At the end of Cold Shoulder Road it is the women and children who form an unshakeable ring of song around the villains and demonstrate that communication is stronger than conspiracy – united they sing:
Towards the conclusion of the series, her dangerous and fractured country was still changing, and although some reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books, her stated philosophy – that there should always in her children’s writing be a ray of hope at the end – carried her through to offer in the final book a last crazy Shakespearean jig of a tale to sustain her readers despite the dramas and dangers that have passed before. Her alter-ego, Dido Twite, ever practical and philosophical, ever willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends on her own note of joyful forgiveness for her murderous Pa, one of the great villains of Joan Aiken’s creation.
Dark this kingdom of her creation may have been, but it is no darker than the real England of today, and what Joan Aiken and Terry Pratchett shared was the gift of fantasy; they were able to show through their storytelling the hopeful vision that fiction can offer us, and how it illustrates the pattern of history, in stories aimed at both adults and children – stories for anyone who has ears to hear.
As she said:
“Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it. Therefore, if you write about something, hopefully you write about something that’s better or more interesting than circumstances as they now are, and that way you hope to make a step towards it. “
People need stories, and once read they may never be forgotten, as it seems readers of Joan Aiken are discovering, for as she put it herself, stories don’t have a tell by date…
Read about the last Joan Aiken here and all of the ‘Wolves’ series
Start at the end why not? A marvellous introduction to the world of Joan Aiken…!
(Post originally published pre-Brexit vote in 2015 – updated in 2019 – where next?)
Illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving
a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago