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 share their wisdom.
With her usual prescience, and wry understanding of the ways of the world, Joan Aiken imagined a beastly, and these days unfortunately rather recognisable (golf playing!) millionaire property developer as the villain of one of her stories:
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:
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, 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 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 old, the words of those who came before so that the young who come after can learn, use the experience and move on.
In one story that particularly touches me, a grieving boy called Tim who was sent away, 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:
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.
Illustrations from Joan Aiken’s Mooncake by Wayne Anderson