Joan Aiken’s History of the Kings of England was more than alternative; by the time she drew near the end of her ‘Wolves Chronicles’ it was running backwards. From the steam-punk century of Wolves and Black Hearts with its railways and hot air balloons, she had sent her last monarch back to the middle ages, to a secret retreat in the marshes like that of King Alfred the Great, a medieval manor house surrounded by wetlands, where he is at the mercy of old tales told of his impending mythical end, serenaded by Nightingales.
In Midwinter Nightingale, the penultimate instalment of the saga, this is how we find old King Dick; he is in hiding, as Burgundians from the continent, or even Bernicians from Northern Caledonia plan to invade the now divided Kingdom with its internal borders, and these rival factions are mustering their armies ready to put a new royal line in place. From the Tudor-Stuarts, we have gone back to the Plantaganets, and even to the West Saxons and Uther Pendragon.
But unless Simon – who first appeared as the goose boy from Willoughby Chase, and is now one of the few recognised Royal heirs as a cousin of the old King – can find the ancestral crown, no coronation can take place…
The King’s Great Aunt, the elderly Lady Titania Plantaganet explains:
‘There is an old copper coronet – legend has it that it once belonged to King Alfred, and it has come to be the regular practice that when the King of England is on his deathbed, he must pass the coronet – which Alfred is supposed to have worn round his helmet when he fought the battle of Wedmore – the dying King must hand the coronet over to the Archbishop, who then puts it on the head of the heir to the throne.’
‘Oh. But is the crown not here?’
‘Most unfortunately my nephew seems to have forgotten what he last did with it. It is like the Christmas tree decorations,’ the old lady went on impatiently. ‘Used only once a year – less frequently than that in this case – ’
‘Then,’ said Simon, ‘His Majesty keeps referring to nightingales. Is that—’ He hesitated, then went on firmly, ‘Is that because his mind is – is distracted by fever? Or are there, in fact, nightingales in the woods around Darkwater, even at this time of year?’
‘Have you not read your Chaucer?’ enquired Lady Titania rather severely.
‘I beg your pardon, ma’am?’
‘Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet. His Book of the Forest, written when he was King’s Forester of the Wetlands?’
‘My lady, I’m afraid that my education was mostly lacking. A large part of my childhood was spent in a cave, you see, along with some geese.’
‘Was there no public library at hand?’ she demanded.
‘Oh! Well, this poet, Chaucer, wrote some lines about Darkwater in his forest poem:
“By Darkwater so stille, Oft ye may heare Midwinter Nightingale for human ears tell out her piteous tale”.
Darkwater has always been famous for its nightingales.’
‘I see. When was Chaucer?’
‘And the nightingales are still here?’
‘They do not, of course, perform their full repertoire in winter,’ acknowledged Lady Titania. ‘But even so, you may hear them sing from time to time. And there is a well-established local legend that when the King of England lies on his deathbed, all of them will sing all night.’
A thoughtful silence fell between them. Then Simon said, ‘No wonder His Majesty is so concerned. Midwinter Nightingale. That would be on St Lucy’s Day?’
‘I wonder how the story started?’
‘Oh, I started it,’ said Lady Titania. ‘I have the gift of prophecy. Sometimes I can look at a hand, or a face, and tell what is going to happen to that person in the future. Not always – but sometimes. Would you like me to look at your hand?’
Simon declines firmly – just as well or we would find out too much of the story!
Like Lady Titania, Joan Aiken seems to be able to run her history both backwards and forwards, and celebrate her freedom to do so with any number of delightfully odd anachronisms; taking her cues from many favourite authors of her childhood reading from Dickens to Dumas, or in this case from Mallory or the Mabinoggion to the tongue-in-cheek Arthurian tales of T.H White, whose wicked Queen Morgause is able to wander into the future for a copy of Vague magazine…
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Some of Joan’s historical imaginings were probably drawn from an early exploration of the Quennells’ beautifully illustrated History of Everyday Things in England (sometimes also illustrated by their son Peter as here!) For instance she revels in a tongue-in-cheek ‘Ideal Home’ description of a mediaeval manor house, re-modelled by a recent owner:
“The kitchen of Edge Place was a modern installation; that is to say, it had been improved by Sir Thomas’s wife, Theodora, after their marriage fifty years earlier. The lady came from the ancient Palaeologos family and could trace her forebears clean back to the tenth century, when they were highnesses of Byzantium. She wished her food to be properly cooked and demanded a high-class Roman cuisine requiring charcoal braziers instead of an open fire in the middle of the kitchen.”
The current owner, Sir Thomas, while enjoying these modern conveniences is also being plagued at breakfast by a series of chain letters from the Knights Templar of Palestina:
“Chain of heroic love and good luck around the globe. All sanctified by His Reverence the Ninth in Succession to the Throne of the World Soul given on the fourth day of revelation at the New Olympus…”
‘What the deuce is all this drivelling balderdash, may I ask?’ – Sir Thomas, dangerously purple, stared at it in furious perplexity.”
Only Joan Aiken would know… as she runs rings around history…
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