Joan Aiken – Stories without a Tell By Date

Wolves Chronicles

Did Joan Aiken imagine that many years after she wrote them, her books would continue to tell the story, not just of her own alternative world, but of the one we live in today? Our lives may have been turned upside down, but she was ahead of us in her stories, particularly her best  known series The Wolves Chronicles, whose predictions seemed destined to become part of the fabric of our own history – if you haven’t come across them already, this may be the ideal time to discover them, for as she said, it is better to imagine things before they actually happen, then you are prepared.

Joan Aiken was a writer for all generations, who left a last gift – a final book to be posthumously published, for fans who had followed her series set in her own alternate world, and who could not be left without a farewell.  Amanda Craig in her review of Terry Pratchett’s final book,  The Shepherd’s Crown suggested that an author’s last work: “can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Joan Aiken’s  final heroine – The Witch of Clatteringshaws – who we meet in this short and sweet conclusion to The Wolves Chronicles – was also, many years before Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, a down-to-earth social worker witch,  who visits her flock on a flying golf club, and is charged with the task of saving her kingdom… Were these fictional alter egos bringing a last message from their creators?

The two writers share more than the coincidence of themes – they both employ a rich store cupboard of mythical and historical references and jokes for the well-read follower – they are both sharing their real world view, however it may be disguised in fantasy, and in both their last books they are moved to speak more explicitly to prepare us for what may be coming..

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.’  This was a story she was determined to complete.

Aiken always had an extraordinary prescience, an ability to imagine changes in the world before they happened. This time she saw the world going backwards – her England at the end of her alternative historical sequence, has reverted form a mock Victorian century 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.  The Hobyahs, completely unseen but violently destructive of all in their path, might just as well be a virus, but here there is a cure – the power of song, from a united, happy, singing marching army:

  “A tempest of sound swept across the valley. And the hordes of Hobyahs who had come out after sunset, eager to surge up the hill and demolish the happy, careless warriors, began to dwindle and shrink and crumple. Their faulty little prehistoric nerve systems could not stand up to the strong regular beat of the music; they whimpered and shivered and began to dissolve like butter melting on a griddle.”

Joan Aiken’s disunited kingdom has been drawn and quartered into separate regions, the north and the west connected only by railways with border guards – a foretaste of the divisions to be caused by Brexit, and now by a devastating pandemic?  Aiken’s invading armies are more like waves of lost immigrants; the Wends who arrive in the North to do battle, after fraternizing rather than fighting with the English troops, decide that this would be an ideal 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 Story. It turns out that we can do better together than in conflict.

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 the previous 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 nevertheless created a circle of trust with their own Birthday League, an invisible bond of friendship and shared knowledge. But in the following story of  IS these orphans are lured into captivity with promises of a journey to a wonderful Playland – incredibly, since the book was first written, homelessness and gambling addiction have become two of today’s everyday stories of childhood; now they are isolated at home by a virus.  It is only when Joan Aiken’s lost children discover how to  silently combine their thoughts, to communicate through the airwaves in a way they call feeling ‘the Touch’, that they are able to create their own astonishing communal force and find freedom together.

This in itself was extraordinarily prescient for a book first published in the early internet days of 1992; Facebook was unheard of, and only started a month after Joan Aiken’s death, but she had already imagined a society where children who were cut off from each other by the dangers of street society, or as now, by a wave of devastating illness, could communicate through the ether.

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:

Aikencircle poem 3

Although reviewers questioned Joan Aiken’s darker vision in the later books of the Wolves Chronicles, 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, always willing to help those who are unhappy or unable to help themselves, ends the last book on her own note of joyful forgiveness, celebrating what she has gained from her endless adventures, and even from 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; 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 can illustrate the patterns 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…’

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Witch page

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…!

Tributes to Joan Aiken in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times

*   *   *   *

Song illustration by Peter Bailey from the cover of The Gift Giving

a collection of favourite Aiken stories from Virago

Post originally published pre-Brexit, and pandemic in 2015 –

last updated in 2021- where next?

We have met the enemy, and he is us…*

game

Joan Aiken’s take on War & Peace, elections, immigration etc. in a nutshell…

Those of us still reeling from the events of 2016 have maybe looked for comfort or understanding from history or literature.   When Joan Aiken had to wrap up the history and sort out the future of the world she had herself created in one last short sweet episode of The Wolves Chronicles,  she came up with a narrative that speaks volumes to our current situation, although written over ten years ago. The Witch of Clatteringshaws shows a dark world, with an unwilling and slightly 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 he sort it out? With his own version of Henry V’s Agincourt speech and a game called Hnefatefl…

*******

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.’

More silence.

‘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.’

‘What’s verbs?’

‘I hit. You run.’

‘Who says we run? We ain’t a-going to run!’

‘No way!’

‘Hooray for English verbs!’

‘We don’t want no foreign verbs!’

‘Are you all with me, then?’ called Simon.

‘Sure we are!’

‘Let’s go!’

‘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:

STOP

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…

walt-kelly

*Thanks to Walt Kelly and Pogo for a great title

Excerpts from The Witch of Clatteringshaws (The Wolves Chronicles series)

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The Witch of Clatteringshaws – Joan Aiken’s last words

Dido & Simon

Joan Aiken added an Afterword to her last book at the Publishers’ request, for although she was resolved to bring the Wolves Chronicles to an end, she was old and tired:

“I determined that I would get to the end…and see Simon safely off the English throne and Dido free to marry him if she chooses – even if that meant taking some wild leaps in the story and leaving some things unexplained….  The end came too quickly…and I apologise. But a speedy end is better than a half finished story.”

And what a wonderful story it is … here’s a taste of what Joan Aiken does manage to pack in to The Witch of Clatteringshaws – the last of the Wolves Chronicles.

The story opens with Dido and her friend Simon, kicking their heels at the Palace:

“It’s no good. I really can’t stand it here,” Dido said later, in the library, to Father Sam. She looked sadly out of the window and across Saint James’s Park, where Simon was reviewing the Household Artillery.

Father Sam sighed. He too was homesick for his quiet little grotto in the Wetlands. But as he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, he had been obliged to give up his career as a hermit, remove himself to London, and take up residence in the Archbishop’s palace at Lambeth.

“It may be better after the coronation,” he suggested. “When we have all settled down.”

Dido was startled.

“The coronation? But Simon’s been coronated! Hasn’t he? When poor old King Dick took and died, and you put that copper hoop-la on Simon’s head?”

“That was only an off-the-cuff occasion, child. It was not clinching. It was not binding. Now there must be a proper formal ceremony in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Don’t you remember when King Richard was crowned? Were you not one of the train-bearers?”

“Holy spikes! Yes, I was. D’you mean to say poor Simon’s got to go through all that palaver?”

Father Sam sighed again. “It will take months to organize. I daresay it cannot possibly take place until July or August. There will be all the arrangements to make–invitations to send to foreign kings and queens.” He paused, then said, “Some kings–William the Ninth was one, John the Second was another–have waited to be crowned until they had married a queen who could be crowned at the same time.”

“Well, Simon did ask me if I’d give it a go,” said Dido. “But I said no. I couldn’t ever be queen. Couldn’t stand the weight of that thing on my head.”

Father Sam shook his head, agreeing. “Who’s to blame ye? I understand the King and Queen of Finland and their daughter Princess Jocandra are coming to visit next week. Perhaps . . .”

Dido gave him a very sharp look.

“You think Simon ud ask this Princess Jokey just so as to marry her and get the coronating business over and done with? Well, I don’t! Maybe he won’t ever marry. He’s not one to rush at things all in a hugger-mugger.”

“No – there I agree with you. I believe that Simon will make a very hardworking and conscientious monarch – but I’m afraid his heart is not in the business. If he had any chance at all to decline the honour–and the responsibility–I think he would seize it.”

“That he would,” agreed Dido. “You’d not see his heels for dust – he’d be back at his painting. But what chance does he have? Seems there’s nobody else a-hanging around waiting to take on the job.”

“There is just one other possibility–“

“There is?” Now Dido’s look was even keener. “Who’s that, then?”

“A Saxon descendant of King Aelfred the Great and King Malcolm of Caledonia. I believe his name is Aelfric–or Aelfred–“

“Where does he live, this cove? In Saxony?”

“Nobody seems clear. That is the problem. The Lady Titania–King Richard’s great-aunt, who looked after him in his last illness–was in communication with Aelfric–or so Simon believed. Letters came for her occasionally by pigeon mail from the north of England.”

Dido nodded.

“Ay, I mind Simon saying summat about her. She was a fly old gel, by all accounts. Played both ends against the middle. But she’s dead, ain’t she?”

“Alas, yes. Came to an untimely end.”

“Knocked off by the werewolf joker. But didn’t she leave no address where this Saxon feller hangs up his hat–no message, no letter, nothing?”

“Nothing that could be found. You may recall that Darkwater Manor, where His Majesty was residing during his last illness, was flooded up to the second story, and any papers and writing materials left there were drenched and completely rotted – eaten by fish – illegible…”

“You’d think,” said Dido, pondering, “that if this Alf cove has a claim, he’d ‘a heard of poor old King Dick’s death and would be here, a-banging on the door and making hisself known…?”

“Well,” said Father Sam, “I understood from Simon–who had it from Lady Titania–that Aelfred resided somewhere up in the North Country. As you know, communications between London and those regions are somewhat meagre – unreliable…”

“Maybe a messenger could be sent up to those parts?”

“The Scottish land is a very sizeable area.”

“Oh.”

“And the inhabitants are warlike and contentious. There are frequent battles between Picts and Scots, and the Wends invade from across the North Sea; also these factions sometimes combine to attack the southern regions.”

Father Sam sounded so dubious and dispirited that Dido became a trifle impatient.

“There must be somebody up around those north lands who’d know about a cove that maybe had a right to call hisself King of England?”

“Well,” said Father Sam doubtfully, “I do have a correspondent – a cousin, in actual fact – who may possibly have such knowledge-“

“Famous! What’s his moniker? Where does he live?”

“It is a woman. Her name is Malise. She lives by Loch Grieve. (The Caledonians call their lakes lochs.)”

“So–can’t you write a note to this Malise dame, ask if she might know where Alf the Saxon is putting up now?”

“Our communications are very infrequent – once every ten years or so…”
“Then don’t you reckon it’s time you sent her a billy-doo? What does she do for a living?”

“She’s a witch,” said Father Sam rather hesitantly. “In a town called Clatteringshaws.”

“Croopus! Ain’t that rum? How come you have a witch for your cousin?”

“We were at theological college together,” Father Sam explained.

“That seems rum too! Well, go on! How come you turned into a parson while she turned into a hellhag?”

Dido was so interested that Father Sam found himself telling her far more than he had ever revealed to any other person.

“We were great friends in our teens and did everything together–helped each other with our school assignments. Malise was a very promising student. At our academy, the Seminary of the Three Secrets, she won an award as Student of the Year.”

“Go on! What were the Three Secrets?”

“There were two, and one to come. The seminary had been founded in memory of three saints, or rather, two – Saint Ardust and Saint Arfish – and one candidate for sainthood – Saint Arling. The secrets were their dying words, words of great power and importance, not to be revealed – or not immediately . . .”

“Fancy!” Dido was impressed. “So what happened?”

Father Sam became distressed.

“Oh, we did a dreadful thing. Malise and I – we betrayed our trust -“

“You never!”

“The college was in the town of Clarion Wells, where our beloved Governor lay dying–had lain for weeks…”

“And?”

“We were left in a position of responsibility – and we grievously failed…”

He looked so upset that Dido felt she had to leave the subject. She tried to comfort him.

“I daresay it wasn’t so bad as you reckoned – you were only young – anyone can see how sorry you are.”

“I went off to my hermitage to atone – Malise was sent back to the North Country where she came from -“

Just at that moment the library door opened and two people came in. Dido recognized the voices of Sir Angus McGrind and Sir Fosby Killick, two court characters whom she particularly disliked.

Dido and Father Sam were out of view in an alcove containing works on Church history, and the two newcomers did not realize that anybody else was in the library.

“…As for that young person who calls herself Dido Twite,” Sir Fosby was saying, “I regard her as a most undesirable influence on His Majesty. The sooner she can be evicted from the palace in some permanent way, the better it will be.”

“Comes from a family of pickpockets, I’ve no doubt,” agreed Sir Angus. “We can soon deal with her. Ah, here is last week’s Spectator, that is what I was looking for . . .”

Their steps receded, their voices faded.

Dido turned to Father Sam and found that he was wiping a tear from his eye.

“I bet you’d rather be back in your hermitage, too, wouldn’t you?” she said.   “Tell you what, Father Sam – I’m a-going to the North Country to hunt for this Aelfred fellow…”

***************

…And you haven’t even met Malise, the golf club riding Witch, ( Joan’s mouthpiece perhaps?) her friend the flying Tatzelwurm, court Jester Rodney Firebrace and his prophesying parrot Wiggonholt,  Albert the Bear, leader of the invading Wends, and many many more…

Joan Aiken’s farewell to Dido, her last book but by no means her least.

***************

UK and US covers

Clatteringshaws covers

More on the whole series on the Joan Aiken Website

Illustration by Pat Marriott – a rare moment of reunion for Dido and Simon

Dido Twite – the ever hopeful heroine

Dido

It is not surprising that Dido Twite is such an enduring heroine, her very survival was a piece of luck, or perhaps was ensured by her own strongest character trait – she never gave up hope.  Joan Aiken has admitted that she had imagined Dido drowning at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, giving her own life to save her friend Simon.  But then anguished letters from readers, and also something in Dido’s own character changed Joan Aiken’s mind; it did not seem possible that Dido would have given up, and just drifted away.

Joan Aiken often quoted an idea from Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote:  “If a child is, for some reason, unable to imagine his future optimistically, arrest of development sets in.”   She identified strongly with this, remembering her own childhood, and how she had been spurred on by many unfulfilled hopes – to bring her divorced parents back together; to get the chemicals for experiments she read about in her brother’s science books; to grow wings…and  these powerful imaginings eventually became translated into the need to write stories, and to create in fiction the outcomes that otherwise were unobtainable.  But she also became aware of the inadequacy of the ‘happy ever after’ ending of stories she read.  For her, the characters of the books that filled her life, lived on past the ending of the story; they continued to be her companions in ongoing adventures, they didn’t just disappear, disposed of by a tidy, happy ending.

Joan Aiken realised during her twenties, and after many very un-hopeful events in her own life that would have crushed a lesser spirit, that her need to write, and to re-imagine and infuse her own life with hope was in fact the real purpose of her writing. This was why a large percentage of her stories were about people travelling hopefully, despite enormous discouragement, rather than about people arriving at their destinations.  Many of her stories have open endings, suggestions of future possibility rather than pat conclusions.  Some seem to end very sadly indeed, after more than a few unfortunate events,  but with characters who have come through their alarming and salutary experiences now able to come together or salvage pieces of their previous lives and continue; there may always be change, but there is also hope.

And the embodiment of this spirit is her heroine Dido.  Joan Aiken wrote:

“I never meant her to survive, but she was much too tough for me..she took root in me like an uninvited cuckoo fledgling, and became a kind of alter ego of mine. Dido is the epitome of the hopeful traveller who is never going to arrive. How could she, indeed?  The whole point of Dido is her battle against terrific odds.  Wherever she travels, she finds things going hopelessly wrong, and as fast as she puts right one set of injustices, she comes up against another; she would need to have tidied up the whole world, sorted out the whole of the Human Condition, before she could settle down.  Which is why all the books about her have open endings: as the story, or at least the book, closes, she is about to embark on a ship, or re-embark on it, or she is hunting for the third, the invisible member of a set of triplets who needs comforting, while her friend and companion, Simon, Duke of Battersea is hopefully hunting for her… but will he ever find her?  I’m not at all sure that he will.  And if he did, it would only be the signal for the pair of them to set off on some new quest.”

An avid Dido enthusiast will guess that these words might have been written between the adventures of The Cuckoo Tree – if anywhere, a suitable resting place for Joan Aiken’s fledgling heroine? – and the devastation to be wrought in Dido & Pa where Simon does briefly catch up with her, but so does her fiendishly treacherous father, making more than one attempt to capitalise on his ‘Delicate Sprite’ – even at the expense of her life.  By the end of this story Dido is the ultimate orphan,  and knows that she will be travelling on.  There will no happy ever after for Dido, as Joan Aiken realised even at this early stage.

But this, she wrote,  is “the whole raison d’etre of Dido.  She can’t settle down; for if she had no more urgent problems to tackle then the future would be empty and featureless; there would, in fact, be nothing to hope for.” Nevertheless there were a few more injustices to put right before Joan Aiken at least, could let Dido go.

It is absolutely in character that Dido’s closing words, in Joan Aiken’s last book The Witch of Clatteringshaws, should be happy and hopeful, finally making sense of some of the most bitter episodes of her past.  She reconciles herself to the dark and unloving side of her old Pa, by celebrating what was miraculous about him, the spirit that lives on beyond the story – his music.   And at the same time Joan Aiken allows herself to re-write the original desperately sad ending of Black Hearts in Battersea. Dido found a future for herself after all, and now a different and more hopeful moon is shining down:

Pa's songs

 *****

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