‘It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels.’
The opening of Joan Aiken’s classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is famous for the snowy landscape it depicts, and soon the element of snow becomes as important in the story, and as threatening as the wolves in the title.
Orphaned Sylvia enduring a terrifying train journey through snow covered, wolf infested miles of empty English countryside, with only a strange man in her railway carriage for company, is haunted by a terrible nightmare:
‘She dreamed, without being really asleep, of arctic seas, of monstrous tunnels through hillsides fringed with icicles. Her travelling companion, who had grown a long tail and a pair of horns, offered her cakes the size of grand pianos and coloured scarlet, blue, and green; when she bit into them she found they were made of snow…’
But presently, within the safety of Sir Willoughby’s carriage, the falling snow adds to the cosy closeness of the two little girls, riding home together:
‘There had been a new fall of snow and their progress was silent as they flew over the carpeted ground, save for the muffled hoof-beats and the cry of the wolves behind them.
There was something magical about this ride which Sylvia was to remember for the rest of her life – the dark, snow-scented air blowing constantly past them, the boundless wold and forest stretching away in all directions before and behind, the tramp and jingle of the horses, the snugness and security of the carriage, and above all Bonnie’s happy welcoming presence beside her.’
At first they are safe within Bonnie’s grand home, and happy to explore and play in the snow outside, even skating for miles down a frozen river, knowing they have a warm refuge to return to:
‘Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared-for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’
But when the ‘wolves’ take over, invading inside their refuge, even the weather takes on a different aspect:
‘The next morning dawned grey and louring. Snow was falling fast out of the heavy sky, the flakes hurrying down like dirty feathers from a leaking mattress.’
Or like feathers from a wandering goose, seized unaware by a wolf?
Soon, on another carriage ride through the ever present snow, they are being carried away to another kind of home, as cold within as it is without, and away from every kind of shelter…
‘At last they drew near the great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare of Blastburn, where the huge slag-heaps stood outlined like black pyramids against the red sky.’
‘Young ladies!’ said Miss Slighcarp sharply. They caught sight of her face by the swaying carriage light; the look on it was so forbidding that it made them shiver. ‘One word from either of you, and you’ll have me to reckon with! Remember that you are now going to a place where Miss Green of Willoughby Chase is not of the slightest consequence. You can cry all day in a coal-cellar and no one will take notice of you, if I choose that it shall be so. Hold your tongues, therefore!
Long before the end of the trip they were almost dead of cold, and their feet were like lumps of ice, for Miss Slighcarp had all the fur carriage rugs wrapped round herself, and the children had to make do without. They were too cold for sleep, and could almost have wished for an attack by wolves, but, save for an occasional distant howl, their passage was undisturbed. It seemed that Miss Slighcarp was right when she said that the wolves feared to attack her.’
Wolves and snow are images that Joan Aiken drew from the European Fairy Stories and Folk Tales she read as a child, and uses to conjure images in her own books, which bring a sense of warmth and comfort from a place of safety, or can be employed to send a shiver down your spine when you imagine you are outside and far from home…..
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Illustrations by Bill Bragg from the Folio edition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Read more about this edition and Joan Aiken’s fascination with wolves here