Archive for ‘Joan Aiken’

August 1, 2017

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake

I’ve been ill, and so I’ve been comfort-rereading the Wolves Chronicles. Here is some thinking about one of them in particular.

TheStolenLakeThe Stolen Lake is set in an alternate history in which, during the Saxon invasion of Britain, a large community of (Romans and Briton) refugees fled to South America and founded the countries of Hy Brasil, New Cumbria and Lyonesse. This occurred soon after Arthur had left for Avalon; Guinevere was still alive, however, and knowing that Arthur would probably come back over the water had the lake transported in frozen blocks to New Cumbria, so that he would have somewhere to come back to.

There … is some stuff going on here. It’s never entirely clear to me what aspects of our world’s history do and don’t make it into Aiken’s alt-histories. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan (in Reading History in Children’s Books) point out that though it’s tempting to try and find a/the jonbar hinge in the Wolves series and extrapolate what changes might have stemmed from there, it’s all but impossible to do so; that form of alternate history is simply not the framework within which this series operates. I do understand this, and I don’t think this is an attempt to read the book in such terms. But there is, as I say, stuff going on, and I’m particularly interested in trying to parse for myself what it’s doing with regard to my own pet subjects, space and empire. The other books in the series don’t really suggest much is going on with the British empire–the monarchs we see are all benevolent and vague, and things like the East India Company aren’t mentioned. On the other hand, there are trading ships travelling across the world, pirates, and missionaries in China. Meanwhile, British material culture is broadly as you’d expect it to be for the mid/late 19thC. This is all fine; we’re in that familiar space of British children’s literature where the country is small and decent and there is no shortage of tea.

But then we leave the British Isles and it gets newer and more interesting. That long ago flight to South America described by this book takes place in 577AD. We’re not sure what it means for (our world’s history of) Spanish and Portugese colonialism, if the Americas are already widely known within Europe and large parts of South America are already essentially a British colony. Several minor characters have names like Jose or Gomez, but this could either signal an Iberian influence that happened anyway or simply be a shorthand for “South American” (since in the world in which the book is written, the Spanish and Portuguese did conquer the region). Scraps of information suggest that the Inca empire has continued in some form into the book’s present (sometime in the mid-19thC), though they don’t come into this book’s plot. It’s also not clear what the racial makeup of the three Roman colonies is–did the original colonists kill most of the natives, intermarry with them, or were the lands just mostly empty, terra nullius except for that one picturesque and unnamed tribe who shrink heads? (Of whom more later.) There are ancient temples on mountains here, but they are dedicated to “Sul” (New Cumbria’s capital is “Aquae Sulis”), who is also somehow Medusa. Hy Brasil (the book’s afterword explains what Hy Brasil was) is ruled by a king named Huascar, son of Huayna Capac, and there is a hint that the country will soon be taken over by Huascar’s brother, Atahuallpa; all pretty much as recorded, just a slightly different empire and three centuries late.

[According to Neil Philip, a major scene in Alan Garner’s Elidor was based in part on Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which dramatizes Atahualpa’s encounter with Pizzaro. I’d love to know (someone must) whether Aiken had likewise seen or read Shaffer, or if for some reason there was particularly widespread interest in the Incas in 1960s and 70s Britain and both Aiken and Shaffer were affected by it.]

stolen lake gorey

Bodily transporting a myth across continents is fraught at the best of times. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, we’re told that the Greek gods have moved their centre of operations to New York because America just is the centre of things now, so *shrug*. It’s a piece of imperial thinking that is so basic to the structure of the books that even the increasingly politically aware novels later in the series never quite get away from it. Riordan struggles to navigate this (as does Gaiman in American Gods, from what I remember of it) but I’m not convinced that there’s a way to do it that doesn’t invoke and then validate geopolitical inequalities. In this case, the myth is being transported specifically to a (current) colony, which makes this aspect of the situation even more acute.

Then there’s the fact that the Arthur myth itself is one that is inherently about landscape–Arthur territorially binds Britain (see Subramanian, 2017, or just take my word for it that I have a thesis chapter on this), is buried under Britain, will rise to save Britain. It makes sense, then, that the myth can only be relocated by relocating a part of the landscape itself. [That image of individual ice blocks being transported by ship (at some point they must have crossed the equator, I protested) also calls to mind that recurring image, in British children’s literature of the mid-century, of Americans buying up British heritage buildings and relocating them. (I have no idea if this happened often, yet the prevalence of the image has convinced me it did. Wikipedia suggests that there were at least a few prominent instances.)] Unsurprisingly, we discover that Arthur is inscribed upon the local landscape as well–travelling into the mountains the characters see huge geoglyphs that resemble their companion’s birthmark.

Above I suggest that we’re not really being invited to consider these books through the lens of European imperialism, but Ginevra, this version of Guinevere, is a nightmare colonist. Not only has she showed up and reshaped the entire landscape as well as instilling her own weird religious system, but she is preying upon her subjects in more horrifying ways. It turns out that she is a sort of cannibal, who has stayed alive for these several centuries by murdering and consuming local children. (Again, it’s not immediately obvious how race works in New Cumbria, but the racial politics of the situation also seem striking.) In order to protect them from Ginevra and her minions, local parents send their children to work in the mines underground where, horrific though the conditions are, their chances of survival are marginally better. The princess of the comparatively idyllic neighbouring kingdom of Lyonesse finds the existence of an entire industry based on child labour horrifying, but Dido Twite, Aiken’s London born, working class protagonist is less surprised. “It should not be allowed. It is not so in Lyonesse.” “It is in England.”

It’s possible, then, to read Ginevra not only as individually monstrous (though she is), but representative of much that is monstrous about 19th century Britain, a country known for treating its own working class children badly, as well as for consuming and imposing catastrophic change upon other peoples in other places. There’s also, in the image of the grief-stricken queen mourning her lost husband, more than a hint of Victoria (who of course, in Aiken’s world, is never crowned).

What, then, of Arthur/Atahuallpa/Gwydion/Holystone? “The whole of Roman America apart from that is in a disgraceful condition of tyranny, anarchy, and misrule. Time it was the High King came back; someone who will be accepted by the people and set matters to rights,” says a friend and ally from a neighbouring kingdom. In one sense, Arthur is as much of an import as Ginevra. But he has been reborn here in South America, has an Inca name (not that we’re told that that’s what “Atahuallpa” is); he is even described as having “pale brown” skin. His followers are eager for him to reunite “Roman America”, and this is in keeping with the character’s British roots (as I’ve said, one of the Arthur myth’s functions is to bind Britain into a single territory), but the idea of a single ruler of possibly divine provenance uniting the empire also runs in tandem with our-world stories about Atahuallpa as the last Sapa Inca.

A benevolent combining of the two continents (Europe and South America) and their histories and politics, then? It’d be nice, but neither in our world nor the world of the book is any equal footing ever possible. The need for a king like Arthur is in keeping with the myth, sure, but it’s also framed within a rhetoric that imitates current constructions of South America as lawless:

And as for the things that go on in Biru, you’d never believe–brigandage, cannibalism–I believe they even sacrifice their grandmothers to Sul. Grandmothers! in the streets of Manoa you daren’t go out at night because robbers make off with the silver manhole covers; you could fall straight into the sewers and get washed away.

And there are those shrunken heads. Almost the only instance of Ginevra embracing anything local is in her fondness for these heads as decorative objects–we’re told also that “Foreign travelers buy many of them; they are one of Cumbria’s principal exports”, wording that does at least implicate those tourists (probably North American and European?) in the continuation of the practice. We know that Arthur, an enlightened monarch, plans to concern himself with “Dissident elements in Hy Brasil … abolish practice of head shrinking … joint action to exterminate the aurocs … improved conditions in the silver mines …”; fair enough, I suppose, but the continued invocation of South America as a space of headshrinking and lawlessness is still uncomfortable.

Which is to state the obvious, and say that however much this may be more complex than many British fantasies that unthinkingly appropriate other spaces,  The Stolen Lake‘s charming alternate history is of necessity drawing on an imperial vocabulary that means something.

December 18, 2011

Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding

“The Monkey’s Wedding” is a phrase I’d never heard before, but apparently it exists in multiple languages to describe one of my favourite things in the world. “Sunshine viewed through rain, or the rain seen through the sun’s rays”, according to Aiken. Or sunshower, but I tend, MadeleineBassetlike, to call it “rainbow weather” and show an alarming tendency to skip.

My short piece on Aiken’s collection for last week’s Left of Cool was extracted from this slightly longer one.


Joan Aiken‘s The Last Slice of Rainbow collection was probably the first book I borrowed and never gave back. People who own a lot of books probably know that this happens all the time. There are some you ‘forgot’ you’d taken; some missing from your own shelves because they were lent out and never returned. They may leave permanent gaps, or you might buy (and lose) them again. Some books never stay long. Some you will never allow out of the room except in case of a fire. Eventually you set your own boundaries, but there’s always the sense that the ownership of books is a little amorphous. Aiken was my first crime, but she also taught me this.

She taught me another thing too; a kind of alienation from the text that is (I think) what made me a fan of the sorts of books that I love. Her stories take for granted the most uncanny events, treating them as mere background for human drama and all the awkward, funny ways in which we exist around one another. Aiken is where I begin; she may not have taught me to read (that was Pat Posner’s Bashful the Clumsy Bear) but she made me a reader. She’d have made me a writer too, if I could have been – of all the writers I love, it’s Aiken (and Garner, who I discovered later) I’ve most wished to imitate.

Aiken is best known for her children’s books, particularly the brilliant alt-historical sequence that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But she wrote psychological thrillers, ghost stories, even Jane Austen continuations and companion novels..

Since her death in 2004, two new collections of her work have been published. The first, The Serial Garden, collected all of her Armitage family stories. The second was a collection of short stories for adults, titled The Monkey’s Wedding. Both are a source of joy to me; every new Aiken book is a gift.

The Monkey’s Wedding starts with “A Mermaid Too Many”, a story in which a sailor’s attempts to sell or give away a mermaid he has brought home (his partner has refused to live in the same house as it) are foregrounded so that the fact that the mermaid even exists is treated as commonplace. “The Sale of Midsummer” involves a village that is rumoured only to exist for three days of the year, and that is filled with interlocking and contradictory stories about the beginnings of this myth. In “Water of Youth”, a single bottle of this mysterious liquid changes the lives of a number of people connected to the town.

Some stories are outrightly supernatural, like “Reading in Bed”, which involves a visit from the Devil, and “Second Thoughts” in which a priest is reincarnated as a cat, and proceeds to indulge in all the sins his previous career prevented. “The Magnesia Tree” is a horror story about the relationship between a writer and a tree, made horrible by the unobtrusive way in which the victim leaves the story. “Wee Robin” involves a not-very-scary ghost.

“Hair” is another horror story but not necessarily a supernatural one, about the relationship between the matriarch of a family and her various dependants. Even where Aiken’s stories contain no element of the fantastic al, they  seem that way. The family in “Harp Music” live in a bus in a field; the protagonist of “Octopi in the Sky” hallucinates cephalopods. The title character of “Girl in a Whirl” rides bikes across tightropes. In “The Fluttering Thing” a man given a trapped genie and the power to demand a wish a day chooses instead to release it out of human decency. The seller of the water of youth wants to buy his wife a new grand piano, for “though we stood the legs of her Otway in four pans of kerosene, the termites ate it away until nothing remained but the keys”.

In Aiken stories, the most momentuous events are treated in the most deadpan of ways. “Honeymarooned” opens with a woman being swept off a ship by a wave and carried away without anyone noticing – the text explains this matter-of-factly, within a paragraph, before getting on with the story. Later in the same tale the characters greet with unconcern the imminent end of the human race (caused by an uprising of communist mice). A character’s nearly drowning to death in a vat of stout is a mere footnote to “Octopi in the Sky”. In “Wee Robin” a magic bathmat is “such an unsuitable gift for a four-year-old!” And stories  never go where you expect, and they end abruptly or not at all; there’s rarely a traditional arc or sense of resolution. “No moral to this story, you will be saying, and I am afraid it is true.”

If Aiken is noncommittal where wonders are concerned, her language can elevate the most mundane. “Back to his castle then, poor Mr Richards, to live out his final years with owls and ink, in an everlasting third act of spiderwebs” she says, of one unfortunate character. Of another, that “the reverend Paul’s saintliness had been somewhat blunted by the cathood which had been superimposed upon it.”

Aiken’s shifts between the strange and the mundane caught me when I was five or six and made me a reader for life. The Monkey’s Wedding is a fine introduction to her work – and may very well ensnare you forever.