This week I’m recommending Joan Aiken’s `The Stolen Lake’, which is probably the only Arthurian Fantasy to be set in the Andes. Joan Aiken (1924-2004) was a daughter of the American poet, Conrad Aiken but she was born and brought up in England. `The Stolen Lake’ was first published in 1981, with murky illustrations by Pat Marriott. There are recent paperback editions and it’s also available as an ebook. Aiken wrote in many different genres for readers of all ages. `The Stolen Lake’ is part of a twelve-volume sequence of children’s novels featuring Cockney girl, Dido Twite, a heroine who was feisty long before it was fashionable. This sequence is sometimes known as `The Wolves Chronicles’ and sometimes as `The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Series’. Chronologically, `The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of these novels but Aiken pointed out in a preface that `you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.’ I’ve chosen this book because it is my favourite of the Dido stories and the one with the strongest Fantasy element.
`The Wolves Chronicles’ are set in the early 19th century in a world in which the Ancient Romans conquered South America and the Stuart Dynasty still rules Britain. When this story opens, twelve year-old Dido has recently left North America after thwarting a dastardly Hanoverian plot against the Stuarts (see `Night Birds on Nantucket’). She is travelling home in a British warship called the `Thrush’. Dido tries to keep out of the way of crusty Captain Hughes but enjoys the company of his remarkably well-educated steward, Mr Holystone. Captain Hughes suddenly gets orders to change course for Roman America where Britain’s ally, Queen Ginevra of New Cumbria, requires assistance. Hearing that the Queen is `devotedly Fond of Young Female Children’, Captain Hughes decides to include Dido in the party from the `Thrush’ who will travel to New Cumbria’s remote capital, Bath Regis.
When Dido is kidnapped on her first day ashore, it becomes apparent that New Cumbria is a very dangerous place, especially for young girls. She escapes and is helped to rejoin her friends by a mysterious minstrel called Bran. During the unpleasant trip to the capital, Dido and the Captain rely on the advice of Mr Holystone, who was brought up in nearby Hy Brasil, but as they approach Bath Regis, Holystone grows weak and forgetful and falls into a trance. Dido and Captain Hughes visit the revolving palace of the `White Queen’ and are told two very strange things. Firstly, the Queen claims to be thirteen hundred years old and secondly she insists that a neighbouring monarch, Mabon of Lyonesse, has stolen the sacred lake which the Cumbrians brought with them from Britain. Queen Ginevra is convinced that one day her husband Arthur, the once and future king, will return to her from Lake Arianrhod, so she will stop at nothing to get it back. She wants Dido to pretend to be King Mabon’s lost daughter and persuade him to return the stolen lake. When Captain Hughes protests he is thrown into prison, so Dido and her companions have no choice but to set out on a perilous journey through steaming quagmires and icy mountains. On the way, Dido will encounter man-eating birds, evil witches, a crazed priest and a captive princess. She will discover the terrible truth about how Ginevra has stayed alive so long, and seeing an old friend in a new light will nearly break Dido’s heart.
`The Stolen Lake’ is fast-paced enough to appeal to modern children – something thrilling or astonishing happens every few pages – but there is plenty in the novel to interest adults as well. Aiken loved to create extraordinary plots bursting with inventive details, such as the secret of how to steal a whole lake or a series of frantic messages written on pages from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and attached to the collars of copper-coloured cats. She threw together some elements you might expect to find in a South American setting, such as llamas, piranhas, human sacrifice and erupting volcanoes and some that you probably wouldn’t, like Roman legionaries, supernatural owls, sedan-chairs and a Snow Leopard. It could be said that all the books in `The Wolves Chronicles’ have a basic `plucky children defeat forces of evil’ plotline but thanks to the astringent qualty of the writing, they come across as being about isolated children struggling to survive in a largely wicked world. Some innocent characters meet grim deaths in `The Stolen Lake’ and even love is shown to have its dark side. Queen Ginevra/Guinevere is not a romantic figure in this story. Surrounded by spiders and shrunken heads and almost too fat to walk, she has become grotesquely unlovable by the time her Arthur returns.
Like last week’s author (Avram Davidson), Aiken had great fun rearranging history and myth to suit her own passions and prejudices. The England of her novels is inhabited by Dickensian villains and Gothic horrors, such as the packs of wolves who have entered the country through an early version of the Channel Tunnel. Aiken came up with an ingenious explanation for her Celtic kingdoms in the Andes (after all there really was a Welsh settlement in Patagonia) and boldly relocated the civilised town of Bath Spa to a chilly hollow surrounded by smoking volcanoes, and its ancient goddess Sul to a sinister mountain-top temple. The White Queen’s revolving silver palace is borrowed from Celtic myth and there is even a guest appearance by the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the Four Oldest Creatures from `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012). Fans of Arthurian literature will enjoy spotting Aiken’s versions of the traditional characters. Truth-telling Bran, with his wooden leg, harp and cockatoo, is as wild and unpredictable as the prophet Merlin in Early Welsh legend. The puzzling stories that he tells to Dido add an extra dimension to the novel.
Much of the humour in the book comes from the contrast between the formal speech of the officers of the `Thrush’ (e.g.`Miss Twite- I must delay no longer in telling you how creditable – exceedingly creditable indeed – are the accounts of your behaviour during this expedition that I have received…) and Dido’s unconventional but colourful use of language (e.g. `Jemima! What a havey-cavey cove. He looks as if he’d sell his own ma for cats’ meat.’) There are also some pleasingly absurd situations, such as tomboy Dido (`Needle-work’s a mug’s game!’) being taught to curtsey and forced to dress like a court lady (`I don’t half look a sight’). Dido is charmingly unimpressed by wealth and grandeur; she thinks the Queen’s silver palace `looks like an outsize milk-churn.’ She’s a brave and resourceful heroine but she has a tough time in this book. It’s not just that she keeps getting kidnapped. Dido has been carelessly brought up as an unloved youngest child in a dishonest and disfunctional family but she finally finds a suitable father-figure in the wise and kind Mr Holystone. Then a spell makes him forget all about her. Nothing is quite the same again and Dido disovers that relationships can go on causing pain long after they are broken. This gives the story greater depth than some of the other books in the series, but writing about `The Stolen Lake’ has made me want to reread the entire `Wolves Chronicles’. I’ll be back in two weeks time.