Sunday October 21, 2012
Happy half century, wolves
TOTS TO TEENS
By DAPHNE LEE
THIS week, I learnt that The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken turns 50 this month. Fifty! And still in print Ė but for how long more?
I fear that its days are numbered unless Peter Jackson makes a movie of it, or better yet, the whole series, which comprises 11 books Ė after all, isnít Jackson turning J.R.R. Tolkienís (75-year-old!) The Hobbit into a three-part movie? With The Wolves Chronicles he wonít even need to make it up or steal bits from unreadable prequels. Aikenís rambunctious, outrageous fantasy series is eminently readable and entertaining, full of absurd, colourful and totally unforgettable characters, and plots that will make your eyes pop and your head spin.
The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase (the first book) is probably the most ďordinaryĒ of the bunch, but it still has the ravenous, rampaging wolves of the title, an evil governess named Slighcarp, child abuse in a workhouse straight out of Charles Dickens, and a trio of plucky children whom you want to stand on your chair and cheer for til youíre hoarse.
If only Emma Watson or Daniel Radcliffe, or better yet, J.K. Rowling herself would endorse the books, order all Harry Potter fans to rush out and buy the series, or else! I would like to believe that Aikenís series will survive on its own merits, but so many excellent books have gone out of print that I canít help but worry. In fact, two of the books in the series, Dido And Pa and Is Underground are already out of print in the United States; and the prequel, The Whispering Mountain, is not in print at all.
Well, for now, there is a 50th anniversary special edition version of The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase. However, Iím sorry to see that the cover looks virtually identical to the version that was released in 2001. True, itís a variation of the cover of the first edition, published by Jonathan Cape in 1962, but I do think that publishers Yearling could have done more than just slap a gold medal on it.
Never mind, at least it has a lovely introduction by Joan Aikenís daughter, Lizza, which tells how the book came to be written, and also includes a particularly endearing anecdote about Torquemada (whom, along with Lizza and her brother John, The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase is dedicated to) Ė cat lovers will love the little tale. Oh, by the way, a new audiobook for the Listening Library is now out, read by Lizza.
Now, if you like Dickens, and Jane Eyre, and Philip Pullmanís Lyra from his His Dark Materials series and Ė according to Michael Dirda writing in The Washington Post Ė steampunk, you should read Wolves and the other books. If that seems like a lot of reference points, well, the Wolves series is a sprawling, many-layered story, set against the backdrop of an alternate historical England; one in which James II never escaped to France, James III is on the throne, and fiendish Hanoverian plots to overthrow him are constantly planned and launched. (Interestingly, the US and South America also feature, as Nantucket and New Cumbria, respectively.)
There are deliciously diabolical villains, brave and bonny heroes, and strange, sinister and supernatural goings-on. Most of the books feature some very dark elements Ė including murder, child abuse and human sacrifice.
And then there is Dido Twite, one of several recurring characters, and in my opinion, the most significant and beguiling of the lot. Dido does not appear in The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase (as a matter of fact, the bookís two main characters, Bonnie and Sylvia Green, take on supporting roles in the rest of the series, not appearing at all in some books) but is introduced in the second book, Black Hearts In Battersea.
She is a streetwise, Cockney waif Ė a brave, rather obnoxious but thoroughly good-hearted soul who seems to be the template for all the most plain-spoken and tenacious young women in recent fantasy fiction, from Lyra Silvertongue to Potterís Hermione Granger to Seraphina Dombegh in Rachel Hartmanís young adult novel of the same name. I want to be Dido when I grow up!
This isnít the first time Iíve sung Didoís praises in this column. Iím certain Iíve written about Aikenís series before, but I donít think enough can be said about it, and I donít think I shall ever be done urging readers to buy the books. Go on! Now! This minute!
n Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Send e-mails to the above address and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books.