November 19, 2004

The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken

I picked up a couple of Joan Aiken juveniles a month or so ago; the first was The Shadow Guests. This is the second, and it's different from the first in every way but one--like the first, I'm not going to read it to my kids any time soon. The reason is different as well, as I shall explain later.

It so happens that The Whispering Mountain takes place in the same world as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels. It's not a fantasy world, so much as an alternate history in which James II of England wasn't driven from his throne and James Edward Stuart (the "Old Pretender") took the English throne as James III. Just why Aiken chose this particular counterfactual I've no idea, as it rarely seems to play a significant role; but it does serve to relate a number of books that otherwise would seem to be unrelated.

In any event, the present volume takes place toward the end of James III's reign and is set entirely in Wales, beginning in the small Welsh town of Pennygaff. Owen Hughes, the curator of the town museum, has found an aged gold harp; he believes it to be the Harp of Teirtu which figures in many local legends. The local lord collects gold artifacts, and has demanded that Hughes give him the harp, as all found property in the lands surrounding Pennygaff are rightfully is. Hughes refuses; the harp was found on the site of a ruined monastery once used by the monks of the order of St. Ennodawg, and so legally belongs to the order--provided that any monks of the order yet live.

But the story's not really about Hughes the Museum, as the villagers call him, but about his grandson, also called Owen, who is kidnapped by the thieves Lord Malyn sends to steal the harp, and about Young Owen's friends Tom Dando the poet and his daughter Arabis who help him to recover it, and about the fairy folk who inhabit the Whispering Mountain of the title, the mountain on which Lord Malyn's castle is built.

Fairy folk--but didn't I say that this isn't a fantasy? It isn't.

Aiken has here crafted an entertaining if not entirely convincing tale, and a host of memorable characters, not least of whom is His Royal Highness Davie Jamie Charlie Neddie Geordie Harry Dick Tudor-Stuart, the Prince of Wales (Davie to his friends); but what stands out most for me is the richness of the many dialects that appear. For example, there's a Levantine potentate, the Seljuk of Rum, who has the most delightful habit of speaking like a thesaurus:

"Well, well," cried the Seljuk impatiently when the gates stood open wide enough to admit the carriage, "what are you waiting for? Drive on, my good chap, fellow, old boy!"

"Two sides to that, I am thinking," said the driver. "Hired to drive you to Caer Malyn I was, not right into the castle. Sooner put you down here, I would."

"Tush! Pshaw! Odds Bodikins! In fact, fudge, my good man. Pray continue!"

Grumbling, the coachman climbed back on the box and drove the chaise across a paved courtyard. But when they came to an inner archway he stopped again.

"Come, come, come?" cried the Seljuk. "Proceed, my dear crony, I beg. There is yet another court, campus, quadrangle beyond that archway, can you not perceive, remark?

Then there are the two thieves, Bilk and Prigman. They hail from London, and speak what I suppose must be a sort of proto-cockey thieve's cant. Arabis sees them hiding the harp in a cave, and overhears the following conversation:

"All rug?" said one of the voices at length.

"I reckon she could lay there till Doomiesday, no one would twig. Back to the bousing-ken, eh? Us could do with a dram of hot stingo."

"You go on then, cully, and lay on a dram for me; I'm going to give my napper a rinsing in yonder freshet."

"Tol-lol; I'll meet you at the bousing-ken then."

And then later, having moved the harp to a different place, Prigman says,

"Oh, won't old Bilk-o be set back on his pantofles when he finds the bandore's not there any more. Ho, ho, I can't wait to see his nab!"

And then Prince Davie speaks the braid Scots tongue, and the Welshmen all speak an English with a decidedly Welsh flavor and lots of Welsh words which I cannot pronounce.

And that's why I'm not going to read it to my boys--I'm afraid that the very linguistic richness that made the story so delightful for me would make it nearly unintelligible to my kids, even assuming that I could do justice to the pronunciation. Maybe in a few years I'll give it a try.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 19, 2004 07:14 PM