The Whispering Mountain
Author: Joan Aiken
Publication: Jonathan Cape, hardcover, 1968
Genre: Children’s fantasy/historical fiction/speculative fiction – part of the twelve book Wolves Chronicles that begins with the beloved The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Plot: When Owen’s irascible grandfather, old Mr. Hughes, discovers the legendary golden Harp of Tiertu, he brings unwanted attention to the small Welsh village of Pennygaff. Everyone has a claim to the Harp, including the mysterious Seljuk of Rum, an obscure order of monks which has mostly moved to China, and the local lord of the manor. In fact, the Marquess of Malyn hires two rascals to seize it when old Mr. Hughes, who manages the Pennygaff museum, insists on researching the rightful owners. The thugs snatch both Harp and Owen, who is falsely accused of the theft. With the help of his friend Arabis, a young girl who is a talented herbalist, and his frenemies from the Jones Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen and Respectable Tradesmen, Owen seeks to clear his name and solve the prophecy of the Whispering Mountain, which concludes: “And the men of the glen avoid disaster / And the Harp of Tierto find her master.”
Audience: Children, fans of alternative history fiction or fantasy
My Impressions: This was a fun read, and would appeal to most fantasy readers. Owen is a quiet, bespectacled boy who is treated like an interloper, lives with an unappreciative relative, and is much braver than he seems at first (sound familiar?). Miserable in Pennygaff, he is too proud to burden his only friends, Arabis and her absent minded father Tom Dando, a poet, with his troubles, so he plans to set forth to seek his fortune, armed with nothing but his greatest treasure, a little book given to him by his father, “Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany & these Pleasing Sciences made Familiar to the Capacities of Youth." Instead, he gets kidnapped, and that is when his adventures begin. The combination of the Welsh used by the characters (much of which can be guessed but I didn’t notice the glossary until I finished the book – I guess that proves I am not one of those read the last page first people) and the cant used by the two thieves might be off-putting to some but just takes a little getting used to. It is very reminiscent of the slang used in Black Hearts in Battersea, which is good training for Georgette Heyer!
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, and Nightbirds on Nantucket repeatedly as a child, I have no recollection of The Whispering Mountain (maybe I didn't like that odd blue cover above - I remember that clearly), which is now considered a prequel to Wolves published in 1962 (her daughter Lizza has created a wonderful website with information Joan was probably too modest or too busy to share (plus, harder to do in a pre-web world), and is also working to keep all the books in print). I also read several collections of short stories and I remember the first book I ever put on reserve at the Newton library was the extremely scary Night Fall (back then you paid for a postcard which was sent when the book arrived).
|Joan Aiken with some of the NYC Betsy-Tacy Group|
For those who don’t know – and I must admit it went over my head when I first begin reading these books at 8 or so – the Wolves books take place in an alternative 19th century in which the Stuarts had not been deposed by William and Mary. Instead, the Hanoverians are plotting to regain what they consider their rightful thrown. The Prince of Wales who appears in The Whispering Mountain is meant to be the son of James III. I have always intended to read the full series in order, so this is a good start, although I am surprised to find I am missing a few.
I am also a big fan of Joan Aiken's sister, Jane Aiken Hodge, who also wrote some wonderful historical fiction mostly set in the 19th century. My favorite is Savannah Purchase. She also wrote a fascinating book about Georgette Heyer.
Source: I own a paperback copy that shows Arabis riding a camel with her falcon, Hawc, perched on her head. Recommended.