When a writer becomes famous for one book, it’s a kind of curse. Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is so well-known that its publication in 1962 has tended to overshadow the over 100 other books she wrote in her lifetime.
Yes, Joan Aiken was not only a prolific author for adults as well as children, she was also a uniquely gifted one, writing ghost stories, fairy-tales, romances and thrillers. The TLS praised her “wild imagination”, which is a rather double-edged compliment and not, in fact, correct. Though deeply influenced by the Gothic, Aiken was a formidably disciplined and inspired story-teller whose elegant prose is as instantly recognisable as it is witty and beautiful. The daughter of the Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Conrad Aiken she had a poet’s eye, but also a dry sense of humour and a rare common sense.
Although the twelve-volume ‘Wolves’ sequence takes place in an alternative eighteenth century in which James the Third is the King, the Felix trilogy is set after the Peninsular War of 1807–1814 and sticks to our own history. The first book, Go Saddle the Sea, is narrated by a boy who is, as far as he knows, the illegitimate son of a British officer in Wellington’s army and a Spanish noblewoman, both deceased.
When we first meet Felix, he is running away from his cold, rigid grandfather in Castille. His spiteful aunt Isadora makes his life a misery, he hates his boring lessons and the only people who have given him love and warmth, Bob the crippled English groom and Bernadina the cook, are dead. He determines to go to England and, with nothing more than an indecipherable letter and a battered copy of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey to help him, seek out his father’s family.
The idea of a small, blond twelve-year-old boy crossing the gigantic mountainous Picos de Europa with just an obstinate mule and his own wits to aid him is irresistible, and so is Felix himself. Small and repeatedly told that he looks “like a day-old chick,” his only gift is for music and making friends. Humorous, unswervingly courageous and kind he changes the fortunes of everyone else he encounters. He stumbles on a lethal feud between two mountain villages, and by helping a poor man in his desperate pilgrimage to ask for a saint’s help to cure his paralysed little daughter, both cures the child and prevents murder. Escaping corrupt officials and superstitious villagers, rescuing pigs in a flood, avoiding bandits and shipwreck are all part of his adventures. Throughout, his odyssey is as much internal as external as the mischievous child becomes a man; in Go Bridle the Wind, he rescues a girl disguised as a boy who becomes the love of his life. Felix’s fictional DNA seems to be in every boy hero one encounters in contemporary authors of the quality of Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Anthony McGowan, Tanya Landman and Cressida Cowell, but his charm is unique. You can see something of it when, told by a priest that he has been brought by God’s will to a place, Felix says,
“I thought he was probably right, and I felt very friendly disposed towards God, Who had put this notion of scaring off the murderers into my head, and Who must have enjoyed the joke as much as I had. It now struck me that Father Tomas, who had so often told me so often that God hated my wicked ways, very likely had the wrong notion of God altogether, and I wondered this had not occurred to me before since Father Tomas had been wrong on so many other points, and it struck me, too, how often a dark, dismal, and frightening idea is believed above a cheerful and hopeful one.”
Who can resist such ebullience? He eventually discovers he is both an English Duke and a Spanish nobleman, but the real treasures are those of love and honour.
Set in the same period as Sharpe’s War and Poldark, it seems inexplicable that nobody has turned The Felix Trilogy into a TV series. Packed with drama, high emotion and great characters, it would make an outstanding television drama for adults as well as children. But above all, it should be reissued and read by a new generation.
It is simply too good to lose.
The Felix Trilogy is published by Puffin.