JOAN AIKEN’S THE WHISPERING MOUNTAIN
British fantasy’s ruminations on the exile and restoration of the Jews reach a whimsical, latter-day conclusion in Joan Aiken’s children’s novel The Whispering Mountain (1968). Set in a fantastical nineteenth-century Wales, the book is a prequel to Aiken’s series that takes place in an alternate-history Britain in which the Hanovers never acceded to the throne, feral wolves infest the countryside, and adventurous children sail the high seas. The child-heroes in this book are a boy named Owen and a girl named Arabis, both caught up in a search for a fabled golden harp.
Central to the plot is Owen and Arabis’s discovery of “the Children of the Pit,” a diminutive folk that have lived for centuries in caves underneath the surface of Wales. Described as “small, dark, hairy people, pale-skinned, with lustrous flashing black eyes,” they ride camel-like creatures that they call “gamal” (the Hebrew word for camel), and their wizened leader is named Yehimelek (Hebrew for “long live the king”).
Recounting their history, Yehimelek explains that the Romans brought them as slaves to Wales two thousand years ago “because above all other races we were skilled in the crafts of mining and working of gold.” When the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Children of the Pit remained in their mines and hid from outsiders, “resolved that never again would we let ourselves be enslaved.” So determined are they to maintain their separate culture that only Yehimelek can speak English: “To prevent our being absorbed into the conquering race and forgetting our ancestry, only one man in each generation is allowed to learn the outlandish tongue.”
Many of Aiken’s readers have connected her “Pit People,” as they are sometimes called in the book, with British legends concerning the ancient Phoenicians. Since the sixteenth century, various writers have spun out theories that the Phoenicians settled Britain in order to mine tin (though not gold), and even that the British are descended from these Levantine sailors, or at least had their ancient Druidic religion imported by them from the east.
Such notions continued to circulate in the nineteenth century, responding to new archeological discoveries and racial theories. As noted in a previous post, H. Rider Haggard in King Solomon’s Mines preferred Phoenicians to ancient Israelites, though in Haggard and Lang’s The World’s Desire (see this post) the Phoenicians—they are called Sidonians after the ancient city of Sidon—seem to be of a piece with Haggard’s anti-Jewish stereotypes as well as the novel’s broader racial scheme of noble Aryans versus degenerate Semites.
The Sidonians are described in The World’s Desire as “the most cunning people and the greediest of gain” and we are told that they trade in British tin, and that they “loved nothing better than to catch free men and women, who might be purchased, by mere force or guile, and then be sold again for gold and silver and cattle.” Phoenicians in Victorian fantasy could thus signal a general semitic racial category or operate as a stand-in for the Jews. Recall, too, the name of Disraeli’s Jewish superman, Sidonia.
Aiken’s Children of the Pit, however, are more obviously a fantasy analogue to the Jews, and particularly to the Jews as reimagined in Tolkien’s dwarves. After all, no British legends of the Phoenicians have them preserving their culture in willed isolation, dreaming of a return to their ancestral homeland as do Aiken’s Pit People. Yehimelek expounds their messianic hope:
As to the land we come from, it is very beautiful, with blue sky and green trees, and golden sands, and white cities; it lies many months’ journey to the south. Alas, alas, for Sa’ir and Taidon, for Jyblos and Zibach and Kashin, and the beautiful mountains of Sur! One day, one day we shall return to them! We lead our lives in darkness and fear, coming out only at night to catch fish and pick the herbs of the hillside; our people dwindle at each new generation and pine in this damp northern climate; even our camels grow small and infirm. But one day a ship will come to carry us back to the land of our fathers. One day, one day, it will happen.
Indeed, Arabis’s father, a Welsh poet named Tom Dando, declares that the “Children of the Pit, living in darkness, till their deliverer come” makes a “noble subject for a poem.” The fact that Aiken’s novel was published the year after Israel’s nigh-miraculous victory in the Six Day War, with all of its biblical topography and messianic resonance, seems not entirely coincidental.
Yet some of what Aiken seems to be doing with her Children of the Pit is a comic or at least deflationary rewriting of Tolkien, Tolkien’s source materials, and the epic scale of his Lord of the Rings cycle. For instance, Arabis asks why for two thousand years the Children have eked out their miserable underground existence instead of returning to their homeland. “‘Because,’ Yehimelek said simply, ‘we did not know which way to go.’” No dragon is the problem here, but rather the haplessness of the shlemiehl.
The exile of Aiken’s Jewish Pit People is redeemed in the reconstruction of Welsh mythology Aiken offers in her story. We learn that it is the Children of the Pit who made the golden Harp of Teirtu, a wondrous musical instrument that Aiken takes from the Matter of Britain via the Mabinogion, and whose recovery is necessary to the outcome of the novel.
Harps in fantasy literature are a rich meeting ground of possible influences. The harp is of course the iconic instrument of the Celtic bard, connected with pagan god-heroes such as Lug, and with gods and heroes in other mythologies as well (e.g., Apollo, Orpheus).
But the harp is also the instrument of the biblical King David. Interestingly, some scholars argue that what may appear at first glance to be a purely pagan substratum in some legends comprising the Matter of Britain is actually biblical, used to structure local materials via Ireland’s early Christianization. Consider this suggestive passage from Mark Williams’s fascinating 2016 study, Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth:
Kim McCone noted two decades ago that aspects of the medieval [Irish hero] Lug echo the life story of David: both are represented as handsome youths, acclaimed warriors, righteous kings, poets, and harpists. Lug’s most famous deed in Irish saga—killing the giant Balor with a slingshot—exactly parallels David’s killing of the Philistine giant Goliath. McCone’s observation had the effect of making it alarmingly clear just how likely it is the Irish mythology as transmitted to us has been remodelled along biblical lines. The suggestion here is that King David might even be more important than has been realized; the process of typological remodelling might be pushed back into the 600s, if not earlier. By doing so, the literary Lug might be seen as the reanimation of a pagan figure . . . with an infusion of Davidic tropes that were important because the New Testament emphasized that the line of David ultimately produced Christ himself. Lug’s emergence as a ‘national’ figure may therefore owe at least as much to the Old Testament David as to the Lugus of Irish paganism.
Tolkien seems to have been entirely comfortable with such simultaneously Judeo-Christian and pagan colorations of British and European myth, tensions and fusions that underwrite much of his imaginative project. His Thorin plays a golden harp, and in The Hobbit the dwarves vow in their stirring song to confront Smaug and “win our harps and gold from him!”
Aiken, though, leans more toward tension than fusion. Yes, the Children of the Pit were the ones who created her Harp of Teirtu, the great musical patrimony of Wales. Yet they cannot themselves produce music with it. Their leader Yehimelek explains that “although we can make musical instruments and love music, the power of making music itself is not found among us. We can make things with our hands, from gold and ivory, but weaving beauty out of the air is not our gift.” This echoes a modern trope, often antisemitic in its more extreme forms (as in Richard Wagner): the idea that Jews possess technical skill without aesthetic genius. For purposes of Aiken’s novel, this suggests that authentic Welsh culture—or its fantasy version—has Jewish roots yet can only be actualized by the Welsh.
We see this in the novel as the Harp of Teirtu is currently in the possession of one of the Children of the Pit, a solitary and dilapidated little creature named Abipaal (another Hebrew name): “his garments, which were indescribably tattered and disorderly, appeared to made of some grey fur; from under his grey fur cap a mass of wild, dark, unkempt locks protruded; his horny feet were bare and his face, gnarled and withered as an old elm-root.” In Aiken’s story, Abipaal bears more than a passing resemblance to Tolkien’s Gollum, a similarly addled and decrepit hermit who hides in solitude beneath a mountain.
Abipaal spends his time attempting to play the harp, but his arms are too short and he evidently shares his people’s musical handicap. His frustrations cause him to treat the instrument roughly and he seems at times ready to destroy it. Yet when the novel approaches its fulfillment, Abipaal meets the Welsh poet Tom and, recognizing the true musician, he gently hands over the harp, listening in rapture as Tom plays “The Bells of Aberystwyth.”
The golden patrimony of the Children of the Pit, unplayable in their own hands, now makes the music it was intended to in the hands of the Welsh bard. The prophesies of The Whispering Mountain are fulfilled (“Then shall the Children from darkness creep . . . And the Harp of Teirtu find her master”), and the Pit People will at long last return to their land.