The Oaken Throne | Chapter 7

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘When thou bringest the silver to the Starglass, all things are possible, child.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Apparently, Giraldus and Tysle were the first characters to appear to Mr Jarvis and demand that The Oaken Throne be written. The leprous mole and his shrew companion started it all, and I can think of no better beginning to what would become one of the greatest legends of the Deptford Histories.

These two also bring with them the concept of the good old medieval pilgrimage. Like the Black Plague back in The Alchymist’s Cat, pilgrimage was something I knew about as a child, but not in any great detail. Giraldus and Tysle not only introduce it as an idea, but address it in a three-dimensional way, which I just think is fantastic.

First, we have this pair of creatures, both afflicted in some way and seeking the healing power of the divine for their ills. Then, we have the idea that these two are not only two individuals who just happened to be going the same way, but that they have bonded in such a manner that we could no longer picture one without the other, and that their pilgrimage has cemented this bond. We have their fear that their quest is fruitless when they hear of the despoiling of their destination, combined with their unshakable faith. Finally, we have Tysle’s heartbreaking willingness to deceive Giraldus about the state of the Orchard of Duir, determined that the old mole’s suffering to get that far would not be in vain.

All of this, in some form or another, is what real pilgrims experienced – the idea that the journey and the faith of the journeyers is more important than the destinations rings very true, even today. Medieval pilgrims must have banded together on the road, been disappointed by holy sites that did not live up their expectations, and had their faith grow the greater for the hardships they endured. In their bumbly way, Giraldus and Tysle embody traditional pilgrimage, and Ysabelle and Vesper could stand to learn from their stalwart example.

Matt’s Thoughts: Aufwader has pretty much said everything I was feeling as well – it brings the idea of pilgrimage to life in a way that old history books often can’t. (I particularly loved the nice touch of the ‘caterpillar penance’.)

But what was interesting was that, just as the characters were settling down in the trees to sleep, I was thinking to myself, ‘This could be a long, miserable stretch of book here’ – all of a sudden, we have that amazing vision of the Green. And so it begs the fascinating question: is the holy site still just as alive and thriving as ever, but it only looks as if it’s old and decayed? Is it to do with a combination of the Green’s desire to reveal and the faith of his followers?

Either way, it’s a great section, and immediately has throwbacks to the summer pool in The Crystal Prison (without requiring you to have read that particular book). And also sets up that someone in Ysabelle’s party is a traitor … which is much more effective than you think, because all of the characters here are so ambiguous. Apart from Ysabelle and Vesper, who we sort of understand, everyone else is seen through their eyes. So do we really know who any of these characters are or what their real motivations are?

It makes you wonder whether Mr Jarvis just ran into one too many shifty people in his life and decided to populate his books with characters who look like one thing but may well be another … it certainly puts me on edge!

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The Oaken Throne | Chapter 6

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Beware the sound of bells, oh Moonrider!’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Cast into the wild dark wood with only each other, Vesper and Ysabelle do not exactly make the best protagonist duo, but that’s what makes the early scenes of this chapter so fun to read. They may have just witnessed terrifying blood sacrifice, but they are still only a pair of sheltered young creatures in way over their ear-tufts. Among the verbal sparring that goes on, my favourite quips have to be Ysabelle referring to Vesper as a ‘peasant’, and Vesper insisting that all squirrels worship trees. But all of it is great, especially when they go sliding down into that ditch.

Back in the frazzled ruins of the Hobber shindig, we have a classic ‘secondary villain reports to lead villain regarding a botch job’ scene. I know it’s supposed to be grim and imposing (and I would love to see that carven rat face on screen) but ever since I first read this book I’ve been calling the toad network ‘Hobb phone’, which kind of kills the atmosphere a little. You’re welcome.

In any case, having his ear chewed by Morwenna (not, I surmise, for the first time) only motivates the high priest to wreak a terrible vengeance upon our heroine and hero, which leads to the scene with the brook. This introduces a very interesting story aspect that we haven’t come across before – in Chapter 1 it is stated that the Green ‘still walks’ in some parts of the land, and here we see that in practice.

In this medieval age, the Spirit of Life evidently holds more sway than he did in the built-up, grimy world of the Deptford Mice Trilogy. What other powers does he possess in this forest-swathed and verdant age? Let us hope they are strong enough to protect the noble Lady and her batling guide in the chapters ahead.

Matt’s Thoughts: I do love the idea of a ‘Hobb phone’. I’m thinking that Aufwader and I should ditch the emails and Trello boards that we use to coordinate this blog and just install a toad each.

Anyway, enough joking. Curses have been laid and our young heroes are in danger unless they can stay in the magic stream.

One thing that has got me curious, especially thinking about the Green and the Lady of the Moon. You might remember, back when we were going through The Alchymist’s Cat, that I was speculating on who the goddess was that was referred to as being worshipped outside the church at Blackfriars. I’m now assuming that this was the Moon (which would also tie in with all the bats who were sitting up in the steeple, watching all the goings-on with the young cats and foreseeing what was going to happen).

Finally, I like the little moment of Vesper and his decision about whether to kill Ysabelle or not. Up till now, the bats have been fairly unsympathetic compared with the squirrels, but here we start to see a humanity in the characters. You get a first glimpse that there could be some sort of peace and respect between the two races …

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 5

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘In this sanctified place to we honour and revere the Mighty Three. Praise their unholy names and do obeisance – Hobb, Mabb, and Bauchan!’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  All right ye mangy squirrel-munchers, this is yer moment. Declare yerselves so all among us know who n’ wot ye are. That’s right, everybody, the Children of the Raith Sidhe are with us still, in hovels and hideouts and under your stairs. ‘Hobb, Hobb, Hobb!’ I can hear you chanting already. (Ah, the vengeful shrieks of the ravening horde…)

In Chapter 2 I said that happy little critters singing and dancing has never been my kind of party, and what transpires in this chapter isn’t either, really. I may not be welcome at a knees-up in honour of the Mighty Three, but I daresay I would be invited to mingle over a bowl of Green Mouser blood afterwards. The Hobbers are my chums, and though they be heathen scum they are honourable heathen scum; worthy adversaries for such as I.

As a young’un I was – like many of you, I’m sure – morbidly fascinated by this chapter. If anybody ever needed and example of Robin Jarvis doing what Robin Jarvis does best, this is it. The fiery-eyed little devils leaping around the elderwood fire may be dressed in the medieval hoods and cloaks of classic talking animal fantasy, but these ‘hordebeasts’ are on another level. If you don’t already count yourself among their number, show them proper respect, or you’ll end up on the peeling block, being made into ‘art’!

As a last note, I’ve always felt that the soundtrack from The Black Cauldron fitted the tone of this book, and I think this sinister piece in particular perfectly captures the high priest’s grand entrance.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: While I doubt I’ll be able to say it anywhere near as eloquently as Aufwader, who doesn’t love a good sacrificial cult? It was such a memorable plot device in the 80s –  I’m remembering Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and also Young Sherlock Holmes (which possibly no one has seen, but got an interesting nod in the opening scene of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). And I’m sure there are many others.

The dreadful scene with the White Witch and her followers at the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?

But Mr Jarvis is not going to let us have this just for fun. The stakes are ratcheted up. Pigwiggen is pretty unsettling, the high priest of the Hobbers is pretty vicious (especially if you have the silver-letter paperback, which features a particularly ferocious likeness of him on the front) and Godfrey’s departure from the story is pretty heartbreaking.

However, it does get the acorn back into Ysabelle’s hands and the quest can continue. (That’s another thing about this story – it fits into that mythical Tolkien ‘quest’ format where our heroes must take a long journey to achieve something.)

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 4

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘There is naught to say’, Vesper shrugged. ‘I shall not betray my brethren unto thee – whatever you might threaten. Your paltry forces hold no fear for me,’ he lied, ‘’tis thou who shouldst worry.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Last chapter, Lady Ninnia said that in order to become the Starwife ‘one must know terrible grief in order to learn compassion’, but I wonder if any of us expected Ysabelle’s lesson in loss to come so soon, and so brutally. Even when Ninnia sends all of the Hazel Realm’s defenders with her daughter, we as readers still want to believe that she and Cyllinus and their subjects might find a way to survive. This is Robin Jarvis, however, and, alas, it doesn’t work that way.

Now Vesper and Ysabelle at last come face to face. Both are grieving for parents they have lost to the conflict between their kinds, and their mutual contempt is understandable if you consider that, alongside the fact that both of them are really quite young still. In this chapter we see the sheltered upbringing of both characters working against them, but at least no blood is shed.

Once that little feud is nicely set up, the plot gets going in earnest with the arrival of the, er, ‘forces of darkness.’ I haven’t spoken about Griselda yet but she’s honestly one of my favourite minor characters in this book. She might seem tiresomely dithery and more of a comic figure than anything, but honestly, she has spent her entire life in the tiny domestic sphere of the royal house of Coll Regalis. Of course she’s unprepared for the wild wood and the terrors it harbours. Unfortunately for the rest of Ysabelle’s entourage, so are they. So much for a desperate hope.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Again, I have a mental blank on a lot of this book, so I really cannot remember Ysabelle and Ves’s story arc in this book. They have a classic Audrey/Piccadilly set-up (they meet each other for the first time and straight away hate each other), against a very Romeo and Juliet background (two warring houses). But does this turn into a romance? Or are they just going to become friends and (hopefully) kick Morwenna’s butt?

You’d want to hope so. Anyway, there was no time for me to speculate too long on those two because, as is the way with Mr Jarvis, as soon as you get a bit of breathing space (like Griselda stroking Ysabelle’s hair), things suddenly get Much. Worse. Like enormous rats wearing hoodies and armed with daggers. Not pleasant!

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 3

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Green be with you, my little Belle.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Heglyr! What an excellent name, even for a very minor character. I love that bat and squirrel names have a specific feel that is unique to each species. Bat names (aside from Vespertilio, but I’ll come back to that later) seem to have more harsh, ancient sounds (‘Roh-gar’, ‘Hre-thel’), whereas the squirrels, if they aren’t named from antiquity, have fluting, delicate titles more suited to the supposed romance of the High Middle Ages.

Well, there’s not much romance to be seen here, but quite a bit of fear and loathing. Matt pointed out last chapter that the bats in this book are in stark contrast to the mysterious but peaceable Orfeo and Eldritch from the Deptford Mice Trilogy, but I ask you all to remember the elders who Oswald meets in The Final Reckoning.

Most certainly, they have seen war, possibly even with the subjects of Greenwich. With titles like Lord of the Twilight and Consort of the Lady, they clearly wield great power even if their court is somewhat diminished, and I can easily imagine young Hathkin in Vesper’s place, eager for a taste of what his people have told him over and over is glory.

Furthermore, let us recall the tension between the Starwife of the Deptford books and the bats whom she summons during the eternal winter of the Unbeest. Evidently, the deeds of Ysabelle’s time did not fade in the minds of either side, and we will soon discover the outcome of a war so terrible that it is still recalled, centuries later.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: What can I say – it’s a chapter that largely sets up the big quest of the story, but the characterisation is brilliant. I was really intrigued by the complex interaction between Ninnia and Cyllinus. She seems to be the stronger of the two in the royal court, ordering her daughter on a life-and-death mission, making the big calls. But by the end of the chapter, it is she who has broken down and Cyllinus who has pulled himself together for the final sacrifice. We don’t quite know how the relationship works between the two of them, but it feels real. Sometimes in a relationship, one person will be the stronger half, another time it might be the other. But it’s not always both at once and that’s what we see here.

And Wendel and Griselda, another couple of those quirky characters who show up in Jarvis books and prove braver than you would at first think.

But the highlight for me was the suicidal captured bat. His kamikaze attitude towards the whole situation and his grim joy at the oncoming destruction of the squirrels foreshadows the destruction just as effectively as the fire egg apocalypse described in Chapter 1.

Really loving getting back into this.

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 2

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Awake, awake,’ they sang. ‘Thy sleep is ended!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  There are two kinds of Robin Jarvis fan: those who look forward to Aldertide, and those who look forward to Wendel. I’m not quite sure how, but that stoat jester has wormed his way into the hearts of almost every fan of this book I have ever met, and I can hear you all yelling about him in the comments already. Personally I find him unimpressive, morally questionable, and generally a bit dodgy, but I admit I am in that second category by default if not by choice, as happy little critters singing and dancing in the sunshine has never been my kind of party.

That said, there’s a lot to appreciate about Aldertide. The name alone is graceful, and the concept of the alder maids quite charming. I love that sweet little song they sing to awaken the venerable trees from their slumber, and I’ll be the first to declare Ysabelle the most precious thing on the Green’s good earth. The medieval-maiden hairdo! The tufty ears! Adorable.

The contrast between the joyful squirrelly celebrations and the blood-soaked horror of the bat’s attack is shockingly stark. We have already witnessed the heart of the battle at Greenreach last chapter, but here it becomes personal, as Ninnia and Cyllinus fear for their daughter and discover what dread destiny she has caught in her small paws. With the realm of the Starwife in ruins, the best day of Ysabelle’s life has quickly become the worst.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, we haven’t seen a chapter like this for a while. The feeling of community that we get from these squirrels at Coll Regalis reminds me of the feel of Fennywolde and Deptford (back before they got into serious trouble). Of course, as with all things nice and communal, it’s not long before things get disrupted.

I feel somewhat sad that the bold peregrine who I so admired from the first chapter gets dispatched in this chapter without us ever finding out his name. But it doesn’t matter – whoever he is, he’s got the job done, and Ysabelle’s story has begun.

One thing that was striking about this chapter and the last (ignoring stoats with jester caps for the moment, which is also somewhat hilarious) is that it’s a completely different type of bat than we’ve seen in past Jarvis books. We think of the bats in Deptford as being a bit enigmatic, but ultimately brave and good for a fight when you need them. (Perhaps a bit like Yoda?)

But this stuff with screechmasks and razor-tipped claws is another level of bloodthirsty altogether and a little bit unsettling. However, thinking about it some more, couldn’t we say the same about much of humanity? We can give the illusion of being peace-loving at different periods of time, but the violence of our past (both recent and distant) always reminds us that we can be pretty savage sometimes as well.

The Oaken Throne | Prologue & Chapter 1

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Is what I ask too great?’ he murmured. ‘Is it my lot to be shamed for all time?’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Bats in the sky! Squirrels dying! Horror, tragedy, doom! It’s The Oaken Throne! Who else is excited to start this one? I know I am, this is my second favourite Robin Jarvis book of all time. Verily and forsooth let us get to it, then!

From the very first page, we are dunked head first into the wraith-haunted, benighted gloom of this world. What a wonderfully evocative opening, and what a clever touch that we don’t know that Vesper is a bat until almost two pages after he’s been introduced. That I only noticed on reread, and though I daresay the effect is ruined a little if you’ve already read the blurb or seen the older covers, it’s still an interesting technique. If you went into it not knowing what the story was about, you would assume that it was a human boy who was about to leap from the ruined tower to his death, and as a result feel an immediate connection and pang of sympathy.

As it is, what we might have felt for Vesper the human is directly transferred to Vesper the bat the moment he opens his wings, and before more sceptical readers have a chance to express their disdain for yet another medieval epic with talking animals, we are swept into a medieval epic with talking animals that is like no other.

This is a tale of two contrasting fantasy cultures, and both are excellently set up in these opening scenes. First, we have the mysterious bats, with their unflagging desire to reclaim their birthright of prophecy (those who have read the Deptford Mice Trilogy will grin in wry recognition here). Then, as if that wealth of tradition and fascinating motivations were not enough, we are whirled right along into the leafy domain of the squirrels, and face our first betrayal in the gaunt and rather elegant shape of Morwenna.

In a few short pages, the aged Starwife is dead and the Knights of the Moon under fearsome General Rohgar have the upper hand (or, er, wing). What will become of the silver acorn, and what diabolical plots will Morwenna orchestrate next? Will Vesper ever have a chance to prove himself? Dear readers, we shalt see.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: What an exhilarating opening this is. The opening prologue with Vesper sets up that familiar trope of the hero who wants to go to battle but is too young for the experience, so we can expect a journey of courage for him in the future.

But Chapter 1 is brilliant – a total barn-burner of an intro to the squirrel world. The kingdom of Greenreach is an awesome concept – a bit Rivendell, a bit English castle, a bit decaying Roman empire. We’ve got an evil witch character in Morwenna and a bat raid that becomes the visual equivalent of the WWII London air raids.

But for me, the greatest part is the peregrine falcon. How he came to have a league with the squirrels we don’t know. In fact, the great thing about the Histories is that while technically they are back stories for The Deptford Mice, you could clearly fill many books with the back story behind these histories as well.

A missing silver acorn out there somewhere? Yep, I’m hooked. On to Chapter 2!