To the Dark Tower

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Kathryn L Ramage
The Wizard’s Son
Wapshott Press 2009

The British folktale of Childe Rowland has had a lasting influence on English literature. The youngest of three brothers, Rowland has to rescue his sister Elen and his elder brothers from the King of Elfland following Elen’s disappearance, Persephone-like, chasing a ball. With an enchanted sword he manages to track the King to his enchanted castle (also known as the Dark Tower) and defeat him. A few lines from a ballad (“Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came…”) re-appeared in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the narrative also furnishing the plot to John Milton’s Comus and becoming the inspiration for Browning’s famous poem, and finally in the 21st century the elements of plot, name and relationships re-appear, I believe, in Ramage’s The Wizard’s Son to help elucidate what is otherwise a very puzzling story.

Young Orlan (related to the name Orlando, the Italian form of Rowland) is, on the death of his mother, brought up by a nurse called Ellan as heir to his natural father, the wizard Lord Redmantyl, in a castle called Wizardes Cliff. Here, as Chyelde Orlan, he in due course becomes an apprentice wizard to his father due to his innate magical abilities, learning, for example, how to create and control a magical orb. These elements, along with Orlan’s connection with the young woman Alen, have clear echoes of the Childe Roland chante-fable (Orlan for Rowland, Alen and Ellan for Elen). The general direction of the plot too points to conflict with and challenges to his father, the equivalent of the King of Elfland of the folktale, along with sibling rivalry with his younger foster brother Andemyon, rather as Roland succeeds in rescuing Elen where his brothers did not.

Noting at some length the parallels with Childe Roland (and there are other links with folktale motifs, such as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Prodigal Son) seems to me important in trying to make sense of The Wizard’s Son. On the face of it, this narrative strand of applied magics is almost incidental to the human tale of a troubled young man who wants to know the truth about his origins, who wants to experience and experiment with life while resisting parental constraints, and who acts at times as wilfully as any spoilt brat. Knowing that this novel is part of a series and that there is more to be revealed makes it easier to complete this heavy-on-details story of what can be at times an unsympathetic protagonist.

Another pleasing aspect of Ramage’s book is the creation of an alternate history of the Western World, one where events have diverged from our history at some point soon after the Norman conquest of England but where magic is a given. The action is set in the New World, on a barely recognisable Long Island, in a 20th century where medieval European customs, beliefs and technologies still hold sway, but with some differences: women, for example, seem to have more equality than their counterparts in the High Middle Ages of our world. I’m not sure that, even with the reactionary Church and State apparatus that Orlan’s 20th century is subject to, polities and scientific developments would remain so unevolved, but with someone of Ramage’s academic background there is nevertheless the detailed and informed effort that has gone into the imaginative re-creation of chronology, manners and language (the use of the genitive singular in placenames, for instance) to project a consistent view of Orlan’s world which I find both impressive and compelling. However, I regret that the map of the Northlands provided is less than useful in pinpointing locations, especially those mentioned but not marked, and in lacking scale and clarity it scarcely adds anything to what a careful reader can’t already glean from the text.

There is no doubting that Ramage has achieved a believeable universe where magic is real even if of secondary consideration, and there is absolutely no question that she has successfully peopled this universe with credible if flawed human beings. There is a strong sense, though, that there are unresolved threads which will be picked up and followed in the sequels (or even prequels). To immerse oneself again in Redmantyl’s world of the Northlands with Maiden in Light is certainly something to look forward to.

Review first published March 2013, here slightly revised

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11 thoughts on “To the Dark Tower

    1. I hope I haven’t overegged the pudding! Still, one of my criteria for hanging on to books is the intention to re-read them at some stage in the future, and this is certainly one of those. A strange book, one that feels almost early Victorian in prose style at times (code for possibly a little slow for modern tastes).

  1. One of the most difficult things to bring off as a writer is to have the protagonists badly flawed in some areas, but for the reader to continue to have liking and empathy for such characters – and continued interest in them – notwithstanding. This is an art perfected in the good novels of the bildungsroman type. It seems this is a feature here.
    I would hope that the writing is good enough to train the reader to enjoy the slower pace and dwell on the detail. The modern trend towards gobbling junk food and abstaining from gourmet meals is to be deplored.
    However, many of the successful multi-book fantasy series do indulge in a wealth of totally extraneous background detail and description. A market in a town visited only once, and where nothing of great moment occurs, is the sort of thing which often arises.

    1. The last is a balance that Ramage manages here, I think. Enough detail to feel you can inhabit the spaces along with the protagonists, not so much that it seems extraneous or unnecessary.

      And yes, Col, bildungsroman is the exact term which in my inimitable fashion I’ve avoided by indulging in a paragraph or two of waffle… Mind you, waffling is an art — and practice makes perfect!

        1. Maybe, though I’ve not infrequently noticed its use in online reviews.

          But you’re probably right; the more usual phrase I see is “coming of age”, which to me sort of reduces all the angst and sensitivity and creativity and oblique worldly views of teenagers to a one-size-fits-all moodiness, which explains and elucidates nothing and denies individuality. Or am I being too pretentious here?

          1. No; that really does show the difference between the simple depiction of brattishness through to something now passing as an adult, as against any proper examination of different personalities passing through the turmoil of those years.

  2. I was involved in a writing project with a number of other writers and teachers. It was at Dartington and we were being encouraged to engage in a technique they were calling pataxanadu. It involved changing lexical words of a poem for words selected from a dictionary or thesaurus following an agreed formula. A fellow from Broadclyst came up with the line, “Tiny Rowland to the dark tower came and euchred.” Funny what you remember.

    1. Tiny Rowland. Takes me back, though I took little interest then in what the corrupt businessman was doing. And ‘euchre’ — had to look it up, likewise ‘pataxanadu’ — and feel none the wiser. I’m sensing, Simon, that much of life has passed me by. And that I’m never going to catch up.

  3. There’s also Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which I have tried several times to read, and failed. AU stories can work very well if the world is consistent, but I do wonder how realistic a late mediaeval world view really is in a modern context.

    1. Still yet to tackle Stephen King — when my book backlog is substantially reduced maybe! An incomplete novel by C S Lewis was also called The Dark Tower: published posthumously, and intended as part of his Ransom SF series, it was too fragmentary to rate properly, but I found the horror content quite surprising when I read it two or three decades ago.

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