In my current phase (though I suspect it’ll be a permanent phase) of mixing re-reads in with titles and writers new to me it struck me that an overview of some of the authors I’m revisiting might give an indication of why I find them eminently readable. Oddly, the book I’m reading and enjoying now — The Ropemaker (shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2001 and winning the Mythopoeic Award in 2002) — is a fantasy novel by one of these writers which, even though it’s been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, proves to be a title I hadn’t tackled before.
The Ropemaker‘s creator Peter Dickinson, who died at the age of 88 in December 2015, authored a wide range of books including children’s novels and detective stories. Rather to his disgust he was perhaps best known for The Changes Trilogy which appeared as separate children’s novels nearly fifty years ago, beginning with The Weathermonger (1968) and continuing with Heartsease (1969) and The Devil’s Children (1970). The Weathermonger, while perhaps the weakest of the three, is the most Arthurian, an aspect which attracted it to me when I first read it many years ago. In the author’s own words, “The Weathermonger sprang from a nightmare. I had lain awake retelling the dream, putting myself in charge of it, outwitting or defeating its monsters, in order to get back to sleep, but instead had spent the rest of the night finishing the story in my head.” This dream furnished the premise of the trilogy, “set in a near-future England in which use of machines is equated with witchcraft,” all brought on by the chance re-awakening of that archetypal wizard Merlin.
There are Arthurian allusions other than Merlin scattered throughout the trilogy — in The Weathermonger two brothers are called Basil and Arthur (Basil of course derives from the Greek for ‘king’), while in The Devil’s Children a village leader called Arthur Bernard (the name Bernard derives from ‘bear’, and Arthur is related to Welsh arth, also meaning ‘bear’) comes, literally, to a sticky end. Also in this second part comes an allusion to an early Welsh poem The Spoils of Annwn — in a nod to the Welsh Arthur’s overseas raid on the Celtic Otherworld, of three thousand British exiles who left France for Britain, only “seven returned in two stolen boats” to France.
When Gollancz published an omnibus edition to coincide with a BBC TV adaptation (re-published by Puffin Books in 1985) Dickinson did his best to account for inconsistencies by adding linking passages between the three episodes, but it remains clear that the three books are powerful and detailed descriptions of survival in a Britain beset by a new Dark Age. The treatment of a revived Merlin is rather different from C S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, and of course Diana Wynne Jones’ later novel The Merlin Conspiracy treated the Merlin theme in her own inimitable way.
Dickinson has also written Merlin Dreams (1988), a series of linked stories on Arthurian themes, all illustrated by Alan Lee. He sets them “in a framework of Merlin drowsing the centuries away under his rock, waking from time to time and recalling some item from the Celtic past and then dreaming a story suggested by it.” I haven’t seen a copy of this, nor The Flight of Dragons (1979); illustrated by Wayne Andersen, this is a witty “pseudo-scientific paper on dragons as nature’s only attempt to evolve lighter-than-air flight,” well worth searching out as I recall from a brief sight of it in the early eighties. It remained in print at least until the late noughties, in a UK paperback from Paper Tiger and from Overlook Press in the US.
His son, John Dickinson, is also a writer of fantasy for young adults, and his sequence beginning with The Cup of the World (2004) features a kind of anti-Grail in a trilogy of really rather dark and unrelenting novels. But you mustn’t think that all novels by both father and son are closet Arthurian stories; for example, Peter’s The Gift (1973) is a rather chilling contemporary novel about telepathy, with nary a legendary figure in sight. As he is quoted in one of his obituaries, “My purpose in writing a children’s book is to tell a story, and everything is secondary to that; but when secondary considerations arise they have to be properly dealt with. Apart from that I like my stories exciting and as different as possible from the one I wrote last time.” Among his nearly sixty titles I therefore predict there’ll be at least one that’ll appeal to any casual reader.
* Adapted from a feature for Pendragon, the Journal of the Pendragon Society XXXVI No 2, which I wrote in 2009