Twists in the tale

Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben 1864–1869 (public domain)
Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben 1864–1869 (public domain)

Peter Dickinson The Ropemaker Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

High fantasy, sometimes called epic fantasy, is a genre that’s demanding of the author but easily recognisable to the reader. Set in a secondary world where magic or the supernatural are accepted as real, high fantasy becomes epic when there is a sense of great and heroic deeds being done and where the canvas is grand in scale and character.

On this basis, then, Peter Dickinson’s The Ropemaker is justifiably an epic fantasy, his first in fact (Angel Isle is its sequel). Set in a world that stretches from the plateaux beyond snow-capped mountains down along a river through plains and on to an island in the open sea, the novel unfolds through the eyes of young Tilja Urlasdaughter (the ‘j’ in her name I suspect is pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘yes’, as in Scandinavian languages). Her Valley home, between the mountains and the Forest, is changing: the glaciers are melting, venturing among the forest trees is becoming dangerous and the sense of a magic gluing things together is disappearing. There are likely to be incursions from the horsemen beyond the mountain pass and the armies of the Empire to the south. What’s to be done?

Tilja and her grandmother Meena, along with Tahl and Alnor his grandfather, are descended from Dirna and Reyel, two ancestors whose quest had led to the Valley being self-supporting, isolated and protected. Unless this quartet make their own dangerous quest the Valley’s long-prized seclusion is likely to come to an end, sooner rather than later. In the way of all high fantasy there is magic, jeopardy, strangers who may be friends or foes, vividly realised landscapes, fantastical creatures, difficult decisions to be made and inherent powers to be recognised. It’s not until a third of the way into the narrative that we get to encounter the Ropemaker, and it’s not at all clear that he will prove a help or a hindrance.

It’s fascinating how often effective fiction is multivalent, and The Ropemaker is just so. Ropes and cords have been with us for millennia now, tying things up, holding things together, holding symbolic meanings in knots and weaving and knitting. We talk of ‘strands’ of themes and motifs in narrative, and the ancient tale within this tale even mentions a braided cord or rope of sand used to hang a ring from.

The Ropemaker himself, who appears at various points in the story, sports a leonine head of hair, perhaps like dreadlocks. And early on we hear of the unicorn, the fabled creature which bears a twisted horn sprouting from its forehead; the horn resembling a cable was in all likelihood based on medieval reports of narwhal tusks. Magic too is traditionally capable of ‘binding’ things and people to its needs and wants, and so it is here. To her own chagrin Tilja’s particular power is not to exercise magic, as her mother can, as her sister Anja and Meena and Tahl and Alnor can; to discover her purpose in the quest is something it takes her the quest itself to find out. Tilja and her crotchety grandmother are the heartbeat of the novel and it is with much regret that the reader is forced to part with them at journey’s end.

Good fantasy should be good literature too: there should be a sense not just of a good story being told but of it being told in a satisfying way. Readers should feel engaged with the people depicted, the language should be compelling and credible, and above all the narrative should have an internal consistency. The Ropemaker has all that, in particular the need for consistency. In a commentary the author elaborates on this:

… [In] high fantasy you have two sets of coherence to get right. First, the everyday world in which water boils at boiling point and things weigh what they weigh and bullets kill you; and second, the equally demanding world of magic, which may at first glance seem totally liberating, but in fact is just as constricting in its own way as realism. And then these two worlds have to mesh at the places where they touch. Between these two demands there seems to be less and less space for the story to work itself out, though of course it can be even more satisfying for the reader when it does so with apparently effortless ease. I’m still too conscious of the problems I had to be able to tell whether I got that right.

To my mind the ‘effortless ease’ that the late writer was aiming for was successfully achieved. If the reader accepts without question that what is being described is entirely plausible, is indeed the only ‘right’ way for things to proceed, then magic and unicorns and dragons and talking trees and so on — far from being twee or predictable or oh-so-ho-hum — follow as the night follows day; and disbelief will be willingly suspended.

Author alphabet: D


14 thoughts on “Twists in the tale

    1. The little Dickinson I’ve read (the Changes trilogy, The Gift and this) suggests a dark and difficult read always in store, not helped by the equally dark and difficult (if not more so) stuff I’ve struggled through written by his son. But there’s worth under all that brooding matter which encourages me to revisit, and clearly you too, Lory!

    1. I say not an easy read, Lynn, by which I mean ‘unleavened by humour’. That’s not to say it’s unremittingly sombre — there are shades of light in there and the odd Wordswothian passage — but that’s epic fantasy for you! (Think Tolkien or Le Guin, or Eddings or any number of lesser writers.)

      1. I think that’s my one problem with ‘high fantasy’ – it does sometimes take itself much too seriously. That and some of the mad names authors invent for their characters – Fixxnag of Rognoraik are not easy names to get into your head. I thought George RR Martin did a good job with GoT for that – familiarish names with a twist.

      1. You know, I looked it up in my A to Z after you mentioned it. I will wander up there one day – something I should do more often, wandering back streets. You never know what you might find 🙂

  1. I’m with Lory. Tulku and City of Gold both missed the mark with me but am quite happy to concede the problem may well have been with the reader. I’ll add this on to my list to read this year.

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