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?

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Stories both exciting and different

Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith
Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith (Daily Telegraph)

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.

Continue reading “Stories both exciting and different”