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The Alpine Tales
The Alpine Tales
Paul Willis
WordFarm, 2010
592 pp., $28.00

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Robert Siegel


The Brush of a Wing

An eco-fantasy set in the Pacific Northwest.

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There are magic amulets, such as the ice axe that appears in all four tales, and marmots and ouzels and other animals who help the climbers in tight spots. The evil figures who oppose them include the icy Media , who, like Jason's homonymic Medea, would consume her children. The sorceress Media and the Lord of the large city to the south (El Ai) remind us of the threat to the wilderness and to ourselves in our culture's fascination with electronic media. Nature is threatened by technology and the human desire to dominate and exploit. In No Clock in the Forest William loves the technology of climbing more than the climb itself. He thinks obsessively about his equipment, blind to the natural beauty around him:

This side of his pack was also home to half of the Ten Esssentials. Here lay a pair of prescription glacier goggles in a crushproof lavender case; a lithium-cell headlamp—The WonderBright; a waterproof box of waterproof matches; a silver whistle—The Acme Thunderer; and a red pocketknife, itself an arsenal.

In contrast to this, as he and the others mature, they grow more alert to the beauty of nature, able to see and appreciate its exquisite detail, the doors of their perception cleansed. Ordinary things placed in the fantasy world appear fresh and new: lentil soup, a warm bed, the sun rising over a mountain, or wildflowers in the woods:

She saw white pointed petals of delicate queen's cup, six to the lily. She saw tiny coolwort, dappling the ground like forest sunlight …. On she sauntered, her eyes alerted. There in the shadows, the red-pulp explosion of coralroot. And there, in the ferns, the tight orange ball of a tiger lily.

A frequently voiced complaint about fantasy is that the characters are too often flat, two-dimensional. The chief characters in the Alpine Tales are reassuringly complex, their internal feelings and dialogue realistically complicated. I suspect that years of observing groups of climbers interact under pressure provided Willis with a good microcosm of human nature. His young couples seek friendship, fall in and out of love with one another, and go from moments of high rapport to misunderstanding—and sometimes even disgust—as they master the difficult mechanics of climbing rock walls and avoiding crevasses. Jennifer and Ronald, an engaged couple, become accidentally separated while negotiating rapids:

It was dark when Jennifer listlessly returned to the forest. It seemed clear that Ronald had deserted her. But how? And why? How estranged he must have felt to abandon her in so desperate a way. She reviewed in her mind each playful insult that had passed her lips in his company, and regretted them all. It was her fault. And then it was not her fault—it was his. No sooner did Jennifer slap face-first into something solid and wooden in the dark than she became victim in love as well. How stupid of her to promise herself to a man who was only happy when scoping out little orange flags on a glacier ….
Good riddance, she thought.

All four books provide what Tolkien called "the consolation … the joy of the happy ending," the "eucatastrophe" that gives us "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." These glimpses come even before the end, as characters are healed, or wakened to life in a new world more real than the old. Even the evil characters are not beyond hope of redemption. There are less grave moments when joy, friendship, and love are fulfilled and the moment dissolves in laughter:

Thoroughly warmed, and sheltered somehow against the wind … they sat and tried to tell their stories. But they kept getting sidetracked—Chambers especially—into the most uproarious jokes. Soon everything—their deaths and trials and long captivities all included—had somehow become the stuff of infinite laughter. They threw back their heads and howled and bellowed at the stars until the tears came down their faces. Then someone would try to speak in earnest. And they would all fall to laughing too hard for words.

Behind these two intertwined worlds is a metaphysics, mostly implicit. The actual world of the mountains provides a gateway into the more real world of the archetypal queens and eccentric uncles with spiritual powers, of naiads and magic white fawns. It is a platonic, or rather, Christian neo-platonic universe familiar to us in English literature, from Spenser down to Macdonald, Tolkien and Lewis. Even as they master physically the skills of climbing and struggle with evil, most of the characters learn to escape from their fears and selfish impulses and grow more real. As Purse says to Lara after they've climbed the Fawn Wall, following the tracks of the wounded deer:

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