The Alpine Tales
592 pp., 28.00
The Brush of a Wing
In his essay "On Stories," C. S. Lewis observes, "In life and art both … we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive …. I think it is sometimes done—or very, very nearly done—in stories." This "something" is finally ineffable. Lewis compares it to a bird one can never catch, though one may glimpse it or feel the brush of its wing.
Paul Willis' exquisitely written Alpine Tales gave me more than once that sense of "something that is not successive." Reading these highly original works, an ineffable something (the brush of the bird's wing?) would invite me to pause and simply bask in a passage like the following:
Shining round about the crater's lip, spaced like the stars on Stella's brow, stood brilliant white figures, blazing in the dawn. One light only hung now in the sky, sole director of the song. No other stars remained aloft … unless the singers on the summit were the stars themselves come to grant one brief taste of the music of the spheres.
The first two of these fantasy novels, or romances, were published individually in the 1990s, and now all four are between covers for the first time. Each presents an exotic quest and the immemorial conflict between good and evil in a landscape both beautiful and perilous. They may be read independently of each other, but the plots interlock and form an overarching story. Set in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the tales take place around the actual three peaks of the Three Sisters Wilderness, renamed Three Queens in the story. The author has climbed there all his life and is intimately familiar with them—although the map included with each tale takes liberties with their features. The Queens make a beautiful setting—sublime, as one character describes it, with the right proportions of beauty and peril. Willis captures it in his precise and loving attention to natural detail:
Northward, a pleasing chaos of rivers and mountains stretched to a snowbound horizon. One could lose oneself in the deep canyons and waterfalls and hanging glaciers. The peaks were jagged, sharp with arêtes and needled pinnacles. To the east lay a land of dry buttes and open sagebrush, ponderosa and pinyon pine. The view was brown and dry and clear, an exhilaration of unfenced roaming.
In each book a young couple sets out on a quest whose object is at first hidden from them, but which has much to do with saving the pristine wilderness of the mountains. They are guided by mysterious figures: three eccentric uncles and three royal ladies, who appear to be the embodied genii loci of the Three Queen mountains, but with archetypal resonances reaching far beyond that:
All three sisters—queens really—were circling before her arm-in-arm. Stella romped in the blue robe of hope and sky, blonde hair streaming behind her in the wind. Lady Demaris flew beside her in forest green, laughing and tossing her unbraided chestnut hair. Then Lady Lira, raven-haired and … wearing the crimson of her redemption.
As in George Macdonald's Phantastes, the actual world and the fantasy world lie side by side; the human characters move in and out of these, often unsure of which world they are in: "The other and greater wilderness … sometimes appeared within and beyond this present one. Yet it was not really other at all, William thought, but the true place that was there all the time."
Climbing is the controlling metaphor of the book, and the characters ascend morally and spiritually as they move up and down the peaks. The technical expertise of the author makes descriptions of climbing convincingly real and dramatic, as in this scene of rock-climbing in the dark:
The invisible rock was whirling past, skimming under her finger-tips. Her stomach felt its weightlessness as she sank and flew, swiftly tilting into the void. Too fast, she thought. Soon she should be bottoming out and swinging upwards. Now. Now. But not yet. She felt the rope catch on something far above her and then grow slack. She was swinging, sailing, into the dark. Not up. No longer across.
There are a number of dangerous falls as well as adventures in underground rivers and infernal caves. The protagonists face opposition from monsters within nature itself (the Lava-Beast and a Jokulhlaup—Icelandic for an exploding glacier lake); from greedy humans who would dam and destroy the wilderness for profit; and even from one of the archetypal queens, who succumbs to evil and seeks to murder the climbers. The climbers are guided by the archetypal uncles and the good queens. These guardians come to their aid at critical junctures and are truly "immemorial comforters." The questers are also helped by poems that have the power to charm, like ancient runes, and literally guide them on their way.
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:
We're not in the shadows anymore. Because we've gone into the thisness of things, the true forms, the inscape of the landscape. Not that it matters that I was right. For it wasn't me, really. If it was anyone it was Plato, perhaps. Or Hopkins, maybe.
A theology is likewise implicit in setting, actions, and characters. The white fawn with healing powers, whose blood and cup revive from the dead, is the most suggestive of these. But the guardian queens, uncles, and animals, appearing and disappearing at crucial junctures, also suggest a benign, if mysterious, Providence. And ultimately the connection of all the characters to one another, stretching over several generations, becomes clear. They realize none is alone, that all are roped together as they ascend the mountains to the stars moving in the Great Dance:
The piping and dancing went on and on, and as Grace watched, it occurred to her that none of the persons taking part had place or self apart from the others. The identity of the young piper lay in the dancers he piped for, and theirs in the beauty they admired, and hers in them all …. The point was to perfect oneself only in one's membership in the harmony, the local dance of birth and death in which we find ourselves for a season, the echo of a greater dance which is and was and ever shall be.
One of many delights of the tales is the echo throughout of classic literature, including Euripides' Medea, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Shakespeare's As You Like It, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and the work of Milton, Herbert, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Hopkins, to name just a few. Besides verse Willis composed for the story, there are lines by others quoted outright or woven into the texture of the narrative. The sheer variety of the allusions, together with the unusual setting, actions, and lyrical prose, only confirm the originality of these tales. As T. S. Eliot might say, the tradition is here and Willis has assimilated and altered it. I know of no other fantasy richer in its language than these. Almost every sentence of The Alpine Tales contains treasure for the reader who will slow down and savor the words. They have the intensity and metaphorical richness of poetry. This is no surprise, as Willis, a professor of English, is a distinguished poet. Altogether it is a profound pleasure to follow him up the mountains of his imagination, as it must be (though no doubt more perilous) to follow him up the Three Sisters in the Cascades.
Robert Siegel is author of the Whalesong trilogy and A Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems (Paraclete Press).
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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