The Alpine Tales
592 pp., $28.00
The Brush of a Wing
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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