sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-12-20 03:15 am

The last king lies in a secret grave

I meant to post this last night, but it didn't go with the perving on classic Hollywood actors: R.I.P. Peter Dickinson.

If asked casually, I would not have said that he was one of the writers I followed, as I followed Diana Wynne Jones or Tanith Lee. As an adult, I learned that my mother had his mysteries in the house—A Pride of Heroes (1969, U.S. The Old English Peep-Show), Death of a Unicorn (1984), Some Deaths Before Dying (1999). A couple of his YA novels came to me as presents in high school and college. I almost wrote about King and Joker (1976) earlier this year after discovering Emlyn Williams' Headlong (1980), another alternate history of the British monarchy. I enjoyed his elemental stories of water and fire, collected in collaboration with Robin McKinley. His bibliography is formidable and I still haven't read most of the rest. But he wrote three books of great importance to me, none of which I can illustrate properly because my library is once again in storage, so you will have to take my word that they are worth it.

I associate it with my elementary school, but I think I must already have been in seventh grade when I read Time and the Clock Mice, Etcetera (1993), an illustrated short novel with a whimsical premise, an unequalled assortment of eccentric relatives—including the narrator, though naturally he thinks of himself as the normal one—and a wonderful slantwise, poignant view of time and the universe. The ninety-nine-year-old Branton Town Hall Clock is a marvel of timekeeping, famous for its tableaux in which seasonal figures process through the quarter-hours from Lady Spring attended by lambs through Lady Winter in her cloak of green leaves until "Time comes out again and hunts them all into the dark." When it breaks down on the eve of its centenary, its inventor's not-youthful grandson is called in to repair it and in the process discovers a colony of intelligent, telepathic mice who live in all of the figures except Lady Winter. This happens in the first chapter; it's the part of the plot he put in up front to hook the reader straight off. He tells you so. Then he talks about clocks. The effect of reading the book is very much like being told a story by someone who is determined to get all his facts in order—the narrative is organized into "First Essay on Mice," "Second Essay on People," "Second Essay on Bells," and so forth—but can't resist darting off on tangents, everything from the science of clockmaking to the secret history of cats as set forth by the narrator's cat-worshipping Cousin Angel. (Cousin Minnie is the one who's into bell magic and Cousin Cyrus is the one who's crazy about trees. He's fond of all of them, but thinks they have a screw or two loose regarding their chosen fields. It is obvious to everyone but the narrator that when his relatives talk about him, he's the one who's nuts about clocks.) Plotwise, it's one of those stories where someone discovers something secret and special, endangers it through accident or folly, and then has to scramble to keep it safe, but the plot really is there for the tangents and the essays to anchor to, although I can still quote the narrator's rueful image of himself "with [his] heart in [his] boots, swigging strong Darjeeling and trying to sober up" while he gets up the nerve to face the mice. It's funny and numinous and I don't know what Peter Dickinson sounded like to talk to, but I love the clockmaker's voice. I went back to it for years to see how he got the disorganized effect while still creating a perfectly comprehensible narrative. Then I tried to see how he did the humor. Anyway, it contains one of my favorite parentheses ever published. "We'd not been on speaking terms most of our lives," the narrator explains about Cousin Cyrus, "due to a disagreement about homemade marmalade when we were both young and hot-headed, but we'd made it up a couple of years back while we were letting off the fireworks at Cousin Dennis's funeral. (That was a party!)" If that doesn't encourage you to read a book, I'm out of ideas.

City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament (1980) is exactly what it sounds like, except that part of the point of the book is how many different ways it sounds. All of its retellings are in different times and voices, not just styles but structures. A Jewish storyteller runs the Flood story by his Babylonian counterpart, comparing professional notes during the Exile. Samson and Delilah are a Child ballad. David and Goliath is a cautionary tale from a Babylonian drill sergeant on the surprising military effectiveness of the sling. An Alexandrian doctor gives a case history of demonic possession as illustrated by the jealous madness of Saul; a Hebrew mother tells her children the story of the prophet Elisha and the boys who were torn to pieces by bears in order to make them apologize to their aunt "before Elisha's bears come and get you!" Not all of Dickinson's reinterpretations work equally for me, but the ones that have stayed with me over the years, really stayed. I can track exactly when they entered my awareness as a writer because I tried to experiment with monologues, which is the mode in which most of the stories could be performed. The book won a Carnegie Medal; I am a little surprised that no one ever tried to adapt it for radio or the stage. Much later I read that Dickinson's model for City of Gold was the polyphony of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), which I believe.

Merlin Dreams (1988) is the book I have trouble talking about. I read it the year it came out; I was seven years old and it was part of the library of the Atrium School, in the same bookcase as the rest of the myths and folktales that I would spend my recess time reading unless the teachers gently encouraged me outdoors. It's illustrated by Alan Lee, who I didn't yet realize was famous, though I would recognize his art a few years later in Joan Aiken's The Moon's Revenge (1990) and years later still in The Lord of the Rings. There are nine stories, each of them themed around a trope of medieval legend: "Damsel," "King," "Unicorn," "Sword," and "Enchantress" are some of the titles I can remember; the seeming outlier "Sciopod" comes from T.H. White. The frame-story is the image of the title, old and immortal Merlin dreaming under the stone where Nimue left him, not tricked for the sake of stealing his power, but given refuge from the magic that drained and buffeted him like a storm. The stories rise and break from his dreams, rippling and transmuting—the boy-king with the ritual axe Iscal in his hand, long thought lost in the black ooze of the bog after the slaughter of the royal house, now presented to the tribes as proof of his kingship at the hill of the white horse is a prehistoric forerunner of Arthur as we know him, but the story twists into a very different tale of royalty before we can get anything more familiar. A joust between two knights in a dragon-haunted wood has its roots in the "killer-priest" of the ancient well, with a sword at his belt and a garland of mistletoe, who will yield his sacred role only to the man who kills him. This book gave me year-kings. It didn't do so alone—I was reading about Tezcatlipoca in a book of collected world mythologies right around the same time—but Dickinson's description of the rite struck me like an eyewitness account: the young man who is the old king in his harvest robes and his millet crown, his successor who stands among the stones with the "strange weapon" of the bronze-headed axe in his hands, the chanting of the priests and the wailing of the tribes as the king comes to the sacrifice at the dawn of the equinox. "In the silence the Axe falls." His hair is knotted in the bronze hooks, his severed head hoisted for the mourning tribes to see, like the heads on the doorposts of the killer-priest's shrine. This is Robert Holdstock, Golden Bough stuff, myth with clay in its hair and blood under its nails. I can't begin to estimate how it affected me, except that it was one of my first impressions of Merlin and, as happened to me with so many other forms of fantasy, it hit me with the imploded tropes of chivalry before I knew what the actual thing was supposed to look like. I was in grad school by the time I tracked down a copy of my own. It was just as wild and haunting as I remembered, like Lee's illustrations, which always have something half-seen about them. Some of the stories are sly, some adventurous; a couple are weirdly heartwarming and there is a piece of sheer fucking body horror in another that still disturbs me, by image and implication both. The collection is capped by a poem called ". . . Dreams," which I have quoted for the title of this post. I've just found the illustrations online, but it's the words I wish I remembered more of now.

Of course I never wrote to him and told him that his dreaming Merlin changed my life, or his seen-it-all drill sergeant, or his susceptible clockmaker ("with getting on a gallon of tea sloshing round inside me and my ears ringing with the tannin, but still pretty woozy from the champagne") going staunchly off to apologize to a bunch of telepathic mice. You'd think I would have learned after Tanith Lee. I don't have a moral, except that eighty-eight years old is a reasonable age for dying and I will still miss his presence, because the voice behind all of those voices is now out of the world. Go read the books; keep them speaking. Keep listening to the stories from under the stone. Don't underestimate shepherds. Learn something about clocks.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)

[personal profile] skygiants 2015-12-20 09:12 pm (UTC)(link)
I've actually somehow managed to never read Peter Dickinson, but this post just convinced me I ought to fix that.
genarti: ([misc] mundus librorum)

[personal profile] genarti 2015-12-21 05:52 pm (UTC)(link)
I've only read a very little Peter Dickinson -- Eva, which I liked, and The Ropemaker, which I loved. And I knew he was married to Robin McKinley, who's written some things that rang hollow to me and some things I love to my soul, and that they'd coauthored some books of stories. I knew nothing about him besides that, but I was sorry to hear of his death.

I keep getting him confused with Peter S. Beagle, because they're both prolific and beautiful writers whom I keep meaning to read more of. I hadn't heard of Time and the Clock Mice or City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament, but I want to read both now. And Merlin Dreams too -- Arthuriana has very few hooks in my heart, but I imprinted on Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and a properly numinous but humanized Merlin is one of the few parts I do care about.
genarti: ([misc] mundus librorum)

[personal profile] genarti 2015-12-21 09:43 pm (UTC)(link)
What did you love about The Ropemaker?

A lot of The Ropemaker has blurred with time, since I only read it once and that some years ago. But the protagonist is a young girl, who loves her family, and does and doesn't fit in with it, and does and doesn't fit in with the home she also loves -- her mother and her younger sister have a connection to the valley and its unicorns, and she does not. But she has her own strength and her own talents, some of them supernatural, none as pat as an undiscovered talent for prophesying; it's the way one discovers that something new comes intuitively easily to one, and later that it doesn't come so easily to other people. So does her grandmother, who comes along with her on a journey to save the valley. There's a boy with his own kind of supernatural connection, and his blind grandfather who shares it. There are other cultures encountered along the way, a multicultural world of cities and fields and river towns. There's a rope made of gold dust, or maybe it's motes of gold magic, or something else: I don't remember the details at all, and the context escapes me like a dream I've woken up from, but the image sticks with me, and the memory that in context the image means something more. It's a lot of images: a chestnut unicorn in snow, fiercely itself, and a girl who angrily aches about a lack she doesn't want to be angry about; grandparents turned youthful, quite literally, and the changes that does and doesn't bring; a family cottage in snow, with well-used details of bucket and stable and harness and stool, and the love and silences through it all; golden rope and bright carpets and magic woven and unwoven.

It's entirely possible that I'd reread it and find that I'm remembering all the good bits and forgetting the parts that didn't quite work. But it did something well that it's easy to do patly or poorly: growing past resentment of a sibling or a parent when there really is love there too, underneath and on top and all through, and growing into yourself not through that but alongside it. And love of a place that's home even after you've seen the world, and even when you haven't always fit easily into it.

Early McKinley was very important to me. Later McKinley stopped working for me between the non-ending of Sunshine (2003) and the resolution of Chalice (2008).

Yes. Spindle's End (2000, I find upon checking) worked for me, but Sunshine had so much that was wonderful and compelling and it desperately needed at least one more editing pass to tie up all the loose ends flapping egregiously in the breeze, to my mind. I haven't read anything later, nor heard things that change my mind on that. But Outlaws of Sherwood may be my favorite Robin Hood retelling in the world -- and Robin Hood was formative to me, from pop-up books in infancy onward -- and I love Aerin and Harry despite the later awkwardness of thinking about colonialism in relation to Harimad-sol. Not all of early McKinley mattered to me, but what did, I still love.

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 10:28 am (UTC)(link)
You write very well of Dickinson. Thank you. I already know I'll love "Time and The Clock Mice".

Have you ever written to writers you admire?

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 11:05 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you. I am away from home, and thinking rather than writing about someone who was very much one of my favourite writers. As you say, it's hard to complain about someone dying at eighty-eight (just) except that we want more books, and he kept on writing them longer than you could reasonably ask.

Doubly thank you, therefore for pickout one I actually haven't read; it seems, too, that there will be a new edition of Time and the Clockmice in the New Year...

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 02:12 pm (UTC)(link)
The clock, though nothing else, reappears in The Last Houseparty.

I believe I have read all of Dickinson. Dammit.

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 02:57 pm (UTC)(link)
He died on his birthday: "born 16 December 1927; died 16 December 2015."
Sovay, I don't believe I've read or heard a paper on Dickinson. Someday soon you should share your appreciation with a wider audience.

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 11:24 pm (UTC)(link)
I hate that book, except for the clock. But it is quite powerful. I think Tulku is my favorite.

I'm also fond of The Seventh Raven, and really appreciated Dickinson's writerly self-awareness about the moment in the book where "Almost the sauce cracks," which is a wonderful image. (From his acceptance speech for the 2001 Phoenix Award.)

Many of his books have marvelous bits in them but don't finally come together for me -- I have never been sure if that is down to me or him.

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 08:45 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, the setting is rehearsals for a yearly children's opera, and I found all the description of how the music works and the theater arrangements and so on utterly fascinating and believable (IIRC Dickinson himself wrote librettos for similar productions). Apparently it was published as YA, but I usually think of it with his adult thrillers.

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 08:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Also: you may ask, but I don't know that I have anything to say except that I find the subject matter and various twists of the plot disturbing, and not entirely believable (there, is that vague enough?). No personal application, apart from having been at times a lonely and inconvenient child (something I suspect most readers can identify with, no matter how overall happy their childhoods were).

I might be mixing it up with another of his books, too, but I don't think I am.
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[identity profile] 2015-12-22 01:35 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm pretty sure it is The Last Houseparty, which I found powerful and so disturbing that I'm not sure I will ever reread it.

[identity profile] 2016-01-14 10:12 pm (UTC)(link)
[ profile] sovay's description of Time and the Clockmice (which I have not read - hooray!) sent me back to read it, and it is still as disturbing as I remembered. So much in it to love, but the awful struggle not to accept what the narrative is telling you.

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 02:03 pm (UTC)(link)
No, it's just a clock with the seasonal figures. It features quite significantly in the novel.

His poems are like the ones in Merlin Dreams.

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 03:03 pm (UTC)(link)
I think I remember seeing Time and the Clock Mice in the library as a kid and yet never reading it. But now, hearing your description of how it works--with the disparate essays seemingly unrelated and yet creating a coherent and satisfying overall whole, I wonder if Paul Harding read it as a kid, because his Tinkers--which also talks about time and clocks--is constructed in somewhat the same way. It's lit fic for adults, but still: I wonder.

I would really like to read City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament just to see all those neat ways the stories get told--that sounds fabulous. And Merlin's Dreams--wow. I'd like to try that too.

I read a book of his, I just remembered! It was called The Devil's Children. I remember almost nothing about it except that it was my very first introduction to Sikhs.

it was my very first introduction to Sikhs

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 03:01 am (UTC)(link)
Mine as well. I still think of it sometimes when they are in the news, as recently as last week, in a story about the nuisance a Sikh had to go through to serve in the US military while wearing his turban.

Re: it was my very first introduction to Sikhs

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 04:59 am (UTC)(link)
Interesting! I expect that won't be the case for many of its British readers, but I guess Sikhs are just rarer here.

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 04:58 am (UTC)(link)
I really liked Tinkers. In fact, when I read it, I loved it. In retrospect, its injustice by its female characters bothers me more than it did when I was reading. It's apparently a fault that keeps on growing in my mind. The virtues remain but don't grow.

Good to know about Time and the Clock Mice--thank you!

[identity profile] 2015-12-20 03:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Go read the books; keep them speaking.

Just beautiful. Thank you.

(Lady Winter? Telepathic mice? I must find this book.)


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[identity profile] 2015-12-21 12:35 am (UTC)(link)
I have read none of Peter Dickinson's fiction, which now seems like a grievous oversight.

But there is a book of his that I have read so often I have damn near memorized it. The Flight of Dragons ( is a work of speculative natural history, in which Dickinson mines all of dragon mythology to come up with a biologically and historically plausible model for a creature whose existence might have led to such myths. It is the finest example of parahistory that I have ever seen, and it inspires me to live up to his high standard in my own parahistorical work.
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[identity profile] 2015-12-21 06:59 am (UTC)(link)
Well, the art in the book is certainly fantastic. As "illustration", though, I think it bears too little relation to the actual text. The captions often struggle to draw a link :-)

[identity profile] 2015-12-21 02:58 am (UTC)(link)
The missed-chance author I regret most is Erma Bombeck. You may have never heard of her. She wrote a syndicated newspaper humor column for years, ending in the early 1990s, I think. In about 1972, the US history class of some of my friends wrote to many famous people, asking how they felt about being Americans. Bombeck was the only one who replied, with a heartfelt letter about the freedom to bring up her children with her own values. She was in the Boston area in the late 1980s for a book signing, and I meant to go, to say that this kindness (giving her time to help out with the class project of a bunch of teenagers, who probably were not her target demographic) had stuck in our minds for years, but when the day came, I didn't go. She died several years later.

landofnowhere: (Default)

[personal profile] landofnowhere 2015-12-21 05:26 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for the appreciation. (I'm a lurker who found your journal by way of [personal profile] rushthatspeaks, whose journal I in turn found through mutual friends)

I discovered him through his story "Flight" in Robin McKinley's anthology Imaginary Lands, which blew me away with its voice, worldbuilding, and haunting quality. I then went and tried a bunch of his YA novels, but none of them quite lived up to it (although Eva was very good.)

I may have to try some of the ones recommended here!