“Love of Nature and Love of Language”
A review of
The Alpine Tales
By Paul Willis
Review by Joshua Neds-Fox.
The Alpine Tales
Paperback: WordFarm, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Remember childhood afternoons spent exploring the creek? Surely I can’t have been the only one to lose myself among waist-high ferns in my childhood, pretending to be the hero of a fairyland. One afternoon in particular, spent in the forest with distant cousins in Northern Michigan, comes to my mind unbidden again and again, growing more dreamlike as the years go by. The light, the ferns, the complete faith I had in the fantasy world I was building: how did those natural worlds become supernatural, those long afternoons years ago?
Paul Willis knows the answer. A professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, for over 20 years, he’s written chiefly poetry and essays (his second book of poems, Rosing From The Dead, was reviewed by ERB in June 2010). But the early 90’s saw the publication of the first two of these fantasy novels about three generations of mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest. He’s since made it a quartet, and the four are reissued here together as The Alpine Tales (WordFarm, 2010).
The Alpine Tales center in and around the fictional ‘Three Queens’ wilderness preserve, a specific and lovingly detailed country (with maps by Laurie Vette) anchored by three imposing mountains: South, Center and North. Willis has obviously worked long and hard imagining this wilderness, and his dedication puts me in the mind of Wendell Berry’s Port William. Or perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth would be the better comparison, as these are genre tales, squarely in the heritage of Tolkien’s landmark fantasy. The first Tale introduces William, an experienced climber who loves the challenge but cares little for the land; and Grace, a daytripper who’d rather be anywhere but on a mountainside. Both are in for a surprise when William’s climbing partner, the aged Garth (whose ancient ice axe is inscribed “TAKE ME UP” on one side and “CAST ME AWAY” on the other) performs a sudden incantation in a freak snowstorm and disappears—as does the known world, in favor of a pristine and supernatural wilderness. The forests are primeval and the highway at the trailhead is nowhere to be found.
The adventures that follow will feel familiar to readers of Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy novels, at least in part. There are powerful characters to meet—not least of which are three Queens, analogues to the mountains, their otherworldly dignity born of a sense of service to even greater powers, both evil and good. There are talking and/or talismanic animals—one species for each Tale—and everyday items with magical characteristics, especially a pair of totemic ice axes. There are ancient rivalries and curses and dynasties and charges. There are lava beasts and talking trees and noisome vultures and even a character or two out of Greek myth.
But where Willis breaks from the familiar is in his steadfast commitment to the idea of Wilderness as Supernatural. All four Tales exalt the land, lingering at every turn on descriptions of the forest, the mountains, the glaciers, the lakes. The villains tend to be those who misuse, abuse, or despoil the natural resources around them, through either ignorance or malice; the heroes are those who are at one with, and care for and enjoy, the natural world. Willis advances in every Tale the idea that our pleasure in the world around us, and our willing and skillful stewardship of it, is the true and highest calling we have toward the abundance of riches we’ve been given. And he advances this idea by the metaphor of his Supernatural world, parallel to our own, in which the natural world is Platonically perfected and the imperfect misuses of the land are washed (sometimes literally) away:
“[Ronald] felt a sense of home, deep beneath the giant trees and lacy needles, somewhere lost in a dim, damp canyon, pawing the earth like a lumbering bear. He had known such surprising contentment before—the sheer pleasure at times of standing on the nunatak amidst the swell and spill of ice… It was the simple happiness of belonging, of being there, a participant in something ancient, more grand and good than he could imagine.” (247)
This is coupled with the recurring motif of mountainclimbing, a sport of quest and conquest, best practiced on unspoilt land and in communion with one’s surroundings. Since quest is the engine of the fantasy genre, mountainclimbing features centrally in each Tale, signifying the characters’ grappling with or against the Wildernesses, both literal and figurative, in which they find themselves. Only when the characters have truly abandoned themselves to the Wilderness do they find their climbing effortless, rewarding; those characters who haven’t the Wilderness’s best interests in mind (or heart) suffer greatly in their attempts to scale the Three Queens.
Poetry, incidentally, is central to Willis’s understanding of what it means to express the spiritual in the natural: the sincere effort to describe, to say what it is one sees, is part and parcel of good stewardship in Willis’s reckoning. Poetry laces every Tale here; all major characters speak it, memorize it, recite snatches of it. It informs the title of the first Tale, taken from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It regularly punctuates and animates the prose, as if the wilderness itself demands that the language break out of the valley and attempt to climb mountains.
Increasingly as the Tales progress, a second aim becomes apparent: Willis seeks to incarnate truths about the spiritual world in his magical world. A talking tree hints at Willis’s convictions in the second Tale, ‘The Stolen River:’
“What think you of this bondage to decay, daughter?” He must have seen a look of confusion on Jennifer’s face, for he sighed and continued, “I am hoping you may be revealed as such—as daughter to the Most High. Consider the cedar along with the lily—consider us well. Subjected to futility, you may think. But also, remember, subjected in hope.” (250)
‘The White Fawn of Otium’ sees the Gospel most fully represented: the Fawn is sacrificed and reborn, and its bloody hoofprints provide a path up the side of an otherwise sheer and unclimbable rock wall for the two young protagonists. This has to be one of the most difficult, writerly tasks Willis undertakes: to make the spiritual seem at once fantastic and real, in the framework of this fictional world he’s created. Willis handles this challenge at least as admirably as any other writer of fantasy with similar ambitions, and better than some (I think of Young’s The Shack, though I know this is a contentious opinion).
If Willis has any fault in The Alpine Tales, it’s that there’s an unevenness to the Tales’ treatments of plot, language and character. Plot points hinted at early on—certain characters’ fairie blood, for instance—die unheralded deaths. Garth, who starts off as a sort of playful wizard in the first Tale, changes abruptly to grave and somber in the following Tales, even after he achieves his heart’s desire and marries his long-lost true love. And the characters’ dialog grows steadily more elevated, approaching high classical by the fourth Book. I attribute these variances to different motivations Willis must have felt, writing each installment: the first, an innocent attempt at fantasy that expressed his sense of the supernatural in the natural world; the second, a perhaps-contractually-obligated follow-up to the first. (The paperback edition of No Clock In The Forest has a suggestive cover illustration, typical of mass-market fantasy, depicting two of the Three Queens in a manner worthy of pulp fiction. Willis makes a joke of it in ‘The Stolen River,’ self-consciously acknowledging the strange compromises that art and commerce make.) The third and fourth books appear to have been written much later, and so I should probably forgive the changes in style and tone I read there: Willis has progressed, grown, as a writer, and he is more in charge of his voice and his subject. His approach to the material doesn’t meander so much as it matures, and if a few details burn out here and there, is that so bad?
Because I believe the central theme—investing the Wilderness with a spiritual significance—is Willis’s aim in The Alpine Tales, I have to finally conclude that the Tales are a success. This focus is apparent again and again, laid down in generally satisfying, sometimes transcendent, and only occasionally florid prose. If the fantasy elements and certain other aspects of the writing are uneven, well… I personally am of the opinion that the fantasy genre’s attempts to follow Tolkien’s achievements are a fools’ errand. Other examples that claim ancestors earlier than Tolkien—English fairytales in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange, for instance—are still lighting out for the territories, but much else is simply celebrating (or even remembering) rather than innovating. Rather than transcend this limitation of the genre, Willis sidesteps. He’s not attempting to innovate, exactly, just walk where others have walked before, and he appropriates from all the examples he likes best. They’re all here: Oz, Narnia, Myth, Wonderland, Shakespeare, Redwall, Nimh, Northern Lights. And especially Middle Earth, from the beast belching fire from the depths of creation to the army of Trees advancing on the city of industrial woodcutters, with Garth as Willis’s Gandalf.
I think there’s some intention here: a sort of Literary Forest to parallel his Three Queens Wilderness. His final Tale marries a Mountainclimber to a Poet, sending them off beyond the end of the narrative to oversee and tend the Wilderness. Love of nature and love of language: these are Willis’s gifts to the genre, and their marriage is as apt a summary of The Alpine Tales as I can find. Let the Wilderness be more than natural, and let it only truly come to life in the language of Poetry. It apparently took Willis 20 or more years to finish this quartet. Having come this far, I can only hope he will go Further Up and Further In.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com