Before leaving Peter Dickinson (see previous post) I must also recommend his other late fantasy, The Tears of the Salamander. If Angel Isle constitutes the height of his high fantasy writing, this book is something rather different, but equally special. For all its originality, richness and complexity, Angel Isle is essentially a typical children's epic fantasy. The Tears of the Salamander is a masterpiece of metaphysical imagining. Much shorter than Angel Isle, and in many respects much simpler in its storyline, this book treats of deep esoteric and spiritual issues, presented, often, with almost poetic intensity. Metaphor constantly underlies the matter of the narrative, and descriptions of its magic are often deliberately elusive of rational understanding. This adds considerably to its ethereal hold, but also make it a challenging read. It will not, I suspect, be to all tastes, but is a book which will prove gripping, powerful and deeply affecting for those who do respond to it.
Yet for all its depth and challenge, the core story of The Tears of the Salamander is a relatively simple one. In essence this is a classic fantasy tale of a wizard's apprentice. An orphaned boy is taken in by and groomed to inherit the mantle of his uncle, a dark and powerful sorcerer.
However, layers of imagery are quickly built through it. As a young boy, Alfredo has a beautiful treble voice and is selected as chorister by a cathederal in his native Italy. Singing there means the world to him, and comes to represent a lightness and airiness, a spirituality, purity and joy of experience, even if the portrayed Church itself is not altogether the high moral institution it should be. Also, through these boyhood years, he assists his skilled baker father in tending a number of his ovens, and shows an amazing affinity with fire. He is thus able to tame this potentially wild and fierce element and put it to positive use. However when Alfredo is about to move into adolescence, and his voice to break, a far less controlled fire destroys the bakery and leaves him orphaned and in the care of the cathedral. The Church authorities threaten to prolong his childish singing talent unnaturally by turning him into a castrato but he is saved by his sorcerer uncle who takes him off to Sicily. There Uncle Giorgio is the mysterious and powerful master of the volcano. He trains Alfredo to use his beautiful singing to help harvest the tears of one of the salamanders who live deep in the mountain's fires. Alfredo's talents link the purity and order of his earlier life with the elemental power of the volcano. But are his singing and his affinity with fire being corrupted, and will he be so too? Peter Dickinson explores with great subtlety and skill the strange and often mystical relationship between singing and fire, between boy and mountain, between salamander and sorcerer, and between awesome power and sublime music.
There are comparatively few key characters in the story. However, in addition to Alfredo and his uncle there are two very significant others, Giorgio's mute housekeeper and her apparently 'simple' son. Just as with his limited but potent skein of images, out of this quartet of rich characters Peter Dickinson weaves a complex fabric of shifting relationships, incorporating quite a few shocks on the way. It is quite wonderful writing.
To me, this novel is a recent equivalent to Alan Garner's The Owl Service, and, even closer perhaps, to Ursula K LeGuin's The Tombs of Atuan. Not that the story is at all like either of these. Rather that, drawing on myth and fantasy, it uses image and extended metaphor to build great depth and resonance into an apparently simple story. Also that it merits similar classic status.
I hope that this book will be rediscovered and read widely. It is a gem of children's literature, a wonderful model of both the art and the craft of writing from an author who has honed his use of language and form over a long lifetime as a successful author. Despite, too, many of its more mystical passages being deliberately elusive, this book's fundamental moral message is very clear And it is a vital one for our world. Power is too often used selfishly, resulting in great evil. We must learn instead to use it for good.