Friday 3 December 2010

Fairytale Reflections (12) John Dickinson

John Dickinson’s debut novel ‘The Cup of the World’ was published in 2004 at pretty much the same moment as my own ‘Troll Fell’. You tend to notice the books your first novel arrives in the world with – like picking out the other children in a kindergarten class where your own child has just started. ('Go, little book – and please make friends...') - but I would have noticed this book any time, anywhere.  Besides its intriguing title, ‘The Cup of the World’ had - has - the most gorgeous cover: all storm-lit smoky skies swirling over a great stone-lipped cup rimming a world of cities, lakes and mountains. It begs to be lifted off the shelves.

The Cup of the World’ and its sequels ‘The Widow and The King’ and ‘The Fatal Child’ are set in a far-off, war-troubled medieval kingdom. Once, long ago, Wulfram the Seafarer came with his seven sons and conquered the land. Now the different baronies and territories descended from those sons are in turmoil and open revolt, bitter with complex politics and grudges.

The first book follows the fortunes of headstrong Phaedra, visited in dreams by a mysterious knight whom she marries, when finally they meet, in spite of his reputation for black magic... In the second book, Phaedra’s son grows up in exile with his mother, and in the third book he becomes ‘Prince Under the Sky’ – ever wandering as he seeks to undo the curse of Beyah, the weeping goddess of the land.

This is not a fantasy in which things automatically turn out well. Indeed it has the classic feel of a tragedy such as the Morte d’Arthur, in which the good intentions of men and women are overwhelmed by destiny. It’s full of compelling, flawed characters and beautiful, ominous writing. Here Phaedra has found little Ambrose clambering – as toddlers will if unregarded for a moment – up the stone steps to the tower. Then she sees something waiting on the steps above him:

The crouching thing lifted its head. Beneath the hood it seemed eyeless, toad-headed. Something crunched. Flecks of stone trickled down the stair.

Long fingers that were not a man’s stretched towards the child.

“Amba!” she said, louder this time. The boy looked round and saw her. I’m busy, his look said.

If she stepped forward he would turn to climb again. Two steps above him the fingers hovered like the roots of black trees. Water glistened on them. She must not look. She must look at Ambrose. At Ambrose. “Come down, darling. Please – come down.”

John is the son of the author Peter Dickinson, and worked in the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and NATO before leaving the civil service to begin writing. This seems an excellent background for an author whose work is so deeply concerned with the complexities, compromises and betrayals of human relationships, both personal and political. John has also published a historical novel for adults, ‘The Lightstep’, set in a German palatinate at the time of the French Revolution, and a coldly beautiful science fiction novel called ‘WE’, which has recently been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. They are both wonderful. And for his Fairytale Reflection, he has chosen to talk about the fascinations of -



The cave of wonders!  Torchlight glitters on piles of gems.  It glows on jars of incense, on carpets, cloth, leather and canvas sacks that have split with the weight of coin and cascaded gold and silver across the floor.  There’s pile upon pile of it, more than can possibly be counted, receding into the shadows.   The light trembles.  The hand the holds the torch shudders.  Where did all these things come from?  The men that laid them here are fierce and cruel.  Hanging on hooks among the silks, like a carcass at a market, are the dismembered quarters of an unlucky traveller who was seized and hacked to pieces for daring to enter the cave.  The last drops of his blood still drip to black pools upon the floor.  He died not long ago.  His killers must be close by.  What’s that noise?  Is it sand, trickling in a crevice, or the hiss of indrawn breath?  Is it gold that glitters from the deepest shadows - or is it blades of steel? 

Surprisingly, Ali Baba may not one of the original stories in The Arabian Nights.  Like Sinbad and Aladdin it may have been collected separately by Galland, the eighteenth century French traveller who popularised the Nights in Europe.  But it’s one of my Arabian Nights – the Nights that have been with me since childhood.  It was in the big, colourful, yellow-jacketed hardback book that my parents gave us and through which we entered that fantastic world.  I can still remember the pictures, flat and stylised like Persian miniatures, and the way the robber chief throws up his arm before the cave as he cries “Open Sesame!”

So many stories!  Ali Baba and his slave-girl Morgiana, and thirty-nine thieves dead in their jars of oil.  Aladdin and his lamp.  The Sultan Haroun al Raschid and his vizier Jafaar.  The hunchback and the bone he choked upon.  The brothers Aboukir and Abousir, and the city where the dyers only know how to colour things blue.  Turbans and curling beards and gongs and incense.   Cunning and beauty and terrible cruelty.  This was fantasy, an other world far removed from Western living-rooms, long before Tennyson wrote his Idylls or Tolkein woke our Northern myth from its slumber. 

And Scheherazade herself.  The young woman who, night after night, tells the stories to her husband the Caliph, knowing that if she ever loses his interest she will be executed in the morning like all his other wives before her.  In the sweltering darkness she whispers to him, and he listens with his head propped on silken pillows as she ends one tale and begins another, only to fall silent just as her royal murderer is begging for more.  Young as she is, she has mastered the art of the cliffhanger. 

(I never asked myself, when I had that yellow book in my hands, what else she might have known about amusing men in bed.  Nor did I wonder if the Caliph’s problem with women might have stemmed from some very private little problem of his own, and the reason the stories worked for him was because nothing else was going to.  Sad creature that I am, I can think these things now. )

A thousand stories!  I’m a storyteller myself, and used to being asked about my ideas.  But where did she get all hers from?  Maybe she walked at dawn through in the peacock gardens, her brain dull from fear and lack of sleep, plotting the twists and turns that would keep her alive for one night more.  That story about the sailor went well.  It must be worth a sequel or two.  Is seven pushing it too far? All right, but what’s he going to do on his seven voyages?  (Bird flies by with mouse dead in its claws)  That’s it!  Birds!  Big birds, big enough to feed on elephants!  That’ll make him sit up.  That will get me one more dawn like this.  One more…   

Stories inside stories inside stories.  Scheherazade tells of Jafaar the vizier, who, found wanting by his master Haroun, obtains a pardon for himself by entertaining his Caliph with the Tale of Nur al-Din Ali.  (No harm, you can hear Scheherazade thinking, in planting the idea of mercy in her own Caliph’s head).    The Fisherman tells the Djinn the story of the sage Duban.  Sinbad the Porter hears the story of the seven voyagers from his namesake the Sailor.  It’s like Russian dolls, one inside another inside another, and each decorated and striking, and the myriad of voices that tell them seem to come from all around, echoing inside the cave. 

A thousand and one stories?  Some collections have as many – ancient tales that go back into the folklore of different Middle Eastern cultures, including some about historical figures who lived long after Sheherazade and her Caliph are supposed to have existed.  But most tellings have only a selection.  Ours probably included no more than twenty.  Some I recall very clearly.  Other stories have elements I remember or half-remember, like tricking the djinn back into the bottle, or the book whose pages are poisoned, or the Caliph who enters a house in disguise, is entertained, and nearly loses his life.  I must have read those stories and then forgotten them.  Or maybe I never did, but others like Umberto Eco and James Elroy Flecker did at some time and have served them up to me since, set like gems in stories of their own making.  Running my eye down the list of a thousand titles, I’m surprised to see how few I can recognise.  The Nights were part of my childhood, and yet what I have is only a small proportion of what is there.  They are the piles upon piles of untouched treasures that I left behind me in the cave when I escaped with my little bag of jewels all those years ago.

Picture credit: Scheherezade by Kay Nielsen 1922


  1. Now how did I miss out on John Dickinson...must go and find. Thankyou very much.
    I realise that I also know far fewer tales in the Arabian Nights than I thought I did. I must dig my copy out again!

  2. catdownunder, you are in for a treat!

  3. More books to go on my Christmas list! And I love the Arabian Nights (I have a DVD version from the same collection as The Snow Queen, mentioned in my earlier post for this series.)

  4. Very enjoyable post. I've recently been reading a collection of the Arabian Nights and was similarly struck by how few of the tales I had ever even heard of before - and that three of the ones I did know, weren't even part of the original collection.

    I'm giving my older boy a copy for Christmas, which I hope will not be my Sir. Burton translation. (Sometimes it reads like a Monty Python parody.)

    I shall have to look for "The Cup of the World", it sounds fascinating.

  5. And me too--not that my reading list actually Needs more books...

  6. My grandma gave me my copy of stories from the Arabian Nights and I used to retell them to my sister as we were falling asleep each night. My favorite was one about cucumbers stuffed with pearls. Thanks for the post, which reminded me how much I love these stories, even if I did just get a selection!

  7. Wonderful! Reminded me how much I loved the Arabian Nights and also that I have misplaced my copy. Definitely time to buy a new one.
    Will always remember the jewel fruits in Aladdin's cave and the hope that they were edible.