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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062

Author: Peter Dickinson (1927–2015)

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of plot: Unspecified

Locale: The Valley; Talak

Principal characters

Tilja, a seemingly normal teenage girl from the Valley living on the Woodbourne farm

Anja , her younger sister, who has the ability to...

(The entire section contains 1062 words.)

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Author: Peter Dickinson (1927–2015)

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of plot: Unspecified

Locale: The Valley; Talak

Principal characters

Tilja, a seemingly normal teenage girl from the Valley living on the Woodbourne farm

Anja, her younger sister, who has the ability to talk with cedar trees

Meena, her grumpy grandmother, who can also talk with trees

Tahl, her friend, a teenage boy who talks to and lives on the river

Alnor, Tahl's grandfather, who can also communicate with the river

Faheel, a great and very old magician who has used magic to protect the Valley

The Story

The Ropemaker begins in the Valley, as Tilja awakes from sleep to find that her mother has gone to sing to the cedars out near the lake. However, when night falls, the family's horse, Tiddykin, comes back with no rider. In a frantic attempt to find his wife, Tilja's father sets out into the forest, but in the Valley, the forest is an enchanted place where men cannot travel far without succumbing to a delirium that can set them wandering aimlessly until they die of exposure. After three failed attempts, Tilja is sent to look for her mother with her grandmother, Meena. Snow has been falling at the wrong time and in a strange way, but they manage to find Tilja's mother lying on the ground unconscious and near death.

On the trip back, Meena asks Tilja if she can hear any voices or sense where the lake is. When Tilja responds that she cannot, it becomes clear that she does not have the gift of hearing the talking of the trees. For her, this realization is devastating, as it means that only her sister Anja has the gift and therefore will be the sole heir to the family farm. In Tilja's family, only one woman in each generation has the gift, and this woman is responsible for the continuation of the family line. Tilja tries to come to terms with the reality of her situation as her mother is nursed back to health, but all she can think about is the fact that one day she will no longer be a central part of her family.

Meanwhile, the Valley has been protected for generations by a kind of magic that has kept the forces of the Empire from invading. However, the power of the magic has been waning, and people are afraid that soon the Emperor's soldiers or other tribes will come to sack the peaceful Valley. The cedar trees tell Anja that Tilja is the one who must make the journey to the capital of the Empire, Talak, in order to find the great magician Faheel, who can ensure the safety of the Valley. Meena is set to accompany her, along with their neighbors from the river, adolescent Tahl and his grandfather Alnor. With the help of the great magic artifact Axtrig, a spoon made from the wood of a magic peach tree, the four set off for the city.

They quickly realize that magic, which has vanished from the Valley, is everywhere in the Empire, but it is carefully controlled, like all aspects of daily life, by the Emperor. Twenty great magicians known as the Watchers keep control of the land and its magic with the Emperor. Faheel is strong enough that he has remained in hiding. Yet while his magic is great, it is not strong enough to take on all the Watchers, and so he has bided his time waiting for the right moment. After two Watchers die at the hands of Tilja, who has discovered latent powers of her own, the small band from the Valley finds Faheel and he puts his plan into motion as the newest member of the guard, known as the Ropemaker, comes to Talak for his induction. Faheel gives Tilja the magic relics necessary to stop the reign of the Emperor and in the end Tilja finds the power to keep the Valley safe.

Critical Evaluation

The structure of The Ropemaker is one of the most essential aspects of the novel. At the most granular level, the book employs a syntax that is quite complex for a book aimed at young adults. The structure of its scenes is unusual as well. Descriptions of people, places, and events are detailed and the story seems to linger on these details rather than rushing toward the grand finale.

The structure of the plot is also noteworthy, as it moves seamlessly through every level of the hero's journey, a pattern identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in epic storytelling across world cultures. For this reason, this twenty-first-century text takes on the timeless feel of storytelling that been essential to various cultures around the world. What distinguishes The Ropemaker is perhaps the fact that Dickinson refuses to add any markers in his text that would locate the fantastic world of the novel within the real world. The only places in the novel with names, outside of general descriptions such as the Valley or the Empire, are Talak, the capital, and Golorth, the city of the dead.

Nevertheless, there are elements of the structure of the Empire that are familiar to a modern audience. There is a sense of bureaucracy that seems a satire of modern government at times, such as when the travelers learn that each and every person must be accounted for to the Emperor—even in the case of an accidental death, the Emperor must be informed or the heirs of the departed may face complete forfeiture of their inheritance. Similarly, the fee for every government transaction includes both an official and unofficial bribe.

During his lifetime, Dickinson was a prolific writer of adult and young-adult novels, particularly of mysteries, fantasy, and other types of speculative fiction. However, the craft of The Ropemaker is what distinguishes this novel as one of the most influential titles in his body of work, alongside his award-winning publications Tulku (1979) and City of Gold (1980).

Further Reading

  • Grimes, William. "Peter Dickinson, Author, Dies at 88; Master Plotter Relished a Good Puzzle." The New York Times, 17 Dec. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/arts/peter-dickinson-author-whose-unpredictable-plots-blurred-genres-dies-at-88.html. Accessed 24 Jan. 2017.
  • Keating, H. R. F. "Peter Dickinson: An Author to Remember." Mystery Scene Magazine, Summer 2005, www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2937:peter-dickinson-a-writer-to-remember&catid=38:profile&Itemid=191. Accessed 24 Jan. 2017.
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