During his lifetime, Lloyd Alexander was a prolific children’s writer, perhaps best known for the wonderful THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, which is essential reading for any young fantasy fan. The Rope Trick was one of his last books (only two more followed it) and it contains a lot of what his fans have come to expect: a plucky heroine, a twisty plot, nuggets of wisdom, a range of colourful characters (including an enigmatic wise man who always lingers just out of reach) and the familiar theme of it being the journey, not the destination, which really matters.
After her father’s death, copper-haired Lidi is determined to become the greatest stage magician of all time. With her clever hands she can perform all sorts of marvellous tricks that keep her audiences enthralled and her belly full with the money it earns her. But the secret to one illusion continues to elude her: the titular rope trick which involves throwing a rope into the air, climbing it, and disappearing at the top. She has heard the trick has been mastered by only one person: the Fantastic Ferramondo, a travelling magician that she is desperate to track down. The only problem is that every person she comes across who claims to have met the man has a very different account of his appearance, personality and whereabouts.
Still, there’s plenty to keep her busy in the meanwhile. She and her canvasmaster Jericho are travelling the lands of Campania, described as: “a crowd of provinces, duchies, free cities, pocket-sized republics, and hidden corners with no name at all: such a geographical crazy quilt the mapmakers never figured out exactly where one began and another ended.” On the way they meet up with Daniella, a little girl with a big personality and real prophetic powers, and Julian, a moody tenant farmer on the run from a ruthless overseer. Both have their own stories to tell, and both have malevolent foes shadowing them across the countryside. Their stories become entwined with Lidi and Jericho’s as the four of them attempt to outwit those that would do them harm.
Alexander’s romances are always a bit hit-and-miss; it seems that for every natural, heartwarming Taran/Eilonwy (PRYDAIN), there’s a forced, inexplicable Tamar/Mirri (The Iron Ring), but here Julian/Lidi capture all the nuances of mutual attraction: the blushes, nerves, frustration, realization and final rapture of falling in love, which unfold gradually over the course of the story.
I have to admit that the final chapter caught me by surprise. At first it felt like an incomprehensible deus ex machina that went completely unexplained and unresolved, as though Alexander had written his characters into a corner and was at a loss as how to get them out again. But on further reflection, the threads of the resolution were woven into the story all along, and the conclusion takes on a numinous, almost divine shape, especially when taking into consideration all the hints as to who Ferramondo truly was. It’s still a little abrupt, and perhaps young children may need some assistance in grasping its full meaning, but it ultimately feels like an apt conclusion.
As is to be expected, Alexander writes beautifully, with his prose gliding like silk across the page. What Lidi can do with her hands, Alexander can do with words, building and shaping a complete world and its characters vividly and effortlessly, winding all the facets of life — joy, bitterness, humour, love, despair, hope — into a complete whole. Any of his books are wonderful to read aloud, and The Rope Trick is no exception, with beautiful turns of phrase and snappy dialogue. This is classic Lloyd Alexander.