Cold curtains of November rain came drifting slowly up the valley like an endless procession of phantom mourners following an invisible hearse. From beneath an overhang of limestone a boy and an old man squatted side by side and gazed disconsolately out across the river to the dripping forest on the far bank. Suddenly a salmon leaped — a flicker of silver in the gloom and a splash like a falling log. The boy’s eyes gleamed. “Ah,” he breathed. “Did you see him?”
That’s a lot of description for an opening paragraph. Hemingway would have hated it, but it works perfectly to present the quasi-medieval setting and elegiac mood of The Road to Corlay.
The novel came out in paperback from Pocket Books in 1979. I read it some time that year and it made a permanent impression, so much so that I named it as one of my fifteen favorite books earlier this year. The impression, however, was of its quality and was not accompanied by anything like a scene by scene recollection.
I had to read it again, and I am glad that I did.
What appears between the covers of the Pocket Books version is a novella called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Hugo and Nebula nominee for 1977) and a short novel called The Road to Corlay. Together they tell one seamless story, but it will be easier here to talk about them separately.
Beware — I normally avoid spoilers but I can’t do it in this case.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is allegorical, but don’t let that put you off. Allegory is often just a lazy author’s attempt to achieve false profundity, but Cowper does it right. My personal test for allegory is, “Does the writing stand by itself? Would I like it as well if I didn’t know the story it mimics?” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn passes this test easily.
It takes place on the eve of the new millennium, 2999 AD, in a post-flood England. The waters began rising in the 1980s due to global warming. (Yes, I said global warming, even though this story was begun in the 1970s.) By the time Piper opens, technological society is a thing of the past and the Church Militant rules the land.
Here is the only real weakness in the underlying story. Why revive Catholicism as villain? In the 70s its power was essentially dead in Britain, and its resurgence is merely assumed, never explained. I can only chalk it up to the extreme Englishness of the novel. Brits have been seeing the Catholic Church as bogeyman since Bloody Mary’s reign of terror in the 1550s. If this novel had been written by an American (like Davy was), we would probably have seen cold, heartless Puritans hanging witches instead.
Logical or not, the Church Militant makes a good foil, and offers a medieval tone without needing a lot of backstory.
The story itself — that is, the plot — can be summarized quickly. Tom, a boy of about thirteen and Old Peter, a storyteller, are walking toward York where Tom is supposed to enter a Church school. Tom has the ability, taught to him by a wizard, to play his pipes so that he can control animals and make people see visions. He also knows a lot more about unfolding events than a boy should know. His playing amplifies Old Peter’s storytelling so that by the time they reach York, they are raking in money and followers.
Tom is a very docile and agreeable lad, but every time he gives in to Peter’s schemes, it moves him closer to his own destiny. Peter seems to have no clue that this is happening. We are not told that Tom is manipulating, but he never seems surprised when things go his way.
The world is in turmoil with prophesies of the coming of the White Bird of Kinship at the turn of the millennium. Once in York, at the end of the year, Tom slips away to play his pipes for the gathered crowd. The White Bird descends upon the land, but just at the climax of the event Tom is killed by the bolt from a crossbow.
Piper is allegorical, certainly, but not a true allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ story, but with more differences than similarities.
We have the self-sacrificed innocent, but he has preached no sermons and promulgated no gospel. We have Gyre, who fires the bolt but has no memory of the deed or the reason for it. There is a touch of Judas here, but only a touch, and that lies primarily in his regret.
We have the White Bird, which even a character within the story recognizes as being like the Holy Spirit, but the death of Tom does not bring about any redemption. It only causes the Bird’s descent to misfire.
We have Old Peter who takes Gyre with him to spread the word of what has happened, like two apostles after the resurrection. But there was no resurrection and the Bird has flown away. Peter and Gyre are not actually spreading the word of what has happened, but of what is still to come, and here we find a trace of John the Baptist.
It isn’t a Christ story, but a slightly Christlike story. And it is not an ending, but a beginning. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the most emotionally unified and satisfying part of the overall story, but it demands the follow-up provided by The Road to Corlay.
I sometimes hear reviewers say that, while they are ready to meet the characters in the opening chapter of a novel they don’t want to have to do it all over again on page fifty. My novel Jandrax caused great irritation to one reviewer for that very reason, but sometimes a complicated story requires a rotating cast of characters.
The Road to Corlay is that kind of work. It begins eighteen years after the boy Tom’s death. Old Peter and Gyre have been spreading the gospel of the White Bird of Kinship, but they remain mostly off stage. All the characters are new, and many of them won’t live to see the end of the book.
The Church Militant has tried to absorb the new religion into itself, but now its leaders change tactics. An proscription for heresy is released, and all the people we will come to care about become the hunted.
In researching for this post, I ran across a review of another Cowper novel which contained the lines, “This novel has real people in it that you can care about . . . just don’t expect too many laughs.” He could have been talking about The Road to Corlay.
The novel begins with two fishermen dragging in body bound to a spar. It is Thomas of Norwich, the second of three Thomases in the book. That is a little confusing, but a necessary part of the story. He is alive, but he shouldn’t be after all his days in the water. It will take the rest of the novel to answer why this is and what it means. He comes into the hands of Jane, who is gifted with huesh, which is something like ESP crossed with foreseeing. She enters his mind, but finds two men there, one being Thomas himself, the other a stranger she can barely touch.
It is in chapter two that the disaffection starts for most reviewers, including Joachim Boaz and Thomas Anderson, two reviewers I enjoy and respect.
In this new chapter the scene changes to 1986, a decade in the future from Cowper’s perspective. It is a familiar world of cars and hospitals, and of scientists working at the edge of current knowledge. A scientist name Carver is having a chemically induced OBBE (out of body experience) and his colleagues can’t wake him up. No one is worried at first, but then he sinks fast and the chapter ends with him in danger. We know from what Jane said in the last chapter that Carver is the other man in Thomas of Norwich’s head.
And it is raining — has been raining for months. Without ever saying so, Cowper has let us know that the rising of the waters has begun.
Let’s dispose of this 1986 intrusion, if it is an intrusion, before we get back to 3018. Everybody seems to hate it, but I didn’t mind it at all. On a visceral level, it was a relief every three chapters to spend a few pages somewhere that my new friends weren’t being hunted down.
More importantly, 1986 is a counterpoise to the future. It isn’t there to give backstory; that could have been done in a few carefully chosen sentences of authorial omniscience. It shows that the past and the future are the same. The scientists with their machinery basically don’t know what the hell is going on. The people like Jane who use and are used by huesh, don’t know where it comes from or why it works. The central purveyors of the new religion basically don’t know how any of it works, or what is going to happen next. Confusion is the human norm in all eras, which perfectly agrees with my prejudices.
Meanwhile, back in 3018: Thomas of Norwich takes refuge with Jane’s family. Only a small portion of the population has embraced Kinship, but those who have take care of each other. Jane is troubled, not only by the other man inside Thomas, but because she hueshed Thomas washed up on the beach, drowned. In her experience, huesh foreseeings never fail, and she has become fond of Thomas.
(Speaking of things to hate, I hate this kind of foreshadowing, but once again, Cowper made it work.)
Thomas has a mission, to find Gyre, who killed the boy Tom and became his greatest advocate, and to carry the boy’s pipes and written testament to safety in France. Jane takes him part way on that journey by boat, and is later attacked, then rescued. She learns that her family has been killed and she is herself now a refugee. She and Thomas come together again and he comforts her in her grief. In their days together, fondness has already turned to love, and now that leads to a night of lovemaking. Shortly after, they are captured together, and held for those who are hunting them.
Meanwhile, in a separate strand of the story, Brother Francis is sent by Cardinal Constant, head of the English Church Militant and prime mover against the Kinsmen, in search of knowledge about the boy who died. Francis travels from place to place, tracing the boy’s history, and hearing from those he has touched. He is slowly converted to Kinship, so as he nears the end of his journey, he changes sides. When he finds Gyre, he does not turn him over to the Church, but chooses to help him.
Gyre offers to play on the boy’s pipes, so Francis can hear an echo of an echo of the melody that is converting the world.
Raising his head abruptly the dying Kinsman gazed up at the vaulted ceiling and cried with a voice so strong it seemed almost as if it must be coming from some other throat than his: “Boy, show now at the end that I am forgiven! You know that I shot in ignorance of what I did! Speak you now through my darkness that his darkness may become light!”
He drew a deep, panting breath, raised the twin mouthpieces to his lips, and fixing the Advocate Sceptic with an unwavering gaze he began to play.
The Road to Corlay is a long and complicated story, but none of it would mean anything if it weren’t so beautifully written.
Gyre passes the pipes and testament to Francis and dies. Francis goes on, now looking for Thomas of Norwich to deliver them to him, but he finds him captive of the Church. Using his standing as a priest, since no one knows of his apostasy, he effects a rescue, but Thomas is killed.
Jane, with her unborn son, the pipes and the testament, escapes to France where her coming son Tom will fulfill his destiny.
Tom the boy who died by crossbow, Thomas of Norwich who inherited his pipes and testament, Tom the unborn son in Jane’s womb at book’s end (who I’m told is the primary figure in the two sequels) — clearly we have a reincarnation sub-text going on here unexplained.
We also have a sub-text of repetitions. The birth of Christianity, medieval days, the rise of technological hubris smashed back by a flood (again, just like Noah), the rebirth of a quasi-medieval society and a new Church Militant, followed by the birth of Kinship (the primitive, original Christianity?). From what little I know of the two sequels, Kinship wins out, becomes the great power, and is itself corrupted.
To my eye, this all looks very Hindu, with age after age, and avatar after avatar of basically the same Gods, repeating variations of the same myths. I’ll say more on that in a month or so when I deal with the Earthsea books.
Now I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole of my Southern Baptist childhood by way of this quotation:
. . . midway out in the Somersea a three masted barque, its white sails drooping like tired petals, floated becalmed above it’s own reflection. High above it a solitary star twinkled, a silver drop suspended from an invisible thread.
There are white boats in the offing in several places in this novel — white like the White Bird. In this case with “white sails drooping like a tired” (bird?). A three masted barque — where else have we seen something that looks like three upright wooden masts crossed by yards? Oh, yes, on the hill at Calvary? And where but above the manger did a solitary star twinkle?
You doubt me? I don’t blame you, but this is the world of types and symbols scattered through a sea of parables that I grew up in. This book speaks to me the same way, with little hints and teases that float untethered through the text. No? Then tell me, if that barque is not symbolic — even if my reading of it was not precise — why was it there? It had no place in the plot.
These are the little touches — images and turns of phrase — scattered throughout The Road to Corlay which make it read like a new scripture to those of us who spent our childhoods reading the original Christian scripture.
I don’t understand all of The Road to Corlay; I’m not supposed to. If all its meaning could be reduced to reason, Cowper could have nailed it to some college door like the ninety-five theses, and it would have been mummified in a philosophy text.
Instead, he gave us a fable. I understand that impulse. In 1975, fresh out of graduate school, I wrote my first novel, and was seduced. I could say things in fiction that I could never say any other way.
Thomas of Norwich, trying to explain how it felt to play the song of the White Bird, said:
“I knew the supreme joy of possessing something that can only exist in the giving.”
I get it. That’s how it feels every time I write, but it seems too arrogant to admit, so let’s just keep it between ourselves.