Warning: Contains Spoilers!
They were great islands of rag, looming out of a tattered, filthy sea of shreds.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: I realised on reread that a lot about this story makes me think of traditional fairytales. If Peggy Blister is the classic queen/crone; desperate to cling to her lost youth, self-serving and devious, then Molly is the princess archetype; fair and kind, bearing up despite abject poverty, and a bit unlucky in love. To take this further, Lingley is every pompous, honey-worded courtier, while Spittle lives and breathes the role of evil magician. Will is, of course, our young hero, but whether he will turn out to be a prince or be slain by the many dragons which assail him remains to be seen.
Speaking of dragons, during the The Whitby Witches, Matt pointed out the first symbolic, malevolent reptiles in Robin Jarvis canon with the mention of the serpents which St Hilda supposedly cast down. Now, we have two more references to esoteric reptilia – the tomb upon which Imelza gave birth, and the ‘dragon in the rags’ of this chapter.
I’ve spoken of my dislike for Spittle already, but I admit his periods of ridiculousness (being caught in his nightshirt by Lingley, being mauled by Mr and Mrs Gobtrot’s tiny dog) are quite comedic, for all they emphasise the contrast between his opposing moods. It’s also fairly hilarious to think that the good doctor held the World’s Shabbiest Magic-user Award until he stormed upon the raghouse and started dressing for the job he wants rather than the job he has.
I said above that he plays the role of evil magician, but it’s scenes like the one in this chapter which really highlight that at this point, it is a role and only a role. We’ve yet to see Spittle demonstrate any tangible power – even the display which so terrified Jessel and Carver was trickery and sleight-of-hand as opposed to the devil’s work. Then again, perhaps grim old Elias has a spark of magic in his veins that will show itself in time.
Matt’s Thoughts: It’s nice to see another appearance by Molly again. I can’t remember too well what we find out about her character, so I’m assuming she is the equivalent of Nancy from Oliver Twist – a lady of the night with a good heart? Or am I just reading the stereotype onto her? (The great thing about the way it’s written is that it’s ambiguous enough what she is that kids would be totally oblivious. Certainly I don’t remember thinking anything much about what Nancy did for an occupation when I was younger.)
And also a shout-out to Heliodorus the rat as well. Great rat character right there. I’m also interested in the throwaway line that he ‘could tell tales … of the monstrous creatures that live in the boundless seas’. I like to think – though I’m not sure if this works out in practicality – that there is one vast Robin Jarvis Universe in which all of his stories take place. And that the monstrous creatures of the boundless seas might be the Lords of the Deep (or perhaps some of their infernal servants?).
But all of this very quickly is over and done with as the action shifts to the great set-piece of the chapter: the raghouse. I think this is the only time this location and the magnificent characters of the Gobtrots appear, but they stick in the mind straight away. This is one scene that I could imagine working well in 3D, because there’s something thoroughly immersive about the towering piles of rags and the filth and squalor. At one stage, there was talk of an Alchymist’s Cat movie and I could imagine set designers having a field day with a place like this.
At first I was thinking that it was an amazing coincidence that the one guy who so desperately wants to find the Philosopher’s Stone happens to find the very garment that has the recipe for it conveniently sewed onto its surface. But I like to think of this as more than a plot device. In the same way that there was something dark and devious about Jupiter’s father, could it be that all the circumstances of this tale are being controlled? Are there dark forces at work, ensuring that just the right circumstances take place in order to raise up a power to dwell miles below in the sewers? A long dark game, if you like it, designed to bring suffering upon the world in several centuries’ time.
Or it could just be that Spittle happened upon the very cloak that he needs and that’s all there is to it … Either way, who can put the book down now?
What do you think?