‘Fool on the Hill’ – Matt Ruff

Fool on the Hill was Ruff’s first novel, published some years ago now, when he had not long graduated from Cornell University, where most of this book is set. It’s both a straightforward story about good triumphing over evil and a musing on the nature of stories themselves. There are three main strands to the book, following three different groups of characters: humans (predominantly though not all being students at Cornell); sprites, who live around Ithaca, but who normally have very little to do with the humans who live there; animals, mostly cats and dogs. Manipulating events in the novel (as opposed to Ruff the writer) is Mr Sunshine, presumably a now-elderly Apollo, who is content mostly to let an infinite number of monkeys type the life-stories of the inhabitants of the earth, but who does like to Meddle occasionally with these life-stories.

There’s a splendid array of characters, students and animals in particular (I’ve never been overly keen on the sprites, and tend to skip those bits when re-reading), and even the bit-part characters are memorable. The villains are nasty: one, The Rubbermaid, is truly terrifying, and the sense of malice which is evoked from Rasferret, or the cold shining megalomania of Dragon, a Purebred dog who calls all mongrels ‘mange’, and who advocates a policy of ethnic cleansing, is as scary as if they were people.

Ruff gives his characters archetypal names – Stephen Titus George, our hero, is the ‘White Knight’, whereas the much more interesting character, ‘Ragnarok’ (real name Charlie) – the ‘Black Knight’ of the story – has much more mixed motivation and is far more dangerous. There is even a dragon in the story, which George has to fight, as well as a mixture of characters straight from Greek mythology, and historical figures.

It’s an interesting mix of reality and other-worldliness, though as previously noted, I don’t think that the sprites are as effective as the human or animal stories (the dog Luther’s search for “Heaven”, for example, accompanied by his cynical feline friend Blackjack), and Ragnarok’s denial of his racist father’s bigoted teachings and learning that violence is not always the best answer to any adverse situation is the best part of the novel, in my opinion.

There are some areas of whimsy – the fraternity of ‘Tolkien House’ for example, just takes Tolkien’s world a little too far into everyday life for believability – but for the most part, one can suspend disbelief and simply enjoy the weaving together of the three strands of plot, and Ruff’s exuberance as a story-teller.

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