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Bewildering Stories

Paul di Filippo, Harp, Pipe, & Symphony

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Harp, Pipe, & Symphony
Author: Paul di Filippo
Publisher: Dorchester Publishing, 2004
Length: 288 pages
ISBN: 0-8439-6070-1
I remember Paul di Filippo from a few hilarious, slightly bawdy short stories read years back. One depicted the “smart” household of the future and the naughty things an intelligent Aeron chair gone rogue could do to, or maybe for, its owner. Of course, it’s probably best not to be in the kitchen when a smart house decides to party, but it was a hilariously funny story all the same. So when I finally saw Mr. di Filippo’s name on a novel, I had to snatch it up.

How surprised I was to find I had a morality play in my hand instead of something bawdy. A morality play by any other name is usually a fairy tale. What are fairy tales, for the most part, but poor-but-good gets rewarded, bad-and-spoiled meets its just desserts?

But oh dear. If the Brothers Grimm had read Mr. di Filippo’s fairy tale, the brothers would have had an apoplexy. No doubt they spin in their grave at the mention of Mr. di Filippo’s name. Good Gets Reward - Bad Get Punished got cut off at its knees.

Mr di Filippo’s fairy tale owes more to Shelley’s Queen Mab than to the worthy brothers. Shelley the atheist, I mean. But I’m not quite there with my analogy, still. Maybe Mr. di Filippo’s fairy tale fits Bakunin more closely. You know: if God did exist, we’d have to abolish Him. No Gods, No Masters, to quote the title of my favorite anthology of anarchist doctrines (I believe in reading the Devil’s Dictionary, just to know what he’s up to). Do What Thou Wilt is the end of the Law. Talk about knocking Grimm off its moral pedestal.

Mr. di Filippo’s fairy tales follows Thomas Rhymer (a fairy tale variant of the more famous Tam Lin, about a mortal man spirited off to Elfland). Young Thomas is an only son living with his widowed mother in a peasant cottage. Tom has one book he treasures more than the family Bible (which he doesn’t seem to treasure), and that’s Dante’s Divine Comedy. You’ll get it by the end of the book, believe me.

So on a dark and stormy night (of course) someone raps on the door. To his shock, Thomas sees a wild-haired version of himself when he opens the door. He naturally slams the door on this frightening apparition.

But Thomas still can’t get a good night’s sleep. No sooner do son and mother lie down under their musty coverlets than a red-armored lot of supernatural bandits show up to torch the cottage, kill the sheep, and string up the inhabitants.

Thomas and Mother escape in the woods. The red bandits depart, job done, and a second set of supernatural visitors arrive on their heels, these in black armor. Foolish Thomas and Ma come forth to beg for help. They get it, sort of: Mother gets pressed in the mud to pray until she catches her death of the damp. Mom expires, and orphaned Thomas sets off to find his fortune in the world.

Only, Queen Mab finds him first. In the company of two obvious moral archetypes, the rascally cheat Natty and the glum preacher Nathan, Thomas embarks on Queen Mab’s quest. The first adventure takes him to the bestial murderous red men, who represent self-pleasure and all kinds of fleshy wickedness. The second takes him to the gloomy black-and-whites, who are, of course, also all kinds of wickedness, the kind that flourishes in Puritan churches of the witch-burning variety. Two sides of the same coin is Mr. di Filippo’s point.

Now, I give any writer who bothers to ponder moral and ethical points a lot of credit. The author didn’t stick to the usual chop-chop sword fights or vampire Sex God porn scenes. Good for him.

But I confess, when I finished Mr. di Filippo’s morality play, I was so fumed and frustrated, I wanted to buttonhole the man. I entertained fantasies of ferreting out his email address and framing my rebuttal. Probably all six pages of it.

That’s the problem with reading books that argue ethical or moral issues, of course. You’re listening to a one-way argument. It’s like the prosecution laying out all the damning points while you sit in the dock, disallowed a defense lawyer or even a chance for rebuttal. Someone else gets to do all the talking, and you’re muzzled, and if you’re an argumentative, opinionated soul, choking on it.

I can’t expound in too much detail without doing Mr. di Filippo the disservice of a spoiler. But let me say this much. Mr. di Filippo’s morality play compares Good and Evil and seems to tell us they’re the same thing. Of course, the Good and Evil in this exposition are indeed the same thing, and that’s Evil, not Good. So knock that leg out from under the table. Crash.

Do As Thou Wilt as the only moral compass might work for me, but I’m sure everyone else would disagree. The trouble is, someone’s Do As I Will always turns into someone else’s Do As I Tell You. You say no? Come here, I could use someone to cook my breakfast. I hate looking at an egg on my plate that I’ve first seen in the raw. While you’re at this Do As I Tell You, you can take care of my dirty laundry, too.

You can try reading this book as a simple fairy tale (with a few Grimm graphic scenes) if you like. But the moral points are too bang-head to miss. You might say, “Cool, man! I go for that!” Or you might disagree with them.

But it’s true, Bakunin still inspires. Come to think of it, I know plenty of Do As I Tell You believers who interfere in my everyday life. I just don’t think of them as heroes. So read Mr. di Filippo’s sly fairy tale and tell me what you think.

Copyright © 2009 by Danielle L. Parker

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