I love libraries! I hadn’t planned to get the illustrated version of this, or probably read it at all. But then there it was, on my library’s New Books shelf, staring at me … and I stared back … and I borrowed it. Because that’s what libraries let you do. They let you take books, as long as you promise to bring them back. It’s amazing.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a short story reimagined as a picture book for adults. Actually, I think we need more picture books for adults. No, not graphic novels—those are fine in their own way—actual picture books, with stylized illustrations accompanying prose, like this one.
The illustrations by Eddie Campbell definitely enhance the story. They emphasize certain elements of the characters—the narrator’s diminutive stature, Calum’s wolfish red beard—and portray some of the lovely landscape through which the characters travel. I don’t visualize things when I read. So had I read this without the illustrations, with only Neil Gaiman’s sumptuous, scrumptious prose to go on, I would still have enjoyed the story … but I don’t think I would have marvelled at the setting quite so much.
The story takes place in Scotland, perhaps not our Scotland, in an area inspired by the Isle of Skye. Our narrator is a little person who recently lost his daughter after she ran away from home. He looks up Calum MacInnes, a border reaver who knows how to find the Cave in the Black Mountains of the Misty Isle. Together they go to this cave, where the narrator hopes to find the gold reputed to be hidden there. But there is more going on than meets the eye, and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains shifts seamlessly from fable to fairytale to revenge story. It can’t quite seem to decide what it should be—but why should it be confined to any particular thing?
The disadvantage of a story so short and so fairytale-like is that it becomes easy to fall into the pattern of old, outmoded tropes. The sparseness of characters makes the absence of women characters all the more pronounced. The narrator mentions his wife, Morag, by name several times, but always in relation to himself … she has no existence independent of the role of absent wife. His daughter’s death is, of course, the motivation behind his entire journey. And along the way we encounter two other women: the first, Calum MacInnes’ wife, we don’t actually see—and it’s at this point I almost feel like Gaiman is intentionally lampshading—and the second dares to grant hospitality to Calum and our narrator, and for that her husband beats and rapes her while the protagonists lie awake, listening to it.
It’s easy to make excuses for these decisions. One can argue that it’s supposed to be “dark”, that these are all common and therefore somehow acceptable motifs in a fairytale-like story. But that’s disingenuous; it misses that point that maybe they shouldn’t be, that a writer of Gaiman’s calibre could certainly create a story where they aren’t necessary….
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is about revenge and regret and greed and what, exactly, it takes for someone to become evil. There is a lot of emphasis on choice, the fact that it’s not just one’s actions but one’s decisions to act that contribute to one’s moral alignment. Gaiman seems to suggest that people are inherently good, but that the world and our decisions tend to erode this goodness. This is true regardless of whether we have access to a tempting cave filled with Norse gold…. This is a moving, if imperfect, short story accompanied by nice, stylized illustrations. I’m glad it’s in the library.