The Knot-Shop Man

Mister Budworth’s Review

“the most magical celebration of knotting”

If you haven’t read the books yet, be aware that the review below contains mild spoilers!

Book Review by Geoffrey Budworth

knotting chronicler
co-founder & past president of the
International Guild of Knot Tyers
and the “Father of Forensic Knotting”

David Whiteland’s enchanting adventure stories “written for smart children and thoughtful adults” may be read in any order and describe the individual quests of four young orphans, each of whom dares to tie an elemental knot of fate to ensure a chosen path for his or her life.

Foundling girl Sky (Air) aims to be captain of a hot-air ship and win the Snow Flower Run to bring valuable Arctic plants to market. Petty thief Jill (Earth) seeks popularity and friends. Blacksmith’s son Tom (Fire) is determined to revenge the murder of his mother and father. And Jack (Water) strives to rescue his elder sister-cum-guardian Fleur who is the prisoner of pirates.

To achieve their hearts’ desires, the youngsters must travel Underneath, via the Tangled Plain to Arxnodorum, a multi-toweered and turreted, white rock citadel where, alone within its many-layered maze of corridors, chambers and stairways, each must attempt a memorized route taught them by the Knot-Shop Man to tie his or her fate-specific knot. But their ordeals—paid for with a strange coin bearing the images of two dragons and a hole in the middle—are merely the precursor to an adult life back Above where the outcome is never as imagined, because “fate says nothing about timing” . . . and . . . “a knot that ties fate is very unforgiving.”

David Whiteland’s stories combine absorbing plot lines with supernatural notions (cold fire, dry water, solid air), page-turning pace, and a fantastic cast of supporting cameo roles, including: dwarf soldiers and engineers who guard and operate the subterranean steam railway (and, it is hinted, ‘clean up’ in the citadel after failed knotting attempts); Mama Musubi and her mobile kitchen; Ebenezer Stanks, master of the Malpogris thieves’ guild; the ancient Last Knight Errant of All; Liffley Washcord, Inspector of Knots; a pirate king, a prince and a princess; witches, string goblins and crows (who don’t understand knots) . . . and, of course, the enigmatic tea-drinking Knot-Shop Man known variously as Mister Overhand (Earth), Matthew Walker/Carrick (Air), Magnus (Fire) and Catspaw (Water).

To tie things up and tie them down there are knots and splices, laces, lanyards and lashings of every kind, real and surreal—from lovers’ knots to monkeys’ fists and knotted noodle soup, as well as a heart-stopping application of a constrictor knot. These stories are also laced with inspirational or instructive aphorisms (“Tears are worries distilled, and sometimes you must let them out”) and epigrams (“It is harder to enter a palace than a boathouse”).

Humankind has tied knots for perhaps 100,000 years, although knot books in the form of somewhat lacklustre seamanship and other basic how-to manuals emerged a mere 200 years ago; but, since the creation of the International Guild of Knot Tyers in 1982, knotting devotees have enjoyed a quantum leap in fresh and original publications, terms and techniques.

Fictional prose and poesy have remained a neglected genre, however, with some notable exceptions being: The Ropewalk by the US poet Henry William Longfellow (1807–1882); The Bowline, a poem by the English writer and politian A.P. (Sir Alan) Herbert (1890–1971); Knots & their Vices by Michael Jeneid (c.1969); Knotty Potty & Other Pithy Poems for Knotting Devotees by ‘Jennifer Wren’ (2006); also The Higher Power of Lucky (2007) and Lucky Breaks (2009) by the John Newbury Medal winning US novelist Susan Patron.

David Whiteland's Arxnodorum & the Knots of Fate quartet is the most magical celebration of knotting, its lure and lore, but through all of the make-belief gleams an affirmation of the real world cordage contrivances, because:

“A knot is the most useful thing in the world should you ever need it”