As the wonder-working abbot of In the Suicide Mountains points out: things are not always as they seem. The three heroes of John Gardner's quest-romance are an evil looking dwarf with an affectionate, understanding heart, a pale damsel who possesses the strength of a blacksmith and the quick wit of a trickster, and a knight who prefers his violin to his war horse. Unable to resolve the contradiction between their appearance and their natural inclination, Chudu, Armida and Prince Christopher decide to commit suicide.

They don't, of course. Instead they meet an abbot who instructs them with folk tales about the soul's need for balance. Afterwards, the trio destroys a dragon named Koog and outwits the awesome six-fingered man "whom no prison can hold" and who assume the identities of his victims. Since Gardner's dragon typifies self without consciousness and his six-fingered man represents consciousness without self, by defeating these monsters our heroes learn to reconcile their own warring natures.

An elegantly told story, In the Suicide Mountains reflects the serious theme and light-hearted tone of Chaucer and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is a handsome book, dramatically illustrated by Joe Servello, and a splendid introduction to this many-talented writer. (Knopf, $8.95)

Michael Dirda