Like many before me, despite being of the perfect age to have enjoyed his writings from the days of publication, I did not become aware of Alan Garner until his fourth book, The Owl Service, and that through the superb television adaptation (written by Garner himself) that occupied the classic Children’s Serial slot at 5.45pm on Sunday afternoons. Thus prompted, I quickly found the book in the Library, read it eagerly and went on to devour its three predecessors. This was all of Alan Garner’s writings at that date. I had to wait four years for a new book. Time to reflect on everything Garner has written.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Alan Garner’s first novel. Begun in 1956 when he was only 22, the book was published in 1960, selected from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts by a publisher looking for new and original works of fantasy to satisfy the urges engendered by the success of The Lord of the Rings. Original it certainly was, blending what was in some respects a fairly standard world-of-magic fantasy with many elements of Cheshire folklore that drew the magic largely into the real world, instead of vice versa: an inverting of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.
Garner has largely disowned his first novel, calling it ‘a fairly bad book’. Whilst I can see, especially when set against his later works, why he thinks that way, like nearly everyone else I don’t agree. For all it’s ‘flaws’, the book is a foundation stone upon which Garner could build his small but incredibly fruitful bibliography.
Once I discovered Alan Garner, I collected the early books, in Armada paperbacks. Much later in life, I replaced these with hardback editions of various age, each with the original dust jackets. My copy of The Weirdstone is of a re-issued and revised edition: I doubt I have ever read the book in its First Edition text, which Garner regarded as overwritten, clogged up with descriptive adjectives that he later winnowed out thoroughly.
Despite its originality, The Weirdstone is a much more conventional children’s book than Garner would go on to write. It begins by borrowing lightly from Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday: just as Dick and Dorothea Callum have been sent to Dixon’s Farm whilst their parents are out of the country, Mrs Dixon being Mrs Callum’s former nurse and childless, so too are Colin and Susan sent to Highmost Redmanhey, on Alderley Edge, where childless Bess Mossock was their mother’s former nurse.
But where Ransome ‘s Lake Country was a private amalgam of shuffled landscapes, Garner’s Alderley and the surrounding country is real and is both described and used naturally, giving The Weirdstone a much more grounded effect. Between that, and Garner transplanting a real and typical Cheshire man into the book as Gowther Mossock, we realise that we are embroiled in a story that, however fantastic it gets, is standing on very solid and real ground. I have been to Alderley Edge several times, and driven through and across the country beyond it.
Garner’s story takes its cue from the local legend of the Farmer of Mobberley who, crossing the Edge on his way to Macclesfield market to sell a purebred white mare, is stopped by the Wizard of the Edge, who wishes to buy it. After he somehow fails to sell his mare at the Market, he is approached by the Wizard again, coming home. This time he is prepared to sell, and is taken underground to a chamber where 140 knights lie in enchanted sleep, guarding a sleeping King, awaiting Britain’s greatest peril, when they, the last pure and uncorrupted guard, will rise to beat back Nastrond, the ultimate evil.
Garner doesn’t identify the King or his Knights, but then he doesn’t need to: this is obviously a variation on the myth of Arthur.
The arc of the plot breaks down into three phases, the first of which is separated and presented as Part 1, after which several months pass, the other two, separate but continuous, forming Part 2. The first phase covers Colin and Susan’s arrival in Cheshire, their early explorations of the Edge that attract attention from the forces of evil, their rescue by the Wizard Cadellin, a Merlin-figure and learning of Fundindelve, followed by the attack by the morthbrood, the witch group led by The Morrigan in which Susan’s crystal jewel, her Tear is taken: the Tear is the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, taken by the Farmer of Mobberley so long ago and passed down through his family to first Bess and now Susan: the Weirdstone is a positive equivalent of the One Ring, which governs the magic that keeps the Sleepers preserved. If it is destroyed, they will awake.
Phase two jumps from late summer to the following January. Colin and Susan, slightly implausibly, get into The Morrigan’s house on the Edge and retrieve the Weirdstone, but are forced to flee underground, into the mines and tunnels honeycombing the Edge, before, with the aid of the two Dwarves, Fenodyree and Durathror, they eventually emerge to try to reach Cadellin. This is a long sequence, realistic in its duration, but it is still extended beyond what it should be, taking up almost a third of the book on a chase scene. I imagine it must have been exciting for the children to whom the book was marketed, but to the adult eye it goes on a bit until it starts to drag.
The third phase follows directly on. Cadellin is not in Fundindelve: only in his hands is the Weirdstone safe. But he’ll be on Shuttlingslow, a hill near Macclesfield, three days hence: a little group consisting of the Dwarves, the children and Gowther, the local man with perfect knowledge of the country they have to cross, sets out to get the Weirdstone there, without losing it to the morthbrood.
It’s another chase scene in essence, equally as long, but far less repetitive. Garner sends his characters across a tangible countryside, as opposed to through a fictional and dark underground maze, and gradually builds up the nature and intensity of the magical forces being brought to bear to find, isolate and overcome this miniature ‘Fellowship’. I shalln’t speak of the ending, though you know that despite the Weirdstone being taken at a critically late stage, the forces of Good prevail, and evil is swept away entirely, until the next time.
Again, there are undertones of Frodo’s final struggle with the One Ring but, instead of the internal battle of will that the hobbit at the last cannot sustain, the temporary reversal here is a purely external threat: exciting but ultimately much less impressive.
Though Alan Garner has always denied writing for children, saying he’s always written for himself, they were the audience to whom his books were marketed, up to and including 1973’s Red Shift, though that isn’t a comfortable fit. Despite his protests, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is indeed a children’s book, though none the worse for that. The presence of Colin and Susan alone suggests that but, though the High Magic and fantasy of the book is both real and serious, the book’s overall tone is a children’s tale not much different in essence from the Narnia books, albeit on a higher level of imagination than before and approached without any of the talking down of the latter.
Colin and Susan are interesting figures. Alone of all the major characters who play a part, we do not get the least description of them. They have no surname, their age(s) are not given, we do not know which, if either is the elder. It’s not until the much-belated third book of the Weirdstone trilogy that we learn that they are twins, of which there’s not the slightest suggestion here. As far as I can judge, from both children’s literature and life, I would guess them to be somewhere between 10 and 12, and more likely to be at the lower end of that range: no Morton Twins, thankfully!
What also impresses are the names of the wizards, Dwarves and other magical characters. Garner would later be quoted as saying that ‘a made-up name feels wrong’ (though Tolkien manages perfectly, but then he was a philologist), and takes the names he uses from lists of characters in ancient and unattached stories. This and his determination, as yet only limited, to reflect the thoughts, words and rhythms of speech of his native Cheshire, makes the book a very solid thing indeed. We feel ourselves standing on the rocks, bones and clays of the county and any reluctance to accept the fantasy element is unable to survive against that solidity.
But The Weirdstone is still a first book, and subject to the limitations that so often affect such things, especially from a writer only in his mid-Twenties when the book was published. Convention constrains. Publishers don’t want to venture too far out of proven grooves, the writer finds himself unable to go too far too fast. In the form we have the book now, Garner has winnowed out descriptive words, but there still remains far more adjectives than he’ll go on to use, thickening and complicating the book with too much detail. His career is going to aim at simplification of the surface, leaving complexity beneath the surface, to be understood viscerally as much as intellectually, by delving under the words. The Weirdstone provides simplicity under the surface and reserves its complexity for the words and the story, especially in its third phase, when we are bombarded with a succession of magical players on both sides.
Nevertheless, it’s still a brilliant book, and a landmark one, and Alan Garner was recognised immediately as a major voice, even if it took until the televising of The Owl Service to make his name widely known. That we’ll come to. Next up is The Weirdstone‘s sequel, the further adventures of Colin and Susan, and a book of growth, diffusion and considerable darkness.