What we have here in The Moon of Gomrath is the real beginning of Garner as the writer we recognise. For all that it’s a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and potentially quite an immediate one, this is a much less conventional fantasy on every level than his first novel. The language is more direct, more stripped down, the plot less traditional and linear and the two children, Colin and Susan less reliant on the patriarchal figures of either Cadellin, the Wizard, or Gowther Mossock, their guardian.
I’ve heard The Moon of Gomrath described as ‘less satisfying’ but I can’t agree. From first reading it, whilst still a teenager, I have always instinctively responded to it as a darker, more terrifying story, in which the magic element is wilder and more dangerous, as reflected in how the expected plot, at the start of the book, is deflected into insignificance by the events that develop.
The story starts in magic, a two-page chapter seeing Fundindelve, and an unexpected arrival, from outside in every sense. It then reintroduces the Mossocks and the children in Alderley with an actual Stockport Advertiser article quoted in full that, despite its apparent mundanity, is also deeply entwined in the other world. There is to be no separation between the two this time, as all the events of this tangled tale are sunk deeply into the Cheshire landscape that is presented much more elliptically, in its own magic.
We’re given to understand that not much time has passed since the end of The Weirdstone: the disappearance of Selina Place, aka The Morrigan is still being talked about (this causes something of a chronology confusion as the first book concludes early in the year yet Gomrath takes place in late autumn/early winter). Since the Weirdstone was returned to Cadellin, Colin and Susan have been cut off from the magic world: they do not see the Wizard, they cannot access Fundindelve and they’re hurt, even as the reader clearly sees that this is not ingratitude but for their protection.
Colin and Susan don’t belong in the world of the High Magic. They have no abilities of their own, nor instinctive understanding. They are in danger there, especially as The Morrigan will want revenge.
But matters are under way that will of necessity drag them in. The first of these is some never-defined issue affecting the lios-alfar, or elves, who hold themselves distant, both mentally and geographically, from humans. Susan’s bracelet that she received from Angharad Goldenhand by way of protection may have power to defeat this menace, which seems to be the intended story of the book. And indeed it might have been if Garner hadn’t already grown as a writer. That would have been the conventional fantasy that allowed the children to dip into the magic again.
Cadellin has resisted involving Susan because he is concerned about her protection. In the meantime, that article, abut the uncovering of an unsuspected deep well, comes into play. A shape-shifting demon, the Brollachan, an amorphous dark mass with two red eyes, deeply evil, has been released from confinement and the lios-alfar have been trying to recapture it, unsuccessfully.
So Colin and Susan are precipitated into things. Susan gives up the Mark of Fohla for its powers to be tested and exposes herself to danger. Before it is returned, what seems to be a black pony herds her into riding it and plunges both of them into a quarry pool. Susan is separated into body and spirit, the first of these effectively comatose. Cadellin’s magic cannot recover her spirit and it falls to the new Dwarf, Uthecar, to suggest the Old Magic.
This is an earthier, less precise, less controllable form of magic, magic stirred by emotion not thought, women’s magic not men’s. This proves to be a form of magic the children can access, particularly Colin, whose love and fear for his sister (remember, though it’s not been revealed to us yet, they are twins). Colin’s need inspires the Old Magic to waken, in the form of a rare plant that, when forced into Susan’s mouth, drags her back from the higher level world in which she has become part of a group of nine warrior-maidens out of Celtic mythology.
Susan is saved, on this level at least, but she is irrevocably changed, and the invocation of the Old Magic now guides the rest of the story.
Though this book isn’t divided into Parts 1 and 2, we have at this point arrived at the end of the first phase. The Brollachan has disappeared, the elves want to withdraw to deal with whatever afflicts them back home with Susan travelling with them to see if her Mark can be used to assist, but that is destined never to happen. Instead, in a seeming November evening on the Edge she wants Colin to show her the Old Straight Track he ran to save her. It’s cold waiting, so she suggests a fire, and eagerly, indeed obsessively, builds one using rowan, or ‘wendwood’. It’s the worst thing she could do.
Because the Old Magic has been wakened. And on Gomrath Eve, Susan wakes three members of the Wild Hunt. Who wake all the others, as well as the Hunter, a stag-tined man, to run before them. A disgusted Dwarf, Pelis, sends Susan to alert Cadellin. But once she has gone he herds Colin at sword-point, all the way to the ruins of Errwood Hall, just across the Goyt Valley, in Derbyshire, a demolished ruin that exists again in moonlight, and which is occupied by The Morrigan. And the Brollachan that she has imprisoned. And The Morrigan intends to kill Colin.
What follows is a tense struggle to find Colin and get him free. The more serious nature of this story is exemplified when Cadellin refuses to assist, placing his duty to the Sleepers and that distant future threat than to Colin, and Susan having to blackmail the lios-alfor into assisting by refusing her help unless they do. The tension mounts until, having gotten him out of The Morrigan’s clutches, she releases the Brollachan, to overwhelm and destroy them.
By then, for their various reasons, good and bad, no-one will stay to face it. It falls to Susan, at the last, to ride back. To save the day, she blows the horn that was also given to her by Angharad, summoning the Wild Hunt, but also the warrior women with whom Susan rode, and when the Brollachan is defeated, all ride into the sky, the Old Magic finally freed of the constraints placed upon it by the High Magic.
And Susan to fly with them, until, for a time, she is released, not forever, to stay back, a young human child, but changed forever. It is an abrupt ending, in the style Garner will perfect, and ending reached with suddenness and allowed no aftermath.
The difference between the two books is immediately apparent from the summaries, the latter being far less clear and logical. That’s largely because a summary is inadequate: a proper representation of the story would have to be at least half as long as the book itself, and the lack of what we expect from an ending is a brutal moment, leaving us to work out what follows for ourselves. To those expecting a second Weirdstone I can see clearly where they might find this less satisfying, but Gomrath works on levels beneath the surface of the story, and though there’s still development to come, it’s this existence within myth that is Garner’s true ground.
People wanted another book about Colin and Susan but Alan Garner resolutely refused. He’d originally planned a trilogy, and left open sufficient in Gomrath to have done so, but had no wish to repeat himself any further. Indeed, during the course of writing this book, he had grown heartily sick of Colin, if not Susan, and at one point had abruptly killed him off at the hands of The Morrigan, with the words ‘throttled the little bugger!’
There would be a third book, but not until a half-century later, a different book in a different era, written almost by a different writer and bearing no resemblance to anything Garner might have written had he been less strong-minded in 1963. Though he had not, yet, exhausted fantasy, nor escaped the quasi-ghetto of being marketed as a children’s writer, the real world and its groundings would take on increasing importance over the next decade.