Instead of completing the Weirdstone of Bringamen trilogy he’d originally envisaged, Alan Garner chose to go in a different direction. Elidor, like its predecessors, is a fantasy, and it uses themes from Celtic mythology, but this time to create a land, a world, a dimension physically separated from our mundane reality, and not hidden within it. At the same time, the story is still about that world interacting with our own. It’s a more sophisticated, and a yet darker story, showing Garner progressing his craft.
It’s also a smaller, slighter book than either of its predecessors. This is down to Garner honing his craft of writing shorter. It’s a learning curve: the more he leaves out, the deeper the story goes, evoking what the reader recognises but does not understand, but which our long ancestors would have understood instinctively. His actual writing, in terms of words, is still plain, and natural, but that is because there is much more narrative – to be expected with four protagonists, all Mancunian – with description being reduced proportionately.
Once again, Garner structures his story around an initial adventure that appears to come to a climax, with a second and longer phase then following after a breather: in this case a whole year elapsing free from comment. The first phase is taken up with the four Watson children being drawn into the dying land of Elidor, and being tasked with safeguarding four treasures which can, if the right circumstances come about, be used to restore the land to life.
Once again, there’s more than a hint of Narnia in here, especially as Garner, like Lewis, inverts the usual setting whereby the fantasy world is superior: natural, alive, unmarred by modern technology and altogether a nostalgic throwback to simpler times. The thing is that Elidor is all of that, or rather it was. Now it is all but overcome by Darkness (unspecified), its land dead and decaying, three of its four bright castles dark and led by a crippled King, Malebron, who seems to be its only inhabitant, insistent that the four children take with them one each of the four Treasures: a stone, a sword, a cup and a spear.
Elidor’s existence as a dead land is made more pointed by having the children access it from an exact earthly parallel, an area of slum clearance just north of Manchester City Centre, part of the great programme of redevelopment in the Sixties that, in time, swept away my grandparents and aunt’s terraced homes and, after we had left it, the house I had grown up in until age 11. And of course the limping Malebron is a clear Fisher King symbol, not that I was aware of any such reflection when I first read the book.
I haven’t yet spoken of the children except for their part in the story. These are a single family, named Watson, three brothers and a sister, in descending order of age Nicholas, David, Helen and Roland (the book’s introductory epigram is the classic line ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’). We’re not given their ages, nor are the personalities of the elder three more than lightly sketched out. Apart from a short section on the first page, the entire book is seen through the eyes and mind of Roland, the youngest: we are not shown anything he isn’t party to.
Roland is very much the youngest. I can’t help seeing him as no more than 10, though he may be younger in the first phase of the book before a full year passes. If he’s older than that it starts to cause problems with his older siblings. Helen I imagine as 12, David 14 and Nicholas 15. He is the real constraint in what the others can be.
And Roland is very much the cuckoo in the nest. He’s an imaginative, highly-strung child. Though each of his siblings is summoned before him, and fails, it is Roland who wins through in Elidor, who imprints the family front door onto a sealed mound and later has to pull it down with his mind when it becomes an entry into our world. And it is Roland who believes, utterly and passionately, in Elidor, in their mission, in the absolute reality of what the four children experience, when each of the others – old enough to question and doubt that reality – want to distance themselves, accept that their limitations as children disqualify them from being able to ‘save’ Elidor, and are quite rightly afraid of something they do not at all understand.
After the return from Elidor itself, the Treasures turn into an ordinary (and heavy) stone, two laths nailed together to mimic a sword, an ordinary cracked cup and an iron railing. This helps the three older children keep Elidor separate from the real world, even though the effect the mere presence of the Treasures has on television, radio and electricity, demonstrates their real power. There’s something horribly spooky about an unplugged food mixer turning itself on and running all night until its motor burns out.
Garner also sets up for the diversion into Elidor to take place on the last day before the Watson’s move out of their house on Fog Lane, in Burnage – a house less than fifteen minutes walk from where I then lived! – to an unnamed village six miles away that is, of course, Alderley, though no Alderley we have yet seen in his books. It’s what enables him to place four such young (and middle-class) children in Manchester City Centre on their own, and it becomes necessary for Roland and co to be more distant than Burnage would be from the slum clearance area to which everything will return for the dangerous climax. I mention this mainly because Garner avoids introducing anything specifically Cestrian: you can take the kids out of Manchester but you can’t take Manchester out of the kids.
Much of the second phase is a battle of perception between Roland and his siblings, especially Nick. Roland has always let his imagination run away with him, we understand, making him both an irritant to the rest – the youngster who refuses to grow out of childish games – and, as much as if not more than the Treasures, the one person keeping Elidor itself alive.
But as long as the Treasures exist, there is hope. Elidor’s invaders can, however, triangulate upon their whereabouts in our world (wrapped in polythene bags and buried in an old dustbin under Mr Watson’s prized rose bushes) and they try to break through. And Roland’s determination to prove to everybody else that he’s right enables two of them to do just that, bringing a primitive but genuine danger into the world.
So we have our climax, on New Year’s Eve, back where the children entered Elidor. They bring the Treasures, hoping somehow to get them back to Malebron, fearing the invaders and their spears, at their back. And a figure of pure fantasy has also broken through from Elidor, Findhorn, whose song can save Elidor. Findhorn is a unicorn, with which ‘no man (may) mell’, according to the prophecy, save a ‘makeless maid’. That is obviously going to be Helen.
But Helen’s calming of Findhorn and dispelling his fear makes the unicorn vulnerable to the last surviving invader’s spear. Yet that is the trigger: the dying Findhorn raises his voice in glorious song, Elidor blazes with golden light again and the children hurl the Treasures back through the portal, leaving them alone, at night, in the middle of a cleared slum.
Even more so than with The Moon of Gomrath, the ending is sudden, leaving numerous questions as to what happens next in the reader’s head. It is as if Gollum having inadvertently taken the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, Tolkien ended the story there. We have Alan Garner’s word that, if the book had gone on one more line, Roland would have gone mad, and more than any other reading I’ve made of the book, I saw the truth of it so clearly: his obsession with Elidor, his single-minded and reckless fixation on it being real, his inability to accept the real world around him and then a complete removal of his fixation physically and in every respect: what has he left?
With Elidor, Garner’s writing is progressing. Elidor is the first and only fantasy land he creates, and it is structured firmly upon myth to the extent that it is as if he is using a real place, a France or Germany, but the majority of the book is grounded in a real and definitely Mancunian world, where Elidor the fantasy is instead an intrusion, and a dangerous one. The idea is sophisticated, especially in children’s fiction, but the fit isn’t exact and the story is a little awkward for it.
Elidor the novel was profusely illustrated by Charles Keeping, whose impressionistic style, heavily laden with swirls of black ink, is initially jarring but which, on longer exposure, works brilliantly to convey the atmosphere of the book. He’s anti-naturalistic, and when there are multiple layers to the image, makes no attempt to distinguish foreground and background, forcing you to concentrate on his drawing, to great effect. I was amused to note that where he draws the three older children as all having curly hair, Roland’s is straight and short, separating him from his family in a subliminal manner. Very interesting.
Thirty years after the book first appeared, Garner collaborated with playwright Don Webb to adapt Elidor into a six part BBC TV serial, the third of his novels to receive such a treatment. It was, to be frank, a disaster. Due to the inability to recreate the dirt and atmosphere of the mid-Sixties Manchester slum clearances, the setting was updated to the present day and so were the four Watsons. They all immediately became older, mentally and emotionally, and physically older than I intuit them to be from the book. Their actions and preoccupations were changed. They were more cynical, in the modern manner, which made Elidor itself less possible to be believed. As for Elidor, the effects used in its depiction were cheap and drew attention to themselves as effects and the invaders were represented by stereotypical barbarians in hairy cloaks, riding horses purposelessly along beaches in too much light and snarling, over and over. Of the three adaptations for TV, this was the tenth best. Unsurprisingly, it has never been released on DVD.