Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 6 – The Stone Book

The Stone Book

Nowadays, we would talk about The Stone Book Quartet, which collects in one volume this book and its three successors, a collection justified by volume, as well as rearranging them into chronological order of story instead of publication. But I was lucky enough to be there at the time and collect the original hardback books, works of art in themselves on paper stock that gave Michael Foreman’s engravings their greatest showcasing, even if The Stone Book itself was published at a time when a £2.95 book was an extravagance I could not afford without desperate risk.
At the time, we weren’t aware – or at least I wasn’t – that Garner was telling a family saga, nor that he was telling his own family’s story, in four generations. The Stone Book was a story, one that was steeped in the feel and the breadth of a life that was no longer led in that fashion, a story that built from the ordinary that was surely representative, to the fantastic that owed nothing to myth and everything to Alan Garner’s determination to rediscover what it was in his family that made him, and from which his education at Manchester Grammar School pretty much severed him.
If you want to consider it in such a light, The Stone Book is an attempt to return to the womb, and re-emerge from there.
This is a very short book. Including Foreman’s grave and sometimes almost abstract engravings, seen at their best in this original edition, the whole story takes only just over 60 pages but there is no feeling of being short-changed. The story is complete. Like each of the books in the quartet it takes place in a single day that transforms the life of a child at the centre of it, a child of indeterminate age that I ‘read’ as being between 10 and 12, like Colin and Susan, or Roland.
This is Mary. She lives in Chorley, with her father, Robert, a stonemason, her mother and a baby sister who she helps look after, and also Old William, who is deaf and a weaver. The reference to Chorley is confusing but that was the old, and much much older name for Alderley Edge, which was changed in the 1880s by the railways, who did not want confusion between their station and that at Chorley in Lancashire.
We are some time in the 1860s. Mary is sent to deliver cold tea and an onion to Robert, who is staying on alone to finish the steeple of the church. He guides her up the ladders to the highest platform, just below the newly-fitted steeplecock. In the process, Mary loses her fear of heights, learning directly from her father. He seats her on the steeplecock and sends it turning about.
At home, that evening, Mary renews her wish to learn to read, though this is mainly because she wishes to have a Prayer Book of her own, like other girls of her age, to carry to Chapel on Sunday. Instead, her father takes her to the caves below the Edge, directing her to a secret cavern that is visited once and once only, by the eldest child of the family, before they grow too old and too big to squeeze through. There, Mary finds her father’s mark on a cave painting of a bull, the outline of a hand that exactly matches hers, and the footmarks of hundreds of previous visitors. She understands her place in time, the connections to her family that stretch back longer than memory. There is the hint that she may be the last of her line to do so, that by the time her own eldest is of the age to be led there by her, the mining under the Edge will probably have closed off this secret, secularly sacred place for all time.
At home, knowing his daughter has understood, just as he once did, and his father and fathers before him, Robert used his skills as a stonemason, ancient crafts learned and kept for only those who are to be apprenticed to the mystery, to make her a Prayer Book, without words, for her to read, a Book made out of stone which holds in it all the mysteries of time and rock and the retreated sea.
That’s the story. I read it aloud, once, as a bedtime story to my then girlfriend’s son. He didn’t understand it, because for him there was no ending. There is no ending, only that Mary has changed within. The story is a novel, compressed until it is pure essence. There is nothing you could attach to it that would add anything, that could do no more than diffuse what Garner is here doing.
When first I read the book, I was unaware that this was a true story, that the people in it were real and existed. I thought the book was what we expect it to be, an abstraction, a depiction, however accurate, of the life of the times, filtered through representative characters. But even without the knowledge that this is mining Garner’s own past, long-removed, there’s an entirety to the story that spells out to us that this is the truth.
The book is written beautifully. Garner uses contemporary language, plain language, unforced and unshaped. He doesn’t indicate dialect, he doesn’t force inflection upon the reader, but he works within the rhythm of Cheshire speech, re-creating it with honesty and force. From here, forward, his work will grow ever more intensely Cheshire in its voice.
Though the rest of the series will dispel the theme, there’s a thread of connection between The Stone Book and Garner’s earlier novels. The story begins in the plain, the everyday, the mundane world, as solid as the stones that Robert dresses to make Chapels and Churches, roads and bridges. Yet, without the least strain, it slides into what can only be seen as a magical experience, as unreal to us as Fundindelve, Findhorn or Blodeuwedd.
Except that this time the myth is private, and binds a single family, not to be shared with others, no, not even younger children. Mary will tell her son, and perhaps by then she will only be able to tell, not show, but neither she nor Robert will tell baby Esther when she is older.
None of this is said, aloud, but the story is full of it. The probability of Mary being the last to ever see that secret chamber is echoed by the mere fact of her being a girl. She cannot become a stonemason: Robert’s secrets, his skills, the knowledge he gains from his relationship with nature cannot be passed on to her, and so the line, we infer, will be doubly broken. It’s not just the time, and the fixed roles assigned to men and women: Mary could well learn all the tricks and the secrets, but she will never have the body strength to work in stone. It all ends here and we sense its passing.
But it doesn’t end here. There are three more generations, three more books, and an unseen fifth to the Quartet, to follow.


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