Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 12 – Boneland


It was ten years ago that Boneland was published and I fell upon it with more anticipation and enthusiasm than I’ve probably ever shown towards any book. And I wrote about it then, though I didn’t term it a review but instead a response. I couldn’t get anywhere near the intellectual or analytical when first exposed to it.
A bit more than ten years later, re-reading it as part of this retrospective of Alan Garner’s work, I think that I now understand the novel less than I did on that first, rapt occasion. Though I still think it is a work of genius, a book that even only on the surface level redefines the two preceding books that it transforms into a very much belated Trilogy, I am further away from comprehending Boneland on any level.
For the benefit of those not familiar with Alan Garner’s work, I’m talking about his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisinga-men and The Moon of Gomrath, the two most conventional books of his career, and the two most lightweight. Both books concern the adventures of two children, Colin and Susan, who discover the world of magic inside the Cheshire landscape.
Garner intended the books to comprise the first two parts of a trilogy but his discontent with the two children, and with his own writing, during the composition of The Moon of Gomrath, led him to abandon that notion. No doubt the idea of writing a third book was one of those floated by his then-Agent and Publisher during the eighteen year drought that preceded Strandloper, but Garner finally came to decide that a third book was both right and necessary, and produced it during the year of The Weirdstone‘s Fiftieth Anniversary.
Do not read this expecting a book on the same level as the first two. Boneland is the completely different kettle of fish that we used to talk about. It centres in one half of its story upon Colin, now an adult, a scientist working at Jodrell Bank, an eccentric, a shaman, a man with psychological issues including a complete loss of memory from prior to the age of thirteen yet an eidetic memory from that point onwards.
We learn that his surname is Whisterfield and that he and Susan were twins, which is brand new information to us but, as per Neil Philip’s superb work of analysis of Garner’s writings, A Fine Anger, details that come from the very first, very-rejected draft of The Weirdstone. We will also learn exactly why he and Colin were sent to live in Alderley, with the Mossocks, but as this does not appear in any of the rejected drafts Philip was permitted to reproduce, we can’t know if that too derives from the initial concept (given the nature of that reason, which is because Colin and Susan’s parents had been killed in a plane crash, I suspect not and that if a reason was given at that very early stage it would have been considerably closer to the Callums’ introduction in Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday).
But Colin, and the continuation at so late a stage of his story, is only one strand in this book. The other takes place in an ancient, almost mythic time, the Stone Age, yet one that is anchored to the Cheshire of now. A seer – literally a See-er – whose ‘home’ is in Lud-cruck, the nowadays chasm of Ludchurch, or Lud’s Church, in Staffordshire, in the Dark Peak. We’re meant to see the two stories, which are interwoven, as parallel, though there are no direct correspondences between the two save that they are both figures with an existence in myth-time as well as their native ages.
Colin is, effectively, a shaman. He lives on Alderley Edge. He can never be away from it, cannot leave it overnight, cannot go to any place from which he cannot see it, where it is not observed, for if it is not observed it may change, or even disappear. The older shaman is a more primitive version of Will Buckley or Jack Turner, in that he ‘sees’ the animalistic Gods in the stars and the stones, and his daily release of them keeps the world from ending.
This is a world away from Buckley or Turner who are virtual priests of folk religions: the shaman has no followers or worshippers, he simply is and does, without adherents or the need for them. He stands between Life and oblivion.
But he is only one man and he is not immortal. The story needs to encompass a woman and a child, the latter of whom can be taught to understand and maintain the rituals after the shaman dies. The only woman and child who come to Lud-cruck, at the beginning, are already dead, of snow and ice: nothing the shaman can do can avert that until, at the end, he is adopted as a true teller by a small tribe. Religion begins, or so is my interpretation of it. The dream passes from stone and bone to symbols.
But those of us who are here for the conclusion of The Weirdstone have a tendency to treat this part of the story as extraneous, even though we know Alan Garner has never written anything extraneous in his life. We want Colin, and Susan, and what came next. And we get that, though not necessarily in a manner that we easily comprehend.
Professor Whisterfield. A very clever man, with a list of degrees as long as your arm in subjects as broad as the heavens he studies at Jodrell Bank, specifically M45, the Pleiades. Who has suffered from extensive mental problems almost all his life. Who believes crazy things and does crazy things. Who once when he was young lost both his parents and his twin sister and had experiences with the world of magic, but who has lost all memory of that time and that bygone era. Who is unconsciously looking for his sister who vanished, into the stars. Who is sufficiently clever, until now, to avoid getting to the bottom of discoveries that frighten him by being impossible to fathom.
I’m not sure whether or not it is an advantage to know what happened to Colin and Susan before the former’s amnesia took hold, especially as the end of The Moon of Gomrath seems to indicate that Susan remains on Earth.
The book begins in ambiguous manner: Colin is going under the anaesthetic. Though he comes out of it and insists on discharging himself to go home to his Bergli Hut on the Edge that day, against his Doctor’s very strong advice, certain aspects of what follow raise the question of whether the entire book takes place under the anaesthetic and, if so, whether Colin ever surfaces from it.
But home he goes, driven by a very helpful taxi driver, Bert, who will become a recurring character throughout, turning up whenever needed – and not necessarily when he has been summoned – to take Colin to and from his home. In the end, neither Bert nor his taxi firm actually exists. Neither too does Colin’s psychoanalyst, Meg Massey, who knows Bert of old.
Much of the book is the gradual working through Colin’s issues by Meg, who does house calls. For this, Garner used his own experiences of psychotherapy, as described by him in the essay ‘Inner Time’, from which it can quickly be seen how much of the techniques he has put down in the novel, and which gives raise to the question of whether he’s drawn directly upon his own sessions: he’s certainly more than captured the authenticity of a process I’ve never experienced. Meg slowly draws out of Colin what actually happened, the truth of what lay behind, or possibly just after The Moon of Gomrath, and the truly shocking experience of his ultimate rejection from the world of Magic that as warned but not experienced in the two children’s books, was so very dangerous to both Whisterfield Twins.
The story’s resolution is recollection, but the events recalled occupy a different plane of reality to the children’s books. It’s near impossible to wholly reconcile Boneland to its two predecessors without having to compromise the world of one or the other. Once this is achieved, both Meg and Bert disappear, as much figments as Susan.
Although there’s no direct suggestion of it in the book, and indeed she is positioned as a helpful character, not the reverse, we are encouraged to infer that Meg Massey is the Morrigan, though who Bert would be if that scheme applied I can’t begin to guess. But there are little indications: the M of both her names, Colin’s association of her with crows, the rhododendrons of Errwood Hall transplanted to her ‘surgery’, that put the link up to be thought about.
And belatedly, I notice that Meg’s surname, Massey, duplicates that of Sally in Thursbitch, though there no parallels between either the subject of the former book or the two characters. It’s almost mandatory in comic book Universes for two characters of the same surname to ultimately be related, but even in the world of prose fiction, an author rarely uses the same name in two or more books without intending to imply some level of connection. Coincidence is very rarely coincidence.
Finally, on this re-reading I was very vividly struck by Mag Massey’s unconventional behaviour throughout. Garner’s own psychotherapist was an unconventional man and this might be just a borrowing, but I found a lot of Meg’s conversation to be gratingly sarcastic and even contemptuous of Colin, especially when he was going on about esoteric knowledge he possessed. In fact, given that I’m currently also re-watching The Big Bang Theory, it struck me as being very much like everyone responding to Sheldon.
But Boneland is still an exceptional book. I have not yet read it often enough to talk myself out of my regard for it, though my comprehension is getting more tenuous the more I read it. As this post no doubt reflects: my apologies.


Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 11 – Thursbitch


Time between novels escalates. I was married just short of nine years, starting four years after Strandloper appeared, and only one Alan Garner book came out during my marriage. I mention this because it was a Xmas present from my wife and I remember starting to read it, sat at the computer desk, whilst the kids carried on opening their presents. Selfish of me, yes, but this was the new Alan Garner.
Just as in Red Shift, physical place in this novel is of far more importance than physical time. Thursbitch, like Mow Cop, is a real place in Cheshire, a narrow, enclosed valley in the Pennines, above the village of Saltersford. It appears to have an evil reputation in real life that persists to this day.
Whilst I don’t normally rely on external material when writing about anything, Alan Garner has lectured upon the series of events and research, stretching back almost fifty years before publication, that began with his discovery, whilst out running, of a memorial stone to a John Turner, jagger, or packman, who supposedly died of hypothermia a half mile from home, which should never have happened. As if the memorial stone was not usual in itself, Garner accidentally discovered that it’s reverse, set into the hillside and invisible possibly since it was set, two hundred years before, was not left rough but was worked and lettered, to say, “The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.”
Now you don’t have to be a writer to recognise that a book is calling out to be written. The full lecture, which sets out what went into discovering what that book was going to be can be read at I suggest reading it, after you’ve read the novel.
Thursbitch exists in two eras. One is that of John Turner, or Jack as is the name Garner and everyone else in the period calls him. Given that this is a time where most folk never travelled more than a few miles from their home in all their lives, and that Jagger Turner is a peddler working between Chester in the west and Derby in the south-east, he can quickly be seen as a forerunner to William Buckley, a strandloper, a boundary-tester.
Garner begins with Turner’s death before rewinding to show us deeper and deeper aspects of his life, a life that, of all the Turner family in and around this area, his is the one with the least actual record. He lives with this father, Richard (Rutchert) and Mother Mary, though later we are told he is a foundling, an abandoned baby who receives greater favour than his ‘brother’ Edward, the Turner’s own.
He has a sweetheart, Nan Sarah, who lives with the family. The two are very much in love, and once Sarah confirms she is with child they marry according to the lights of a paganistic, non-Christian ritual that has more force for them, here in the North, now and for later, than anything the Church can offer. Like Tom and Janet their love is bound about a piece of bluejohn, a hollowed out cup, that is a real thing for them, though Jack, who is to some extent epileptic as Tom or William Buckley before him, is not crippled and does not betray the significance of the cup to them.
For Jack is the man chosen to interpret the mysteries of the natural religion, worshipping a mythical Bull that walks the high ridges, that governs the fates of the villagers.
Instead, though, whilst close to term, Nan Sarah is afflicted by the plague and is driven out by Rutchert. Jack takes her to Thursbitch, for shelter, brings her water from the valley. She dies, in a rush, giving birth to twins. Jack interprets this as the Bull forsaking him, turning the water into poison. He becomes a Christian, roaring God’s wrath down on the sinners, God’s eternal, unassuageable wrath, in rants that only reinforced my own opinions about religion, and especially the Catholic religion, with its emphasis on guilt.
But he comes to his senses, shortly before, at the end of the book, we repeat the night of his death.
Jack Turner is, however, only one part of this book, if the greater, enjoying two-thirds of the pages and more. There is a parallel strand taking place in the present. Garner doesn’t speak of this side of the story in his lecture, and his research does not appear to encompass any contemporary. As in Red Shift, this part of the novel is primarily in dialogue, with only occasional and very limited paragraphs delineating actions. The dialogue is between Ian and Sally, who accompany each other on walks in the Pennines, centring increasingly upon the valley of Thursbitch. It’s clear from their conversation that they have known each other a long time, and are very close to each other, and at a very early age we learn that Sally is a geologist, and holds a docorate: Doctor Massey.
We also learn that Sally is suffering from an incurable and debilitating disease, never specified, that is slowly but inexorably destroying her from the inside it, both her body and her mind.
There is much more to learn, though not enough that we don’t have to construct a large part of the story, and their relationship, and how it has changed, for ourselves, from what they say to one another. And, like real people, not people in novels whose authors are incapable of rising above some form of the words, “As you know,” they don’t go around telling each other what they already know. Inference and deduction is the rule.
But Sally’s last physical freedom, which is slowly being taken away from her, is to walk in the hills and valleys, and Ian, who is some kind of therapist as well as a Priest, is facilitating this for her for as long as possible. He takes her where she needs to go, and this becomes Saltersford and Thursbitch, because here for no explicable reason other than that in a way that depends on the valley being what it is, Sally’s short-term memory works. She remembers here. She is the valley and it is her, just as once it was for Jack Turner.
In a way, the ending is predictable: we can foresee it from Jack’s death and the discovery of the woman’s footprint by his body, and then from Sally’s first arrival. Garner lets us make that our own conclusion however and doesn’t create an impossible to believe meeting that would require logic to justify it. Instead, when the time finally comes when Sally can no longer be brought to the one place in which she is most really herself, she persuades Ian to leave her, to let her choose her own time and method of dying, instead of her body forcing it on her. There’s been enough, fleeting moments when it seems that Jack and Sally are aware of each other, across the centuries, but Garner allows us our own decisions as to the conclusion.
Both our central characters die of hypothermia. Whether they in truth meet, or whether time momentarily double-tracks itself, is for us to decide.
I remember at the time of publication some pathetic criticism about the use of Cheshire dialect, speech and phrasing, which was described as tiresome, OTT and as ‘Ooh-arhh!’ language. Which just goes to show how cloth-eared such reviewers were, that they not only rejected any thought of the variation of language but could not hear that this was authentic, real language, as vivid and alive as any foreign language: they thought it was fake stuff, written by know-nowts. It isn’t. I don’t need to be Cestrian to hear that for myself.
Read the book if you have not already done so, then follow the link to Alan Garner’s own explanation of how he came to write it, at last. Visit Thursbitch itself, if you will. I haven’t, and I have no means of getting to it to do so, without the intervention of an Ian of sorts. But based on the novel, and what Alan Garner learned to write it, I would suggest that you not go there after dark. This power does not seem to so easily deflect into flowers.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 10 – Strandloper


Eighteen years passed.
Alan Garner was not idle. He produced a number of books devoted to British Fairy Tale, rewriting and refining the folklore of this country in words both simple and rhythmic. He just didn’t publish anything original from 1978 to 1996, by which point it had begun to seem as if he never would again.
He did not lack for pressure. Had he given way, he could have turned his existing books into series, cheap, light and hollow, and destroyed his own ability. Instead, he held true to his gift, and the roots of his craft in the county of his birth.
Garmer had always been regarded as a children’s writer. He denied ever having written for children, only for himself, though he also regarded children as his clearest and most perceptive readers, able to understand simplicity where adult readers wanted to complicate things. But everything he had published up till and including The Aimer Gate, was marketed for children.
From Strandloper onwards, that has no longer been the case.
For me, this has always been the hardest of Garner’s to absorb. It tells a true story, of William Buckley, a Cheshire man convicted of a trumped-up charge in the early 1800s and sentenced to transportation to Australia, or New Holland as it was then called. Though he’s sentenced to life, William promises his fiancee Esther, or Het, that he’ll return: he will simply walk north until he reaches China, then turn left.
After enduring a six months voyage in chains, William makes an immediate escape from the camp that is established: he is the only survivor. He walks for weeks under the harsh Australian sun until he collapses from dehydration and malnutrition on what turns out to be the gravesite of an Aborigine shaman. The tribe, the Bengailites, treat him as a reincarnation of the shaman, and preserve his life. He becomes a member of the tribe for thirty years, growing in age and wisdom and respect among them for his understanding of the Dreaming.
When the white men start arriving in numbers, intent on taking Australia for themselves, William understands that they are too many and too rigid to be opposed. He negotiates an initial peace, for which he is granted a King’s Pardon and the right to return. Trying to act as negotiator of a kind of co-existence that will preserve his tribes and the Dreaming, William fails, on the rock of the Christians’ determination to drive out all inferior folk and cultures. He undergoes a final ritual in which he is entrusted with the Dreaming, to be established in England.
William returns to Cheshire. The old folk rituals which were, in part, responsible for his original transportation, have been driven out by a Christianity that emphasises meekness for the lower classes. Het has not waited for him: she has borne a child that she has named William, though she strongly hints that the father was actually Edward Stanley, son of Lord Stanley who had William convicted and despatched, now the Vicar and a figure of shallowness. Het is married, and now lives in Chorley (i.e., the future Alderley Edge).
William left Australia, his tribe and the woman he lived with for the sake of a promise given but never requested. He Walks his land, understanding it, and merges the rituals of his life with the presence of the Church, resolving these seemingly different beliefs into a unity that begins the new Dreaming, in Cheshire.
Strandloper when first published in hardback, the copy I have, appeared to be a big book, a thick book. It is so, in content, though the edition itself proves to still be less than 200 pages in total: Garner’s longest book but much less than the impression it gives from outside. Like his previous works, there is a heavy reliance in many sequences upon dialogue, with minimal text to supplement it, and Garner has gone deep into dialect, not merely that of Cheshire but other cultures.
The Cheshire dialect is thick and impenetrable. It feels real, but that’s maybe because I live on the fringe of Cheshire and whilst I am not of that county I am close enough to feel it. Other people, adults of course, pick at the density of the ‘rustic’ speech, consider it overdone and a barrier to enjoyment, which says more about their ability to comprehend than it does about Garner’s involvement in a past that was still a living presence for his family a hundred and fifty years later.
But dense as it is, and impenetrable as the folk rituals are at this remove, only a small portion of the book, the first and last of its five parts, take place in Cheshire. The larger part of the book takes place in Australia, and an Australia far removed in time and place from the two cousins I have who live there: time and place and understanding.
For each book, Garner researches thoroughly, indeed obsessively, needing to know all manner of things that, when recounted, seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with what he ends up writing. For Strandloper, he had to immerse himself in Aboriginal culture, thought, belief, perception. He had expert help, which shows in the pages, but this is where the book loses me, and always has. Garner evidently understands, and presents as such. But I don’t understand. Unlike the folklore of England and Britain, I have no connection to that of the Aborigines, nor any means of absorbing it at any level of innate understanding. I can only participate on an intellectual level, and that is the wrong level.
So to that extent, since the experiences William Buckley absorbed and which led to him being re-named Murrangurruck do not stick with me, it could be said that Strandloper fails. I do not internalise it. But the failure, if any, is mine, not Alan Garner’s.
I vaguely recall an interview, which might have come out during that period of excitement between the announcement that Garner had written a new book and its publication, in which Garner commented that he had discovered the seeds for the story during his researches into family history for The Stone Book Quartet (and that in researching William Buckley he had found the seed for his next book, lying even further back).
From that, and the fact that Het married a man from Chorley/Alderley named Joseph, and named her son thus adopted William, names we are familiar with from The Stone Book Quartet, I am intuiting that Joseph’s surname was Garner and William Buckley a collateral ancestor of our writer, possibly but probably not in blood.
Whatever my own reactions to and inescapable alienation from Strandloper, it is still a great book. It is part of the continuum of Alan Garner’s work. William is an epileptic, like the three Thomases of Red Shift. Lineal time is of less importance than internal time, like Red Shift again, and Thursbitch, which is to follow. Eighteen years did not dull him, but rather focussed him even more finely upon the land and the language from which he sprung. The real becomes the fantastic in Strandloper and the books that follow.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 9 – The Aimer Gate

The Aimer Gate

With The Aimer Gate, Alan Garner brought to an end his chronicles of the history of his family. The book is the third of four, in chronological terms, and is placed as such in the collected volume, The Stone Book Quartet. To come is the story of William, a quarter century and another War on, but Garner chose to write this book last, giving the story a curious, split role, as continuation and terminus simultaneously.
And it’s that latter role that is most significant in The Aimer Gate, as has been identified by reviewers when the book first emerged. For this stage of the story is about Robert, father of William to come, named for his Great-Grandfather, that bazzil-arsed old devil as his father Joseph calls him. And Robert is destined to be the lost boy, whose story turns round to belong to someone else, someone older.
It’s a hot day in summer. Robert’s Uncle Charlie, Mary’s legitimate son, is home on leave from the Western Front. It’s the last day of his leave, but before he goes, he and Ozzie Leah, and Young Ollie Leah, have a job to do. They are the reapers, a practiced team of three scythemen working together in precision. Leah Bank is not normally planted but there’s a War on. Leah Bank is familiar: it consists of two steep fields, with a gate in the corner letting one into another.
Uncle Charlie’s a soldier. Ozzie Leah refers to him half-affectionately, half in acknowledgement, as Sniper, for that is his role. His mastery. As he will tell his nephew, at the end of the book, when the rabbits are driven in fear from the last shelter in the top field, he stops rabbits skriking. If you don’t understand what that means you must read the book.
Joseph is the Smith. He got aback of his Grandfather, aback of everyone. He’s risking ruining his mastery by the war imposed obligation to make horseshoes and nothing but, but once a week he takes the time from the telegraph to the clock in the Church steeple. Today is one of those days.
Robert follows his father up inside the clock, and beyond to the highest point within, his secret place, known only to him and his pigeons. Like the hidden cave in The Stone Book it is full of footprints, a multitude, but these are all Robert. And inside the highest point of the steeple, where he can wear the Church like a hat, young Robert finds a mark, and a name: his own.
Or rather, Old Robert.
It’s an amazement to the boy, but it’s a demonstration of mastery, that here, where no-one will see and any old codge might have done, the old mason kept faith to his craft and would not skimp, but stayed true to his trade.
And what has young Robert got? Charlie’s old bassinet that will end as William’s sledge is now a cart, with oiled wheels and axles. Robert uses it to fetch Faddock Allman, the legless Boer War veteran, who breaks stones for the roads, uses it to fetch stones for him. Even from what was once a cottage whose foundations can still supply the yellow Dimension stone that was the best of Chorley.
But Robert has nothing more. His great grandfather was aback of the village, his father got aback of him but there is no room left for young Robert, nothing to get aback of. His days sees him find his name but not his name, and by taking a measure of Uncle Charlie’s fine oil that he uses to constantly oil his rifle, Robert can make his cart, Wicked Winnie, roll so fine it can travel by gravity alone across the crest of the road.
And that is all. His name mimics old Robert, his attentions to Wicked Winnie mimic Uncle Charlie. But these are things for children. They give him nothing to build upon as a man. And he has no greater ambition than fetching for Faddock Allman, who left more than his legs in Mesopolonica. Joseph resents him: I intuit that his mother who could not bring him up herself because he was illegitimate married an Allman, and that Charlie’s solicitousness towards Faddock is more than just of that to a comrade but also a relation.
There is nothing to justify that connection, but just as Alan Garner in writing these four stories made connections that turned out to be true without his knowledge, it may well be so.
This is Uncle Charlie’s last day of leave. We know already that he doesn’t return from the War. Alan Garner had written that, had sent Charlie off before learning that an Uncle removed had died that very way. And we feel it as much as we see it, and before Charlie turns into the cold-eyed and cold-hearted sniper who stops rabbits skriking, in his words that foresee for himself that this last return to the War will this time be the last, that he might just this time go by the aimer gate.
Like ‘Tom Fobble’s Day’, the phrase appears to have no existence in Google outside the book’s title but just like that book, I cannot believe for a second that it is an invention by Garner. It is too deeply integrated into the pictures he draws, the histories he links to be anything but real, true.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 8 – Granny Reardun

Granny Reardun

Joseph is William’s grandfather, and Joseph is the Granny Reardun of this story’s title. In this book we are here to watch Joseph choose his life and the mastery he’ll attain even as we have already seen him lay down that life and all that belongs to it in a future unguessable from here.
When here is is impossible to say. We are nearer to Mary’s time than to William’s, maybe around the turn of the century, or perhaps a little before. Mary is Joseph’s mother, and whilst she does appear, briefly, in this volume, we neither see nor hear her, nor see anyone speak to her: she is a ghost.
There are two reasons for this. One is that she has had her day, and this is Joseph’s turn, but the other has already been hinted to us in Tom Fobble’s Day, by Old Joseph, referring to his half-brother Charlie whose name adorns the First World War monument in what was Alderley Edge then but which is still Chorley now. Charlie is in this book. He is a baby in a broken bassinet, with whom Joseph plays and runs, the bassinet that, in another time, will go to form the frame of a sledge.
Connections begin to pour up and down the generations. Charlie lives with his mother and his father. Mary comes to visit her mother and father, Old Robert, the stonemason, with whom Joseph lives. Joseph is a Granny Reardun. Try saying it. He is an illegitimate child, his father never identified, though Garner without giving any clues opens us up to a possible explanation.
Charlie’s father married Mary and gave her his child but wouldn’t take on her other boy. That was for her mother, his Grandmother, to take on, and he the stigma that will attach to him all the years ahead, that and the detachment.
We’re entering a phase where a lot of what is being said is being said beyond the printed page, where we must imagine it, not read it.
Granny Reardun, at its simplest, is about the day a boy chooses his future. Everyone, from Grandfather Robert down, expects Joseph to prentice as a stonemason: it is his family’s profession. But Joseph is uncertain. That uncertainty is exacerbated today, which begins with the Allman family being evicted from their cottage that stands in the top corner of the lower of two fields. The eviction is being carried out in the public gaze, which the Allmans give a pretence of not noticing. Most significant is the moment of final departure, as Mrs Allman emerges from the once home backwards, donkey-stoning the step as a final gesture, having lime-washed the walls inside: the cottage is utterly clean: read into that what you will.
By the end of the day, it will already have been pulled down to the ground floor, and some of the good stone will go where it sickens Joseph to see it. The Allmans have been flitted and their home pulled down because Lady Stanley wants a kitchen garden: for no more reason than that. Joseph feels it keenly.
Meanwhile, Old Robert is building a wall to hold the bank in for the road, and Joseph is to help him before his last day of School, which he will sag off. The stonemason is still possessed of his old strength and skill, but he hasn’t the stone for it. The good stone, the yellow-white Dimension, has all but been used up, and what Robert has to replace it won’t last above a hundred years, and a poor testament to his craft.
But some of that wall, a barrow load or two at any rate, will be good Dimension stone, and lime-washed on the inside too. Joseph hates it. His grandfather’s defence is that of inevitability. It was going to happen, and none to prevent it, and what should the stone go to except a good end.
But stone was never in Joseph, and this social injustice only confirms it. Robert needs a new four pound hammer. Damper Latham, who gets stone for him, calls at the Smithy to order one. Joseph goes with him. The Smithy, and its master, James Jump, fills him with amazement, a world of mastery that owes nothing to his grandfather. When he wags School he comes back, to ask to be prenticed.
Despite Jump’s seemingly caustic reception, he is willing to accept the boy as a seeker after the truths of the hammermen. He and Damper have had their eye on Joseph this twelvemonth. Someone else has known Joseph’s future before him and that is Old Robert himself. When Joseph confronts him with his intention not to follow him, the expected temper doesn’t flare. Instead, Robert treats it as recognition of the boy’s nature, none too soon either.
For Joseph there is an imperative. He has to get aback of the old man. Robert is everywhere in Chorley, his stone and his maker’s mark. He has left no room for Joseph to do anything. But the Smith’s aback of everyone, for he is the toolmaker, who makes the clock and the weathercock and the bell to call all to prayer.
It’s presented as one boy’s choice of profession, but it’s also symbolic of the transition from the age of Stone to the age of Metal, as well of the continuity of mastery, skill and understanding.
Granny Reardun was also the first time Alan Garner began to give full expression to his Cheshire heritage, allowing not just old Robert but Damper Latham, and James Jump to express themselves in the words and phrases the men of their times would have used. It’s a dialect that’s both common and rich, a revelling in language that so many specific localities boasts, in their own enclaves. Later reviewers will miss understanding of what Garner is doing, treat it as yokelism, the more so as Garner grows in confidence in its usage. But this is where he first mastered that tool, and the book sings for it.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 7 – Tom Fobble’s Day

Tom Fobble's Day

Chronologically, Tom Fobble’s Day is the end of the story begun in The Stone Book, and in every collection of the series as a Quartet, it is placed last, where it comes. But it was the second to be published and that is the order in which I am taking things. By the time it appeared, I was not troubled by the expense of the hardback, and bought it quickly.
Only time has moved on, time and its accretions. We are still in Alderley, but it’s not Chorley any longer. It’s not the 1860s but the 1940s. There’s a War on. And this time there’s a boy, not a girl, named William. He is Mary’s great-grandson.
Obviously, the two books couldn’t be further apart but that doesn’t only speak to their historical placing. Mary’s book was so far removed from us – it was more than a century past when it was published – and the world it depicted was so far from the conditions under which we live that it might have taken place at any time, but that distance meant that it was able to accommodate the fantasy of its conclusion, the magic of the mark and the bull.
Now we have moved to 1944, just round the corner from ourselves. I was born less than a dozen years later and not many more miles from here. Alderley Edge was not East Manchester, even then, but William stands on the same ground that I do: his world is the same as mine, and like the back street terraces I grew up amongst, it has no room for fantasy. Everything in this story is concrete. Except within.
I’ve googled ‘Tom Fobble’s Day’ online but found nothing that doesn’t refer to this book. As such it can be labelled esoteric knowledge, if such a term can properly be ascribed to what was instinctive knowledge amongst a group of boys at play in a specific place. I don’t need to know it. It applied to marbles, after Easter, a way by which you could nick – or was it borrow? – your mates’ marbles for yourself by grabbing them and calling out Tom Fobble.
It’s the key to the story. Stewart Allman, a contemporary but a bigger boy, ‘Tom Fobbles’ William’s rough and ready sled. There’s a field, there’s two fields actually, connected at one corner by a gap that was once a gate and which is guarded by a hump below. The boys are sledging. Mostly they sledge down the lower field, from top corner to bottom, diagonally on the slope. Above it, the slope twists, in the opposite direction. According to their ability, and their bravery, the boys start in the top field, the braver from halfway up. Get up speed, hit the gap, turn the sledge, go fast down the lower field, again and again.
Until Stewart Allman Tom Fobbles William’s sledge, against all the private rules that govern these boys’ lives, except the overarching one about the biggest boy. And he smashes William’s painstakingly made but codge of a sledge.
William goes off to the blacksmith’s forge, trailing the ruins with him. His grandad is the Smith. Whilst they talk, Grandfather dry and disparaging of William’s efforts, his Grandad makes him a replacement sledge. We watch, uncomprehending, as his skills are bent to it, uncomprehending but understanding that magic is taking place. Not until the end do we learn that this gift to his grandson is his Grandfather’s last job: one of his own, for his own. He retires and cycles home.
William takes the sledge back to the field. This time he resists or half-resists Stewart Allman’s attempts to Tom Fobble this sledge: bending but not breaking. But Stewart Allman hasn’t the gift for it. William has. He is the master of the sledge, the master of the hill, starting from the very top corner, outracing everyone, outskilling them. He’s learning what is his place in the world, understanding what he is by becoming part of the hill itself, part of the community his family comes from.
Racing back to exclaim to his grandfather what a wonder the sledge is, William finds the old man’s house crowded with men of his age, silent, shuffling. Grandfather has taken to his bed and his rest. His job done, he sees no reason to waste time hanging around but is ready to depart. William catches his eye once, but the reader understands that the look is one way only.
Ignored, William creeps away. He employs his own version of the illicit Tom Fobble, exchanging newly collected shrapnel for the two horseshoes suspended in the chimney that represent luck for his Grandad and his Grandmother who went on before. In it’s way, it’s a theft, as they are not his, but their purpose has been served and unconsciously he is absorbing himself deeper yet in his family, accepting the superstitions of their time, the history that has borne him, for a time in which, like the mines that destroy the mark and the bull, the scepticism of the modern world and its inability to connect itself to place and past will become overwhelming.
Already, in a sense, the story is over. William’s future belongs to a boy named Alan, who needs to go back and discover what it is the education of Manchester Grammar School took out of him. All of the past, not just beginning and end, must needs do for that.

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.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 5 – Red Shift

Red Shift

Red Shift is the book of Alan Garner’s that I have read most often, more often than all of his other works put together. I read it over and over in the Seventies, sometimes blasting through it as fast as possible, at others lingering over every word. When I missed the BBC1 Play for Today adaptation in 1977, I read it that way, envisioning everything that I’d missed, and discovered a complete, and crucial scene hidden between two lines of dialogue from the same character that I had never previously noticed.
And today I read it in the aftermath of disturbing dreams that have left me unsettled and peculiarly sensitive to the disaster that leads to the hidden suicide intimated after the book ends.
Since The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Garner’s writing has been a process of stripping down, of eliminating, reducing, refining. Quite early on I read a review of Red Shift that focussed on this approach, that stated that the book had been so pared down to essentials that it gave the sense that if one more word were to be removed, the entire story would collapse into incoherence. And I agree.
As with The Owl Service, the story is structured upon a deeply buried myth, in which place is of greater importance than time. Red Shift revolves around the hill of Mow Cop, on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border and the myth of Tam Lin and Burd Ellen, but where the former concerns itself with the current generation, there are three layers in time colliding and corresponding, three figures who are, we are meant to infer, the same person: Macey, a Roman Legionnaire, Thomas Rowley, in the Civil War, and Tom, who does not survive.
It’s Tom, in the present day, who gets the most attention, though that’s not to slight his earlier equivalents. Tom, no last name given, son of a Regular Army Sergeant Major living in a static caravan at Rudheath, loves Jan, daughter of two psychologists, intent upon becoming a nurse. Very quickly, we pick up on the curious fact that whilst Jan can tell Tom that she loves him, and does so with delighted frequency, he cannot say the same: not in the words. It’s a foreshadowing of the ending, that Tom is the one who will break and fall.
Macey is an epileptic, a young boy in a small group of Legionnaires of multiple backgrounds, deserters from the Ninth Legion, going to ground, going native in Cheshire, on Mow Cop. His epilepsy allows their commander, Logan, to drive him into a berserker rage in which he becomes a killing machine. Logan and the remnants of the band talk like American soldiers in Vietnam, a deliberate and inspired decision by Garner. Insanely, Logan plans to establish a new Ninth, breeding from an already pregnant young woman, hamstrung and captive, a priestess of the Corn-Goddess.
Thomas Rowley is also an epileptic, one of the village of Barthomley, massacred in the Civil War. His condition affects his daily abilities. He is married to Madge, who was once courting another Thomas, Venables, a rough man from Mow Cop. John Fowler, son of the Vicar, whose arrogance and self-importance brings the massacre down on the Village, wants to bed Madge, who will have nothing to do with him: he claims she only chose Thomas because he was soft enough to be malleable. We have to judge for ourselves if there’s any truth to that.
Tom is not an epileptic, or perhaps he’s pre-epileptic, has the condition but has not yet experienced an attack. He’s certainly very intelligent, highly-strung, erratic, unstable. Jan means a great deal to him. She stabilises him, grounds him, treats him with the kind of understanding he doesn’t get, has never had, from his well-meaning, loving but extremely limited parents. There are traces of Gwyn and Nancy in their relationship, the sense that he’s their pride, that they expect him to go far but will never comprehend what he does.
The story is triggered by two things. To train, Jan will have to go to London, breaking their daily relationship, but that’s compounded by her parents also moving, to a new posting in Portsmouth: her only connection to Rudheath henceforward will be him. The other, and more crucial, is that Tom’s parents subject them to an inquisition about whether they have been having sex. The answer is no, not until much later, but the enormity of the question is outrageous and horrifying even before we learn exactly why Tom, thanks to his parents, is utterly fucked up over sex.
It’s intrusive, it’s gross and Tom breaks under it, not for the last time in the book. It can also be read, though I don’t necessarily subscribe to this idea, as being the traumatic event that links all three figures, Macey, Thomas, Tom, throughout their ages.
But the parallels are not exact. Two out of three are epileptics, not all of them. This is merely the most obvious of the imperfect parallels that run through the book. The deeply buried myth that underlines the book does not play out the same way each time, and the one unequivocal thing that does link all three – a perfect Stone Age axe-head that passes through each man’s hands – ends up put beyond reach of a successor in a future age.
The threats to Macey and Thomas are clear, present and physical, yet at the end each leave the place where they were, in effect, imprisoned, to lead their ongoing lives, Macey with the girl, Thomas with Madge. Macey and the girl leave Mow Cop, under the threat that she, having ground corn to bring death on the hill, may herself have to die, but we infer they will survive. Thomas is badly wounded, a sword through the chest by Thomas Venables, but expertly delivered to not kill: he and Madge go to Mow Cop, to live. Thomas might yet die, but we infer he will survive.
Tom and Jan…
The rest of the book is theirs, is about their love. They work out a system whereby they can meet in Crewe one Saturday in every four, but it’s not their separation that gradually undoes everything about them. Slowly, naturally, we see deeper into each of them, see the things that their childhood have burnt into them. They fuck you up, your Mums and Dads… And ultimately, the line of graffiti Alan Garner once saw, written on a wall, that is the book’s last line, that he recognised as a book’s last line and wrote Red Shift to find out how to get there: not really now not any more. There’s a starkness to that line, a flatness that has disturbed me for fifty years, the indifference that is a worse death than death itself.
Underneath, it’s sex. Jan is not a virgin. Tom’s discovery of that breaks the platonic ideal of her. He hates and fears sex because of how a caravan shakes when two people… Sex enters their relationship and destroys it. Jan is the innocent, the victim. Her last significant words in the book are ‘It has had enough. It wants to go home now.’ The depersonalisation is as much a conclusion as the last and telling words: not really now not any more.
But they are only the end of the story. Red Shift‘s endpapers are decorated by a jumble of letters, another massage, spelt out in a code Tom and Jan use in the story to keep her letters, intercepted and steamed open by Tom’s mother, private. Not until the advent of Wikipedia did I discover how these translated. They are a coda, Tom’s last note to Jan. No, I won’t say what they mean. Tam Lin has not been freed from Faerie by Burd Ellen: an ending must be made outside the bounds of space and time. Remember that, if Elidor had contained one more line, Roland would have been driven mad…
Red Shift is a work of brilliance. It is spare, lean, finely-drawn. It is a surface, with much more than nine-tenths hidden below it, that we feel, we understand, we sense rather than read. Probably better so: the pressure of such depths are not easy places for men and women to go. Better we stay on the surface, seeing only what is visible to be seen. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds: not really now not any more.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 4 – The Owl Service

The Owl Service

Here is where I discover Alan Garner, not through the book The Owl Service but the superb television adaptation written by him for Granada Television’s Sunday tea-time children’s serial slot, watched with immense fascination. Garner later explained the astonishing and almost crippling effect of watching his book becoming ‘real’ in front of him, which sounded horrifying, and which led him into a lifetime of intense and dangerous therapy. The effect on the just-turned 14 year old me was to drive me to borrow the book from the library, to work my way back through his three books before this, and to make me a lifelong fan who has only once waited to buy a new book the moment it arrived.
The Owl Service is the first fully-formed Alan Garner book. It’s there in the writing, the careful shaping of the words, the ruthless excision of anything that isn’t necessary, the increasing reliance upon the dialogue and the dialogue alone to tell the story.
And that story alone represents an irrevocable step in Garner’s writing. It’s not the diversion from Cheshire into a (real) Welsh valley, nor the construction of the complex, deeply-involved story from a classic Welsh myth taken from The Mabinogion and applying it to the apparently mundane world of the late Sixties, it’s the fact that Garner keeps the entirety of the story within that ‘real’ world. There are no magic lands like Elidor, or alternate magic realms like Fundindelve: the magic enters the story obliquely, mystifyingly, and menacingly in a way that we only start to understand when it is too late.
As well as the legend of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebyr, Garner draws his inspiration from a dinner service, an actual dinner service, the Owl Service itself, which has been in his family now for decades, coming from the family of Griselda Greaves who became his second wife. Betty Greaves showed Garner the pattern around the rim of the plates etc., the pattern we see in the book, traced by Griselda, that can become owls or flowers according to how you see it.
This accorded too closely to the legend of Blodeuwedd to be ignored. According to The Mabinogion, she was a woman conjured into being from flowers, to marry Llew Llaw Gyffes, the magician’s nephew (another oblique Narnian touch), who had been cursed never to have a bride. But Blodeuwedd fell in love with Gronw Pebyr, lord of the valley, and conspired with him to have Lleu slain by a spear thrown by Gronw. Lleu did not die but was turned into a bird, later to be restored by his uncle. Blodeuwedd was punished by being turned into an owl and Gronw accepted having Lleu cast his spear at him. He pleaded to be allowed to set a stone before him, but the spear was cast through the stone and Gronw was killed.
Garner’s concept was that in creating Blodeuwedd from flowers, a power was unleashed in the valley, building up over time until it has to be resolved by replaying the tragedy, over and again, through the same set-up of three people, one of them the lord of the valley, in blood, so that it may be contained and prevented from destroying everything.
In this time, the three protagonists are teenagers: Alison, Roger and Gwyn.
Their relationship is awkward in every direction. Even though they’re family, the first two are thrown together by circumstance. Alison and Roger are stepsister and brother, brought together by a recent marriage between her mother, a widow, and his father, a divorcé. Their holiday home in the valley has been in her family for some time: technically it is hers, having been placed in her name, but though Alison has ownership and is proprietary, she has no control.
She and mother Margaret, who, in a stroke of genius, dominates the book but never appears, are County: they bring class and Clive, Roger’s father, easy-going to the point of being no more than a reed blowing in the wind, brings money. The children are contrasts: Alison does nothing, sings in a choir, plays tennis. Roger, for all that he expects to follow his father into the family business, is a dedicated and possibly very good photographer.
Gwyn, on the other hand, is a working class boy, from Aber(ystwith), illegitimate, we later learn, who knows all about deprivation, growing up poor and having to do everything for yourself. His mother, Nancy, housekeeper for this holiday, is tyrant, determined her boy should better himself, straining to put him through Grammar School but on the look-out for the least sign of him getting above himself, which he can only and inevitably do if he follows this course. Gwyn is cleverer than both of Alison and Roger, more clever than probably everyone else in the book, but he is looked down upon automatically by the Bradley family, for both his poverty and his lack of ‘background’.
These are the Three. It’s easy to see how each has their role in the Mabinogian story, and just how fittingly their personalities and backgrounds combine with lethal effect to repeat it, exactly as before. It’s money and class against intelligence and ambition, both set with seemingly unbreakable limitations.
The power contained in the story breaks out almost immediately but doesn’t arrive instantly. Instead, it is allowed to build, to increasing levels of menace, as the interplay between the three teenagers ebbs and flows. There is a love story in there, as befits the template. Gwyn and Alison are attracted to each other but are forced to be distant by her mother’s snobbery and her weakness. Roger is more snappish towards his stepsister than loving, but she is his ‘family’ and he collaborates in causing difficulties for Gwyn out of possessiveness and rivalry. On its surface, this can be read as an ordinary, mundane story about two families struggling with a merging, shot through with class and racial attitudes, but my, how they are a match for the original myth, and equally as dangerous for all that.
It’s not until much later in the book that it’s revealed that two of the previous Three are also present, and that the power is so much more serious on this occasion because they failed in their duty, and that at least one if not two of the previous iterations shirked things completely, seeking to bind Blodeuwedd in the painting revealed when the pebbledash cracks, and the owl service itself.
As with this generation, class, and limited horizons, and the jealousy inherent in the three-cornered relationship combined to destroy them, leaving a story that is still working itself out in the background of the present events.
And so it all comes to a head, as the truth of what happened last time tumbles out rapidly. Nancy goes off into the rain to be obliterated, Gwyn learns who was his father and how he is lord to the valley and responsible to the calming of the power in this time, but he is prepared to accept every bit of his responsibility except the part that matters, that is now urgent. Between them, for good and ill, Alison and Roger have broken him. Always she is wanting to be flowers and you make her owls.
Flowers? Flowers? Is that all it is? And in an ending of tremendous and unexpected power, it is Roger, stupid, insensitive, superior yet himself damaged Roger, who should not have any idea, who seizes upon the very simple idea that is the underpinning of everything, and draws his stepsister back from owls and into flowers. By damn.
In the Garner manner, the ending is abrupt. Anything else would be unnecessary. The release is profound, breaking the spell the book has had you in since it began with the scratching of claws that people thought was rats that could count.
It leaves you on the crest of hope that this time the cycle might have been broken, that by allowing Blodeuwedd to be flowers instead of owls as she only ever wished to be, the power may at last come to rest. But in the superb television adaptation, written by Garner himself, there was a short but painful coda that dispelled this hope. From the flowers we jump to the riverbank, and the Stone of Gronw, whose hole, made by the spear of Lleu Llaw Gyffes so exactly frames the Bryn. We look through it. We see three little children, no more than about five, two boys and a girl, wandering in the meadow. No. It’s not over. And never will be.
What an incredible book. And unlike Elidor an adaptation to match it. It was painful and draining for Garner, especially dealing with one of the young actors, who messed around, we don’t know which one. Gillian Hills, who played Alison, was one of the two girls who play with the photographer in Blow-up. Michael Holden, who played Gwyn, was killed in an unprovoked pub attack in 1977, the year before the serial was first reshown. Francis Wallis, who played Roger, was playing only his second role, and his last credit came in 1974. The actors were aged 21 (19 in Holden’s case), playing 17, whereas in the book the characters are 15. They were very good.

Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 3 – Elidor


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.