“Everywhere is special, in some way. It was not imperative that I should be born in Cheshire; but it was imperative that I should know my place. That can be achieved only by inheriting one’s childhood landscape, and by growing in it to maturity. It is a subtle matter of owning and of being owned.” from the essay The Edge of the Ceiling in Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders (a collection of critical and autobiographical essays
“We have to find parables, we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.” from the essay Achilles in Altjara in The Voice That Thunders
“Garner’s work is where human emotion and mythic resonance, sexuality and geology, modernity and memory and craftsmanship meet and cross-fertilise, any country except Britain would have long ago recognised his importance, and celebrated it with postage stamps and statues and street names.” Philip Pullman
Garner began work on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley, his literary debut, in 1957 after he moved into the late mediaeval house Toad Hall, in Blackden, Cheshire.
“I set out at three minutes past four on Tuesday the fourth of September 1956 to discover whether or not I could write.” Alan Garner
The book opens with a map of The Edge, followed by the prologue – The Legend of Alderley – which was first printed in the Manchester Mail in 1805.
The prologue sets the tone perfectly for a story based in the woods and caves surrounding Alderley and, where the ‘real’ world collides with myth and legend, two children encounter a world of magic surviving just out sight behind a veil of normality.
To the Tolkienesque dwarves, a wizard and elves Garner added his own distinctive elements – setting the story is his birthplace and a particular blend of British folklore-fantasy.
Weirdstone is a classic chase-search-find & escape tale. In its melding of ‘magical’ and ‘real’ it’s vaguely reminiscent of Narnia. Though, unlike C. S. Lewis’s books, where the characters travel distinctly between the worlds, in Garner’s novel the worlds interact continually and the boundaries remain ever indistinct.
In the guise of a swashbuckling heroic fantasy Garner explores the interplay between magical/mundane, sleep/wakefulness, childhood/adulthood and poetic/prosaic. In merging topographical fact, family history, myth and legend, he marks out in this first novel, the territory of his lifework.
Pareidolia is pivotal to this work:
“For the [Aboriginal] Australian, the Ancestor exists at the same time under the earth; in ritual objects; in places such as rocks, hills, springs, waterfalls; and as “spirit children” waiting between death and rebirth; and, most significantly, as the man in whom he is incarnate. It is a world view close to the one I discovered for myself, as a child of my family on Alderley Edge.” from the essay Achilles In Altjira in The Voice that Thunders
“…for me the Edge both stopped, and melted, time.” from the essay The Edge of the Ceiling in The Voice that Thunders
through it Garner is able to re-enchant modern life by presenting it as a thin skin concealing ancient folklore and behind that – magic.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has, in the past, been disowned by Garner. In his essay A Bit More Practice he seems to dismiss it as ‘a fairly bad book’. Perhaps it’s best not to see it as flawed children’s fiction but more as an apprentice piece, a stepping-off point on a journey towards achieving a voice for an academic who:
“…returned to Alderley Edge, his birthplace, the place his ancestors had inhabited for as long as any one of them could remember. And he set about finding – with all the discipline of the western academic intellectual tradition at his disposal – a language and a narrative form that could be true to the deep culture of his place. ” Hugh Lupton in The Joining of the Song in First Light, a celebrations of Alan Garner ed. Erica Wagner
“I endured the rigours of an education that matched vision with thought, each to feed the other, so that dream and logic both had their place, both made sense, and legend and history could both be true.” from the essay The Edge of the Ceiling in The Voice that Thunders
It took him two years to write, one year to find a publisher, and one year to publish: ‘four years of dole queues and national assistance’, as he writes in The Voice that Thunders (a collection of critical and autobiographical essays). Today, Garner says it is clear that in his first two books he couldn’t handle character or dialogue, but “I did know the landscape, and looking as objectively as I can at those first two books and trying not to cringe, that young man, me, had a keen eye for landscape, and the ability to convey it”.
Garner’s tale conflates elements of Welsh, Nordic and English mythology with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saga. It’s the work of a hungry and eclectic mind, in search of, but not yet achieving simplicity, pace and compression in his storytelling.
Whilst Garner is profligate in his academic referencing of the arcane and mythological – so many tongue-twisting names and places – as he’s admitted, the novel does fall short in characterisation. The central protagonists lack presence. They’re only lightly sketched. It’s as if he’s not really interested in them at all. They’re ciphers, mere means to an end. The research, and the desire to find a mode of expression to lay bare the bones of his particular landscape, always his central concern.
The novel met with critical praise and led to a sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, published in 1963 (review to follow). Growing to dislike the main characters, Garner decided not to write the envisioned third part of the trilogy until August 2012 when Boneland, the third volume, was finally released.
“I saw the first piece of work as a trilogy, but I didn’t know why that was so, nor what shape it would take. Trilogies are strange creatures. The lack of the third book, I discovered, gave the readers of the first two a sense of urgency. There are nuggets in the text that hint of unfinished business. The links to the book-not-written had become subliminal cliffhangers. Why did it take so long for Boneland to gestate? All I can say is that it took as long as it took.” Alan Garner