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Alan Garner’s third book Elidor steps away from the sleepers-under-the-hill, from witches and elves; it steps away from Alderley Edge and into the edgeland of the urban. It’s in the shattered terraced streets of Manchester that Garner sets this story.

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In Elidor, the mythical and legendary sources of the motifs seem more tangible than ever:

  • are the wasteland and the maimed King from the Grail legend?
  • do the four castles of other-worldly Elidor – Findias in the South, Falias in the West, Murias in the North, and Gorias in the East – correspond to the four cities of the Tuatha Dé Danann in Irish mythology – Finias, Falias, Murias, and Gorias?
  • do the four treasures of Elidor – the Spear of Ildana, David’s sword, Nicholas’s stone, and Helen’s cauldron – correspond to the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann?
  • is the title of the novel drawn from a Welsh folktale whose title translates as Elidor and the Golden Ball, described by Giraldus Cambrensis in Itinerarium Cambriae, a record of his 1188 journey across the country.

and the adventure which opens the book allows Garner an opportunity to re-imagine the old ballad Childe Rowland.

Garner was haunted by the ballad and the echo of it that he’d observed in the wrecked streets of Salford. The ballad provides the framework for Elidor, four children (Nicholas, David, Helen (Burd Ellen) & Roland (Rowland) – a church – a magical ‘other’ world – the proximity of, and thin veil between, worlds – magic – threat – violence – uncertain redemption.

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Elidor is a story of ‘chosen-ness’; of the burden of gifts and of unforeseen responsibility. It’s about hardship overcome and rite of passage. It also explores conscience.

As with Garner’s previous books there are flaws. This isn’t a book for those who like all their loose ends tied up when the story finishes. This is a book for those who know an ending is just the beginning and who enjoy a retelling of the classic tale of Good against Evil.

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Garner’s fascination with the potency of myth saturates everything, often at the cost of characterisation and sometimes clunky dialogue. However, what makes Elidor linger in the imagination is Garner’s gift for intertwining the everyday (Manchester) with the mystical (Elidor – the other-worldly place rather than the book). Characters, objects and magic leak out of one world into the other. This is a story of seductive re-enchantment, but also of darker and imperilling forces.

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The sense for foreboding is real enough to keep the pages turning; as the worlds collide and increasingly the children have to rely on the actions of Roland, the over-imaginative baby of the family, to save their world from disintegration. In Elidor  it’s the malevolent standing stones; in Manchester it’s rogue static, ‘electrifying’ unplugged white goods, that memorably create the unease. Alongside living shadows or an eye staring in at the letterbox…

Elidor is a story that touches on change, on the potency of boundaries and puberty. It begins to explore our desire to forget, dismiss or normalise the unsettling forces that exist beyond our control, but also the realisation that ultimately we have to face up to responsibility and face down our demons. In Elidor that means urging the unicorn Findhorn to sing. A song that can only be released in the unicorn’s death-throws. The last lines of the novel are:

“The song faded.
The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.”

However, Elidor is frustrating. It’s ending is unnecessarily rushed, almost as if Garner had grown tired of this tale and wanted to finish it up and move on. At barely 150 pages, it has the brevity of a novella without the crystalline compression that the best of the form can achieve, and Garner himself achieved in The Stone Book Quartet.

Elidor still feels as much an apprentice piece as the first two novels.

It’s fascinating; dazzling, in parts. It open doors to perceptions but fails to do full justice to the fascinating ideas he finds there. Elidor is another novel that Garner almost got right.

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