Or, Grimnir’s origins revealed
Six months ago, I knew nothing about Alan Garner. Today, five of his books are stacked on my desk. Only one of them is mine to keep. I’ve renewed one of the remaining three seven times now from the library. I’m at that place where I often am: gathering my thoughts around a stack of spines. Something must be established, recorded, written … so that I can return them to a vertical position on the shelf.
I’ll start here, where, apparently Garner did: The Wierdstone of Brisingamen. This is the one that every English child of a certain age read and then, either did or did not become an altogether different child. You know the deal from the cover, surely: two plucky children on a summer holiday so jam-packed with adventure you can scarcely work out the time. Was it today or yesterday that the dwarves revolted? Did the secret cavern vanish before or after tea? Does the phantom only appear at sunset or at sunrise, or both?
The sheer multitude of unnatural events going on in the first week of holidays phase young Susan and Colin not at all; they pause between brushes with death only for sandwiches and ask, as they pull themselves from malevolent abysses by their fingertips: “you alright, Sue? That was a close one!”
As for the company Sue and Col keep as they bluster about their new fantasy landscape (a very real place in Cheshire, in fact), they require a separate appendix, much like Russian novels with their endless dramatis personae. I worked out the dwarves Durathor and Fenodyree, and the army of blobby menace called the Svarts, as well as the witch who passed for a crabby neighbour, and Cedellin the Wizard; but the rest of them — Dyrnwyn and Grimnir and Angharad and the Prince of Huldrafolk — blurred into collective nouns for ambiguous phosphorescent or ultrablack power. Or perhaps the names of swords.
I was both winded and sedated by the final page of the Weirdstone. Where or who Brisingamen is, I confess, I couldn’t tell you.
Undaunted, I picked up the sequel –The Moon of Gomrath. (And no, I don’t know what or where Gomrath is). Here, Colin is sidelined as Sue races from one paranormal predicament to another, mostly turning up at the wrong place at the wrong time before vanishing into a timeless state that I’m probably wrong to call the Brollachan:
Now the Brollachan has eyes and a mouth and has no speech, and alas no shape. It was beyond comprehension. Yet the shadow that rose is Susan’s mind as the dwarf spoke seemed to darken the cave.
So there they are — Books One and Two of the Weirdstone trilogy, which, it turns out, did not become a trilogy until the 21st century. But more of that in a moment.
Why am I regaling you with my spluttering ignorance about these treasures of the fantasy cannon? On the one hand, I’m legitimately curious about that fact that we don’t know Alan Garner in the USA. We know his contemporary, Susan Cooper, whose curious child protagonists came upon the same sleeping knights as Garner’s (albeit 300 miles south, but also on holiday). But while I adored The Dark is Rising, with its menacing Watcher and charismatic Merriman, I did not, and do not, feel that way about Weirdstone. Is it my age? I’m of the generation that begrudgingly concedes Harry Potter a place at the podium because he is not of Narnia and his witches don’t time travel via a tesseract. But shouldn’t an age bias work FOR the book that predates The Greenwich and The Golden Compass? The book that screams corduroys and bad haircuts and smoke machines and that Pullman and Gaiman and Garth Nix all bow down to as seminal, as foundational, as “important?”
Perhaps that’s the problem. The Weirdstone is “important” but not, maybe, good? Because while Garner may be “the most important writer since Tolkien” (Pullman), that doesn’t change the fact that, I don’t LIKE Tolkien. I don’t like goblin armies and fire-breathing dragons and movies that take three times too long to end because the elves are running late.
So I checked in with my girlfriend Rebecca who is, at age fifty, still playing D&D with (or probably without) her kids and who takes my moaning about “hobbity stuff,” in stride. Did she know this important fantasy writer, Alan Garner? Nope, she did not. Then I checked in with my mate Alex who has a degree in children’s lit and grew up somewhere in the commonwealth reading. Did he think Garner is important?
Maybe, but his immediate response was more definitive: “I love him.”
But back to the question — why am I banging on about books I don’t get? Why am I parading my high fantasy philistinism? Why did I read The Moon of Gomrath knowing it would be more dwarves and more sinister birds and more swords and more evil weather fronts?
I’ll tell you why:
Because I believe that Alan Garner is more than an important writer. I believe he is brilliant craftsman. I think he is an absolute master who wrenches psychology from mythology like blood from a stone. He is a writer who has bound his legacy from lore that is part of his DNA, and his real world is more magical than Narnia or Gomrath or the Misty Mountains.
Just so long as we speak only of the stories without Wizards or Svarts.
The reason I know about Alan Garner is because last April, I passed a Covid-friendly pop-up shop and from it, I brought home Thursbitch. I liked its size. I liked its cover. I liked the title, taken from a valley in the Pennines through which a young Alan Garner sprinted when he thought he might become a runner, not a writer.
Garner is of the eighth (or is it 10th) generation of Garners to call this landscape home. Thursbitch, much like The Edge that Sue and Colin explored, is a haunted valley, translated from Anglo Saxon (or is it Viking?) as the Devil’s Valley. Like The Edge, Thursbitch it is full of stones and legends and shadows and light. But the magic of this novel, which Garner wrote after thirty some years of research (the kind that involves many meals with taciturn farmers) is more convincingly elemental and excavational, more grounded in its other-worldliness than the children’s books began Garner’s writing career.
The hero of Thursbitch is an 18th packman, a jagger; its weirdstone a gravemarker that the young Garner (older than Colin, but not by much) discovered in 1952. Shamans and pagans and pregnant beloveds are the wizards and dwarves and Lake Ladies of this novel, which is written in a language that swoons poetic imagery and onomatopoetic majesty into dialect that is either authentic enough or invented enough to convince the reader that the very time is foreign and the place, archaic.
Come up, Jinney. Come up. Come up lass.Nearly there. And what was at the start. There’s no use asking them lot down at Salterford. They’d put a hat on a hen they would. They’d daub a house with a hammer. They’d plough a rock, them and their ways. Them as crack on as how they know all sorts … them as have it all writ and ever sin they got to shutting sky in a box of walls and stuck a lid on it same it was a suit o’coffin stuff and then think as they can tell Bull, by the God!
I read Thursbitch through in an evening. I read it through again the next evening. It was the first stone in the cairn that now stands on my desk.
A month later I found The Stone Book in the library, along with Boneland. I happened to be reading Underland by Robert MacFarlane at the time and so I though first to start with Boneland, with its cave on the front cover. But the back cover said that Boneland was the final book in a trilogy, the first two books of which, I did not have.
And so I read, instead, The Stone Book, a quartet of portraits celebrating Garner’s progenitors from the last two centuries. It began with an intrepid journey underground, where the stone is marked, emerged above ground to where the stone is hewn into walls, climbed higher still — to stone made into church spires and eventually careened from the hills on a sledge, the final miracle of a family whose hands work wonders and read the writing on ancient walls.
I read The Stone Book through on a Saturday. I reread it on Sunday. It, like Thursbitch, stunned me with its density, its expansiveness, its effortless enveloping language:
A bottle of tea; bread and a half onion. That was Father’s baggin.
The wall was being built. No limewash showed, no donkey-stoning.
“There. What a wall,” said Grandfather. “Looks like it died in a fog.”
Then he was splendid.
So that is how it started. Two powerful, perfect novellas. By an author with a back catalogue and cult following I am yet to make a dent in.
Now back to the troubling question of how I can so ill appreciate the books that Alan Garner is best known for. The seminal ones. The important ones. The ones written for children, whose entrancement, after all, is more valuable than mine.
It took me some time to track down the first two books of the Weirdstone trilogy, because I am sentimental about this stuff and felt I must find them like a stone on the shingle, not with a phone call from Waterstones. And so it was only this weekend that I stacked the three up and had at it. The edition of The Weirdstone I had obtained was the fiftieth anniversary edition, in which the author recalls, in an introduction, the flash of intuition long ago:
I was sitting on a tree stump waiting for a bus. Across the road was a stone wall that my great-great-grandfather, Robert Garner had built. The Garners were all craftsmen, except for me, the failure, because I had no skill with my hands. Each generation tried to improve on, or do something different from , the previous generation. It was called ‘getting aback of.’
Well now, I knew all about this. In the third of The Stone Book quartet, young Joseph announces to his grandfather:
“I don’t want stone. You must prentice me to the smithy.”
“Smithing! By god that’s aback, that is!”
The problem was that the Garner I knew was the Garner who had written complexity into his stories with language and omission, imagery and ambiguity. Who had, indeed, managed to build with all of the elements of his forbears, works of astounding quality and beauty. But here was a Garner who went aback with chapters titled “The Horsemen of Donn” and “The Howl of Ossar.” All these months later, I remember Joseph of The Stone Book wearing his grandfather’s pinioned church steeple like his own dunce cap, but who in hell was Ossar?
You’d think that after my abject failure with books one and two I would call it quits with the Brisingamen. But no. I’m a stubborn sort of completionist and yesterday I took Boneland to bed. Two pages in I realized that Colin, the “semi-characterless actor” (Ursula Le Guin’s words, not mine) of the first books is now grown man, a brilliant astrophysicist with post-traumatic-amnesia relating to the loss of his sister. Sue, it seems, didn’t make it out of the last close one with the Brollachan.
Here, mercifully, in a final installment published a half century after the first, was the magic of Garner’s cryptic density of atavistic allusion. Here, on the first page of the final book of the trilogy was the Garner whose spell I had fallen under and had thought broken by gleaming swords and invisible capes.
He took life in his mouth, spat red over hand on the cave wall. The bull roared. Around, above him, the trample of the beasts answered: the stags, the hinds, the horses, the bulls … from his feet flint flew, spring sprouted, lake surged and mixed with gravel dirt and birch bent to the ground. He lay for one day. He lay for two days. He lay for three days.
And then Colin awakes in a hospital bed. He’s been sectioned.
“A cup of tea, diddums?”
Someone wiped his beard.
Yes, please, I prefer my sleeping knights to be the bearers of insanity, not magic chalices. Boneland was well worth the wait (especially if, like me, you were only waiting a month or two, and not fifty years.) Will I read it again tonight? Perhaps. Will it get me to re-read The Weirdstone? I think not. Like string theory and live theatre, I’ve given high fantasy its annual chance to break through my numbskull and it (or I) have failed.
But there is some justice to report. A minor sort of concession: To write this piece and be done with these books (for now), I went back to the introduction in The Weirdstone of Birsingamen. Here’s what Garner wrote about the characters that failed to move me (or even leave a definite idea of their composition or purpose):
When we were children we would sometimes puddle our makeshift rafts on the Black Lake of Lindow, two miles from the Edge. It’s a gloomy and frightening place, and around it is a peat bog. I never liked it. Then, as I grew older and became interested in archaelogy, I read about the findings of human bodies in Scandinavia, preserved intact by the acid of the waterlogged peat; and I knew why Lindow scared me. Here was the ideal place for a bog body. I knew he was there. That was in 1957. In 1984 peat cutters found him. Grimnir is now in the British Museum and is known as the Lindow Man.
Good god, man — why didn’t you say so?