One of my favourite authors from childhood is Alan Garner and in his saga of ‘Wild Magic’ he achieves powerful effects of beauty and terror that hold a reader well beyond the close. The Wild Magic books are officially The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its direct sequel The Moon of Gomrath, but Elidor and The Owl Service are usually included in this description because, though unrelated plot-wise, they share many thematic similarities. In Garner’s own words, this quartet of books all concern characters drawn into the world of magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow – a world of mists and forests, ancient enchantments, mythical beings, ageless wizards… and restless evil. Garner is at his best writing of night and dark water – his stories are ferocious and deeply felt, briskly adventurous yet brimming over with wonder, excitement and imagination. As a reader – even a child reader – you are never patronised by Garner or presented with endless, boring explanations or descriptions. His books move along at a breakneck pace, almost like a film shot with a handheld camera, and the reader is continually thrust right into the midst of it all. A native of Cheshire, England, most of Garner’s books centre on Alderly Edge, a place as personal and as full of mythic potential to him as the West Midlands were to J R R Tolkien.
Born into a working class family in Congleton, Cheshire in 1934 Garner grew up around the nearby town of Alderley Edge, and spent much of his youth in the wooded area known locally as ‘The Edge’, where he gained an early interest in the folklore of the region. Garner went on to study Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, following in the footsteps of another famous writer of children’s fantasy, a certain C S Lewis. The Garner family had for generations passed on an oral tradition of teaching their children the folk tales about The Edge, which included a description of a king and his army of knights that slept under it, guarded by a wizard. In the mid-19th century, Garner’s great-great grandfather Robert carved the face of a bearded wizard onto the rock of a cliff next to a well that was known in local folklore as the Wizard’s Well. The story of the king and the wizard living under the hill played an important part in the young Alan Garner’s life, becoming deeply embedded in his psyche and heavily influencing his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. In Weirdstone two children, Colin and Susan, by accident come into the possession of a vital talisman being sought after by a Dark Lord who wishes to destroy it to put an end to the protective magic of the white wizard Cadellin Silverbrow. In the course of their association with Cadellin, Colin and Susan find themselves in contact with dwarves, trolls and a coven of evil witches known as the morthbrood. Garner sent his debut novel to the publishing company Collins, where it was picked up in 1960 by the company’s head, Sir William Collins, who was on the lookout for new fantasy novels following on from the recent commercial and critical success of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Garner took a pragmatic view of his own novel’s publication, once saying that ‘Collins saw a title with funny-looking words in it on the stockpile, and he decided to publish it’. In truth, however, Weirdstone was no mere Rings rip-off, being written by an author who was himself well-versed in Norse and Celtic mythology and able to present his own, highly original vision of fantasy. The book’s plot and characters, whilst bearing superficial similarities to Tolkien’s universe, could as easily come from traditional myth, fairy tale and folklore.
With the publication of Weirdstone’s superior sequel The Moon of Gomrath in 1963 we were given more of an insight into Garner’s sources and inspiration. In the short appendix to Gomrath Garner wrote that ‘Most of the elements and entities in the book are to be seen, in one shape or another, in traditional folklore. All I have done is to adapt them to my own view.’ It is interesting to note Garner’s trick of varying style in his novels, allowing a proportion of archaic language to tinge some characters’ speech and some narration, to make it strange but still comprehensible, reaching back to ancient sources in the process. For example, Garner often takes genuine Old Norse worlds out of their context and uses them just as names, like Nastrond – in Garner the name of the Dark Lord, but in Snorri’s Edda the name of the ‘corpse beaches’ where sinners go after death. Yet making these borrowings is an effective trick for Garner – as he says in Gomrath’s appendix ‘A made-up name feels wrong but in (Celtic literature) it is possible to find names that are authentic, yet free from other associations’. Consequently, in all his books Garner is attentive to the geological, archaeological and cultural history of his settings and takes great care to integrate his fiction with the physical reality beyond the page. As part of this, Garner included maps of Alderley Edge in both Weirdstone and Gomrath and spent much time investigating the areas that he deals with in his books. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1968, Garner commented that in preparation for writing his book Elidor: ‘I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks (and) megalithic archaeology…’. The Herlathing, the English form of the pan-European legend of the Wild Hunt, makes an appearance in Garner’s writings, as do the Einherjar, the bodyguard of the gods in Norse mythology, and the dark Celtic warrior goddess the Morrigan. Another major source of inspiration cited by Garner is The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, a book which argues that prehistoric man used a system of long distance, straight tracks – or ley lines – marked by stones, cairns and beacons.
The reader is unquestionably the ultimate beneficiary of this depth of attention to detail, especially in Garner’s later novels, where he grows in confidence as a writer. Set in contemporary Manchester, Elidor tells the story of four children who enter a broken down Victorian church, only to find a portal there to the magical realm of Elidor. Here they are entrusted by a crippled king to help rescue four treasures which have been stolen by the forces of darkness who are attempting to take control of Elidor. Successfully doing so, the children return home to Manchester with the treasures, but are pursued by the evil forces who need them to seal their victory. Elidor is a highly original tale which, although rich with allusions to Celtic myths never feels overly derivative. The Owl Service, perhaps Garner’s most haunting and powerful tale to date, draws even more deeply on mythology, this time using as its basis a story in the Mediaeval Welsh epic, the Mabinogion. In all his works, like Mervyn Peake, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson before him, Garner possesses the gift, so rare among storytellers, of being able to make his audience literally shiver with the power of his writing:
“So deep did men delve that they touched upon the secret places of the earth… There were the first mines of our people dug, before Fundindelve: little remains now, save the upper paths, and they are places of dread, even for Dwarves.” – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
‘Here was the heart of all wild things. Here were thunder, lightning, storm; the slow beat of tides and seasons, birth and death, the need to kill and the need to make.’ – The Moon of Gomrath
‘Fair is that land to all eternity beneath its snowfall of blossoms.’ – Elidor
‘It is bitter twisting to be shut up with a person you are not liking very much. I think she is often longing for the time when she was flowers on the mountain, and it is making her cruel, as the rose is growing thorns.’ – The Owl Service
Although he’s still with us, Garner sadly no longer has any interest in writing fantasy, which makes us all the more privileged to have his brilliant early work to enjoy for generations to come.