Do not waver into language
Do not waver in it.
Or, Treasure the text that rattles your world, not the one that lulls you to sleep by telling you what you already knew or wanted to hear.
Silly game: You can only save one novel. Name it.
I’d struggle to choose one. But change the question to ’you can only save the work of one novelist’ and I would have no hesitation in choosing Alan Garner.
The recent publication of ‘First Light’ (2016), a collection of essays commemorating the man’s work, nudged me into rereading his novels in reverse chronological order and to realise how much I owe him. I was not surprised to read essays where the contributors discussed reactions similar to mine. But at the same time the reactions, memories, praise, were never exactly what I would have said. So here’s my version, personal and lengthy as it is, and split into three sections.
Garner’s novels, or my reaction to them, made it possible for me to believe claims that are made for the power and value of reading fiction. The books opened a space where thinking in and through language became possible, where books were more than things to pass the time.
Other people’s reactions, some critical, some derisory, some dismissive, allowed me to understand that however powerful an individual’s reaction to a text, it’s always unpredictably personal: the book that shakes your world sends someone else to sleep.
His books, or specifically one of them, forced me to confront the contradictions of my profession: I teach English, but teaching literature is a very dubious activity for someone who loves reading and loves literature.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen(1960). The Moonstone of Gomrath(1963), Elidor(1965).
My initial encounter was, ironically or appropriately, via my English teacher. This would have been in about 1972, second year in a comprehensive school in Coventry, a place for the sons of migrant Catholics. My teacher was grumbling that parents seemed to think that just because he was an English teacher he admired Lord of the Rings. When I admitted I’d read it, nothing happened, but the next day, a Friday, he pulled a paperback out of his briefcase and handed it to me. Read this, he said.
I did. It was The Weirdstone and I read it from when I got home to when I finished it.
I sometimes doubt that story. But the visual memory of the battered briefcase and the paperback emerging is too strong. I do know he leant me his copy of The Weirdstone. But if that isn’t how it happened, and if the why of it still seems a bit vague, it’s certainly how it should have happened.
I think I realised even then that what Garner had done was make a magical world believable by not making it cute or comfortable. If children strayed into a world of warring magical creatures they would be in danger. Garner’s world, even in that first rushed reading, was threatening and difficult. And that made it feel real, which is something I still think neither Tolkien nor Lewis managed.
I went back to school on the Monday, and as I thanked the teacher he handed me the Moonstone….You’ll want this…
Garner’s career has followed a trajectory that can be divided, in my memory at least, into three sections. There’s the ‘Children’s fantasy’ trilogy which runs into the dead end of Elidor. Elidor was, still is, an awkward story. It ends on an absolute note, but that final sentence, ‘The children were alone with the broken window of a slum’ offers no real redemption or escape from the world they live in. with its bombed-out buildings and urban renewal.
There are readers who hated Elidor. In 'Hard Cases' a lecture he delivered in 1985, printed in The Voice that Thunders, Garner gives examples of some of the letters he'd received from school children. They are not complimentary about the book. ELidor is perhaps the one Alan Garner book where the writer feels at odds with his material. The fantasy world, which Roland finds himself in, has been colonised by numerous writers, and some have perhaps done a better job of making their world more credible. Garner’s works on the edges of metaphor and myth, but just this once it feels too gilded, perhaps too unreal set against the reality of the modern city with its bombed-out buildings and post war urban renewal.
Today these first three books are hard to reread. But if Elidor feels like an ending, what came next was astonishing. Two books, first The Owl Service and then Red Shift. If his first three books were interesting these two converted me into a lifelong rereader.