Last year my wife took the enormous lead weighted hints I was dropping and bought me Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’ as a Christmas present. This was a long time after publication for a committed Garner fan to wait, but I wanted to relive the childhood experience of getting a book by one of my favourite authors for Christmas and having the time to read it in one or two sittings without the hundred and one other things that adulthood, parenthood and general ‘real life’ throw at us. I had after all waited nearly 50 years for the sequel, another couple of months wouldn’t harm me.
Whilst the optimistic glow of Christmas past was a little too rosy in terms of time available, I did manage to carve out enough time to read Boneland relatively uninterrupted. And that proved a different experience than I had imagined. Not because it didn’t transport me back to 1962 when I read Garner’s first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. It did. But in a way I hadn’t expected.
I should explain that Boneland was described as the concluding book in a trilogy of stories. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath were classified by publisher, bookseller and librarian alike as children’s or young adults’ books. On the surface they describe the adventures of two children sent to stay in rural Cheshire, on a farm where they encounter wizards, warlocks, witches, elves, dwarves…you get the picture. There was obviously more in them if you cared to look, but the form was there. As Garner moved on through Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift, his protagonists (not Colin and Susan of the first two books) also grew, moving through puberty and adolescence against a background that mixed largely Celtic mythology and folk tales with an increasing sense of integrating a collective unconscious of landscape with recurring themes in history through to the present and beyond. His later works became more adult, more intricate and if the magic became less wizardly (a lot less in fact), it remained ever present.
I grew older as Garner grew as an author and so I was not expecting Boneland to be a simple continuation of Gomrath. And it wasn’t. And yet it was.
For those who have misread Garner as Tolkienesque, Boneland was devastating, and many fans of the Weirdstone and Gomrath were desperately confused and disappointed. There are no obvious wizards, witches, svarts, elves or other fantasy characters who introduced us in the first two books to the idea that there were associations of landscape and place beyond the ordinary. What Boneland does is deconstruct the concepts behind the first two novels and leave the workings underneath open and there for any who care to see. You have to have read and remembered Weirdstone and Gomrath to make sense of Boneland. This goes beyond the usual remembering of character names because apart from the main protagonist, Colin, there aren’t any named returnees. But you have to be able to identify places, archetypes and events that may have seemed almost peripheral in the warp and weft of a children’s book. Reading the notes about where Garner got his ideas for the first two books (a much more integrated view of British folk history than Tolkien’s fantasy romp), and following the arc of his work since, gives you an easier entry to the underlying concepts of Boneland than if you had simply read the two original books.
For those who were hoping for a third book of wizards I would ask them to give it another read, abandon your initial expectations and stop looking for the straightforward narrative of a light fantasy. Experience the book for what it is and feel the underlying power that the book throbs with. On a straight reading of the treatment and understanding of a successful middle aged man with autistic spectrum disorder it is fascinating and moving. As a set of keys to explaining what happened after Gomrath ends it is engaging and moderately demanding. As an exploration of the relationships of time, an almost Jungian sense of connection with place and the creation of humanity’s understanding of the universe and its place within it, it is superb.