Alan Garner’s latest book, Treacle Walker, has been nominated for the Booker Prize Shortlist. This 150 page novel is physically slight but intellectually huge and it is all the more inspiring because Garner is 87 years old and will be 88 on the night the winner of the Booker is announced.
Garner’s work has enthralled me since I was about eight years old. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, his first novel was republished in 1963 and read aloud to us as a treat in my primary school class by Mrs Dale. Written in the late 1950s it was first published in 1960 by Collins who were looking for something fantasyish after the success of Lord of the Rings. It grabbed the attention of Sir William Collins, head of the company and it rode the wave of Tolkienism to initial critical and commercial success. For that at least, thanks to all those Hobbits and Orcs in Lord of the Rings.
Categorised as a children’s author for many years, Garner’s perceived target audience rose in age with each passing book. His ostensible physical settings seldom strayed far from the Cheshire, Manchester, Peak District triangle. The Owl Service jinks over the border into mid Wales with English interlopers but continues the exploration of Celtic folklore through a modern retelling of a Mabinogion story that earlier borrowings began. Strandloper, sometimes categorised as Garner’s first ‘adult’ book, takes us to Australia but via the transportation of a Cheshire man, an epileptic who becomes an aboriginal shaman before returning to Cheshire.
The concentration on the region may seem parochial, but by arguing from the particular landscape he knows so intimately Garner can the more effectively transport us to a deeper, more universal understanding of our spiritual undertones. By revealing the genius loci of Alderley, Cheshire, the Peak District Garner loosens our fixation on our own obsession with transient consumerism and leads us to a higher understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
Garner quickly fell out of love with the Weirdstone. The 1963 reprinting holds many changes he believed tightened the storytelling and by 1968 he was ready to condemn the whole enterprise as ‘a fairly bad book’. That description came as a blow to many who had read the book and continue to read the book with affection. Having read it since, while I wouldn’t agree with his condemnation as ‘a fairly bad’ work I can see that from a perfectionist’s point of view it could be better. But sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good and the story was out there introducing us to the idea that there were layers of experience in the world. Critical acclaim fell away as well as the 60s led children’s literature to different social models which tended to sneer at traditional storytelling.
The Weirdstone, and its sequel, the Moon of Gomrath, a noticeably stronger book in my opinion, entranced and entertained thousands, possibly over the years millions, of children and led them to an appreciation of a mythic past and a magical present. Garner however tired of the characters and story arc and moved on to older children protagonists, more obviously serious themes and then adult protagonists and possibly audiences, though Garner never differentiates his target demographic. After lean periods and constant calls from publishers and fans Garner rounded out the ‘Weirdstone Trilogy’ with its final episode (although there was never as far as I am aware any indication it was meant to be a trilogy).
Boneland, rather snidely characterised in his Wikipedia page as ‘nominally completing a trilogy begun some 50 years earlier with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ brought back one of the characters of those first two books as an older man, and explored the depths of background beneath those two earlier books. It didn’t carry on where Gomrath left off, which upset people expecting a straightforward jumping off point of the battle at Errwood Hall. What they got was the feelings Garner had for the sense of place and connection to early man at the beginning of time as we understand it. Colin’s dislocation from reality, having lived through a period of such close proximity to a world we as modern post industrial society have chosen to abandon and ignore, reflects Garner’s own dissociation from the modern world, and the literary world which has proved a fickle friend. He says he has little to do with it and prefers the company of archaeologists.
He may have to put up with its attentions a little longer however, as his latest novel, Treacle Walker, has reached the shortlist stage for the Booker. No doubt Garner will treat those imposters of triumph and disaster as he always has with equanimity born of a sense of place and more important things than the glitter of transitory fame. But as someone who has read him and grown as his works have grown, who has been led to a better understanding of the past and the future in the present by him, I shall be rooting for him. It matters not because the book and the meaning is already there but it would be magnificent if an author so often misunderstood who cares not for the trappings of literary success were to win one of the glittering prizes.
The winner will be announced at the Booker Prize ceremony on 17 October at the Roundhouse in London.