Alan Garner: Treacle Walker

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.

AN UNCOMFORTABLE SUBJECT FOR A WRITER?

Confession time. I’m writing about a book I haven’t read. That doesn’t stop a lot of critics I know, but I feel you ought to be aware that this bit of ramblings is triggered by media and critical response (mindless furore?) rather than a close reading of the text. Of course I’m not really talking about the book. If anything I’m talking about the TV series of the book and one particular incident in one particular episode. But I’m really talking about the response itself.

The work? Game of Thrones, which I know is both a book in a series of (enormous) books and the title the TV has given the whole series. I have read one George RR Martin book, Fevre Dream, which was an interesting take on the vampire genre set on a riverboat on the Mississippi, but none of the ‘fantasy’ series. I find ‘fantasy’ genre hard to read generally. I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings as a teenager but, having tried to read it again in later life, wonder what on earth I saw in it. It is one of those rights of passage books for me, you probably have to read it once, but it doesn’t bear critical (or uncritical come to that) re-reading. Tolkien’s world is a little more integrated than most but it still suffers from so many of the tropes of ‘fantasy’ plus a tweeness that makes one want to throw up at times. I put ‘fantasy’ in quotes because of course all novels are fantasy in as much as they are a type of make believe. But ‘fantasy’ dwells on the obvious, unbelievable end of imagination with its goblins, elves, fairies and dwarves littered picturesquely about the landscape. I love Alan Garners work by the way, but although this has its share of other worldly folk they never slide into fol de rol tra la la sweetness.

Which (at last!) brings me to the point. George Martin’s work seems to be a Dark Age story, with added dragons, but not too many. As such he does not do tweeness, but rather realistically unpleasant nasty brutish and shortness, by the sound of it in spades.

All of which has seemed to wow fans and critics alike, via the TV screen at least. Until now, when realism has stepped over a line it seems. Rape is, I am unequivocally happy to say, a bad thing. I’m not going to make any excuses for it, I think the ‘she was asking for it dressed like that’ brigade are idiots and possibly dangerous idiots. A woman (or a man come to that) should be able to dress as they like and not have it regarded as prima facie consent to assault. But neither do I think that writing about it should be banned. It depends to some extent of course on context and if someone wrote a paean of praise to the act then I would be amongst the first to condemn it. But writing it into an historical novel (albeit with fantastical seasoning) set in an age of brutality and naked power seems a realistic if unpleasant part of the requirement.

Yes, it is possible to write such novels without reference to such acts, but one suspects that this leads to a bowdlerised and completely false impression of the past. We are back, if we are not careful to Tolkien. The chivalric code was there for a purpose: to try and ameliorate the excesses of a caste of brutal psychopaths and near psychopaths who got their position by the naked violent aggression of their family forebears. Anyone who has cosy ideas of the mediaeval period, early or late, should read some real history and realise that George RR Martin is toning it down for TV.

For me, the question raised by all this, is should a writer be censored, or self censor him or herself, because we are uncomfortable with the facts of our history and our present? No-one should be writing to encourage violence against the person, but does that mean no mention of battles, the excesses of real politik, state deprivation of the poor, the problems of unfettered capitalism, slavery etc? If we are too squeamish to admit the existence of our unpleasant side as human beings, too prudish to write about our excesses and explore the darkness in a novelised form, we are not helping banish it. We are like those who chose to ignore the excesses of Savile and co, allowing it to flourish in the dark. I don’t know whether George Martin has any noble cause in his books, I suspect his aim is to write a good story, but we should not make writers portray a candy coated ‘fantasy’ version of the human condition because we are too scared to face the facts. Writers should hold up a mirror to society, and if we don’t like the reflection, we need to change ourselves, not break the mirror.

Boneland by Alan Garner: Giving the reader more than they expected

boneland

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.