Note: The original version of this attempt to explain what I admire about Garner was split over four blog posts at ladygodivaandme, now it’s hopefully integrated into something more coherent. I’ve also changed the ending so it’s no longer a bad-tempered swipe at current ways of teaching literature but an attempt to explain why the later books are so impressive. But talking about the household Gods is always difficult. What I think is still missing from both attempts is how entertaining the books are. The story teller is not worth his place by the fire, or at the table, if he cannot juggle the multiple requirements of his role, and not the least of these is to be entertaining.
Do not waver into language
Do not waver in it.
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.
You can only save one novel.
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 is 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, lengthy as it is.
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),
My initial encounter, either ironically or appropriately, was via my English teacher. This would have been in about 1972, second year in a comprehensive school in Coventry, a place preparing the sons of mostly migrant Catholic factory workers for a lifetime on the production lines. My teacher was grumbling that parents seemed to think that just because he was an English teacher he would admire 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.
It was The Weirdstone and I read it from when I got home to when I finished it.
I sometimes doubt this 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 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.
There are readers who hated Elidor.It’s perhaps the one Alan Garner novel 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. For once the mythic feels too gilded, perhaps too unreal set against the modern city with its bombed-out buildings and post war urban renewal.
Escaping a Genre.
The Owl Service (1967)
Red Shift (1973)
Reading the novels backwards in chronological sequence, Elidor marks a boundary that’s hard to cross. I can still read the first three books as excellent examples of a genre, but they are books for younger readers, no matter how well written. The Owl Serviceand Red shift, though aimed by their publishers at ‘Young Adults’, still work for Old Adults as well.
If Elidor feels like an ending, what came next was astonishing. Two books, first The Owl Service and then Red Shift. The early books had divorced the fantasy world from reality, and implied they were a place for children, there were portals or spells to get you through to ‘the other side’. In the two books he wrote after Elidor, he seemed to be trying out different approaches to the technical problem of how to present the idea that myth is integral to reality and exists here and now.
The Owl Service is about three teenagers and a set of dinner plates. I remember the physical experience of reading it. I began complacently. I’d climbed welsh mountains in Welsh rain. I knew the Mabinogion. I had a festering dislike of anaemic well-off English people which made me initially sympathise with Gwyn.
But Garner had broken free of fairy land. The Owl Service was set in this world, with its problems of class and race. The book works on the premise that we are not free, that we inherit the consequences of our parents’ decisions, and that thought reaches back as far as there are children and parents. There are patterns we are born into, and our attempts to negotiate them are complicated by where we have to start, where we try to go, and where others think we should be. ‘She wants to be flowers but you make her owls’….Hugh Kenner said the mind fondles words not ideas, and the words stick. It’s not a fully worked theory of destiny or individuality, it’s a line in a story opening a space for reflection.
As a teenager, I was indiscriminately chain-smoking books from the library. Reading was an intense form of alternative living. I was the protagonist in the story: leading an exciting adventurous half-life between the covers of a book and erasing, temporarily, the one I was plodding through.
This didn’t mean I was only reading what my dad would have described as ‘trash’. The great advantage to reading anything that looks remotely interesting, is that it’s impossible not to develop an awareness that some books were much better than others and different books serve different needs. I’d been through Hemmingway’s novels before that memorable meeting with the Weirdstone. I’d been reading Solzhenitsyn’s novels and I’m fairly sure I’d already read The Magus. But The Owl Service was the first book that shook me into realising there was another way of reading fiction. Why that particular book did that remains a mystery.
Everyone who reads will experience a book that seems to be aimed directly at them. By some strange conjunction of coincidences, you picked the book up and in that place, at that time, it’s as though the writer knew you inside out. But how often is that experience simply a product of context? Or mood? You go back to the book a year later, and it’s just a book. Ten years later and it’s become an embarrassing reminder or a version of yourself you outgrew.
The Owl service was not like that. No matter how many times I’ve reread it, the experience is always like a mild but undimmed trauma.
There was nothing mild about the trauma of that initial encounter. There was no cosy ending, no reassurance that effort would be rewarded or the underdog might triumph. The world inside the book was as awkward as the one outside. There was not one character it was easy to identify or empathise with: a characteristic of Garner’s novels that became more marked as time went on. But more than that ‘the real world’ was being revisioned. Garner was beginning to map whatever it was that was operating at a level below the rational or most people’s ability to verbalise it explicitly. The surface was being excavated.
One the books' attractions is the way they accept that the world of linear time and day-to-day ‘reality’ includes the mythic and irrational, that dreams and age-old stories are just as much a part of daily life as cars and phones. Something else I learnt, though whether I ever applied it or not is a different question, was not to flinch from the belief in what might be labelled mystical, if mysticalcould be stripped of the fuzzy nonsense it has accumulated.
The Owl Service was a shock: Red Shift was more like an earth quake.
It’s the first book of his I owned. Marketed to a ‘Young Adult’ audience it has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. On the surface, it’s fairly straightforward. Three stories, all of them revolving around relationships and an artefact. The modern one features a highly intelligent adolescent boy whose parents don’t really understand him. The other two stories are set in the English civil war and sometime during Roman Britain.
It was the latter story that rattled me. Garner had been stripping down his language. Red Shift feels like it has been excavated or quarried, rather than written. The reader has become an observer who has to work at observing. Large parts of the story are told in untagged dialogue. The book begins:
‘Shall I tell you?’
'Tell me what?’ said Jan.
‘What do you want to know?’
The minimalism was powerfully attractive. He made those Roman soldiers going native seem real. I may have spent years trying to write the early middle ages, but I have scrapped so much because I still compare every attempt with my memory of Garner’s Romans.
Red Shift builds its patterns by moving from one story to another. The layering of episodes was a format Garner would carry forward into his last two novels.
It felt right that Tom’s relationships were complicated. ‘Love is all you need’ is a lie, but it haunts so many stories. So many stories pretend that relationships are effortless and we are all unembarrassed sexual heroes. Tom’s first ‘love affair’ is an awkward complicated mess. He’s far too intense. His parents are an inherited obstacle; his father well-meaning but helpless, his mother unpleasant, trying to preserve standards while living in a caravan. There is no happy ending. I was not Tom. I was not any of the characters in the novel. But after the initial trauma, the book felt liberating and reassuring.
Years later, Bunting’s, ‘Words!/ Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write’, evoked Garner first and Bunting second. The chiselled minimalism reaches its apogee in The Stone Book Quartet (1979). I don’t remember when I read this but it was much later and out of sequence. Four stories about four generations, but the stories have been stripped back to bedrock. I am sure that I discovered Modernist poetry after I read Garner, and after his prose a lot of poetry seemed flaccid.
I reread Red shift on a regular basis. But if there are three phrases in Garner’s career then it marks the end of the second.Strandloper either began the most recent phase or hinged the second and third parts.
The first time I tried to read Strandloper I shipwrecked half way through. It’s hard to explain how abrupt and painful that was. Here was my author, the man I’d grown up reading, and here was a book with his name on it that I couldn’t read. The book tells a story about William Buckley, who is transported to Australia, escapes the penal settlement, attempts to ‘walk home via China’, is adopted by the indigenous peoples and finally makes it ‘home’.
I knew about thieves cant, I knew about dialect and slang, I’d read about Songlines and Dreaming but none of it helped.
Garner’s writing had been heading towards an obdurate minimalism. In Redshift the switch between stories is formally marked by nothing more than a space. He had faith the reader would make the connections, adjust and follow. But in Standloperit felt as though he’d gone into the language and found a layer that was older and richer yet baffling. Whatever he’d pulled up into the daylight made no sense to me. It was like looking at a lump of rock carved with arcane symbols.
In retrospect, I went at the book from the wrong direction. As the head of an English department I needed a novel set in Australia, dealing with Indigenous themes, for the work program I was writing. There was a unit to be called Many Voices, and from the publisher’s blurb (this was before Goodreads and the like) this book sounded as though it were exactly what I needed.
Books can resent the attempt to misuse them. I was looking to use it. I was reading it as a teacher, anticipating the assignment that would need to be set, anticipating my students’ reactions. The book shrugged me off.
Garner outlined his relationship with teachers of literature in ‘Hard Cases’, published in The Voice That Thunders. ‘Hard Cases’ makes me want to apologise on behalf of my profession. And I had fallen into a pattern of thought that whatever its noble or admirable aims, is a use of literature, and a reductive one.
In retrospect #2, I realise It was a very silly idea, not only over ambitious but thoughtless. I’m glad I never inflicted the book on a class. It is the first of Garner’s books that defies the categories of publishing, and creates a Model reader who has no age or gender.
I’ve reread Strandloper several times. It might be the long narrative poem the Modernist poets never managed to write. Ignore the dubious distinction between verse and prose which is redundant with Garner anyway, read it as though you’re reading a poem with a plot, and it’s a magnificent, awkward journey that repays all the effort it requires.
Because this is about Garner, I am allowed one apparently incredible story.
It happened like this. I read The Voice that Thunders, the collection of Garner’s essays and lectures, in the common room in Golant Youth hostel while I was working there as an assistant warden in 1984. It had been left on the book shelf by a passing hosteller. I have a visceral memory of reading the essay Inner time, in the quiet of the common room when the hostel was closed in the afternoon.
I would swear to this memory in a court.
The Voice that Thunders was not published until 1997.
My initial failure to read Strandloper rankled. But then came Thursbitch. The critical part of my brain, before it shut up and left me to the experience of reading, could see the familiar aspects of the novel. Patterns, the past folding into the present, time swirling in complicated eddies around a specific place. Two stories, set in different times, the older story written in mostly untagged dialogue in a bleak dialect. Relationships are awkward: one of the modern characters is slowly dying. And there was that familiar sense of perception being bent, of the sparse carefully placed words opening up areas that had been dusty or unvisited.
Thursbitch made me want to write silly things: ‘Garner is the last surviving British Modernist’. ‘If he weren’t labelled a writer for young adults he’d be acclaimed as one of the best writers of English in the twentieth century’…. fortunately I was too busy enjoying the book to embarrass myself.
What the books had been suggesting since the Owl Service was that ‘then is now’…but unlike Bunting who continues ‘the star you steer by is gone’, the books suggested not only is the past present, but the stories reach all the way back to the preverbal, pre-human ancestor.
The early books had separated fantasy from reality. Although the ‘fantastic’ was treated seriously, it was ‘over there’. Garner’s excavations since The Owl Service had explored the important fact that dreams are part of the heft of the world, that there is more to life than the purely rational chronological grind. A mind trained in modern rational discourse can accept the mythic and still see its value. And in his most recent novel, Boneland, he put this idea front and centre.
Boneland is supposedly the final part of the Weirdstone trilogy. But apart from a character called Colin who has lost his sister, it is light years beyond the ending of The Moon of Gomrath. It’s difficult to imagine any child reading the first two books and then going straight to Boneland, though I hope some will. The distance between the books marks the journey Garner and his readers have made. In this case, the pattern has been quarried right back to that preverbal ancestor, who finally makes his appearance, and it’s hard to believe anyone else could have made such a character convincing.
As an experience, I think Boneland, like Thursbitch, is moving and disturbing. Whether it works as a sequel to the first two books is a moot point and depends on what you expect from a ‘sequel’. Whether it creates such a compelling sense of mystery and impending doom that the ending seems anticlimactic is up to the individual reader. But no reader familiar with Garner’s work could have expected a book that neatly tied up all the narrative threads and ended with the words…'and they lived happily ever after’.
Things I learnt.
Should you rush off now and read Alan Garner?
No, he’s my author, find your own.
But seriously, as I wrote at the beginning, the book that shakes your world, and goes on doing so, may put your best friend to sleep. It’s a valuable lesson. Why a thin book about three teenagers and a set of plates should have been so disturbing, and remains so decades later, after repeated re-readings, is probably unanswerable. I think there is an objective argument to be made for the quality of his prose and his stature as a stylist. I doubt I would have ‘understood’ Heaney’s ‘Do not waver into Language/ Do not Waver in it’ if it weren’t for Garner’s books. I don’t think I would have been so receptive to Basil Bunting or Geoffrey Hill without him either and I don’t see those two as in anyway superior.
You can waver into language in numerous ways. One is to escape into the storyworld you’re writing and lie to yourself and your readers. Over there, in Middle Earth, or Narnia, or anyone of countless remapping of the basic escape route, heroes can be heroic, the desired object can be made beautiful and available, you can erase cruelty, or, perversely, glorify it. The detective always solves the crime. You can tell yourself and your readers that good people win, or you can waver into the fantasy of pretending to be so clever that the ‘real world’ becomes anatomised in the self -regarding syntax of your own sophistication. You can tidy up the world in the most rigorously logical non-fiction. But you’ve stepped sideways and wavered into different types of fantasy.
And I’d argue that after Elidor Garner did not write ‘fantasy’.
I admire his willingness to follow the grain in the wood to where it took him. I am grateful for the way he never patronised me as his reader. In the Smoke that Thunders, he claims to have been offered two absolute pieces of advice by his Grandfather.
1) If someone else can do the job better, let them.
2) Take as long as the job needs.
He seems to have followed this advice. In writing, or any art, it seems to ring true. All of which I suspect goes for Bunting and Hill as well. It’s a conventional idea in literary criticism that you should never confuse the appearance of sincerity with the thing itself. And therefore, in the world of critical discourse, it’s a dangerous ground to argue on. But sincerity is what strikes me as Garner’s abiding characteristic. He reminds me of Robert Graves, who was equally sincere, and who believed the poem has to balance trauma and technique, but must satisfy some profound need in the writer, if it is to satisfy the reader
Garner shares with Werner Herzog a belief in what he does that borders on obsession; a conviction that we are a story telling species and therefore stories have power and value and both men operate (perhaps operated in Herzog’s case) under a self-imposed obligation to honour the story by telling it without flinching. In a world of trimmers, it’s guaranteed to be off putting and create a strong adverse reaction. You can make fun of it, or scoff, but it underwrites Garner’s novels.
Do not waver in it?
Some strains in late twentieth century ‘literary theory’ fetishized language. Philosophers and critics and theorists made the surprising discovery that language is difficult. Why they thought this was news is an interesting question. Any half decent writer would have known this in the bones of his practice. But the argument ran that because words are signs, consisting of signifier and signified, and since there is always slippage between the two, what you mean is not always what you thought you said. The corollary of this is that you can’t say exactly what you mean, so why bother trying? Meaning and truth are contingent and relative.
As more than one cynical observer has pointed out, the biggest winners from this kind of hardly understood linguistics and popularised ‘post modernism’ have been liars, politicians and advertising executives. (The modern version of the Elizabethan triad: Lover Liar Poet?). The logical, practical, inevitable outcome of this kind of cheap ‘post modernism’ is the Trump Presidency, where words are simply digital marks in a twitter account and any declarative statement made today can be effortlessly turned inside out tomorrow. Where once to call someone a liar was the worst of insults, the President and his minions lie, publically, repeatedly, unashamedly, and speech is nothing more than a verbal action which is not held accountable to facts or even prior statements. Wavering in language is fashionable and highly profitable.
However, there is also what Donald Davie called a ‘poetry of right naming’, which is the awkward task of describing the world, or the story world, as precisely as possible; in the full knowledge there is slippage, knowing the Remainder can creep back and infect the simplest of sentences. Ruskin observed that it’s impossible to paint an accurate representation of the sea because it is in perpetual motion and the painting is not. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying. Because words don’t work exactly doesn’t exonerate the sloppy writer, or absolve the writer from trying to make them mean what the writer is trying to put on the page. It’s this tension between knowledge of the way language works and a self-imposed obligation towards accuracy which drives Garner, Hill and Bunting and a host of others, though in each writer the solution to the problem leads to distinctive styles.
Garner is the least naïve of prose writers. You don’t head towards a career in the Classics, then teach yourself Welsh, write about dialect survival in the Gawain poet, and not understand how language works.
In his case though, the pressure of right naming is compounded by another obligation. Simply naming things and actions is not enough because there is more to the world than things that can be apprehended with the senses.
In his fiction and in his other writings, he makes the point that Greek rationality and Logic are not the only path to understanding. You can get a long way on carefully written, carefully reasoned discourse, and its absence from current popular debates is a worrying sign, but you can only get so far and inevitably it leads in one direction. It’s one way of thinking, essential in some cases, but at other times stories, myths, songs, the poetry inherent in the texture of language itself, the interaction of language story and landscape, are powerful tools for a different kind of understanding, a different, not lesser, way of thinking. The work he did preparing Strandloper may have crystalized this. As long as the myth or the story isn’t trivialised, or made redundant by a desire to please the audience at all costs, the myth, poem or story are ways of thinking through and in language. (Through here meaning by means of as well as the act of moving through).
This belief, combined with the conviction that 'then is now' (Bunting again) and the desire to get the words right, knowing full well they are slippery customers, creates a considerable challenge. it also creates the pressure that shapes the books from The Owl Service onwards.
I think it has been Garner’s great achievement that on the one hand he has been precise; like Humpty Dumpty he has made the words work overtime and sweat for their wages, but at the same time he has found a way of accommodating the nonverbal without trivialising it.
It’s tempting to see some of the books, Strandloper,Thursbitch and parts ofBoneland especially, as exemplars of a writer simultaneously exploiting both Julia Kristeva’s symbolic and semiotic functions of language. Simultaneously precise in terms of denotation and connotation while exploiting rhythm, sound, syntax, and diction to evoke the nonverbal: to allow the ancient, persistent and mythic to co-exist with bicycles and dinner plates; to see the stone axe and the radio telescope are directly related and to reveal how crucial that awareness is to any full understanding of ‘reality’.
While claiming with a straight face that since Malory didn’t write ‘a novel’ I can save him too.