Sometimes my reading thread takes me a little 'off piste'. But these days I try to go-with-the-flow and I have been such a lifelong aficionado of Alan Garner that this book was a must-read as soon as I discovered it. In many ways, then, this post doesn't really fit under my 'Magic Fiction Since Potter' banner. The book in question is indeed a recent publication, but it is not in itself fiction. The writer it celebrates is, thankfully, still alive and writing, but that part of his work which could be called magic fiction for children substantially predates Potter, whereas his more recent fantasies are not really for young readers. Yet his impact is so significant across the entire gamut of contemporary children's fantasy, and this new book about him has been such a revelatory element of my recent reading, that I can't resist including it.
There are, in my view, three great English wizards of 'magical' fiction; three who are the supreme myth-takers and myth-makers.* First there was JRR Tolkien, who essentially defined magic fantasy in his seminal The Lord of the Rings. Most recently we have Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials takes this genre into new dimensions in far more than the fictional sense, and who now seems to be successfully extending his masterpiece into The Book of Dust. However, between the two comes Alan Garner. He is certainly the equal of these others, perhaps even the greatest of the three, certainly in terms of development over a lifetime's writing.
Here and now
Alan Garner's is quintessentially the magic of place, of landscape, of the earth, which is to say the Old Magic. His spells, like those of Robert Macfarlane's in The Lost Words (written with Jackie Morris), are the conjuring of names. School has taught too many people that history is about the 'olden times'. But history is not layers of 'then', it is layers of 'now'. Places are built on people and events, yet, whilst they belong to a particular 'here', they can seem not to belong to our own present. Alan Garner finds in the landscape objects, 'beauty things'**, that carry those 'heres' into our 'now'. He takes myths from the depth our collective heritage, he resurrects them from their sleeping place under our landscape, and makes them into myths for now, for us. This is his most consistent theme. It can be found in his early children's books, and continues through all his work.
First Light (published just a couple of years ago, under the remarkable new Unbound imprint) is a collection of tributes to Alan Garner from a quite fabulous array of writers. Most are short pieces. Many of them are illuminating, many inspiring. Some are reflective, some analytical, and some more oblique in their homage. All are from people whose lives have been touched by this author, many quite profoundly. Collectively they constitute a wonderful kaleidoscope of tributes. They make you want to rush immediately back to Alan Garner and, however well you already know his work, discover him anew. For me the most affecting contribution of all is from children's fantasy author and Fairy Tale expert, Katherine Langrish. Her piece in this book set me off exploring her own writing too, of which more soon. But for the many moment I must try to keep focus.
Growing old together
Alan Garner has continually developed as an author through a lifetime of writing, not producing a vast output, but delivering a deeply considered book every now and then. His writing becomes increasingly challenging, deeper, more multi-layered and often darker, bleaker - although generally with a degree of hope, of redemption, at its close. Each successive novel is the work of an older , more mature writer. This makes him an author who it is possible to to grow with and through, over the course of a reader's own lifetime. Not that he has to be read in this way. But it is possible.***
The remarkable and ground-breaking early books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, are essentially children's magical adventures, although far more depth and resonance is there to be found by older readers. The stunning urban fantasy Elidor remains fully accessible to young people, but is already much darker, disquieting, and starts to feel like book for somewhat older readers. The Owl Service, elliptical, intense and enigmatic, is very much a book about (and for?) those on the cusp of adulthood, as is the highly challenging read, Red Shift.
The truly superb books of The Stone Book Quartet (my absolute favourites amongst this whole list, all of which are favourites in different ways, and at different times) are for young adults who, like the author, are establishing their place in the world, discovering where they came from, who they are, where they belong. This theme is taken even further in Strandloper, and now we are totally in the realm of adult literary fiction. We are soon to move far beyond it. Thursbitch is, in its way, as revolutionary in thought and language-crafting as is Joyce's Ulysses, and as challenging (although not nearly as long).
Boneland is nominally the conclusion of a Weirdstone trilogy, and in some senses it is. However it shows all the many years of gap that came between it and his two early children's adventures. To my mind it is an old man's book; written by someone with a lifetime of experience of writing and living. That does not mean it cannot be read by the young. But is is a distillation of narrative, language and thought. As such, it is difficult, hard to penetrate. It is not comfortable. But it rewards more than it costs. Consolation in ambivalence.
Through place, Alan Garner has, over and again, transmuted 'thens' into 'nows'. They are often his 'thens', grounded in his places. But in his writing they become universal, our places, our 'thens', and so our 'nows' too. Where there is only one 'here', there is only one 'now'.
'What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.'****
On this Alan Garner and T. S. Eliot seem to agree. Both conjure a world from small places, from words, from names. But they have be the true names, the old names, the lost names. Let the names be re-found, remembered. They are magic. Not cozily magic. Ambivalently magic. Truly magic.
In Boneland he takes everything that his books have been about, compresses it into one hundred and fifty or so pages of numinous intensity and lifts it from the old earth to the cold stars. It is perhaps his greatest masterpiece.
*Susan Cooper runs them close, with The Dark is Rising books, as, of course does the wondrous Ursula Le Guin, with her whole sequence of Earthsea novels, but then she was American, and I am talking here of English wizards.
** Significant found objects that link us to the past, as defined in his latest, non-fiction publication The Beauty Things, co-authored with Mark Edmonds
*** I have not included here his non-fiction writing, nor his many retellings of folk and fairy tale, all of which are well worth exploring.
*** *Four Quartets: Burnt Norton T. S. Eliot