Gillian Spraggs (wolfinthewood) wrote,
Gillian Spraggs

Alan Garner

I must have read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen quite soon after it was published in 1960. I know I found it in the public library when I was about seven or eight. I know the book stuck in my mind, so that I went over what I remembered of it – which was quite a lot – repeatedly during the next couple of years. I was also haunted by the cover image, a heavily bearded dwarf holding a red goblet. I never did work out exactly which scene of the book this was supposed to represent, but it stayed in my memory.

After that first reading I soon wanted to read the book again. I hunted for it on the library shelves, sometimes obsessively, but could not find it for months. I had forgotten the name of the author, though not the title. It never occurred to me to ask a librarian.

It was a couple of years, or close to that, before I saw the book again. On a second reading it still gripped me. Looking back, I think three things in particular made it stand out from other modern stories of magic and fantasy: its intense seriousness, the lofty archaic speech of those characters borrowed from legend and folklore, and the very specific descriptions of landscape and weather. Alan Garner has commented since that his main characters, Colin and Susan, are deficient in characterisation. That didn't matter to me. It may have been an attraction. It allowed me to join them in their journeys with a minimal experience of distancing.

In 1963 the book came out as a Puffin paperback, and I prevailed on someone – probably my mother – to buy it for me. I still have it. In the same year the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, was published. Here was even more high-sounding language, and otherworldly wonders that stirred my imagination deeply. Some of my favourite parts of the book were taken, in places more or less verbatim, from Irish sagas, Highland folk tales and similar sources; but I didn't know that then.

The book's ending implies a new beginning: 'the Old Magic was free for ever'. I wanted more of this stuff. I rather expected more. But Garner's next book was Elidor (1965), and the one after that The Owl Service (1967). There was no return to the characters in Garner's first two books, and no resolution to their story.

Now, nearly fifty years after The Moon of Gomrath, Garner has published a book advertised as the third and final part of a trilogy. In the words of the dustjacket, 'it is a novel for adults, concluding a trilogy that was begun for children'. And that is fitting, since those of us who were these books' first readers have been adults for more than forty years.

I bought Boneland two days ago, at Waterstones in Nottingham. I haven't read it yet; may not have time till next week. I am braced for the possibility that I may not like it at all.

As I grew up, I gradually became critical of Garner's work. I found Elidor rather thin and unsatisfying. The Owl Service was better, but I thought it ended prematurely. Meanwhile, I was devouring everything I could lay hands on in the way of mythology, legends and folklore. Garner's eclecticism, his extensive borrowings, and his frequent wrenching to his own purposes of names from folklore and legend, all began to grate on me. Fenodyree is a Manx spirit, not a Nordic dwarf. Elidor is a boy in a story told by Gerald of Wales, not an otherworld land of marvels.

The Einheriar are the warriors who feast with Odin in Valhalla; the Herlathing is an Old English name for the Wild Hunt; the three red riders are from an Irish saga, 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel'; Garanhir is the byname of a Welsh hero or ruler called Gwyddno, connected with the Taliesin story. Garner jumbles all of these together in the Wild Hunt chapter of The Moon of Gomrath.

Red Shift (1973) came out when I was an undergraduate. I hated it. I do not know what I would think of it now. I have not read it for many years. I read Strandloper (1996), Garner's first adult novel, because a friend of mine recommended it. I found myself unmoved. I haven't read Thursbitch (2003).

I admire The Stone Book Quartet; and most of all I have enjoyed his anthologies. The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins came out when I was still at school. In it, besides much else, I found The Voyage of Maelduin, The Adventures of Nera, and Garner's own excellent version of the dispute between the farmer and the brownie, 'Tops and Bottoms'.

One of the passages I loved in The Moon of Gomrath comes at the end of Chapter 8, when Colin looks out of the window and sees the sky full of riders with hawks and hounds, 'nine young women …, gigantic, filling the heavens'. I think it was probably suggested to Garner by this story:

When Clanranald resided at Nunton, in Benbecula, two men were tending calves one night in a building known as 'an tigh fada', the long house. They sat talking of many things before the brightly burning fire, when suddenly two strange dogs rushed into and right round the house, to the consternation of the men and the terror of the calves. The dogs were leashed together on a leash of silver bespangled with gold and brilliant stones that sparkled in the bright moonbeams and the light of the fire. A voice was heard in the air without calling:—

'Sitheach-seang, sitheach-seang!
Slender-fay, slender-fay !
Siubhal-bheann, siubhal-bheann!
Mountain-traveller, mountain-traveller!
Dubh-sith, dubh-sith!
Black-fairy, black-fairy!
Cuile-rath, cuile-rath!
Lucky-treasure, lucky-treasure !
Cu-gorm, cu-gorm!
Grey-hound, grey-hound !
Sireadh-thall, sireadh-thall!
Seek-beyond, seek-beyond!'

When the dogs were thus recalled they rushed out, the men following as soon as they had recovered their scattered wits. And there in the bright blue sky they beheld a multitudinous host of spirits, with hounds on leash and hawks on hand. The air was filled with music like the tinkling of innumerable silver bells, mingled with the voices of the 'sluagh', hosts, calling to their hounds. The men were so astonished that they could only remember a few of the names they heard.

These were the spirits of the departed on a hunting expedition, travelling westwards beyond the 'Isle of the nuns', beyond the 'Isle of the monks', beyond the Isle of 'Hirt', beyond the Isle of 'Rockal', and away and away towards 'Tir fo thuinn', the Land under waves; 'Tir na h-oige', the Land of youth; and 'Tir na h-aoise', the Land of age, beneath the great western sea.

… Fortune follow them and luck of game—and oh, King of the sun, and of the moon, and of the bright effulgent stars! it was they who put fear and fright, and more than enough, on the men and the calves of Clanranald.

Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912)

from Carmina Gadelica, vol ii (1900), pp. 257–258

Text on Internet Archive

(You will find the mothan in there, and the incantation that Albanac used to expel the Brollachan.)
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