The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Garner’s first book, published in 1960, and is the first of a trilogy, to be completed later this year. I first read it at the age of 8 or 9, and was totally caught up in its delirious, nightmare chase sequences (a good half of the book, if not more, is given to two long chases, one aboveground, one below); it also either introduced me to, or connected me with, a primal, archaic layer of my imagination, something I can best describe as “English mythic” — a folkloristic mix of fairy lore, Norse myth and Tolkienesque fantasy laid upon the English countryside, something which has, ever since, been one of those deep-running veins of imaginative meaning for me, and that excites me whenever I encounter hints or glimpses of it in such things as classic Doctor Who, 70s UK horror films, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising, etc., etc.

I re-read the book in my twenties, and was a bit disappointed. While no way near as derivative of Tolkien as, say, the regurgitative Sword of Shanarra, Weirdstone is certainly strongly influenced by The Lord of the Rings. It’s silly to complain that Cadellin, the white-bearded, monk-robed wizard, is like Gandalf, because Gandalf is like Odin, and all such wizards have their roots in a similar primal archetype. But other aspects of the book are surely too Tolkienesque to be anything but influence. There’s the Galadriel-like Angharad Goldenhand, for instance, a beautiful female elf-like noble who protects the travellers in her realm, giving them food and gifts to help them when they return to the fray. There are dwarfs — Tolkienesque dwarfs, not Norse myth ones. There’s a magical object (the Weirdstone of the title), which in this case needs to be recovered, not destroyed. Most Tolkienesque of all is the nightmare journey through the mines of the goblin svart-alfar, whose “Eyes! Eyes looking at me! Down there in the darkness!” made me think of Tolkien’s “Drums! Drums in the deep!”, occurring as it does at a similar moment. The best way to describe LOTR‘s impact on Weirdstone (I don’t know if Garner acknowledges this or not) is to think of it as a sort of fever dream fuelled by the late-night reading of Tolkien, with certain major events and figures emerging re-purposed, alongside a host of Norse-mythic figures bursting out as the imaginative floodgates are opened.

A recent, third read changed my mind again. Yes, Weirdstone is heavily influenced by Tolkien, but two things save it from being a derivative work. One, Garner is a powerful writer, and perhaps the only reason he relied so much on Tolkien is he responded to him (or the archetypes he employed) so powerfully. The most Tolkienesque passage — that journey through the Moria-like goblin-infested mines — is one of the most compelling sequences in the book, with the “Earldelving” chapter, in which the travellers have to squeeze through miles of narrow, often flooded passages, being genuinely claustrophobic. I found myself desperate to finish that chapter just so I could breathe again. Some of the descriptions of the underground caves have a beauty that can only have come from firsthand experience:

“Now and again they would come upon a stretch of rock over which the water had washed a delicate curtain. This was to be found where a vein of ore lay just above the roof: the water, trickling through the copper, over the years had spread a film of colours down the wall, ranging from the palest turquoise to the deepest sea-green.”

The other saving grace is evident in the above passage, too. Garner’s main purpose in writing Weirdstone seems not so much to tell a story — as I said, story-wise, Weirdstone is pretty much all chase — as to enchant a landscape he knows and loves (that of Alderley Edge) with a thick layer of myth and imagination. The second half of the book, in which the children, their dwarf companions, and the down-to-earth rustic Gowther Mossock, have to cross several miles of countryside while avoiding the thickly-ranked forces of evil, seems almost like a game children would play — “How would you get from here to there without being seen?” One thing fantasy all too often suffers from is generic landscapes — forests full of nothing but evenly-spaced trees on flat land, mountains that are bluish, rocky and snow-capped, swampy marshes, sandy deserts, etc. etc. — but Garner’s is a real landscape, tangled with all the quirks and stops and ditches and brambles of the actual English countryside, as well as being shot through with folklore, like it has a vein of imaginative silver running through it. (In fact, it is often the landscape, with all its obfuscating thickets and exposed, open spaces, that provides the real hazards and difficulties in the journey in Weirdstone, despite the hordes of evil human and inhuman creatures loose in it.)

The feel I get from Weirdstone is of a young writer, fired up with the creative freedom granted him by reading Tolkien (and a lot of the same source myths & folklore too), and connecting that with a deep, highly imaginative love of a real landscape. When I first read this book, the thing that most excited me was the feeling that the everyday world could be infused with a barely-hidden magic, in which a bothersome local woman could turn out to be the evil witch Morrigan, an ancient rock could be a hidden gateway to an underground chamber, and a family heirloom could be an ancient stone of power. And I think the reason I loved this so much about Weirdstone, and other books like it, is not that it provides an escape from “real” life, but that it captures an essence of human experience, that we not only live in a real world of mud and stones, roads and houses, but in a world of imagination, too, where the “real” things have potentially powerful connections with realms of inner meaning & magic that are just as real, even if they are only in our heads.

Prometheus

I will, usually, watch sequels & prequels to my favourite films, but never with any raised hopes. Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of my top three favourites (I can’t name a top one — the other two are Amelie and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), so of course I had to see Prometheus, Scott’s prequel-of-sorts to his breakthrough film. I don’t think it’s the sort of film to be ruined by discussing its plot — I heard one review beforehand and gleaned a good enough idea of what it was about to be in no way surprised — but this is a reaction to the film, not a review, so I’ll say it now: spoilers ahead.

My main feeling was Prometheus was pretty nihilistic. This may sound like an odd criticism for a horror film, but it was only after watching it that I realised how much Alien (and Aliens), being about survival in the face of terrible odds, are so life-affirming. They use their horror elements to increase the sense of the preciousness of life. Prometheus, though it does have many similar situations, doesn’t have the same feel at all. Perhaps because it’s more preoccupied with philosophical questions, its survival/action elements are tainted with a dour fatality, a feeling of “Yeah, but survive for what?” In a sense, the horror elements — one coming from the threat to individual survival, the other dealing with the ultimate source of human life — come from both sides at once, trapping the viewer in a pincer movement, and leaving no room for a sense of hope. I’ve come across criticisms of the film saying it doesn’t answer the philosophical questions it raises, but I don’t think that’s a weak point — the raising of philosophical questions (“Where do we come from? Where are we going?”) without answers is entirely valid, as it acknowledges very real areas of doubt. And doubt is okay. There’s a lot of it about. Besides, what possible answers could the film provide that would be in any way satisfying?

So, why does the film feel so nihilistic? It could be because a core trio of the main characters are so cold to each other (one, David, being a robot, another, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, whose utter coldness at the beginning — she changes midway, with no real reason — prompted what I thought was the best line in the script, when Captain Janek asks her “Are you a robot?”). But the closest I can come to identifying it lies in the imagery of the film. Alien was famous for having a lot of H R Giger’s warped images centring on the idea of impregnation and gestation (the way the alien enters & gestates in its human prey, for instance, or the way the main action takes place in the confines of a spaceship addressed as “Mother”); while Aliens was much more about motherhood (Ripley’s adoption of the traumatised Newt, plus of course the vast alien mother she fights at the end). Prometheus‘s main image, though, is of abortion, both actually (Doctor Elizabeth Shaw’s rather tacked-on super-fast pregnancy, and its termination) and metaphorically (what the alien Engineers are planning to do to their creations). The film also brings in what could be called a paternal strand, with the selfish, unfeeling presence of trillionaire Peter Weyland, and his quest to meet his makers (expecting, for some reason, paternalistic Gods, but not, of course, getting them). And this brings up a sort of flipside to the abortion imagery, voiced by the android David, who at one point asks, “Doesn’t everyone want to kill their parents?” An idea the film seems to accept without argument. So, Prometheus seemed to be mostly about parents wanting to kill their children, and children wanting to kill their parents — actually, metaphorically, and theologically. The result is a picture of a totally bleak, uncaring, in fact actively hostile, universe, with none of the contrasting, messy, crew camaraderie of Alien, or Aliens‘ feel of an impromptu family developing in the face of danger. In Prometheus, human survival has no point, because humanity isn’t human enough.

After Alien, Aliens worked so well because it took the basic idea of the first film (the perfect killer alien let loose on a bunch of humans) and put it in a slightly different genre. Alien was survival horror, and was about the individual; Aliens was a military film, and was about the survival of the group, the protection and raising of children (and, on the flipside, a new generation of alien creatures). After Aliens, I thought there was only one way to make a third film, and that was to bring the creatures to Earth (and so be about the survival of the race). I was disappointed, then, when the third Alien film settled for a sort of half-and-half Alien/Aliens hybrid, which worked on neither score, while the fourth (made by one of my otherwise favourite directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was totally wrong for the series) might have worked as a dark comedy, had he been allowed to go really OTT, but was never going to be anything more than a footnote in the series. Prometheus, though it abandons the Alien creature, and though it is about the survival of the race, doesn’t do anything sufficiently different from Alien or Aliens to be judged on its own merits. (Considering the difference in plots, the film has an awful lot of similar scenes and situations, some of which feel they’ve been inserted merely for similarity’s sake.)

Guillermo del Toro saying he can’t make Mountains of Madness because Prometheus covers too similar ground is a great pity; Mountains of Madness would at least take the threat to Earth, and would make it that much more immediate and visceral. It also wouldn’t have had the baggage of previous films to feel it had to conform to. Not that Prometheus is bad, just that it isn’t as good as Alien or Aliens.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I found William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for 15¢ in a charity shop in Los Angeles, and it was the best 15¢ I’ve ever spent. (Not that I’ve spent many ¢ents. I tend to stick to pence.) It’s about writing non-fiction, not fiction, but what it teaches still works, I think, as a basic grounding in wordcraft. It’s also the best example of a test I apply to every book on writing I’ve come across since: if a book is about writing, it ought to be well written, to prove the author knows what they’re talking about.

Whenever I read an excerpt from Zinsser’s book, it provides the perfect instruction by example alone. His basic tenet is best set out in his own words:

“…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

I find something lean and persuasive in Zinsser’s very style.

The situation complicates once you’re talking about fiction, of course, but I think the basic rule still applies. You still need to have every word earning its keep, it’s just that in fiction “its keep” needn’t be the communication of sense alone, it can also be mood, character, feel, and countless other things. Clark Ashton Smith’s highly poetic prose feels just as disciplined as Zinsser’s, it’s just serving a different end.

I usually come away from any good book on writing with one key good idea, but with Zinsser’s I came away with two. The first is his principle that the craft of writing non-fiction is to always think of the reader, to never let him or her fall asleep or get bored. You’ve always got to be making sure they’ll get what you want them to get from the words you’re using. The exception to this reader-first approach is humour. Zinsser’s rule here is that, if you find it funny, use it. Because there’s no universal sense of humour, you’re inevitably going to find some people just don’t get your jokes. But as long as you find them funny there’s a chance someone else will, so leave them in.

I know, if you glance through a few Mewsings, you’ll find enough examples that go against Zinsser’s principles to damn me to the nether circles of writerly Hell. But still he remains, for me, one of those ideals, those guides to always bring me back, when I need it, to a solid approach, a thing that works — the craft of writing, if not the art.

Though maybe a bit of that, too.