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.

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