The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

The Moon of Gomrath is Alan Garner’s second novel, and his sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Like the first, I read it when I was 8 or 9 but, of the two, it’s the one that lingered most in my memory. It’s also the book where Garner’s authentic imagination begins to show through the influence of Tolkien, like outcrops of ancient rock, dark, slaty and sharp, poking through the otherwise green Middle Earth-ish meadows.

On the surface, The Moon of Gomrath is very much a continuation of Weirdstone. The child protagonists of the first book, Colin and Susan, find themselves tangled once more in the world of magic that exists like a ghost layer, or a nighttime fog, on the otherwise real world of Alderley Edge. With the Weirdstone of the first book secure, there may seem less urgency to this novel, but the background story matters less in the Alderley Edge books than the rush of nightmare chases, encounters with goblins and other semi-mythic folk, and the welter of magical-sounding ancient names. The focus of this book is the Mark of Fohla, the silver bracelet given to Susan by Angharad Goldenhand in the first book. This, it turns out, is not of the wizard Cadellin’s type of magic, but belongs to an Old Magic, a deeper mythic magic, weirder and wilder by far than the Tolkienesque world of goblins and warlocks that made up the first book. The Old Magic is the magic of folklore, of olden times; not of elves and wizards, but of half-wild men and half-gods. It’s this part that I remembered most from the book on my first reading: the image of an ancient pathway that appears only in the light of the moon, and of riders summoned by lighting a fire on a certain hill on a certain night. These riders are part of the Wild Hunt, and don’t come to help or to hinder, but are a chaotic force who do what their wild hearts lead them to do. Their leader is a man with stag’s horns:

“Susan looked at him, and was not afraid. Her mind could not accept him, but something deeper could. She knew what made the horses kneel. Here was the heart of all wild things. Here were thunder, lightning, storm; the slow beat of tides and seasons, birth and death, the need to kill and the need to make…”

The Old Magic is linked with all the primal forces:

“For the Old Magic is sun magic and moon magic, and it is blood magic… it is woman’s magic, too…”

Although much of the book is a series of close-packed chases and encounters with the evil forces led by the Morrigan from the previous novel, there’s a secondary story which begins to emerge, and which could well have become the central plot strand, had this been one of Garner’s later books. At first it may sound a bit like an echo of yet another part of The Lord of the Rings, as we learn that the silver bracelet given to Susan is a mixed blessing:

“She was saved, and is protected, only by the Mark of Fohla — her blessing and her curse. For it guards her against the evil that would crush her, and it leads her ever further from the ways of human life. The more she wears it, the more need there is to do so. And it is too late now to take it off.”

It sounds a bit like Tolkien’s One Ring — a minor magical artefact from a previous book suddenly revealing hidden powers, and hidden dangers. Only, here, the Mark of Fohla isn’t an evil thing (as the One Ring was), but belongs, as it were, to a world outside good and evil — the world of the Old Magic. The danger is that, by wearing it, and using it, Susan will become separated from the human world, and be lost in that other world, as she almost is at one point, after falling into a coma. Woken, she initially calls out to the nine maidens of that other world (which has all the danger of Tolkien’s Faerie, as well as something of the realm of death), not wanting to leave them. So, it may sound like an element of Tolkien’s work repurposed & reimagined as in the first book , but I think it’s when Garner starts to write about this double-edged aspect of contact with the world of magic that he connects with a vital seam in his own imagination, something which will drive the stories of later novels (in particular The Owl Service), about how contact with the world of Old Magic, of myth, is dangerous, and can make you lose yourself, be subsumed by it.

So, although its story isn’t about saving the world (as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was), I find The Moon of Gomrath a more powerful, and more memorable, book. It still suffers somewhat from having to live in the same world as the heavily Tolkienesque Weirdstone, but the connection Garner makes with “the Old Magic” — and with, I think, his own more authentic imagination — makes it somehow more vital, more dark, more truly a part of the folkish-magic tradition I love so much in fantasy (Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, being a prime example, Jo Walton’s Among Others, too).

Now I’m really looking forward to what Garner’s going to do in his forthcoming third Alderley Edge book, Boneland.

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