Red Shift by Alan Garner

In this read-through of Alan Garner’s novels I’ve been doing recently, Red Shift is the first I hadn’t read before. It’s his 5th novel, published in 1973. Reading it for the first time had a powerful effect, but I had no idea how to say anything about it, so after a gap of a week, I read it again. It’s a quick read, but a difficult book. The initial difficulty is in the understanding of it, because here Garner’s style is at its most cut back and interwoven, and it’s a book that works so much by contrasts and echoes between the three strands of its plot. After that, it’s a difficult book because the story’s so harsh. To move from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, with its innocent young heroes, its clearly demarcated good and evil, and its happy resolution, straight to Red Shift would be a shock; as it is, the gradual move from the fight against an external, caricature evil (the svart-alfar and Morrigan of Brisingamen) to a steadily stronger depiction of difficulty, danger and turmoil within the characters (Susan’s almost being lost to the Old Magic in The Moon of Gomrath, the squabbles and doubts of the children in Elidor, the tragic mythic tangle of The Owl Service) does its best to prepare you for Red Shift, which presents us with characters whose problems lie as much within themselves as without. If Elidor was about a magical land that could only be reached via “wasteland and borderlands”, Red Shift is about the wasteland itself: adolescent (particularly male adolescent) turmoil.

Red Shift‘s narrative cuts between three strands, unified by place, separated by time. In the main story, set in contemporary (early 70s) Cheshire, Tom and Jan work to overcome the obstacles to their burgeoning relationship caused by Jan’s having to move to London to train as a nurse (alongside lack of money, and parental suspicion), only to be faced by the far more divisive problem of Tom’s emotional difficulties, and revelations of betrayal on both sides. Most of their story is recounted through their regular meetings at the mid-point of Crewe, where they find a refuge in the nearby village of Barthomley, and in a ruined folly and cottage on the hill of Mow Cop. In A.D. 120, meanwhile, Mow Cop is the hideout for a group of deserters from the Roman Army, native recruits who’ve “gone tribal” to escape the notice of both the Roman Army and the local Celts. Among their number is Macey, a trusting young man the deserters’ leader, Logan, knows how to goad into berserk fits, making him their most ferocious weapon, though afterwards Macey is helpless with guilt and horror at what he’s done. These deserters attack the village of Barthomley, massacring its inhabitants, then raping and kidnapping a young priestess, before decamping to the nearby sacred hill of Mow Cop. There the priestess, pregnant by one of the deserters, is kept as a cook. She alone understands what young Macey goes through when the “god is in him”. The third story-strand is set in Barthomley on Christmas Eve, 1643, where a group of King’s men — mostly thugs and mercenaries — come seeking one John Fowler. In the village is Thomas Rowley, a young man given to fits in which he sees a face “scared… caught”, as well as other visions (which the Roman-times Macey also has) of what appears to be Mow Cop in the 1970s, complete with its empty Victorian folly. Perhaps the face he sees is Tom’s?

These three troubled young men, Tom, Thomas and Macey, are linked by their fits and visions (though Tom’s inner troubles aren’t as explicit; he babbles nonsense and gets into incontinent rages Jan has to talk him down from). All three are in relationships with young women who calm them and try to heal their turmoil (while dealing with issues of their own). The three stories are also bound together by a physical link, a sacred stone axehead. Roman-times Macey, though he knows it is sacred, has used the axehead to kill, and knows he’s done something wrong. Civil War-times Thomas, finding it, thinks it is a thunderstone, a lucky talisman against being struck by lightning, and at first wants to break it up, to spread the luck around the village, though his young wife, Margery, talks him out of it. And in the modern story, Tom and Jan find the axehead hidden in the ruined cottage on Mow Cop (where it was, presumably, stowed by Thomas and Margery). Prior to this, Tom had suggested looking at a star on Orion’s belt at ten o’clock each night as a way of remaining connected while apart (a remote way of remaining close, but typical for the analytical Tom), but Jan wants something she can hold, and fixes on the axehead, which they swap each time they meet. But this just becomes the focus for Tom’s difficulties in dealing with the relationship — realising the axehead’s value, archaeologically speaking, he sells it to a museum because “The responsibility’s too great”; then tries to distance himself from what he’s done through intellect and analysis: “The axe was only a chunk of diorite.” He can deal with the relationship as a star-like distant thing, but not as a close, precious, unique reality, fragile, but at least capable of being held.

With its contrasting/echoing plot strands and its tightly compressed use of language, Red Shift almost seems to be a book written in code. But as it’s partly about the dangers of intellectualisation and analysis, the divorce between head and heart, and the trap of thinking without feeling, to treat it as such would be to take the wrong approach. At one point, Tom and his mother sit down to put together a jigsaw which combines three scenes of “Romantic Cheshire”, and these turn out to come from the three different time periods of the novel’s strands. But the book isn’t a jigsaw. It’s more a collage. You can draw parallels between the story strands, but don’t expect a neat fit. The novel as a whole is best understood by standing back and simply feeling a response.

Red Shift, written in an often dislocated, disorienting style, pictures a world of threat, suspicion, cruelty (both to others and self), division between people and within people, and of emotional turmoil to the point of mental instability. Set against this are three attempts at finding a refuge in a loving relationship, though none of these attempts emerge unscathed, and not all succeed. It’s a very different book from Garner’s earlier novels, but, although his most difficult so far, it’s also his most affecting and haunting. It still hasn’t resolved itself in my head, but I think that’s probably part of its power.

Elidor by Alan Garner

Elidor, cover by Stephen Lavis

Reading Alan Garner’s early novels, I can’t help feeling I’m tracing the development of the twin strands that would combine, in The Owl Service (his fourth book), to truly capture, for the first time, what was driving him as a writer. (And, from the essays in his non-fiction collection, The Voice That Thunders, it’s obvious Garner is a driven writer.) Perhaps the reason he set aside the completion of his Alderley Edge trilogy at the time was the need for a clean start to better pursue that drive beyond the bounds allowed by a sequel. Certainly Elidor, a standalone novel, sees him take a decisive step towards the sort of cut-back, dialogue-driven storytelling technique of The Owl Service, and (the other strand), a step further in encapsulating the complex, fraught, dangerous and potentially tragic world his teen protagonists enter when they become involved with the mythic & fantastic.

Taking its inspiration from several folk tales (see the Wikipedia article on Elidor), the novel begins without any character introductions or scene-setting, straight into a conversation between four children. Named, but not described, it’s left to the reader to work out, from the clues of how they talk and interact, who’s older than whom, as well as where they are and what they’re doing. The four Watson children, Nicholas, David, Helen and Roland, are killing time in Manchester, riding department store lifts and roaming the streets. Roland (the youngest, and most imaginative of the four) suggests selecting a random street from a map and finding it. It turns out to be in a section of the city partway through demolition. They find an abandoned church, Roland kicks a football through its window, then loses his siblings as, one by one, they go to find first the ball then each other, and don’t come back. Finally, Roland follows them into the church, where he meets the slightly scary fiddle player whose music has been haunting their little quest, and who proceeds to send Roland to another world.

The other world is Elidor, a land of four golden castles, now eclipsed by rising forces of darkness, but preserved from total engulfment by four Treasures — a sword, a spear, a goblet and a stone — which, it is prophesied, four children will claim and protect in the land’s time of need. Roland’s powers of imagination turn to real powers in this world (“The power you know fleetingly in your world is here as real as swords,” he’s told), as he saves his three siblings from the power that holds the Treasures. Fleeing back to our world to protect the Treasures, the children find themselves holding mundane variants — two wooden laths nailed together for the sword, a rusty iron railing for the spear, a cracked cup for the goblet, and a dull lump of stone. Forced to bury them because of the wild, weird electrical effects these objects produce, the children forget or dismiss their adventures, apart from Roland, who soon realises the forces of darkness are still working to capture the Treasures.

The children with the four Treasures. Internal illustration from Elidor by Charles Keeping.

In a book that seems to start out as a slightly updated version of a C S Lewis or E Nesbit-style fantasy adventure, Elidor soon centres on the sort of thing Garner was to write about much more in later work — difficult dramas in which fantastic or strange experiences are troubling influences, things you want to forget or dismiss, but are compelled to face when they simply won’t go away. Roland’s status as “the imaginative one” means he’s generally disbelieved and mocked by the others, even though he’s the one who has the best idea of what’s going on. Nicholas, the eldest, finds the phrase “mass hallucination” in a book, and clings to that as an explanation for what they experienced; Helen, the peacemaker, just wants things to return to normal; David, more scientific, clings to reason, but is the first to be convinced when the evidence that something strange is happening is undeniable. But, like anything repressed in the unconscious, the fantastic forces of Elidor only gain in strength the more they’re ignored, and finally break through. The one thing that can save Elidor from its enemies is that the unicorn Findhorn must sing, and when he’s hunted into our world, the children find him in the wasteland where they first entered Elidor (“Wasteland and boundaries: places that are neither one thing nor the other, neither here nor there — these are the gates of Elidor” — just like the children, who are on the boundary between childhood and adulthood, and, at the beginning of the novel, are between homes). At the end, there’s a sense that, having finally faced the difficult work demanded of them, and witnessed its resultant tragedy, the children are left bereft, not enlightened or comforted by their contact with magic, but exposed to a more troubling, if true, version of reality. Where before, when it had need of them, David has to say:

“You may have finished with Elidor, but Elidor’s not finished with us.”

At the end, their task completed, there’s a sense of a sudden, almost bleak, withdrawal of the fantastic from our world. The last lines of the novel are:

“The song faded.

The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.”

Tellingly, there’s no wizard like Cadellin of the Alderley Edge books to provide wisdom and a few helpful magic spells. The Watson children’s knowledge of Elidor comes from Malebron, a desperate Elidorian man acting on the utterances of a perhaps mad prophet, but who has as little understanding of what they mean as the children. The magic itself is more like the Old Magic of The Moon of Gomrath — a chaotic thing, not good or bad, just powerful, difficult, not understandable.

But this is what gives Garner’s books their edge, their sense of honesty. You really feel he’s writing about genuine imaginative experiences — not daydreams, not nightmares, but things emerging from the unconscious which must be dealt with, fought, faced, and which are therefore as real as anything else in our world. This is the stuff of initiations and rites of passage, not escapism. The battle is not for good, but for sanity, balance, selfhood in the face of encroaching darkness. The land of Elidor, at the end, is healed, but only at the cost of a tragedy played out with the four children as unwilling actors, the sort of thing more likely to leave them disillusioned than enchanted. You get the sense that, for Garner, it is not the fantastic that offers escape, but the real world, with its certainties and solidities; nevertheless, the fantastic — the imaginative, the mythic — has to be dealt with.