The title of Alan Garner’s 2003 novel, Thursbitch, comes from the name of a valley in the Pennines, usually taken to mean “the Valley of the Demon”, though Garner says a more accurate (and less pejorative) term than “Demon” is “Big Thing”, thus managing to incorporate awe and power, rather than just evil, in the word. Like so many of Garner’s novels, it’s a story told in two time frames, with occasional rare points at which they — present day and the 1730s — touch, or at least glimpse one another.
In the present day we have Sal, a geologist, and Ian, a priest and psychiatrist, exploring Thursbitch and its environs on a series of day trips. Sal is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, but finds her memory of the valley remains clear, and her response to it is increasingly profound. She talks of it being a “sentient landscape”, a phenomenon she says “most geologists agree about”, but don’t discuss in textbooks. Meanwhile, in the 1730s, we follow Jack Turner, a jagger — a man who makes his living travelling the country, transporting goods from one place to another — who was found, as a baby, in Thursbitch, a place which has religious significance for the locals. Jack is a sort of shaman of the valley, conducting an ecstatic rite in which the locals indulge in hallucinogenic mushrooms. There’s a sacred well where the stone head of the god Crom is kept, but the main spirit of the valley is the Bull, and it is when the local “land man” makes plans for building in the valley that the Bull is angered, and Jack’s life takes a turn for the worst. This coincides with his encountering Christianity, with its confusing notion of “sin”, for the first time.
Jack feels like a further link in the chain of Garner’s visionary heroes, who have developed from the “sensitive, imaginative one” of Elidor, and the “troubled young men with visions” of Red Shift, to the fully-fledged shaman of Strandloper. Jack is immersed in his visionary relationship with the “Big Thing” of the valley, but his life is balanced and grounded by his relationship with a woman, Sarah, and it’s when she’s taken from him, at a point that coincides with the wronging of the spirit of the valley, that things fall apart. (Once again, in this novel, there’s a sacred object — this time a cup made of “Blue John” stone — given as a love-gift and named with a nonsensical-sounding name (it’s a “grallus”, a grail), that crosses from one time to another, though it’s much less loaded with the ideas of abuse and betrayal than previous such objects in Garner’s work. Now, as with Strandloper, it’s the land that is the true sacred/abused object.)
Garner talks about his own experience of discovering and exploring Thursbitch in a lecture, “The Valley of the Demon” (which can be read here, though unfortunately without the photos he refers to). The novel could be said to be Garner’s response to the puzzle of that landscape — how it made him feel, how he came to understand the various peculiarities of its man-made buildings, its standing stones, its well, its church. But also, at the end, it’s about “a broken man as can mend”, a description that applies to both Jack in the 1700s and Ian in the 2000s. “But if I never went, how could I come home?” says Jack, of his work as a jagger; and by the end, “home” is as much a mental state, a balance and a sanity that needs to be returned to, as it is a physical place.
The pagan wildness of Thursbitch‘s gods recalls that first stirring of what I thought was the authentic Garner imagination in the “Old Magic” of The Moon of Gomrath. In fact, the further I’ve got through this re-read of Garner’s novels in preparation for his most recent, Boneland, the more I’ve come to see his first two books, which I at first thought of as prentice-piece fantasies, only marginally part of the main thrust of his work, as very much a part of the whole, perhaps even unconscious blueprints for it. Which makes the fact that Boneland is a continuation and conclusion of those first two all the more enticing. And it’s up next.