Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland coverAlan Garner’s latest novel, Boneland, is a conclusion to the Alderley Edge sequence that kicked off his writing career back in 1960. But it’s no ordinary sequel. As Ursula Le Guin points out in her Guardian review, the protagonist of Boneland, the male half of the brother-sister duo of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, “has aged some 30 or 40 years, and their author nearly 50.” Which is why, when I first heard about Boneland, not only did I know I had to read it, but I also decided (as I’d always intended, but needed something like this to actually make me do it) to get round to reading all of Alan Garner’s novels in preparation.

No doubt as a result of this, reading Boneland left me heady with connections to Garner’s earlier works, both minor (the image of a hand outlined in red on a cave wall; a character seeing how far he can freewheel across a landscape; puns on the fact that M6 or M45 could be referring to a motorway or a distant galaxy; the flash of blue-silver as the trigger for trauma; “Who-whoop! wo-whoop! wo-o-o-o!”; stone axeheads; graffiti; nonsensical rhymes and folk-songs; being “badly”) and major (the sensitive, imaginative, troubled hero-with-visions; the connections and resonances between two worlds, or two times; two narratives linked by a single geographical location; sacred promises and love promises abused or betrayed then (sometimes) healed).

In Boneland, Colin of the first two Alderley Edge books is now Professor Colin Whisterfield, a brilliant academic and a deeply troubled human being. Highly intellectual, possessed of “an IQ off the clock” and an almost completely retentive memory (“I don’t delete. Anything. Ever”), he lives alone, in a cabin in a quarry near Alderley Edge, pursuing his world-renown astronomical studies using the nearby Jodrell Bank Observatory, but unable to remember anything of what happened in Weirdstone or Gomrath (“I can’t access anything, anything, before I was thirteen”), only that he once had a sister, but now has a desperate, crippling sense of loss, and a belief that, by studying the distant Pleiades, he might somehow find her. His fragile mental state leads him to begin psychiatric treatment with the earthy, motorbike-riding Meg. (An essay, “Inner Time”, collected in The Voice that Thunders, detailing Garner’s own experience with psychiatric trauma and treatment, makes good accompaniment reading to Boneland.) But is Meg what she seems? The voice of Colin’s sister comes to him as he stands between a pair of “whisper dishes” at the Observatory, hinting that Meg might in fact be the evil Morrigan from their childhood adventures. Meg, meanwhile, starts questioning whether this sister that Colin claims to have lost was ever real.

Alongside the main narrative, as so often with Alan Garner, is a parallel strand, this time set in the very distant past, as an unnamed shaman, last of his tribe, perhaps of his race, goes through his ritual activities and wonders, bereft, who will dance the dances to move the sun across the sky and return the spirits of beasts to the land once he’s gone? And, once more, this parallel narrative is connected to the modern-day strand by a physical object, a “black stone paperweight” which Colin realises is “five ice ages and half a million years old!” Like so many sacred objects in Garner’s fiction, it’s easily overlooked or undervalued: “This stone is poor, and cheap in price; spurned by fools, loved more by the wise.”

Elidor, cover by Stephen Lavis

At the heart of Boneland is a theme that runs deep through all of Garner’s novels from Elidor onwards, and which is, I’d say, one of the key themes to a lot of 20th and 21st century culture — the incommensurability of the extremes of intellect and emotion. Troubled genius Colin, highly successful as an intellectual but deeply flawed as a human being, beset by bouts of trip-switch irrationality, is Garner’s ultimate test case in this arena (and yet another of many troubled male heroes-with-visions, fits and flashbacks), with both sides of his intellect/emotional-damage equation hiked to the max. In my Mewsings on The Moon of Gomrath, I quoted a passage as indicating what I thought was the first stirring of Garner’s authentic imagination, the point his early writing really caught fire, as he describes Susan’s encounter with a being straight from the “Old Magic”:

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…

“Her mind could not accept him, but something deeper could” — and it is making that connection, between the intellect (“the mind”) and emotion (“something deeper”) that Colin is failing to do. Perhaps that’s why he needs his sister. His world is full of the mythical and the scientific overwriting one another. His main astronomical work, for instance, is with “MERLIN” — not the Gandalf-like Cadellin of the first two books, but a “Multi-element-radio-linked-interferometer-network”, whose chief computer is called “Arthur”, and Arthur is, of course, one of the names of the Sleeper Under the Hill in Alderley Edge, whose sacredness Colin has abused by trying to get him to wake to rescue his sister. But Colin has at least a sense of the answer to this inability of reductive, analytic intellect to accept myth, imagination, and emotion:

“There can be more than one answer. There could be an infinity of answers. Truth isn’t fixed… Both systems can be real, but both are models. You can’t, or shouldn’t, confuse them. I did.”

“Hey now, kiddo,” said Meg. “Are you, an astrophysicist, saying that mythology and science have equal validity?”

“I’m saying they could have. There may be truth in fairy tales. My mistake was to mix them.”

And, later:

“…you could argue that for a thing to have a multitude of possible meanings is tantamount to its having no meaning at all. But perhaps the opposite could once have applied. Perhaps a thing that could be thought to have a multitude of meanings, then, gained strength and importance from the ambiguities.”

Red Shift, the primal Garner text, starts with a conversation:

“Shall I tell you?”
“What?”
“Shall I?”
“Tell me what?” said Jan.

There, we have someone (the writer?) trying to find a way into telling his story, but meeting only with misunderstanding and obfuscation, a block that ultimately becomes the book’s tragedy. Boneland starts in a similar, but subtly different, way:

“Listen. I’ll tell you. I’ve got to tell you.”
“A scratch, Colin.”
“I must tell you.”
“Just a scratch.”
“I will.”
“There.”
“I shall.”
“Done.”

Here, while one voice says it’s going to tell a story, the other tends a wound. Which could be said to have been Garner’s work, from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to Boneland — telling stories to heal a wound, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to breach the divide. As the grown-up Colin says, “Someone has to look after the Edge. There always is someone; always has been.” And of course he means Alderley Edge, but “the Edge” could also be the dream/reality boundary the shaman Strandloper walks, and the “Wasteland and boundaries” that are the “gates of Elidor”, or the corpus callosum that links the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the point at which intellect and emotion must meet to make a whole, healed, human being.

Boneland is by no means a traditional sequel to the Alderley Edge books, but neither is it (as I feared it might be) an ironic rewriting of them, or an attempt to dismiss them. (Garner did once make mid-career disparaging remarks about his first two books, but has apparently warmed to them again.) And I, for one, am thoroughly satisfied with it, both as a continuation of those first two novels, and a continuation of Garner’s body of work as a whole.

Thursbitch by Alan Garner

cover imageThe 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.

cup made from Blue John stoneJack 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.

Strandloper by Alan Garner

coverStrandloper, published in 1996, is based on the true story of Cheshireman William Buckley, who, transported to Australia in 1803, escaped, survived alone in the outback for a while, then was taken in by local tribesmen who believed him to be one of their own back from the dead (because he was white, and the dead are white). Thirty-two years later, he entered the camp of some prospecting Englishmen and prevented them from being massacred. This won him the King’s pardon, meaning he could, at last, go home. In Garner’s hands his story becomes an often hallucinatory exploration of the shared language of sacred rites and traditions on two sides of the world, as well as a continuation of many of the themes and preoccupations of Garner’s previous novels.

The actual William Buckley was arrested for “knowingly receiving a bolt of stolen cloth”, but Garner has him arrested for his key role in a folk fertility rite held in a local church. This first section, ending as it does with soldiers entering a church, is so full of echoes of Red Shift, particularly the Thomas Rowley/civil war sections, it could almost be a fourth strand of that novel. The young William Buckley, for instance, is tended by a young woman, Esther, when he’s “badly” (he has migraines and sees prismatic lights), and this young woman is at one point caught by William dallying with an educated man who is, like John Fowler to Thomas Rowley in Red Shift, teaching William to read and write. It’s as if, by this time, Garner has all the necessary ingredients of his primal drama, his hero’s origin story and originating trauma, and is remixing them to fit each story’s requirements. There’s even an object that represents William and Esther’s relationship, a crystal-covered stone he calls a “swaddledidaff”, which he keeps throughout his arrest, transportation, and time as an aboriginal shaman in Australia, to bring back, at the end, in a way young Tom (of Red Shift) never gets to with Jan’s stone axehead “Bunty”. (These relationship-objects’ nonsensical names seem to emphasise their preciousness.)

It was only at this point in my read-through of Garner’s novels that I realised just how prevalent this theme of an object that represents a promise, usually a love-promise, or an object that is sacred, and which is (in the early novels) lost or sold or mishandled, but (in these later novels) is (sometimes, at least) held onto, and kept, and valued as it should be, is. Blinded as I was by the similarity of the Weirdstone to Tolkien’s One Ring, and its role as a Maguffin to get the goblin-chases going in that first book, it was easy to overlook the significance of that sacred object in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and the Mark of Fohla in its sequel, and the four treasures of Elidor, and the ancient carved stone and cheap souvenir Alison and Gwyn exchange in The Owl Service, and the sacred axe head of Red Shift — all precious objects, either sacred or intimately personal, which can also be seen, shorn of their meaning to the characters, as cheap or worthless things, and therefore things that can be abused, mistreated, mis-valued.

Strandloper is full of sacred objects, not just the “swaddledidaff”, which becomes an object of magical power to the shaman Murrangurk (William Buckley’s name to the aborigines), but also stone axe heads, which are at one point stolen in an abuse of hospitality, another betrayal of the value of a sacred object. By the end, with white Europeans barging their way in, treating the land as one more object that can be valued (cheaply), bought, and abused, it’s obvious that it, too, has become another of Garner’s “abused sacred objects”.

Strandloper is also Garner’s most sustained treatment of the troubled/gifted hero-with-visions. Whereas the trio of Tom/Thomas/Macey of Red Shift all had fits, visions or troubled states they could barely understand, and which often left them desolate and confused, William Buckley passes through what can be seen as a full shamanic initiation-journey through hell, but made literal. Torn from his home, he endures an eight-month passage to Australia, confined within the cramped hold of a ship with too many other prisoners (which could be compared to the long, claustrophobic chase through the mines of the svart-alfar in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), then slowly going mad with hunger, thirst and sun in the Australian outback. After these initiatory trials, Buckley becomes Murrangurk, a shaman perfectly at home in the mythically-infused world of the aborigines, a world in which everything is sacred and alive with stories, presences, rites, meanings, relationships. At the end, Garner even gets to bring this worldview back to his native Cheshire, as William Buckley (whose name has changed with every stage of his initiatory journey, and who is now Strandloper, one who is “ever to walk the boundaries, to be the master of them, and to guide the Dreaming in all Time”) quite naturally sees the English countryside as resonant with mythic meaning and sacred significance as the Australian outback.

I didn’t find Strandloper as affecting a book as, say, Red Shift, or The Stone Book Quartet, which conquer through, in the first case, sheer angst and, in the second, quiet meaningfulness, but I’d say it’s Garner’s fullest book, a summation of all he’s written so far. If Red Shift is about the initiatory trauma, and The Stone Book Quartet is about finding oneself and one’s place in the world, Strandloper combines the two into a single story, as William Buckley is torn from his home, becomes who he is, and then finds his way back, transformed but the same.

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner

cover to The Stone Book Quartet by Alan GarnerAfter Red Shift, Alan Garner published four novellas between 1976 and 1978, which were grouped together as The Stone Book Quartet. The combined work has a lot in common with Red Shift — for instance, each story takes place in the same geographical location but at widely separated times (1864, 1886, 1914 and 1941) — but in tone and effect, the two are as different as the stinging nettle and the dock leaf that grows beside it. Even the little things tell. Red Shift‘s stone axehead (a symbol of violence, however much it’s used to try and bind Tom and Jan together) finds a sort of equivalent, here, in a delicate clay smoking pipe, buried in 1864 and rediscovered miraculously whole in 1941, or perhaps by the twin horseshoes placed (as the axehead was by Thomas and Margery) in a fireplace, to represent a marriage, and here properly treated (again, as Red Shift‘s Tom can’t) as the most valuable thing in the house:

Your Grandma and me, we’d have let every stick of furniture go first, and the house, before we’d have parted from them.

In Red Shift, a church is a place of refuge because, in Tom and Jan’s modern world, it is most likely to be found empty, except for a doddery old rector; in The Stone Book Quartet, a church and a chapel are built things, pieces of craftsmanship and connections with the craftsmanship of previous generations. The graffiti which ends Red Shift, and is a sort of summation of all its bleakness and distance becomes, here, a craftsman’s mark, an illiterate man’s rune carved on the inside of a stone block at the top of a steeple, not a silent cry of despair but the quiet symbol of one man’s lasting achievement.

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner, another coverThe four stories of The Stone Book Quartet are based on Garner’s own family history. Each takes place during a single day, following a child or teen character as she (in the first) or he (in the others) experiences, as Garner puts it, “the defining moment that most commonly occurs in childhood.” In the first story, “The Stone Book”, young Mary, wishing she could have a prayer book to take to chapel on Sundays like her two girlfriends, is instead shown a cave deep in a local mine, where the wall is decorated with an ancient painting. In “Granny Reardun”, whose title refers to its protagonist having been raised not by his mother (Mary from the previous story) but his Granny, young Joseph decides to step out from the shadow of previous generations and find his own course in life. But Garner’s “defining moment” doesn’t have to be a revelation or a decision. There’s a poetic feel at the end of the fourth story, “Tom Fobble’s Day”, as young William sits atop a snowy hill on a sledge his grandfather made, watching the searchlights and anti-aircraft gunfire lighting up the night sky, and sensing his deep, almost wordless connection with the life and land around him.

And this is the greatest contrast with Red Shift. Where that novel was about often fruitless struggle and turmoil, The Stone Book Quartet is about the naturalness of finding your place in life, your connection to the generations that came before. It’s about being part of something, not being alienated from everything.

It’s impossible not to see this in terms of Garner’s own story. He writes, in the essay “Aback of Beyond” (collected in The Voice That Thunders) of how difficult he found it to connect himself, “not the first of my family to be intelligent, but… the first to be taught”, with a family that had:

“…shaped the place in which I had grown; everywhere I turned, their hands showed me their skills; yet my hands had no cunning; with them I could make nothing, and my family despaired of me.”

Garner family photo

A photo of Alan Garner’s family that helped initiate the writing of The Stone Book Quartet

If that need could only be answered by finding his own true craft and proving himself at it, The Stone Book Quartet can be seen as his masterpiece. In a work that reads so much like a paean to craftsmanship itself, full as it is of capable men taking quiet pride in a job well done (“He worked without waste, and easily”), Garner produces something that is itself a work of beautiful, authentic craftsmanship in its very use of words. He writes in the dialect of the region he grew up in, but in a way that is as easy to read and understandable as the clearest, simplest English — in fact, in a way that is so much more alive and direct. (And with no apostrophe-laden attempts to mimic an accent. Garner does it all with the choice and ordering of words.) And he uses it to perfectly capture those fleeting, impossible-to-define moments in his child protagonists’ lives in which they find themselves, their own unique identity, as well as their belongingness to the world around them, the landscape, the continuing story of their families. Quiet, simple, profound, a wonderful work of word-craftsmanship, The Stone Book Quartet is life-affirming in a most unlooked-for way after the turmoil of Red Shift.