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.

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