Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee

Once upon a time, there was a book about gnomes. It was called Gnomes. It detailed the lives and habits of these funny little creatures with plenty of colourful illustrations, just as you might explain the lives and habits of a woodland animal. It was rather fun and cosy. (One reviewer said it had a “a determined jolliness”.) When it came out in 1976, it was a bestseller, and US publishers Ballantine, who’d recently started publishing large-format paperbacks of fantasy artists’ work (including Frank Frazetta, Gervasio Gallardo, and one Brian Froud), decided to try for a similar success with a book about fairies. So they asked Brian Froud and Alan Lee (who were sharing a studio at the time). The thing was, Lee and Froud didn’t believe in the gnomely domestication of fairies. They knew them to be feral and free, defined — if they could be defined at all — by their very inability to be pinned down, diagrammed, explained or made merely fun, cosy and pretty. Fun they could be, but also naughty, sly and wicked; pretty they could be, but also ugly, strange, cartoonish, elegant, beautiful and horrific; cosy they could never be. If the gnomes of Gnomes were a garden creature, to be found in well-ordered & bordered patches of managed nature, the fairies of Faeries were the wilderness and the wilds, the tangles and briars, the wildflowers and toadstools, the crooked trees and marshy bogs. When it came out in 1978, the book proclaimed its inability to provide an accurate taxonomy of the various kinds of fairy:

“One species shades into the next, so it is difficult to state precisely where a Bogie ends and a Bogle begins… no sensible rules apply to terminology or, indeed, any other aspect of Faerie — it is a law unto itself.”

The result is a work of art rather than a merely amusing book. What Lee and Froud did was to provide a true picture of the imaginative fact of Faerie, the realm of the wild & weird presented in all its grotesqueness, playfulness, darkness and light. Brian Froud, in his introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition, talks of a “healing strength” people have found in the book. This may come from its frankness, as each fairy, pretty or ugly, invites you to see a little bit of yourself in it — only not the civilised, normalised bit. Unlike the chocolate box variety of fairy art, Faeries doesn’t present images of perfect, dainty ladies and children, beautified with gossamer wings and mystified with moonlight, it presents (oddly) something far more normal-seeming and un-idealised, though normal only in its strangeness, its reminder we’re all so different from the norm. Faeries belongs to the same tradition as Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which may have depicted a gathering of oddball faerie types, or may have shown the inmates of the Bethlem Royal Hospital where Dadd resided after killing his father. (And, as a little bit of fairy magic, I’ll point out that Alan Lee was a classmate of Freddie Mercury at the Ealing College of Art, and that Mercury, with Queen, wrote a piece of music called The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke that’s as sublime as the original painting.)

It’s odd to think Faeries was made into a short-ish animated film, for kids, in the US (which you can watch, in three parts, on YouTube). It can’t hope to do more than hint at the spirit of the original work, but some of it’s there, in cartoon versions of the book’s illustrations, mostly to be glimpsed in passing, in the background — hints at the true realm of Faerie behind the inevitable TV compromises:

The Faeries cartoon. Some of it’s like this…

…not much of it’s like this…

…most of it’s like this

After Faeries, Froud and Lee got lots of film & book work, including a host of excellent fantasy films (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Ridley Scott’s Legend, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings). So, it could be said, they lived happily ever after.

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.