Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

Young Joe Coppock is lying in bed at home, alone, recuperating from an unspecified illness. (He gets sickly headaches and has to stay out of the sun; he also has one good eye and one “wonky” one, and has to wear a patch over the good one to make his brain set the wonky one right.) A train passes — the only train Joe ever hears, which he’s nicknamed Noony because it passes at noon — and he hears a call from the yard outside:

“Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!”

Joe rushes to find a rag (an old pair of pyjamas) and a bone (a lamb’s shoulder blade he’s stored with his little collection of bird’s eggs). In return, the rag-and-bone man gives him a donkey stone (used for whitening doorsteps, and which here bears an ancient horse symbol on its back) and his choice of pot from a chest on the rag-and-bone man’s cart — a chest which, oddly, has Joe’s name on it. Joe picks a small white cup with the words “Poor Man’s Friend” on it, that contains a tiny fragment of violet-green paste. The rag-and-bone man’s eyes are the same colour. His name is Treacle Walker, and as well as being a rag-and-bone man, claims to be a healer, of “All things; save jealousy. Which none can.” (“Treacle” originally meaning medicine, apparently.)

They go inside to the hearth and Treacle Walker produces a bone flute, which he lets Joe play. Joe produces a couple of notes, which are instantly answered by the call of a distant cuckoo — a cuckoo we never see (though Joe certainly tries to, as he wants to add one of its eggs to his collection) but which seems to preside over the rest of the novel, as though by playing his notes and waking this bird, Joe has set something in motion.

Poor Man’s Friend, image from Worthpoint

But what? What is going on here? It soon becomes apparent that, however normal Joe’s convalescent life may seem at first, it’s anything but. We never see his parents. Things only seem to happen at noon, after the hoot of the train lets Joe know what time it is. And noon is when the sun is at its strongest, so it’s when Joe isn’t supposed to be outside. It’s as though his recovery, his need to stay out of the sun, his only seeming to exist in the noon of the day, are all a way of showing that Joe is stuck, his life composed of rituals (like the list of places he routinely checks from his window, to see who might be out there). And his home is an oddly reduced sort of home, consisting only of a bed (for rest and recovery), a hearth (for warmth, and conversations), and a door (to keep the unwanted out). Not so much a real home, then, as the archetype of one — a home in a dream, or a memory of homes past.

Treacle Walker comes to this world unasked for, and offers few answers as to why he’s here. He speaks a sort of nonsense (though, knowing Garner, it’s all, I’m sure, authentic dialect and abstruse vocabulary): “craven nidget”, “my amblyopic friend”, “the hurlothrumbo of winter”, “a lomperhomock of night”, “furibund”. “Such tarradiddles,” he exclaims at one point, “such macaronics. Such nominies for a young head.” He later claims:

“I have been through Hickety, Pickety, France and High Spain, by crinkum, crankims, crooks and straights.”

Treacle Walker comes across as a mix between the old wizard Cadellin of Garner’s first two books, and Murrangurk, a.k.a Strandloper, from his novel of that name — a walkabout tramp and shaman, a wise man of quiet power and mystery. But with his nonsensical hints, he’s also a bit of a Cheshire Cat to Joe’s Alice (and Joe soon takes his own trip through the Looking Glass, chasing a trio of characters who have emerged from his favourite comic). Perhaps we’re not in the real world, then, but a sort of Garner version of Wonderland.

coverJoe, it turns out, has a bit of Strandloper about him, too, but where William Buckley had to go through a hellish journey in the bowels of a ship and the unforgiving outback of Australia to learn to see the sacred in his home landscape, Joe already has the gift of second sight thanks to his “wonky” eye, as he learns when he goes to have it tested. Looking at an eye chart, he sees the usual jumble of random letters with one eye, but with the other sees letters that spell out what Joe doesn’t at the time know to be a pair of “catalectic hexameters” (more of Treacle Walker’s educated nonsense) in Latin. Later, venturing into a local patch of marsh, he finds that, when he looks at it with his special eye, it stretches off forever, as though he were seeing the present and the past in the landscape at once — like Murrangurk the shaman, in all but that he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing or why.

In the bog, Joe meets Thin Amren, a naked man in a leather hood who has, till now, been sleeping (and dreaming) under the water. Was he woken by Joe’s cuckoo call on the bone flute? It’s fairly clear that, just as the mark on the donkey stone resembles the White Horse of Uffington, Thin Amren is a bog-body, one of those eerie sacrifices preserved in the waters from ancient times. What’s he doing walking about, talking to Joe? And what of the characters that emerge from Joe’s comic, the Knockout (whose name, like the waters of the dreaming bog, implies a state of unconsciousness), Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit and his adversaries Whizzy the Wizard and the Brit Bashers? Why is Joe surrounded by imaginary characters?

Norman Ward’s Stonehenge Kit from The Knockout comic

Perhaps, though, that’s the wrong way to put it. Perhaps Joe isn’t so much surrounded by imaginary characters as in his natural element. Perhaps he’s imaginary himself. Because, to me, Treacle Walker reads like it’s all taking place inside Garner’s head. These are all characters we’ve met in his fiction before, in different forms. Joe is, though younger, like so many of Garner’s troubled young male protagonists, with their “badly” fits and visions. Like those boys and men — the Tom/Thomas/Macey of Red Shift, the William Buckley of Strandloper — he has his totemic objects, his nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but actually ancient or old or magical artefacts. They had their “Bunty”, their “grallus”, their “swaddledidaff”; Joe has his marbles (with their nonsensical schoolboy names, his “dobber glass alley”, and his “blood alley”), his “Poor Man’s Friend” cup, his donkey stone — he has a whole host of totemic nonsense objects, in fact. But each of these characters is a progression, a variant, and here, for the first time, we have a young Garner protagonist not in a relationship with a woman whose work it is to heal him (in fact, there are no women in the book). But there is still healing going on, and as in those earlier books it’s healing that works through telling, through story, through opening up despite the difficulty in doing so. (This book has its equivalent of the invitation-to-tell-a-story conversation that occurs in other Garner books. Here, it’s “Tell me.” “I can’t.” repeated three times, before the dam breaks and the telling starts.)

However much the setting, here, resembles that of Garner’s own childhood, it’s not a real world. At one point, Treacle Walker calls the yard outside Joe’s home “this Middle-Yard”, and makes it sound like the Middle-Earth of norse myth, the region between heaven and hell where men spend their brief mortal moment, which might as well be a dream.

Boneland coverIf Joe is a sort of Tom/Thomas/Macey, and Treacle Walker a Cadellin and a Murrengurk, what of Thin Amren, the bog man who should be dreaming? Perhaps he’s that other presence that lurks in Garner’s fiction, the Sleeper Under the Hill (and Joe briefly goes out to a hill and feels the presence of a sleeper under it, and also feels a “Nothing. No one. Only loss”, like an echo of the deep sense of emptiness and isolation in Tom from Red Shift or Colin from Boneland, though here it’s only a moment, then it’s gone). Thin Amren is a dreamer, and whether he’s a figure from Joe’s inner life, or Joe is his dream, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that between them they represent the young present rooted in the ancient past, and in this they sum up the entire Garner double-vision view of the world. They aren’t cause and effect, but coexistent.

Near the end of this very short novel, Joe asks a question of Treacle Walker (whom Thin Amren, another dialect nonsense-talker, calls “that pickthank psychopomp”) which might be a solution to this whole situation, but if so, it’s a throwaway one. I prefer my feeling that all the characters, here, are Garner archetypes, and it’s all taking place in the author’s dream-time world. What we have here, then, is Garner’s autobiography, not of facts or reminiscences, but of his dreaming self, in which the boy he once was, the sick kid in bed who was twice declared dead, turns into the shamanistic wanderer, the healer and storyteller, the combined tramp-and-wizard, the bog-man dreamer and comic-reading little boy, all in one. (And I can’t help likening the cuckoo Joe wakes with his playing of the bone flute with the idea that Garner, as a young man, came to feel alienated from both his family and the landscape he’d grown up in, when he was the first of them to be educated, and so to come to see the world through both the folkloristic view of his family, and the archeological and historical view of a scientist. That, perhaps, was the cuckoo-call that set off his own writerly journey.) This is the story of how all these dualities are in fact one thing, and how they return to that oneness, through the calling of a cuckoo and a chase through mirrors. And, like all of Garner’s books, it’s a story of healing — self-healing.

One more thing to say is that, for perhaps the first time in his novels, I really feel Garner, here, is having fun. Not that there isn’t distress and peril and pain (Joe’s headaches, his being chased through mirror-worlds, the loneliness he feels on the hill), but there’s an air of nonsense-play, and a fondness for the little things of distant childhood (comics, marbles, trains, bird’s eggs) that far outweighs the darker elements.

It’s a dream, this novel, a making sense through image and archetype, on the level of imagination and story, which has, really, been the trajectory of Garner’s novels from the start. This, perhaps, is it in its purest, most concentrated, yet lightest, form yet.


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?”
“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.”
“I shall.”

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.