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.


Red Shift by Alan Garner

In this read-through of Alan Garner’s novels I’ve been doing recently, Red Shift is the first I hadn’t read before. It’s his 5th novel, published in 1973. Reading it for the first time had a powerful effect, but I had no idea how to say anything about it, so after a gap of a week, I read it again. It’s a quick read, but a difficult book. The initial difficulty is in the understanding of it, because here Garner’s style is at its most cut back and interwoven, and it’s a book that works so much by contrasts and echoes between the three strands of its plot. After that, it’s a difficult book because the story’s so harsh. To move from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, with its innocent young heroes, its clearly demarcated good and evil, and its happy resolution, straight to Red Shift would be a shock; as it is, the gradual move from the fight against an external, caricature evil (the svart-alfar and Morrigan of Brisingamen) to a steadily stronger depiction of difficulty, danger and turmoil within the characters (Susan’s almost being lost to the Old Magic in The Moon of Gomrath, the squabbles and doubts of the children in Elidor, the tragic mythic tangle of The Owl Service) does its best to prepare you for Red Shift, which presents us with characters whose problems lie as much within themselves as without. If Elidor was about a magical land that could only be reached via “wasteland and borderlands”, Red Shift is about the wasteland itself: adolescent (particularly male adolescent) turmoil.

Red Shift‘s narrative cuts between three strands, unified by place, separated by time. In the main story, set in contemporary (early 70s) Cheshire, Tom and Jan work to overcome the obstacles to their burgeoning relationship caused by Jan’s having to move to London to train as a nurse (alongside lack of money, and parental suspicion), only to be faced by the far more divisive problem of Tom’s emotional difficulties, and revelations of betrayal on both sides. Most of their story is recounted through their regular meetings at the mid-point of Crewe, where they find a refuge in the nearby village of Barthomley, and in a ruined folly and cottage on the hill of Mow Cop. In A.D. 120, meanwhile, Mow Cop is the hideout for a group of deserters from the Roman Army, native recruits who’ve “gone tribal” to escape the notice of both the Roman Army and the local Celts. Among their number is Macey, a trusting young man the deserters’ leader, Logan, knows how to goad into berserk fits, making him their most ferocious weapon, though afterwards Macey is helpless with guilt and horror at what he’s done. These deserters attack the village of Barthomley, massacring its inhabitants, then raping and kidnapping a young priestess, before decamping to the nearby sacred hill of Mow Cop. There the priestess, pregnant by one of the deserters, is kept as a cook. She alone understands what young Macey goes through when the “god is in him”. The third story-strand is set in Barthomley on Christmas Eve, 1643, where a group of King’s men — mostly thugs and mercenaries — come seeking one John Fowler. In the village is Thomas Rowley, a young man given to fits in which he sees a face “scared… caught”, as well as other visions (which the Roman-times Macey also has) of what appears to be Mow Cop in the 1970s, complete with its empty Victorian folly. Perhaps the face he sees is Tom’s?

These three troubled young men, Tom, Thomas and Macey, are linked by their fits and visions (though Tom’s inner troubles aren’t as explicit; he babbles nonsense and gets into incontinent rages Jan has to talk him down from). All three are in relationships with young women who calm them and try to heal their turmoil (while dealing with issues of their own). The three stories are also bound together by a physical link, a sacred stone axehead. Roman-times Macey, though he knows it is sacred, has used the axehead to kill, and knows he’s done something wrong. Civil War-times Thomas, finding it, thinks it is a thunderstone, a lucky talisman against being struck by lightning, and at first wants to break it up, to spread the luck around the village, though his young wife, Margery, talks him out of it. And in the modern story, Tom and Jan find the axehead hidden in the ruined cottage on Mow Cop (where it was, presumably, stowed by Thomas and Margery). Prior to this, Tom had suggested looking at a star on Orion’s belt at ten o’clock each night as a way of remaining connected while apart (a remote way of remaining close, but typical for the analytical Tom), but Jan wants something she can hold, and fixes on the axehead, which they swap each time they meet. But this just becomes the focus for Tom’s difficulties in dealing with the relationship — realising the axehead’s value, archaeologically speaking, he sells it to a museum because “The responsibility’s too great”; then tries to distance himself from what he’s done through intellect and analysis: “The axe was only a chunk of diorite.” He can deal with the relationship as a star-like distant thing, but not as a close, precious, unique reality, fragile, but at least capable of being held.

With its contrasting/echoing plot strands and its tightly compressed use of language, Red Shift almost seems to be a book written in code. But as it’s partly about the dangers of intellectualisation and analysis, the divorce between head and heart, and the trap of thinking without feeling, to treat it as such would be to take the wrong approach. At one point, Tom and his mother sit down to put together a jigsaw which combines three scenes of “Romantic Cheshire”, and these turn out to come from the three different time periods of the novel’s strands. But the book isn’t a jigsaw. It’s more a collage. You can draw parallels between the story strands, but don’t expect a neat fit. The novel as a whole is best understood by standing back and simply feeling a response.

Red Shift, written in an often dislocated, disorienting style, pictures a world of threat, suspicion, cruelty (both to others and self), division between people and within people, and of emotional turmoil to the point of mental instability. Set against this are three attempts at finding a refuge in a loving relationship, though none of these attempts emerge unscathed, and not all succeed. It’s a very different book from Garner’s earlier novels, but, although his most difficult so far, it’s also his most affecting and haunting. It still hasn’t resolved itself in my head, but I think that’s probably part of its power.