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.

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Year King by Penelope Farmer

Cover to Year King, art by William Bird

After A Castle of Bone, Penelope Farmer’s next novel was Year King (1977), and, in keeping with its protagonist’s age (eighteen), is more an adult than a YA novel, certainly compared to the not-yet-teens of that earlier book. Nevertheless, it’s about a stage of growing up: the struggle to leave home and break free of family ideas about who you are, and so to properly find yourself on the road to adulthood.

At the centre of the novel are Lan and Lew, twins of quite different characters:

“Lew playing rugger and excelling at work, Lan developing a reputation for being mildly way out… playing the guitar a little, having professedly anarchic friends, his hair over his shoulders…”

Lew is away at Cambridge, Lan is struggling with history studies at a local university while living in the basement at home. Although this gives him a certain amount of autonomy (the basement has its own front door, and its own kitchen), he’s nevertheless finding his mother’s presence too much. A lifetime of casually belittling judgements have left him ultra-sensitive to her moods (which Lew, who could play their mother like a harp, pretty much protected him from, before), and one day he takes her car and drives to a cottage the family own in Somerset, and starts spending as much time there as he can.

Although it takes him a while to adjust, Lan comes to love the rural community more and more:

“I am an alien, Lan thought. And then: but I love it. I must be stark raving mad. I love it all.”

He decides to give up his studies and gets work on a local farm. His long hair (the local men refer to him as “her”, though mostly joshingly) sets him apart from the community, but he starts to find himself accepted — with exceptions. One in particular being a middle-aged man, Arthur, for whom Lan feels “a strange, ancient antagonism”.

There are subtle mythic forces at play. One is to do with the land itself. Lan looks at its hills and dales, and though they’re overwritten by the “male lines” of hedgerows, feels, “underlying all of it, meet, receptive, yet in its own way just as strong, refusing to be eclipsed, the soft, lush, swelling shape of the countryside itself; like a woman laid widely…” And when he meets a young American woman of his own age, Novanna, staying with her aunt at a nearby farm, he takes the difficult first steps in building a relationship with her, though he has none of his brother’s ease with women.

Lan’s troubled relationship with his twin is another thing. His resentment of a lifetime of being compared to his (always more capable) twin has left him unsure of where the boundaries between the two of them lie. Now, suddenly, he finds himself at times literally slipping into his twin brother’s body:

“The outside, the crust, was wholly Lew, controlling Lew’s nerves and Lew’s responses; yet right at the centre lay this inappropriate kernel, this little hard obstinate nut which was Lan’s mind, Lan’s thinking.”

The valley isn’t a refuge from his family — no distance could be, because he carries its influence too much within him. Nor is his relationship with Novanna, which also has its troubles. Lew visits on his scooter, and instantly and easily chats Novanna up, and is the first to take her to bed. Lan’s mother asks him back, wants to know what’s happening with him and his studies, asks who’s going to pay the bills at the cottage, insists on having the use of her car. (There’s a younger sister, too, Bronnie, who comes to visit — an island of un-trouble amidst the rest.)

Penelope Farmer, photo by Jill Paton Walsh, from back cover of Year King

Year King has an air of other books I’ve reviewed from the same era. The way Lan slips into Lew’s consciousness without any warning recalls, for me, the way Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark slips between worlds mid-sentence; the fact that Lan is experiencing what it’s like to exist in the body of a more sportily capable, masculine male makes me think of William Rayner’s Stag Boy; but there’s also Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Year King’s suggestions of ancient mythical patterns being played out in modern times.

Lan and Lew, for instance, are named after twins from Welsh mythology (Dylan and Lewis, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes — who has his part in the Blodeuwedd story Garner uses). More important, though, is Lan’s relationship with the land — his becoming, in a way, the “Year King”, as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth.” (from The Golden Bough Wikipedia page.)

As the year waxes into summer, Lan wins Novanna, and his place in the valley, from both his rivals (Lew, and Arthur, who I take to be, perhaps, the existing valley “Year King”, as he’s a local authority on farming matters), and everything seems to be going well as he works on the land. Then, as the summer changes back to winter, his fortunes wane. His sense of who he is — his resistance to that flickering into Lew’s body — was strong in the summer, but now he flips into Lew’s body more and more as the year approaches its end. When his brother comes down for an end-of-year visit, Lan is convinced the two must fight some sort of duel for psychological survival in a family whose boundaries aren’t at all healthily defined. As Novanna says:

“You’re all hooked up, you know, all of you, still. I’ve never known anything like your family. Like junkies, all of you.”

The mythic references in Year King are more understated than in Garner’s book, though it’s true they nevertheless represent a very real danger Lan could fall into, particularly at the end, in his final confrontation with Lew, that takes place “literally in the bowels of mother earth (and symbolically in utero)” (as a contemporary Kirkus Reviews review has it).

It’s far less tense and intense than The Owl Service, more lyrical and slower-paced — something fitting the 1970s ideal of taking a rural retreat in order to find yourself. (It feels, to me, very much in line with the folk-rock 70s that Rob Young covers in Electric Eden.) But also it’s timeless, in its tale of a young man’s struggle to find himself against the pressure of subtle, but nevertheless psychologically constricting familial patterns. Farmer is excellent at representing those subtle tensions without ever having to blow them up into major dramatic scenes (it could, after all, be the very lack of confrontations between the characters that cause them so much trouble). And the fantasy element — Lan slipping into Lew’s identity — is handled with just as much subtlety. It’s never central to the book, but is nevertheless essential.

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A Castle of Bone by Penelope Farmer

Puffin edition, 1974, cover by Peter Andrew Jones

I managed to end up with two editions of A Castle of Bone before I got round to reading it. Two editions with different covers, each suggesting a quite different kind of book. The Puffin cover from 1974 was the first commercial work from fantasy & science fiction artist Peter Andrew Jones. It suggests an exciting, danger-filled adventure in which young teens are menaced by a somewhat science fictional-looking castle, spiky, dark, and (seemingly) revolving. The other cover, by Angela Maddigan, is from a 1973 hardback edition issued by the Children’s Book Club. It suggests a much more laid-back, poetic kind of fantasy, a journey of wonders and discovery rather than dangers. Halfway through reading Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone, I began to wonder if either of these covers actually suited the book. There had been brief, dreamy trips to another land that centred on a castle, but after a while these seemed to have been dropped for a completely different plot in which three of the four teen protagonists are having to look after a baby, while keeping the fact secret from their parents. There was, in the end, one more trip to the land of the castle, but it was far stranger than either cover suggested. (And there was no rending of blouses as in the Puffin cover, though nor was it as placid as the Children’s Book Club cover.) But I’d be hard pressed to say what might make a good cover to this very strange book, which took me some time after I’d read it to figure out what it might even be about.

Children’s Book Club edition, cover by Angela Maddigan

The book starts with arty, somewhat spacey-headed teen Hugh (or borderline-teen — he’s about twelve, I think) being told by his mother that he needs to acquire a cupboard so he can tidy his room. His room is somewhat of a problem, as it has an awkwardly sloping wall, meaning it’s hard to find something that will fit, and Hugh is precisely the sort of youngster not to mind living in a room strewn with clothes worn and unworn. He’d far rather be either painting or staring into space.

But a cupboard has to be bought, so he and his father set out, and find an antiques shop (“junk shop,” his father says), where Hugh sees, and instantly realises he needs, the perfect cupboard. (His father calls it “monstrous, abominable.”) They take it home — it seems, oddly, almost “supernaturally” heavy — and install it, whereafter Hugh forgets about putting any of his clothes into it, and that night finds himself in a strange land, working his way towards a castle that always seems to be changing — sometimes it’s shiny, sometimes dark, sometimes it’s see-through. When he wakes up the next day, his feet are dirty.

Hugh’s best friend Penn lives next door, and he and his sister Anna come round to visit Hugh and Hugh’s sister Jean. At some point Anna (who is even more given to dreamy absences than Hugh) puts Hugh’s wallet in the still-empty cupboard and closes the door. A moment later, odd sounds are heard from inside. They open the door, only for a live pig — “quite unmistakably a real pig, with hanging dugs and crude, prehistoric-looking skin” — to flop out and make a dash for the exit. The pig escapes, but the cupboard remains. Soon, the four teens realise it has a magical quality: if you put something inside and close the doors, when you open them again, that thing will have been transformed to some earlier stage of its existence. Hugh’s wallet, for instance, was made of pigskin. Brass buttons put into the cupboard sometimes emerge as a puddle of molten metal, sometimes as the individual rocks from which their copper and zinc was extracted. There’s no controlling, or predicting, what previous stage in their existence the objects will revert to. And then, of course, the cat gets in. It emerges as a kitten.

There’s an obvious next step, one that everyone is curious about but nobody wants to try. What if a person went into the cupboard? It’s a possible way of achieving a sort of immortality. When you get old you simply get into the cupboard, turn yourself young again, and live a whole new stretch of life. But Hugh, Penn, Anna and Jean are all young already, so why should that concern them? Why does Hugh find himself irresistibly drawn to the idea of getting into the cupboard?

Farmer has two excellent qualities as a writer of fantasy. On the one hand, she inserts fantasy elements into her story that are highly charged with a host of possible meanings, and though this sometimes left me wondering exactly what it all meant, I was never in doubt that it did all mean something. (There are plenty of references to myth and folklore thrown in, too, from King Arthur to Odysseus to Thomas the Rhymer, only adding to the meaningfulness and confusion.) As she says in an essay, “Discovering the Pattern”, published in a 1975 anthology of essays by children’s writers, The Thorny Paradise:

“I am asked why, as a writer for children, I do not produce nice, solid, useful novels on the problems of the adopted child or aimed at the reluctant reader, and so forth, instead of highly symbolic (according to some reviewers) obscure (according to others) — anyway, difficult fantasies.”

When A Castle of Bone ends with — at last — a proper visit by all four teens to the land of the titular castle, it proves to be a very strange realm indeed. This is no trip to Narnia. The land of the castle is a land of possibilities and potentialities, where everything is, moment by moment, the possibilities of what it could be, rather than (as in our world) the one thing it has ended up being. It feels like a unique land among the many lands of fantasy literature, though not one you’d care to linger in.

The other quality Farmer has is a great ability to evoke the peculiarities of real life in a way that really makes her characters seem like genuine individuals. Hugh’s spacey moments, for instance, when he drifts off and gives in to dreamy abstractions, are a perfect representation of a certain type of adolescent mood, as when he gazes out of a window and:

“…it left him with an extraordinary, strange, creative ache; a beautiful yet unbearable sense of growing out of himself, exploding skin and bone. He tried to catch this feeling sometimes, record it, pin it down…”

The relationships between the characters are wonderfully realistic, too, with the four teens being bound together by, at times, nothing more than a mutual feeling of vague annoyance with one another. And they all find their parents as incomprehensible and mildly annoying as their parents seem to find them. It’s not the sort of crisis level of dysfunctionality you find in an Alan Garner novel, rather it seems like the healthily human sort of dysfunctionality you get in families that are happy to let each member be themselves, even if it means for a little friction.

So what is the book about? I always like the way a good novel can be open to multiple meanings, but, at the same time, I feel unsatisfied till I’ve found at least one for myself, so here’s my take on what A Castle of Bone may be about.

I think it’s about learning to accept one’s identity, one’s being-in-the-world, and the choices that are available to you in this life. It’s about seeing that identity is, in a way, tied up with mortality — with the fact that the life you live is one of constant (though slow) change, from baby to child to teen to adult to old age, but is still rooted in something changeless: the fact that, throughout these changes, you are always you. The “castle of bone” is the person you are, the body you were born into, with all its peculiarities, a castle that is protective of your identity (as a castle is) while also imposing limits on that identity (a castle can be a prison, too).

When Hugh first sees the cupboard, he instantly knows he has to have it:

“Immediately he had never in his life wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints.”

1992 Puffin edition

I think this is because, at some unconscious level, Hugh knows that the cupboard represents the next stage in his growing up, his becoming who he is. A cupboard can be seen as a sort of metaphor for identity — it’s the thing Hugh is going to put his clothes into, so it’s going to contain his public persona, but it’s also one of those magical interior spaces, both limited and limitless, that represent the human imagination. At first, he didn’t want to go out and buy a cupboard, he just wanted his parents to pick one for him — “A cupboard was a cupboard, was a cupboard” — but being forced to make a decision is the first step to making the more important decisions in his life, such as who he is.

And the old man who sells him the cupboard later says that this is what Hugh must do to end the complications that the cupboard’s magic have thrown into the four teens’ lives: he must enter the cupboard deliberately, “And go into your castle.” — choose who he is, then start to become that person.

This old man is a somewhat puzzling character. (In the “Discovering the Pattern” essay, Farmer identifies him to some degree with Tiresias, the blind seer of Ancient Greek myth.) He seems to change in character from moment to moment. His junk shop is filled with things that prove to be images of himself — a bust, a figure in a painting, a portrait. It’s obvious he has been using the cupboard to achieve immortality, but that it is in no way a satisfactory immortality. He has become fragmented as a person, a series of remnants of his many former lives — not valuable antiques but, as Hugh’s father said, “junk”. This, then, is not the way to be in this world; one must accept one’s mortality, commit to one’s identity, and see it through.

A Castle of Bone is an intriguing book. It’s perhaps as puzzling as, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, and while it’s certainly not as traumatic, it could well be in the same league in terms of richness of meaning, only in a very different direction. It doesn’t have Garner’s intensity of focus (though I think Garner’s intensity, which makes his books what they are, is also the reason for the feeling of trauma in them — it’s the intense focus of the over-powerful intellect, dissecting emotions in a way intellect was never supposed to). Farmer’s is a book that manages to feel as though it’s about ordinary life at the same time as it’s about the unordinariness of life, the state of being a particular human individual, with all the unique peculiarities a human individual has, including the richness of the inner life, particularly at those self-defining moments in which you must decide, at some level, how to be you. (Which links it nicely to another Garner work, The Stone Book Quartet, which is based around similar moments.) Reading it did, occasionally, feel a bit frustrating — particularly when the main characters were spending so much time looking after a baby, and I wanted them to be investigating another world — but the ending, I think, made up for that, and perhaps on a second read, when I know the sort of book it is, I might enjoy it even more.

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