There are a couple of reasons why I wince just a bit when I read, or hear, effusive praise of J.K.Rowling. It’s undeniable that she has sold a large number of books, and, mostly, they are decently written, if sometimes self-indulgently long. However, nobody seems to acknowledge that she has enjoyed a benefit accorded to no other writer in history before her: that her books were being written and sold at the same time as they were being converted into cinema films of the most expensive and most well-publicised kind. My other objection is that some of Rowling’s respected predecessors in the tradition of British fantasy literature, the genre which brought her to this successful place, have been overlooked, and most notably Alan Garner.
Not only were Garner’s fantasy novels critically praised and highly popular during the 1960s and 1970s, they also received similar adulation from the visual media. The Owl Service, which won the 1967 Carnegie Medal, became a TV drama series shortly afterwards. Red Shift and Elidor were both dramatised by the BBC, the former in an adult evening slot rather than at children’s tea-time, in the days when that constituted a rare and real accreditation.
Admittedly, the present-day ignorance of Garner’s achievement is partly due to the facts that his output is relatively small, and that he has never sought media attention. The reference he received in the 2008 BBC4 documentary The Worlds of Fantasy was a rarity.
My own first acquaintance of Garner was Elidor, his third novel. Although its theme is a familiar one (and even more so now) of ordinary children entangled within alternative magical kingdoms, it is a brilliant reworking. Four children stumble into the alternative world of Elidor via a ruined church in a derelict area of Manchester. They are entrusted to protect four treasures of Elidor, but the enemy forces pursue them back to their own world, and the crucial battle is fought, in the same derelict site where the story opened, on a frosty New Year’s Eve. Elidor evokes the rich dense flavour of legend (Garner freely acknowledges his borrowings from folk ballads) alongside its vivid contemporary and urban detail.
Not only did The Owl Service win the Carnegie Medal; in 2007, it was chosen as one of the ten best Carnegie Medal winners in the 70 year history of the prize. It too centres on the interrelation between real and magical worlds, but in this case the supernatural has been absorbed into the real world, so that it irrevocably influences its past and present. The Welsh legend of the Mabinogion – about the wizard Gwynion, about Bloudewedd, the bride he makes out of flowers, and her two lovers, Lleu and Gronw – is re-enacted in the present day through three young people, and its powerful new form draws on the new tensions and passions now simmering : between parents and children, between Welsh and English, between the established rural and the encroaching urban communities.
Red Shift was a further step forward. Here the usual elements of fantasy, in the sense of things inexplicable and supernatural, have been discarded. But the magic which remains is still very real in Garner’s eyes: namely, the immeasurable but palpable energy which can be stored in a patch of ground, energy generated by those who have lived, worked and fought on that earth over the centuries, and which remains to nourish those who occupy the same earth in later ages.
Around a hill in Cheshire, three stories unfold simultaneously but in different centuries. The grim guerrilla war being waged by a squad of Roman legionnaries, the siege of a village church by Royalist forces during the English Civil War, the stormy relationship of two modern lovers. Even before the reader tries to clarify the connections between each narrative, Garner’s evocations of the first and seventeenth centuries are exceptionally vivid and atmospheric, conjuring up all the dirt, discomfort, violence and honest simplicity.
The hero of each story is shy and vulnerable and temperamental, a visionary prone to violence, and, in each story, the same stone axe-head is found and affects the finder in a profound way. Macey is haunted by the massacre of his village as a child; perhaps this wound is “inherited” by Thomas who passes it on; the strife Tom wages with his parents may well be derived from the similar family conflicts experienced by his 17th century namesake.
The BBC dramatisation of Red Shift is currently on You Tube. First screened on BBC1 in 1978 in its “Play for Today” slot, its opening credit is “a film by Alan Garner and John Mackenzie”. The late John Mackenzie directed a number of TV dramas in the 70s, including several stories of urban working-class Scottish life written by Peter McDougall, and then moved on during the ’80s to feature films starring the likes of Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Pierce Brosnan. In retrospect, he would surely have seemed an unlikely match for Garner, but it was a fruitful partnership for the viewer. Apart from a slightly distracting Doctor Who-esque opening, Red Shift comes across now both as a faithful adaptation and a challenging and absorbing TV drama.
Red Shift has been to date the culmination of Garner’s exploration into the dark quasi-world of myth, magic and history. Shortly afterwards, he published four short novels which comprise The Stone Book Quartet. In many ways, radically different from his previous work – they are not fantasies, but stories of the real world with real people, and they lack some of the excitement and energy of the three aforementioned ones – the quartet has several characteristics which recall the earlier novels. One of its main themes is the influence which the geography and history of a place can exert over the people who live there, and this time it is a direct influence, because the characters are all craftsmen in a Cheshire village, whose livelihood depends on the area and their fellow townsfolk.
Each novel concentrates on a different generation of the same family. We learn about stone and stone-cutting, about working in metal, about harvesting corn, about the distinctive skills of the professional soldier. Still stronger links throughout the decades are provided by various household objects. For example, the weaving-loom from The Stone Book becomes the wood which makes a child’s sledge in Tom Fobble’s Day, while the remains of a house demolished in Granny Reardun is recycled a generation later in The Aimer Gate. Even in the smallest ways, the rural community is self-perpetuating, in a way which, although not fantastical, can still inspire awe.
As mentioned earlier, Garner’s output is not huge. In the 30 years since The Stone Book Quartet, he has written only three more original novels, Strandloper, Thursbitch and the recent Boneland. The second and third appear to be broadly within what one could describe as Garner’s fantasy territory. I haven’t read any, but they have all been warmly welcomed by aficionados, of whom I have discovered many on the internet while writing this, notably the self-styled unofficial Alan Garner web-site.
So, although it is perhaps an exaggeration to consider Alan Garner as an entirely neglected writer, would it not still be a fairer world if even a small percentage of the adults who read J.K.Rowling and Philip Pullman during the first decade of this century borrowed or bought one or two of his brilliantly-written books?
Crouch, Marcus (1972) The Nesbit Tradition : The Children’s Novel 1945-1970 London : Ernest Benn
Meek, Margaret / Warlow, Aidan / Barton, Griselda (eds) (1977) The Cool Web : The Pattern of Children’s Reading London : Bodley Head