Tag Archives: Alan Garner

The Rolands’ quests




Elidor was Alan Garner’s third novel, first published in 1965, and the point where, half a lifetime ago, I became engrossed in the work of this great British writer.

At the start of the novel he quotes a phrase from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came – ”, spoken by Edgar as he pretends to be mad in order to protect himself from his malign brother Edmund. It is only recently that I have appreciated that this reference is one part of a literary chain spread over centuries.

In Elidor, Garner’s Roland, Roland Watson, is one of four siblings who become embroiled in an adventure to save the magical world of Elidor. Although the youngest, he is identified as the strongest by Malebron, the nobleman who seeks their help, and at many points of the story he is the leader. In Elidor at the start, he is able to rescue his siblings from the dungeon of the Mound of Vandwy. Later back home in Manchester, it is he who undertakes the task of recovering the four priceless treasures which they have hidden for protection. He retains a faith in the whole Elidor story when the older ones are becoming sceptical, and continues to take seriously their duty to bring it to a successful resolution.

That original quote from King Lear comes supposedly from a medieval ballad called “Childe Rowland” and when you discover the narrative of this (as, for example, through the collection of Joseph Jacobs) you see how liberally Garner drew from this source for the opening of his own novel. The ballad has Rowland playing with a ball with his brothers near a church and him kicking it away and it getting lost; his sister Ellen tries to find it but she has been captured by supernatural beings in the Dark Tower which appears to be within a small hill. In Elidor Roland kicks a football through the window of a derelict Victorian church which is the gateway to the fantasy world and then rescues his sister Helen and his two brothers from the Mound of Vandwy . The ballad’s hall encrusted with diamonds and rubies and emeralds is similar to a branch of “apple blossom…silver…crystal (and) spun mercury” inside Garner’s location.




The Shakespeare phrase influenced in turn Robert Browning’s 19th century poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Browning’s autobiographical narrative starts with Roland meeting a “hoary cripple…with his staff”, who is reminiscent of the tramp with the violin who leads the children into Elidor. The landscape this Roland walks through, “starv’d, ignoble nature…(full of ) penury, inertness and grimace” , is comparable to Garner’s desolate inner city landcape which he later specifically dubs “The Wasteland”.

In my youth, as regularly rescanned as my copy of Elidor was Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George Macbeth. In his notes on Louis MacNeice, Macbeth said that MacNeice’s 1946 “parable play” The Dark Tower was “the best piece of writing ever done for radio”. I heard it recently for the first time.  It imagines yet another young Roland, training to embark on a quest to visit the Dark Tower and fight an indestructible dragon.

Amanda Wrigley says that MacNeice did not wish his parable to be interpreted too literally and she herself describes it as “morally complicated”, but it seems clear to me that its theme is duty and sacrifice, risking your life for an important cause, even if you didn’t want to regard the dragon which Roland may face as a symbol of fascism.

Benjamin Britten’s music is a significant part of the reputation of The Dark Tower, and a significant part of its impact, notably the strings and percussion section at the end as Roland strides towards to his destination. But I found the text and production impressive too. The fantastical mixed into an atmosphere of political anxiety and idealism recalled Yeats’ play The Dreaming of the Bones, Brecht and Auden, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Orwell’s 1984. To my ear its form has been copied by a lot of radio drama in the subsequent decades.

MacNeice’s Roland is, like Garner’s, the youngest of his family, regarded by his mother as “flippant” and someone who “lacks concentration”, described even by himself as “the black sheep”. However, he is trained to follow in the family tradition of travelling across the ocean to challenge the dragon of the Dark Tower. During the play, he faces various voices of persuasion and dissuasion, from his mother, his tutor, girlfriend Sylvie, old Blind Peter, a tavern drunk and the steward on the ship which is taking him towards his destiny.

As you listen, you are struck by the similarities with the other “Roland texts” even though you know they will not be coincidental. Mountains move like the circus of ancient Rome and the Dark Tower grows from the ground, just as Browning described hills as being like living “giants” and Roland Watson felt the standing stones in Elidor were multiplying and moving. The tavern drunk, the Soak, has a dream that Roland’s mission will have an “unhappy” end which undermines his confidence while the Watson children meet the drunk Paddy whose warning about “horses with horns” directs them towards the scene of the climax of the Elidor quest.





Whereas in Browning’s poem and in MacNeice’s play a crucial role is played by Roland’s horn or trumpet, in Elidor other musical elements are significant. A violin tune, “thin and pitched high in…sadness”, starts the children’s journey from the abandoned urban landscape and a sinister melody hypnotises them briefly in the Mound of Vandwy. At the end the saving of Elidor is signalled by the dying cry of a unicorn, the song of Findhorn, in Manchester city centre on a frosty New Year’s Eve.





All of the Rolands’ quests share some degree of happy resolution. In the ballad, the King of Elfland, the wicked resident of the Dark Tower, is defeated in a duel and Ellen and the two brothers are rescued. In Garner, Elidor is saved by the Watson children despite the challenge of armed warriors and the death of the unicorn. In Browning, Roland, “dauntless”, reaches the tower where stronger people before him had failed. In the same way in MacNeice, Roland pushes himself towards the Dark Tower and sounds his horn as taught by his elders, including the specific command to “hold that note at the end”.



Macbeth, George (1967) Poetry 1900 to 1965  London: Longman/Faber
Garner, Alan (1974)  Elidor  Glasgow: Collins Armada Lions

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Mysteries of the past English countryside


For me, the strength of the Man Booker-nominated novel Harvest by Jim Crace is its depiction of place and time. The date is unspecified but the mid-17th century seems plausible.  For instance, the landowner Master Kent has plans for land enclosure and has recruited the services of “Master Quill” to survey and chart his property in anticipation of this; common male dress is identified as quilted cap, breeches and leather jerkin.  We are far from town or coast  and “anyone who is not blood is married to someone else who is”.  Christianity is established but the old pagan influences are still strong. The village does not have a church although Master Kent aspires to build one. Visitors are immediately presumed to be witches and demons, wrong-doers punished in a pillory.

Crace’s narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an outsider, who has lived and worked in larger places. In both direct and indirect speech, his eloquent prose suggests a semi-literate person whose main linguistic sources are the Bible and the physical world around him. The narrative is full of references to the sky, the land, birds and  animals,  vegetables, tools, crafts, work : “garths”, “muniments”, “fumiter”, “manchet”, “heddles”, “loggats”, “platters”,“stirruping”, “fletchings”, “dunnocks”, “tilth”, “longpurples”, “pickthread”, “copotain”.

Quite soon during Harvest I found myself recalling another re-imagination of the same period, in Red Shift by Alan Garner.  That novel runs three concurrent Cheshire narratives, set in the present (1970s) day, in Roman Britain and during the English Civil War. Unlike Crace, Garner concentrates on  dialogue rather than description. He makes his Roman soldiers especially sound bluntly contemporary. They have names like Logan, Face, Magoo and Macey and say things like,  “Don’t push it!” “Bollocks!” and “I don’t give a toss”. His 17th century characters speak a language which is a little more expansive, a little richer, although still clipped and cursory. Garner is keen to give the past a visible, fast-moving grittiness.

The countryside as a place of the mysterious pagan past, not yet sharing all the values of modern society,  has often been the perspective of David Rudkin. Yet, as the vicar in his 1974 TV film Penda’s Fen points out,  “pagan” simply means “belonging to the village”, and the human scale of “the village” is something that may well remain particularly attractive in the future as the world elsewhere becomes crowded, noisy, overwhelming.

Rudkin’s lead character in Penda’s Fen,  Stephen, is a visionary rather like the three characters called Tom in Garner’s Red Shift.  At the start, school-leaver Stephen’s Christian beliefs are strict and conservative, but by the end he is accepting the blessing and the mission bestowed by the pagan King Penda: “cherish our flame, our dawn shall come”.

Crace’s “Master Quill” immediately recalls The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway’s film set in a slightly later period where the hiring of a stranger to chart their property disrupts a middle-class family.  In Greenaway’s world, Christianity is firmly established, and the religious elements in his script deal with internal tensions between two arrogant men of comparable ages: the Protestant German son-in-law Talmann and the draughtsman (probably Catholic and of either Scottish or Irish family) Neville. Like Crace, Greenaway’s language evokes his historical period eloquently.

Although the countryside of The Draughtsman’s Contract is thoroughly enclosed and cultivated, the older mysteries prevail. The grounds of the Herbert property are adorned by classical statues of pagan gods, while prowling around the periphery of the drama is a mysterious moving statue, at the start perusing the alfresco diners from the roof above and by the end spitting pieces of pineapple onto the ashes of the dead Neville’s last drawing.

Stephen Prince’s A Year in the Country website, “an exploration of an otherly pastoralism…(the) underlying unsettledness to the English bucolic countryside dream”  works some of the same artistic ground covered by Crace, Garner and Rudkin, and looks strikingly as if it was produced in 1969 rather than in the last couple of years.


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One of the most unfairly neglected British novelists


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?


References :

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


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