Monday 11 April 2011

Alan Garner - Return to Brisingamen

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Alan Garner’s first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and BBC radio 4 acknowledged the enduring importance and popularity of this and subsequent Garner novels with a short documentary last Thursday entitled Return to Brisingamen. It was presented by John Waite, best known as the voice of gentile indignance and well-mannered outrage on You and Yours, a long running consumer affairs programme on radio 4, whose fixity within the schedule is assured by the revolutionary fervour of listeners when faced with any substantive change to their daily radio routine. Its prosaic and indubitably valuable focus on the mundane minutiae of the everyday world and the gripes and grumbles which dealing with it engenders is at the far opposite end of the spectrum from the mythic framework within which Garner’s stories unfold. He is the ideal host, then, to convince a sceptical radio 4 audience that a documentary about a book which is not only fantasy, but fantasy written for children, is worthy of their attention. It should be added at this point that Garner has said (in the essay A Bit More Practice) ‘I do not write for children, but entirely for myself’, although he goes on to add ‘yet I do write for some children, and have done so from the beginning’. He elucidates a couple of paragraphs later, stating ‘only recently have I come to realise that, when writing for myself, I am still writing for children; or, rather, for adolescents. By adolescence I mean an arbitrary age of somewhere between ten and eighteen. This group of people is the most important of all, and it makes the best audience. Few adults read with a comparable involvement’. It’s a good argument for the importance of ‘children’s literature’ in general, and its appeal to a readership beyond the age of those at whom it is ostensibly aimed. Philip Pullman, who also appears in the programme, carefully defines him as being ‘one of the greatest writers of books that children read’. Waite reveals his own love of the book, which stemmed from a childhood reading, and talks of the very personal way in which it affected him. He grew up in Wilmslow in Cheshire, with Alderley Edge, the setting of the novel, looming constantly in view through the bedroom window above the corner shop his parents ran. Waite describes this prominent outcropping as being ‘the Ayers Rock of the Cheshire Plains’. One day, in the shop, he served a man who he was told was the local writer Alan Garner, who’d written a story based on the local legend of the Edge.

Like many a post-Tolkien fantasy, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen includes a map in its opening pages across which the reader can trace the questing trail of the story’s characters. In this case, however, it represents not the secondary world of the author’s creation but a real landscape with which Waite was intimately familiar as a boy; the landscape of Alderley Edge. The fact that Garner used a real place in which to stage magical scenes allowed him to feel that he was a part of the story, since he could locate the specific sites at which various events took place. It’s like finding a location used in a favourite film. The place, ordinary as it might be, acquires a certain glamour through having had a story overlaid, an aura of immanence created through the association with a particular scene. Why else would efforts have been made to save a brutalist car park of the most unforgiving starkness in Newcastle were it not for the fact that it had been featured in a memorable car chase and murder scene in Get Carter. With Alderley Edge, the magic and sense of otherness was already inherent in the landscape, and naturally attracted an accumulation of stories and legends which gave expression to its special atmosphere. Garner’s use of the legend of the Edge, with its hero king and his armoured knights lying dormant beneath its slopes, guarded by an ancient wizard, waiting to be re-awakened for the final battle in which they will ride again, demonstrates the power of myth to evoke the spirit which inhabits certain places. These places are marked by the potent intersection of generations of human habitation with the formations of geological time, history and culture with stories, language and literature. Landscapes with isolated hills, ridges or escarpments erupting from otherwise low-lying surrounds seemed to have a particularly rich accretion of layers of legend. These sometimes involve giants or dragons, tales suggested by the resemblance of geological features to the awkwardly arched back of a recumbent gog or magog, or the ridged, scalar spine of an arête gently inclining down into a still curve of tail, its sinuous folds filled with the potential for sudden motion. There are also many myths, of which the legend of Alderley Edge is one, of figures from a fabled golden age lying in hidden halls reached by secret entryways beneath the hills. The location of Arthur’s resting place beneath Glastonbury Tor is probably the best known of these, but Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Torbarrow Hill in Gloucestershire and the Eildon Hills in the Scottish borders offer further examples.

The Voice That Thunders - great, great grandfather Robert Garner's Wizard Well carving
The programme centres around Waites’ interview with Garner, who also takes him on a wander around the Edge to find some of the landmarks found in the book. He points out a sacred well, which he speculates almost certainly dates from pre-Christian times, and which is now known as the Wizard’s Well. Its stone receptacle bears a carving of a bearded face, shaded green by a light coating of moss. This was made by Garner’s great-great grandfather, a stonemason, in the mid nineteenth century. His family have lived here for generations, and have made their mark on the landscape, whether literally, in the case of Robert’s carvings and stone walls, or in a more notional sense, through the knowledge, values and stories which they’ve passed down. Garner talks about his great-grandfather William Jackson, a Fabian deeply engaged with social issues, and his wonderfully diverse, autodidact’s library of books, which he left behind upon his death at the age of 93 in 1942. These were discovered by the young Alan during a summer spent with his grandmother, William’s daughter, and indiscriminately devoured. He was effectively absorbing the outward remnants of his great-grandfather’s particular knowledge and interests, the physical projections of his inner world. It was a powerful and influential legacy to inadvertently bequeath. In the programme, Garner mentions Marx’s Das Kapital (in English) and the Hindu epic The Ramayana, which was particularly important in opening his mind to the power and universality of mythic storytelling. In his essay Aback of Beyond (included in the collection The Voice That Thunders) he goes into more detail about the range of literature and ideas which he absorbed during this intense summer of reading. In a hot July and August’, he writes, ‘I swallowed The History of the Co-operative Movement, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Elements of the Fiscal Problem, The Golden Bough, Hone’s Popular Works, the corpus of Thackeray and of Spenser, Carlyle, Swift, Dickens; British Battles at Sea, Nietzsche’s Human All-too-Human, The Living Races of Mankind, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, The South African and Transvaal War, Capital:from the German and Engel’s Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Grandfather's stone wall

Garner refers to the vernacular phrase ‘to get aback of something or someone’, from which the above essay title is derived, as expressing the idea that you have to live up to the example of your forebears, but also create a certain distance, choosing to make your own particular mark on the locality in which they lived and worked. Garner’s ancestors were craftspeople, his grandfather a smith, and he tells their generational story in the Stone Book Quartet. His eventual decision to become a writer was partially arrived at whilst sitting opposite a wall which his great, great grandfather Robert had made. It’s a wall which he shows us in the 1980 tv documentary The Edge of the Ceiling, included in the extras of The Owl Service dvd. Garner’s grounding in his great-grandfather’s library had set him on the path of book-learning, and he progressed from Manchester Grammar School (in fact an independent school which took in scholarship pupils) to Oxford University. He had determined that he would be a prominent academic, preferably the chair of Greek classics at Oxford. This would really have been getting ‘aback of beyond’, in the words of his elders. But self-doubt set in as to the purity of his motives, and he began to think that this kind of ambition was merely a way of seeking power as an end in itself. Perhaps it was the craft heritage of his ancestors which drew him to the idea of writing fiction, creating with words rather than stone or iron. His tutor at Oxford encouraged him to test his abilities with his own sardonically wise variant of telling him to get aback of his parents and grandparents. ‘Discover if you’ve got an original mind’, he suggested. If he then found out that he didn’t, he could devote himself to studying the work of those who had.

Oxford is the other central site of significance in Garner’s life, if only in that it showed him what he didn’t want to do. He listened to lectures there by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, in the latter days of their professorships. Waites goes to visit Philip Pullman, another resident Oxford writer of fantasy, to hear of the high regard I which he holds Garner, and the formative influence which he had on him. He points to the clarity and natural rhythm of his writing, the unique and surprising quality of his imagination, the mythic focus on forces greater than human life, and yet his concurrent ability to encompass elemental human conflicts and emotions within such a grand frame. He cites The Owl Service as a book which particularly struck him when he first read it, and which combines all of these elements. Garner’s papers are now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Waite is granted a look at those pertaining to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The librarian comments on the beautiful italic hand in which he wrote, which would suggest that the original manuscript was handwritten. There are also some early drafts over which Garner has scrawled some savagely dismissive comments in red pen. His assessment of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in his essay A Bit More Practice, included in The Voice That Thunders, but first published in the Time Literary Supplement in January 1968, just after the publication of The Owl Service in the previous year, would seem to indicate that he is his own worst critic (although some of the children’s letters he quotes in the later essay Hard Cases show that he’s had some pretty stiff competition at times). ‘My first attempt, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, he wrote, ‘is a fairly bad book, but there had to be a start somewhere, and consolation rests in the even worse first drafts of the opening chapter, which I pin up when things seem to be going well’. Hopefully the book’s continued success (it has made it to the Waterstone’s best 150 novels of all time, and has never been out of print) has made him feel a little more kindly towards it.

Rooted in local particularity - The Stone Book Quartet

Garner delves back into the early days of his childhood to trace the roots of his intensely vivid imagination and his ability to enter into the different, interesecting planes of time which the local landscape inhabits. His early education was characterised by attempts to eradicate the Cheshire dialect of his grandfather (he names the teacher who used to wash his mouth out with carbolic soap), and his mother’s efforts to correct his lefthandedness (a sign of wrongness and potential deviance). It has to be said, the former project seems to have been very successful, as he now shows little trace of an accent of any regional origin, although the milieu in which his subsequent schooling and higher education took place may have had as much to do with this loss. The memorialising of local distinctiveness, both in terms of place and of dialect and custom, which can be found in all of his novels could be seen as a way of regaining what had been programmed out of him, and of making sure that a record of it remained. This concentration on the ‘inner time’, as he puts it, of a particular place has continued through to his novel of the 90s, Strandloper, and of the 00s, Thursbitch (read the M.John Harrison review here). Like a craftsman who takes his own good time, he generally manages a book a decade now. As for his insistence that myth and imaginative storytelling relate a form of truth as valid as any rational, empirical observation (if the writer or narrator is a good one, that is), that seems a very lefthanded point of view.

When he was six, Garner contracted whooping cough, measles and then meningitis, and at one point was so ill that he heard a visiting doctor declare him to be beyond help, having apparently started slipping irrevocably towards death. This authoritative declaration, a dismissal of life which brooked no argument, and to which he could offer no response anyway, filled him with anger, and it was this inward rage to which he attributes his survival. The young Alan spent long periods confined to his bed, virtually immobile, and he talks of his sickness as having concentrated his imagination. He projected himself out of his recumbent body through a conscious act of will, and lost himself in a landscape which revealed itself to him as he lay staring up at the white plastered ceiling, its uneven surface suggesting hills, rivers or roads. He describes it in more detail than in the programme in his essay The Edge of the Ceiling, once more included in The Voice That Thunders, also noting the direct inspiration it provided for a later novel. ‘The world of the ceiling was three-dimensional’, he wrote. ‘Objects were solid, visual perspectives true. I never ate or drank in the ceiling (as I later found out was the rule for the Other World). There was no wind, no climate, no heat, no cold, no time. The light came from no source and was shadowless, as neon; but before I knew neon. And everywhere, everybody, everything was white. It was the genesis of the dead land of Elidor’. Sometimes, however, the landscape disappeared and the ceiling was taken over by ‘a plump little old woman with a circular face, hair parted down the middle and drawn into a tight bun, lips pursed, and small pebbled eyes…she was a waning moon: her head turned to the side, as if she had broken her neck’. He knew he must not enter the world of the ceiling when this fearful figure appeared, nor let it enter the room where he helplessly lay. This was his death, patiently waiting.

Forge of creation - the writer at work
Garner’s experience of an imaginary world, which often seemed more solid than the real one reductively framed by his bedroom window with its distorting panes of glass, is also recollected in the 1980 TV documentary Alan Garner – The Edge of the Ceiling, which is, as previously mentioned, included as an extra on The Owl Service dvd. This documentary also allows us to have a look around Garner’s , which is in fact two conjoined houses meeting each other at right angles. Outside, inter-city trains occasionally rush past on the railway line, and on the other side of the tracks, the large dish of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope cranes its face to the sky – the technological sublime towering above its pastoral surrounds but somehow fitting in nonetheless. Even when it comes to his home, he collides different eras, eliding great swathes of time. The timber frame of his original house dates from 1850 whereas the later addition, moved from elsewhere in 1970, dates from 1550. The room in which Garner is seen at his table, researching and writing, is a large open space with a timber vaulted roof and joists, and a small open fire in the centre, sending smoke up to gather beneath the ceiling. It certainly feels like a place in which to tell tales.

DVD of the 1969 Owl Service adaptation - including the documentary Alan Garner:The Edge of the Ceiling

He guides us around the landscape of the Edge in this programme, too (as indeed he does more recently in this short Guardian video). In this case, the accompanying music bears no resemblance to the extract of Elgar’s cello concerto used at the beginning of the radio 4 documentary. It is filled, rather, with the unsettling polyphonic choral mutterings and chattering whispers of Bill Connors’ score, whose restless spectral sounds seem to leak out from the timbers, stones and earth, faintly picked-up ancestral voices fluttering in the surrounding aether. 1980 was still effectively the 70s (the first couple of years of any decade can generally be considered a part the previous one), and this was an era in which children’s fantasy programmes such as Children of the Stones, King of the Castle and Doctor Who (and indeed the 1981 adaptation of The Day of the Triffids) would be eerily soundtracked with atonal scores written by composers clearly in thrall to the modernist strain of contemporary classical music – the likes of Ligeti, Stockhausen and Berio exerting a strong influence.

Garner takes Waite to the Devil’s Grave, the cleft in the rock through which Colin and Susan crawl to make their claustrophobic escape from the forces of evil which are pursuing them. This involves Colin getting stuck in a nightmarish bend in a narrowing passage, an experience which Garner half-jokingly likens to a birth trauma. Finally, Garner and Waite end up at the rock (a ‘great tooth of a rock’, as Garner describes it) which, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, cracks open to reveal the iron gates which guard the tunnel to the chamber in which the sleeping king and his knights lie dormant, waiting for a sign. Waite naturally has to strike the rock with a stick, the wizard’s ‘open sesame’ in the novel. The way fails to open for him. It’s clearly not yet time for the final battle to commence. But don't worry, it may not be long.

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