Monday, 7 October 2013

Review of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath

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Alan Garner. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960); and The Moon of Gomrath (1963).

I have just finished reading aloud the two earliest Alan Garner books, which is always a good test. I first encountered them in my mid teens, Gomrath first, caught fishing in the village library shelves -  therefore read them initially in reverse order.

I can still recall (sitting on my tree platform retreat! - book in hand) an almost delirious excitement at finding a book featuring two children encountering the world of magic surviving (hidden) into modern times, and containing Tolkien-like dwarves and a wizard, and convincing but strange elves.

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Garner adds his own distinctive elements, in the very detailed setting of both stories is his birthplace and home Alderley Edge in Cheshire; and an element of British folklore which is blended with the fantasy.

The folklore element comes partly from his own local knowledge, but also substantially from the 'neo-pagan' revival including the methods and stance of Robert Graves The White Goddess.

Garner has indeed remained within this neo-pagan world view ever since - dropping the fantasy and focusing more on the folklore. Consequently, the metaphysical basis of these books (and his others) is in reaction-against Christianity - but not reacting into secularism, but into the past as perceived through a neo-pagan lens as a place of where life was real, enchanted and deep (and with Christianity implicitly regarded as working against this enchantment and depth).

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The Moon of Gomrath (specifically) contains some really thrilling and memorable writing - the passage where Colin sees The Old Straight Track revealed by the rising full moon is wonderful; and indeed whenever the subject matter is The Old Magic (that is, nature magic as contrasted with the learned High Magic of wizardry) the writing is exhilarating. And this applies to the very last sentence - it is rare and unusual for a book to end so well.

(In fact Garner has said that he often works back from the last sentence, which comes to him by inspiration).

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My conclusion is that my teenage evaluations were about right: Gomrath is an outstanding work, Weirdstone much less so - being rather dull in some stretches, in particular the sixty something pages (about a fifth of the book) in underground tunnels.

(I think the dullness comes mostly from Garner having inserted too much literal detail from results of his geographical researches into the Alderley Edge terrain, including explorations of its mining remnants.)

Nonetheless, both are well worth reading, and the Weirdstone has several memorable parts, including in the otherwise overlong underground sequence.

The pursuit across the plains below Alderley Edge is very evocative - and the 'baddies' are well realized: the svart-alfar (i.e. dark elves - i.e. goblins), and the terrifying Mara are (unfortunately!) unforgettable.

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Garner went on to write Elidor, which was a step down in quality, and had something about it I didn't like - probably the typically mid-sixties Leftist theme of brooding class consciousness and resentments.

Garner was born into the artisan class but became upper middle class via an elite education - the famous Manchester Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford. The tension of this transition, and the subsequent attempt psychologically to undo it, are obsessively dwelt upon throughout his later work.

These class conscious elements also featured at the core of The Owl Service, which was pure folklore without fantasy elements; but were triumphantly swept up into a near perfect novel of mounting fear and tension, resolved at the very last with a triumphant twist and elation when Garner brilliantly transcends his own prejudices.

After The Owl Service came Red Shift which is almost incomprehensible - being almost entirely in pared-down dialogue and without explanation (Owl Service was sometimes on this path, but avoided excess) - and from that point Garner disappeared into - or underneath - a self-consciously 'crafted', pretentious but constipated prose with less and less of substance (or goodness) to make it worth digging-through the overlying inspissated matter.

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In sum, Garner's writing career demonstrates both the special strength and ultimate weakness of the neo-pagan reaction. In the Weirdstone and Gomrath he was briefly able to re-enchant modern life by presenting it as a thin skin concealing ancient folklore and behind that magic.

But (I infer) the anti-Christian motivation led him inexorably on to brooding on his own class resentments which were so trite, so dull - and indeed so ultimately wicked, that their clichéd nature needed deliberately to be disguised behind ever more experimental and less accessible writing.

All that aside - if you like Tolkien, do read The Moon of Gomrath at least - and probably Weirdstone too.

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4 comments:

  1. Garner was born into the artisan class but became upper middle class via an elite education... The tension of this transition, and the subsequent attempt psychologically to undo it, are obsessively dwelt upon throughout his later work.

    Really!? I would really love to learn more about this, as it sounds like a very near parallel to my own struggle with class transition - an experience of tension that never seems to be shared by anyone else.

    But (I infer) the anti-Christian motivation led him inexorably on to brooding on his own class resentments which were so trite, so dull - and indeed so ultimately wicked, that their clichéd nature needed deliberately to be disguised behind ever more experimental and less accessible writing.

    Any way you can expand on this? Or should I just read the novel?

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  2. @SJ There are quite a few interviews around the web - and a book of mostly biographical essays called The Voice That Thunders.

    "Or should I just read the novel?" I don't know what you mean by 'the novel' - I was referring to his later work in general - Red Shift and more recent.

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  3. I disagree. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath as a child and love them still, but I think that if Garner had continued to write in that vein he would have reached a dead end. Not least of the reasons is that there is just not enough room in suburban Cheshire for tales of elves and wizards on the scale of Tolkien, which is why the story is forced into underground caverns and snowbound conifer plantations for lengthy stretches. More generally, though, there is a fundamental mismatch between the two veins - heroic myth and rural folklore - which he was mining, and one of them had to go.

    The later Garner often voices sentiments I do not share, and I suspect that his imagined pagan survivals in the English countryside are wishful thinking, but that has no bearing on his quality as a writer. Would you dismiss Eddison or Le Guin for that kind of reason? Elidor is his weakest book, but that is because it is transitional, and even here the problem is the fantasy, while the novel-like sequences show an improvement in dialogue and characterisation. From Red Shift on, dialogue does most of the work, and Garner makes a dramatist's demands of the reader, but that is how he covers so much ground in a small number of short books. I think he has become a better writer, possibly a great one.

    I am not always in the mood for Garner and I have held off reading Boneland, though I bought it months ago, because I want to do it justice. I will be interested to see whether, and how, he brings things full circle.

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  4. @PN - Both of our different analyses are based on our different evaluations of quality - I am trying to understand why (by my evaluations) Gomrath and Owl Service were the peak and the later work was over-worked and lacking in inspiration; you are trying to understand why he kept (on the whole) getting better and better.

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