In 2016, the author Alan Garner celebrated his eightieth birthday. To mark the occasion, Erica Wagner compiled First Light: a celebration of Alan Garner, containing forty-three contributions, including her own, talking about different aspects of Garner’s life and work. Garner himself suggested the volume’s title—“first light,” an astronomical term referring to the first reading taken with a new telescope. He famously lives a couple of fields away from Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope, and it is mentioned more than once during the course of First Light, as well as playing a significant role in Garner’s most recent novel, Boneland (2012). It is an intrinsic part of the Garner mythos.
The contributors to this not-exactly-a-festschrift are a mixed bag: famous readers of Garner’s work rub shoulders with writers of his own generation, people who knew him at university. Garner’s two youngest children, a writer and a scientific researcher, talk about how being Garner’s children had affected their own work. Younger writers discuss his influence on their own writing, while literary critics address particular aspects of his work. What struck me after reading the collection was how little, in sharp contrast to the critics and academics, those writers of his own generation actually have to say about Garner’s work: their pieces seem to be mainly based on long-ago acquaintance or meetings in passing. One or two august contributors seem to badly misunderstand the nature of the project. Margaret Atwood and Cornelia Funke especially spring to mind here, the one with a short story that seems to have no connection to Garner, other than it being a modern fairy tale, the other with a remarkably amateurish artwork, allegedly representing Garner as storyteller and shape-shifter. And, in truth, articles on “how I first came to read Alan Garner and the effect he had on me” are mostly of little interest to anyone but the person who wrote them, and sometimes their most ardent fans. With the best will in the world, I am not that reader nor ever can be, and anyway I have my own story.
The exception to all this is John Burnside’s stunning “Reading Together, Reading Apart,” in which he charts the effect that reading The Owl Service (1967) had on his life, and the way in which it first prompted him to see the fantastic alongside the ‘real’. Burnside came from a family which focused very much on the need for “advancement,” and shunned any expression of the imagination. This is a theme that is hinted at in Elidor (1965), but made explicit in The Owl Service, and even more so in Red Shift (1973), while aspects of it return in subsequent novels, to reach their apotheosis in Boneland. It is the raw viscerality of Burnside’s response to Garner’s work that speaks to me in turn. My own encounters with Garner’s writings have left their scars over the years. Met at the right, or wrong, moment, his work can change you in significant ways.
I take a delight too in “Where the Starlight Sings,” Frank Cottrell Boyce’s blithe and joyful account of inviting Garner to walk with him through the landscape of the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, retracing Cottrell Boyce’s teenage explorations of the area. Cottrell Boyce’s enthusiasm is unforced and infectious. Having made a few forays of my own into Garner territory, even as far as Geelong, in South Australia, I understand very well that need to have one’s feet on the ground, so to speak—and what better guide, one might ask?
And that is where things become a little more complicated. Cottrell Boyce quotes a small part of Garner’s commentary as they walk over Castle Rock: “That rock shouldn’t be there. That dip is man-made. This was an old path.” On the one hand these are the observations of a man who knows an area intimately. Of course he does. He has been here a long time, and so has his family—at least since 1592, according to an observation he makes in The Beauty Things, a record of conversations between Garner and Mark Edmonds, emeritus professor of archaeology (who also contributed to First Light). Long acquaintance with a place will do that for you. But, I wonder … there is something in that phrase “that rock shouldn’t be there” that to me doesn’t sit quite right. We’re given no context for that rock’s presence, or how it came to be there, but to say that something shouldn’t be in a place is to suggest that its landscape should be immutable.
Now this is plainly nonsense—left to itself a landscape changes in small ways day by day, and over time larger transformations will occur, even without human intervention. So what is going on here? This leads me to consider the other major group of contributors to First Light—the historians, the archaeologists, the occasional astronomer—and a motif that occurs over and over, in a very similar pattern. Cottrell Boyce touches on it when he talks of being shown the treasures of Toad Hall, the place where Garner and his wife live. He talks about the axe that Garner hands to him, the one that features in Boneland; there are other items he doesn’t mention, though I’d not be surprised to learn they include other axes, or the carved Celtic heads, possibly an unbroken Macclesfield Dandy clay pipe. Or a stone book.
I have never visited Alan Garner’s house but the ritual is familiar from other accounts, in First Light and elsewhere: beating the bounds of the fiction, then being presented with the tangibility of the objects encountered therein. Perhaps it is a test, or perhaps the objects are the reward for another, previous test, but the description of the walk, followed by the handling of objects, surfaces often enough in these accounts to make one aware that something significant is happening. On the one hand, there is the sense that the tangible fact of the objects validates the fictions; on the other, by walking these historians and archaeologists through his landscape, having them handle his objects, Garner invites them to validate the existence of his history, the history he has already validated through the fiction. Somehow, while Alan Garner is undoubtedly a historian and an archaeologist in his own right, one who has made important contributions to understanding the story of the Alderley area, and is acknowledged as having done so by his peers in First Light, it seems not to be enough. Something is lacking for him.
The attachment to the land is of course a persistent theme in Garner’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, and insistent, to the point where one almost begins to feel he protests too much. Indeed, in the past I have proposed that for various reasons Garner has come to regard himself as being estranged from his own landscape and history, and has sought to write himself back into it. I framed it in terms of a recolonising of his “one square mile of Cheshire countryside”, and the ritualised performances of walking the countryside might be argued as being a part of this, a planting of footprints in lieu of a flag.
But what of the objects that form the other part of the ritual? I’ve been trying to decide where in Garner’s oeuvre the presence of things became overtaken by a preoccupation with things. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) follow a conventional fantasy-story trajectory concerning the loss, recovery and relinquishing of objects of power. This becomes more complicated in Elidor because not only are there clearly recognisable objects of power, although disguised as ordinary things in this world, Garner adds a second layer of significance, by displacing familiar objects, such as a porch from a twentieth-century house, a child’s glove, a broken jug, and imbuing them with ambiguous fantastical significance.
But it is with The Owl Service that the real and the fictional finally converged. It’s well-known that the story was in part inspired by a real dinner service, belonging to the family of Garner’s wife, but it is from reading The Beauty Things that we see just how often this near-sacralisation is happening in Garner’s work. At the same time, it turns out that not everything is what it initially seems. The original “Beauty Things" of the title, for example, didn’t belong to Alan Garner but to a man named Dafydd Rees. If you’ve read The Owl Service, you’ll have met a fictionalised version of him in Huw Halfbacon, the guardian of the valley in which the story of the love triangle involving Lleu Llaw Gyffes, his wife, Blodeuwedd—the woman made of flowers, and Gronw Pebyr is doomed to replay itself over the generations. In a hollow tree, Huw maintains a cache of significant objects connected to earlier iterations of the story—Gronw’s spear, a knife, an ancient pendant, objects of power. And among these objects is the set of brake blocks Huw removed from a motorbike belonging to Bertram, the second man involved in a love triangle formed with Nancy, the cook of the house to which Huw is attached as gardener—and whose son, Gwyn, is unaware of the identity of his father (spoiler—it’s Huw).
In real life, the “Beauty Things were the artefacts that Dafydd put beyond price. One could say possessions but for some of them at least, Dafydd was as much custodian as owner. Those things carried a certain weight. So it mattered that they passed to someone who would honour them in the telling.” And that someone was Alan Garner. Edmonds goes on to describe how Dafydd Rees came to give those items to Garner: “One day, Dafydd said to Alan, ‘I think I shall close my eyes soon. When I am gone, my sons will sell what they can, and throw the rest to the river. You are to take the Beauty Things now, in case we do not meet again.’”
There is something almost mythic in this scene, the handing on of significant items to the chosen one. Which is not to mock Garner’s account (for it is of course Garner’s story; Edmonds is presumably repeating what he has been told), but this is all we have, and it places Garner front and centre as the preserver of other people’s unloved trifles. Unlike Gwyn, who has no idea what to do with his inheritance, Garner always knows what to do. To go back to First Light, the archaeologist Richard Morris describes Garner the historian and archaeologist at work:
Yet more excursions were made to rescue things. In the garden stood the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross that had been saved from break-up. From Barthomley came the page of a medieval gospel of St Luke that had been re-used as a leaf in a post-Reformation account book and was about to be thrown out when Alan intervened. Two seventeenth-century gravestones had been salvaged from a clearance in Knutsford. An early visit saw us rattling down a lane in Alan’s Land Rover to retrieve a boundary marker that had become displaced and was at risk. (First Light, p. 211)
While I accept the sincerity of the enterprise, a part of me nonetheless feels that there is more of the eighteenth than the twentieth century about this. Archaeologists and historians are taught that context is all, yet here we have a catalogue of objects deprived of context even as Garner swoops in to save them. Morris talks too of Garner asking him, while the novelist was writing Red Shift, to find something connected with the Ninth Legion, “because Alan works through real things.” This much did not surprise me, but I had assumed that the fiction emerged from the objects, rather than the objects bolstering the fiction. At the same time, I found it hard not to see Garner as some sort of historical bric-a-brac collector.
The Stone Book Quartet possesses the most “thingness” of Garner’s work; it’s explicit in the title, of course, but is perhaps best summed up by a description in what is narratively the final book of the series, Tom Fobble’s Day (1978), of Joseph’s junk room, which pretty much contains the remnants of the other stories in the series. In Tom Fobble’s Day, we see young William collecting shrapnel as the Germans bomb Manchester with no sense of what he might do with it. By contrast, his grandfather, Joseph, about to retire as a blacksmith, brings his skills as a craftsman to bear on one last task: building a sledge for William. The sledge incorporates components of the loom that features in the first volume, The Stone Book (1976), and other items that readers will recognise. It has become the embodiment of all the stories, which are passed on to William. I have argued before that William, who is of course Alan, is collecting in a different way, and that the store room also represents his brain, filling with fragments of story idea, but, since I read The Beauty Things, I’m less convinced.
It’s just that I’d always assumed that the actual stone book (and it is by no means the only one that exists) was a genuine Garner family heirloom. One might argue that this is testimony to the way in which Garner describes its making, but the book’s actual provenance turns out to be more disturbing. “He turned up one day, with this, a stone book that he’d found in a shed.” He was Cedric Wheeler, a man working on the demolition and reassembly of the Medicine House, the storied building that now forms part of Garner’s home in Cheshire. Garner had warned the men that they might find things in the fabric of the building as they took it apart (old shoes, old papers, witch bottles and mummified cats being not uncommon discoveries). Wheeler had been inspired by this and had started to investigate other derelict buildings in his spare time. It was Garner’s reported response that startled me: “He didn’t want to give it to me. I had to have it but said that I wouldn’t buy it.”
There is something about the transaction described that is uncomfortable. It might be that I’m embarrassed for my younger self’s assumption about the object’s provenance but I don’t think it is (just) that. I find myself wondering what went through Cedric Wheeler’s mind as he displayed his discovery to Mr Garner, who insisted he must possess this thing, but no, he wasn’t going to pay for it, at least not with money. Instead, there will be a dedication in the book about the stone book if and when it is eventually written. And this is not the only time such a thing occurs: one of the stone axes was acquired in a similar way, and that not locally either (although, luckily, there is another, local axe that looks just like it, to establish the connection to Garner’s own land). Other things appear to be freely given, but nonetheless there remains a sense that Garner is constructing a museum of Garnerish things, and the means by which he does it are not entirely above reproach. People have things and he has to have those things. There is something presumptuous in the terms he offers, coupled with a patrician sense of his knowing better what needs to be done.
This presumption is nowhere more apparent than in the story of Garner’s friend, “Writer William.” It’s not stated, but the death dates agree so I’m fairly confident in saying this story concerns William Mayne, the children’s writer and a long-time friend of Garner’s (there is an early story by Mayne, The Big Egg (1967), which is clearly about Garner’s three eldest children, and set at Toad Hall). Garner tells how William, visiting Australia, comes across a box of stones in an antique shop. He buys them and on his way home shows them to Garner. “I recognized immediately that they were artefacts, Aboriginal Australian, with a few intrusions from North America, and William said I could have them, but not yet; he might need the stones for his own stories.”
When William died, in 2010, Garner asked those clearing the house to keep an eye out for the box of artefacts—“by then I knew much more about what I was seeing and understood the obligation that it brought. Among the tools were axes that the Kulin people made from the stone of Bomjinna, to chop the trees to prop the sky to stop the sky from falling.” That might be so—Garner has done his research over the years, writing memorably about Aboriginal Australian storytelling in The Voice That Thunders (1997)—but if these are, as he appears to suggest, sacred objects, what is he doing holding on to them, allowing them to be photographed and the photographs to be published? How is he so certain that this is permissible? I think in particular of the spear point wrapped in paperbark and tied with a cord made of human hair. There is something very intimate about that assemblage that makes me feel it was not meant for general viewing and I feel very uncomfortable even discussing it. Garner writes. “The wrapping is protection and concealment. It is also pure theatre, a moment when the curtain pulls back to bring the protagonist into the light.” Perhaps we should be asking who is actually entitled to pull back that curtain.
Similarly, there are Aboriginal Australian weapons which Garner saw nailed up on a wall in a neighbour’s house. He took them down, he said, because he had to, likening their presence on the wall to Christ crucified. But again, it seems as though he feels no need to make an effort to return them; or if he has, there is nothing here to indicate that fact. Instead, we have what is to all intents and purposes a tourist’s cabinet of curiosities. A very knowledgeable tourist, perhaps, one who has done a remarkable amount of homework, but who remains, nonetheless, a tourist.
The whole of The Beauty Things is permeated with these twin desires to acquire and to recover, to the point where it seems to me that two very different impulses have become entangled and confused. On the one hand, for example, we have the extraordinary story of how Garner rediscovered the contents of his grandfather Joseph’s workshop intact, boarded up in a cellar. This much is undoubtedly Garner’s patrimony and we can find genuine pleasure in actually seeing the things that Garner so lovingly recreated in The Stone Book Quartet. On the other, what about that stone book, that axe head, those stones, and the other things we don’t know about? What do they represent? The Beauty Things invites us to see them as also being part of Garner’s actual stuff, because they have all played a part in the creation of his novels. And that is true in a way, but when you push a certain creation myth, there is something disconcerting in discovering that it is built in part on appropriation. I suppose the argument might be that, having been stripped of their previous context, Garner has given these objects new context, incorporating them into his own mythos. Of the box of stone tools, Garner says, “Biography gives way to archetype, the slate wiped clean,” which seems to excuse him of the responsibility of doing anything about them. But I find myself thinking back to my previous thesis that Garner had, in effect, had to colonise himself in order to be Alan Garner. And if that is so, it’s hard not to see some of these objects as colonial trophies.
I’ve been reading Alan Garner’s writings for a long time now, and rereading. I call him one of my favourite authors, and that’s still true, but this has never been a simple relationship. When I was young it was easy enough to buy into the mythos of Garnerland. Somewhere in my study is a talismanic ammonite (Red Shift), along with a small, intact clay pipe (The Stone Book Quartet), not to mention a bulging file of photocopies about the history and landscape of Cheshire. And maps. So many maps. I’ve visited Alderley Edge, Mow Cop, Barthomley, Thursbitch, and still vaguely hope I’ll one day make it to Ludchurch. For years I wanted to find a stone book of my own. For me, to read Garner was always about looking things up to see if they actually existed. Literally the first thing I did when Thursbitch was announced was to type the name into a search engine. Of course I did. And of course it did. But I ask myself now if this isn’t all some kind of distraction from the real work of reading.
There are passages in Garner’s writing I admire intensely—the evocation of deep time, deep history in Boneland is a literary tour de force—yet I remain ambivalent about the man and his work. I’d argue this is a productive state in which to exist. As I’ve grown older I’ve gone from accepting his fiction at face value to arguing with it fiercely. Things I never noticed when I was an adolescent or in my twenties suddenly leap out at me now, and I find myself wondering how I never noticed that before. This is not to say that The Beauty Things should be regarded simply as a catalogue of disastrous acquisitions for a fictional museum, or that the contributions in First Light should be regarded as swerving around the unacceptable. Each is sincere in its way, I don’t doubt, but when read together the critical mind must surely ask questions that don’t have a straightforward answer. To truly celebrate an author is to keep asking those difficult questions.