Weirdstones and Owls – The Magic of Alan Garner

‘At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world, across the hill of Alderley, a farmer from Mobberley was riding to Macclesfield fair.’

The lilt of those opening lines to Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen acts like a lure, making me – on this chill November day in the here and now – want to follow that farmer and return to Alderley Edge. I’ve journeyed there before in the pages of Alan Garner’s mind-shifting novel Thursbitch – but, as yet, have not read The Weirdstone

A copy is waiting on my bookshelves, promising magic; a treat to come. But I also feel regret that I didn’t discover it during my childhood; that time of wide open doors when its magic would have overlapped my world completely, and become my dreaming reality.

Picture of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

I have, however, been able to open up that experience to my daughter, and to happily watch her overtake me in her eagerness to follow Colin and Susan on their adventures. I first discovered Alan Garner in my twenties when, intrigued, I stumbled upon The Owl Service in the tiny village library just a magpie’s hop across the road from the house we were renting at the time.

We lived, back then, in a landscape of river and reed beds, where the wheezing beat of mute swan wings passed overhead – and a wood, just a field’s width away across the railway, bristled with the drama of tawny owls.

That wood, a fragment of ancient forest, was a gateway to a vivid, vital, timeless world. On darkening summer evenings, we would follow the needle gleam of glow worms along the paths – and in the margins of the day, when sunshine and time met in a suspended hush, we sometimes caught glimpses of fox cubs or common lizards basking in their own worlds.

On the other side of the village stretched a mosaic of wetland, where geese patterned the sky, the occasional kingfisher sparked blue fire on snow in winter, and on warm nights, Daubenton’s bats dashed under the river bridge, snapping up prey.

Like all landscapes tend to do, it settled into my mind, even when unseen and unnoticed, as a presence – a kind of cloak around the day. It was present in this way when, with dog nestled under one arm, I curled up in our back room, close to the window which faced the tawny owl wood, and opened the pages of The Owl Service for the first time…

What spilled from that slim volume was something ungraspable, like a jolting light that would not be contained; a jagged, edgy, searing, elemental…something… binding words to place in a way that was like a spell of losing and finding, a half glimpsing – an instinctual knowing.

Picture of The Owl Service by Alan Garner

My daughter read The Owl Service this year, enthralled, gripping it with white knuckled fingers. One evening, she glanced up at me and said, in awed tones, “I love this book… It really makes you think.” Her eyes shone with the relish of the challenge. I could almost hear those mental doors opening to even wider horizons of possibility, and I could see in her eyes a dawning realisation of what boundaries literature can stretch, what edgy places it can let in (or out!)

When reading Garner’s books, it’s as if that presence of the landscape – that cloak of the day – stops being outside our window, or benignly present in our minds, and suddenly enters our house, startles us, scratches at the ceiling and walls like those legend-living owls in The Owl Service, and permeates our living room, removes all veneer. Whilst we read, we move out of the ‘long ago of the world,’ still bound to the here and now, but with all the vital connections between the ancient and the present haunting our deepest awareness.

Those things are internal and external – and eternal. And, in The Owl Service they are, in part, the playing out of the eternal pattern of the journey from childhood to adulthood. A literal edginess of edges between experience, possibility, past and future; doorways between worlds. And that is what he speaks to, this craftsman of words that are bound to the ancient continuity of the land and to our heritage; he speaks to those deeper elements that are both within and without us. Not clear, but instinctive, both disturbing and vital; words that return us to ourselves, and connect us to the land and its (and our) stories. 

It is fifty years since The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was first published, its golden anniversary falling, with an appropriate sense of magical portent, on 10/10/10. A special hardback gift edition (which I’ve only seen online so far, but am already feeling its lure!) has been published by Harper Collins to mark the book’s five decades of passage through so many young (and not so young!) lives, and a website linked to the anniversary celebrations explores its timeless, ever renewing appeal.

Legends, folklore, myths and stories draw us to the fireside. The mystery of landscape – and the words which express the bonds we feel with it – fit well the space provided by a pool of winter candlelight. There, the mystery flickers for us to examine it, whilst remaining as huge as the endless shadows that surround the flame.

As the winter solstice approaches, it’ll soon be time, I think, for me to link up with the long ago, set aside some winter hours before the year wears out – and follow that farmer to Alderley Edge…

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8 thoughts on “Weirdstones and Owls – The Magic of Alan Garner

  1. I do not know the works of Alan Garner, but your post makes me want to read them. And your account of these books enchanting your daughter enchanted me. If the best is to be preserved – and I think it should – how can this be achieved if we do not pass the best of our own values on to the next generation?

    Mind you – if this winter is anything like the last, a trek across the snows and blizzards to Alderley Edge is possibly not, perhaps, advisable. The nearest I come to outdoor activities at such a time is a trudge to my local pub – which, happily, happens to be a cosy Thames-side hostelry – for a warming glass of brandy. Let us remember the fate of Mole, and of what might have befallen him had not Ratty found him in time, and had not the gruff but kindly Mr Badger offered them his hospitality! (I have, incidentally, long wanted to spend Christmas at Badger’s fireside: next to a Christmas at Dingley Dell, I can think of nothing more delighful.)

    Winter is my favourite time of year. We usually spend Christmas at my mother’s in Ribble Valley, in Lancashire, and the sight of the valley from the slopes as the sun sets in the afternoon, casting a pinkish haze across the horizon, is a landscape that most certainly, as you put it, settles in the mind. I think it is the quality of the winter light that has settled in my own mind more than any physical detail of that landscape, remarkable though that is.

    And while books such as Alan Garner’s can undoubtedly bring that landscape into our minds, I submit that a seasonal brandy or a whisky can do the trick also!

    (Beautiful photographs, by the way! I do envy those Folio volumes of fairy stories I see in the background of the pictures!)

    • Himadri – many thanks for another lovely comment! :)

      Alan Garner is such a fascinating writer – if you do get a chance to investigate his work, you’re in for a very special reading experience! Garner’s novels defy categories; they go beyond boundaries. He has said himself that when writing the novels traditionally thought of as his work for children, he doesn’t ‘..consciously think of children… I do know that children read me more intelligently than adults do.’ They are such great books to share with my daughter; she was so swept along by their challenge and their enchantment. She’s now wanting to find out more about the Welsh myths that entwine through the story of The Owl Service

      For adults, Thursbitch takes that mythical, edgy mystery of his work to yet another level. If you do ever decide to explore his novels, I’m wondering if Thursbitch might be a great starting point for you, Himadri. I can see you enjoying the vital and edgy power of that work. As I said in my post, it’s a mind-shifting novel – deep, disturbing, challenging and elemental. It’s several years now since I read it, but it’s one of those books which never stops reverberating in the mind. I’ve yet to read Strandloper but, from what I’ve heard, that too is deeply powerful, and is on my must-read list.

      If you’re interested in having a look, there’s an interesting video interview with Garner on the Guardian website here (marking the 50th Anniversary of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) in which Garner and the interviewer walk Alderley Edge together… I watched it today for the first time, and it was great to walk there in his company – even if only metaphorically.

      Yes, the Edge is probably a very slippery land of ice right now! No doubt, it’ll be extra magical in the silence of snow (yes, I’m one of those people who loves being out in the cold – though, I must say, coming in from the cold to a warm fireside is part of the appeal!). Talking of which, part of the interview on the video takes place in Alderley’s pub, The Wizard (which I’m sure could conjure up a brandy or two!) – so I feel as if I’ve raised a metaphorical glass with Alan Garner too!

      You’re so right about that special quality and effect of winter light. Funnily enough, I was re-reading Kathleen Jamie’s opening essay about winter light and solstice darkness in her wonderful book Findings, last night. I was reading it as a little celebration of the coming winter solstice, as I’d felt particularly inspired by the winter light yesterday. The Ribble Valley must be a beautiful place to spend Christmas. Ah yes, Mr. Badger’s fireside – the epitome of cosiness! Talking of ideal Christmastimes, every time I read A Christmas Carol, how I wish I could be transported to Mr and Mrs Fezziwig’s festive celebrations. Now there’s a couple who know how to party!

      Glad you like the photos! My Folio fairy story volumes were all mostly free gifts (can you believe it!) when renewing my membership over the years. As you can imagine, the offer of those treasures just proved impossible to resist!

  2. Really interesting – I’m a Garner fan too, and I did like your lines “Legends, folklore, myths and stories draw us to the fireside. The mystery of landscape – and the words which express the bonds we feel with it – fit well the space provided by a pool of winter candlelight”. That’s a great way of putting it!

    • Many thanks, whistlesinthewind – and welcome to Bookish Nature! It’s great to “meet” another Garner fan. Have you heard the exciting news about Alan Garner’s upcoming new book, Boneland – the final part in the Weirdstone trilogy? I found out about it very recently when reading this article in the Guardian:

      I love the Garner-esque way that this sequel has been ‘lurking within’ The Moon of Gomrath all these years, teetering between the right time – or never – to reveal itself. I love his answer too to the question why it took such a long time to gestate: “…it took as long as it took.” I can relate to that!

      Thanks again for your comment…

      Melanie

  3. I found out only last week too, and have pre-ordered… I’ve yet to read Moon of Gomrath so that will move up the book list. I found the article, thanks. I don’t know why, but I’m always drawn to novels where a house or a landscape is almost a character in it. Like Rebecca, or Jane Eyre, or anything Wessex and Hardyish!

    • Glad you found the article! The link appeared in my reply on my dashboard, but disappeared every time I tried to post it on the blog. Weird! Something very Garner-esque going on, maybe!

      Oh yes, place as character – there’s something so haunting about novels saturated with that. It goes very deep, I think – that indivisible something between people, events and a shaping sense of place. That’s probably one of the major reasons why I’m so drawn to Hardy too (one of my top favourite writers). His brilliant description of Egdon Heath at the beginning of The Return of the Native springs instantly to mind as I type this. He perfectly captures a landscape in all its elemental character – alive and breathing through the lives of its inhabitants…

      I’m really enjoying your blog, by the way. I shall be hot-footing it over there again very soon. I see you’re a fellow H.E. Bates fan too! Another writer brilliant at that sense of place, with a Hardyish flavour…

      • Yes indeed, I was thinking of Egdon Heath too! Reassuring to know H E Bates still has admirers.

        It’s great the way a blog links things up and gives form to the reasons things inspire. Thanks for enjoying mine.

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