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…