Archive for November 12th, 2008

November 12, 2008

Here, have a dead unicorn

Some of you will remember my joy earlier this year when I finally found myself a copy of The Owl Service, a book I’d fallen in love with in school. Thursbitch, A Bag of Moonshine and some of his essays were the only other things by Garner* I’d read at the time.
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Dublin I found secondhand copies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, and this week managed to get Elidor out of the library. And then I met a writer who said, in the middle of a conversation about writers he thinks are underrated, “no one seems to read Alan Garner”. Apparently I looked like I wanted to hug him. (This would have been awkward)

Elidor starts in a way very similar to Prince Caspian – children waiting for a train, being transported to a magic land and encountering a ruined castle. The train thing is interesting – so much of children’s lit begins with a train journey away from familiar territory into a place away from home where odd things can take place. Garner and Lewis both use it too – Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Lewis in The Last Battle, where the train transports the characters from life into death. But here, in both cases, the action takes place before the journey, and when the characters finally get on board it’s to pretty banal destinations – a house in the suburbs in Garner’s case, school in Lewis’.
As you can see I was thinking about Lewis quite a lot as I read Garner. Which is odd, because two writers are so different. In Elidor, children from this world don’t get to waltz in and save the day (the function they perform is important, but they’re mostly outside the real action); they’re certainly not going to rule here, and their dead unicorn friend is unlikely to return in a happy, shared afterlife.
Garner’s hard to read sometimes – his supernatural is wild and harsh and bloody (the flowers are made of claws) and hardly anyone seems to have a happy ending. He also has a habit of giving his women all the supernatural functions – they’re the ones who get possessed by mythical Welsh women, inherit powerful jewels, pledge their futures to a band of huntresses/riders who are somehow connected to the moon goddess, and talk to unicorns (what’s common to those last two?) and so on – in either Weirdstone or Moon we’re told that Old Magic is associated with women.
But he’s an incredible writer. Now that I have access to most of his work (The Voice That Thunders is, inexplicably, not in the library) I’m being most greedy about it, and I’m thrilled that he exists.

*Here’s an interview. Reading Garner talking about his work always makes me feel like I know nothing/will never know enough.