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.

5 Comments to “Here, have a dead unicorn”

  1. It all sounds wonderful (thanks for the link also). I read The Owl Service only a few years ago and when I found a copy in the BCL that was being remaindered, I swooped down upon it. It’s a very well preserved copy too!

    (Meant to ask. I now have two copies of The Left Hand of Darkness. Can I assume you don’t want one because you already have it?)

  2. I was so thrilled to find a new edition of The Owl Service in our local bookshop the other week! I think that’s my favourite Garner, with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen a close second.

    When I was at school we did a play of Weirdstone, but I was too shy to be in it, so I helped with the lighting instead. I wish I’d been in it now!

    Also, I don’t know if you will have had chance to see it, but in the UK there was a TV series of The Owl Service around the late 70′s/early 80′s. They made quite a good job of it – in fact I think my husband has a copy on DVD somewhere…

    Anyway, sorry, as you can tell, I’m an Alan Garner fan too! :)

  3. ps, thanks for the link to that interview, too – I’m saving it to enjoy later when I have more time! :)

  4. My husband reads Alan Garner and I read Weirdstone and loved it.

  5. SB – I do have a copy of Left Hand of Darkness, thanks!
    What did you think of The Owl Service?

    Debs – So you’re an Angela Carter fan who likes Garner? This is excellent!
    I know about the TV series, ad I’ve seen clips from it but never the whole thing. It does look good though – they seem to have gotten most of it right. And I’d have been too shy to be in the play too!

    MG – I still think that The Owl Service is the best thing by him I’ve read so far. You really should try it!

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