Archive for November 25th, 2012

November 25, 2012

Alan Garner, Boneland

I struggled with this piece on Alan Garner’s Boneland, and even with the benefits of Mint’s excellent editors I’m not entirely happy with it. In part because so much of what fascinated me about Boneland had to do with where it stands within Garner’s career, something that’s impossible to convey to anyone who has not read the rest of his work. And in part because where Garner is concerned I have, since this is on the internet, Many Feels.

A version of this piece was published in Mint Lounge this weekend.



2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Alan Garner’s first novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. This and its 1963 sequel The Moon of Gomrath followed the adventures of two siblings, Colin and Susan, and their encounters with the legends around Alderly Edge in Cheshire.  It’s in the atmospheric writing and descriptions of the Edge that most of the power of these books lies. Garner would later experiment with the form of the children’s fantasy novel (most notably in 1965’s Elidor); but in most respects The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are ordinary, if high-quality, adventure stories.

One of the ways in which Garner deviates from the usual is in providing no easy resolution. The Moon of Gomrath ends on an uncomfortable note as the Daughters of the Moon whom Susan so desperately wants to join disappear, leaving her alone and desolate. Children’s fantasy rarely deals with the question of return; can it ever really be so easy to come back to ordinary life?

Almost half a century later, Garner has written a sequel to the earlier two novels. Boneland is set in or around the present and focuses on Colin, now an adult and an astronomer, with no memory of his childhood before the age of thirteen. Susan has disappeared; Colin can’t be sure that she ever existed, yet he is haunted by the spectre of his sister. At the beginning of the book he is slowly unravelling, and seeks the help of Meg, a rather unorthodox psychoanalyst.  Interwoven with Colin’s story is that of a prehistoric man whose own arcane rituals (connected to his own search for a particular woman) appear crucial to keep the world going.

What is one to make then, of an oblique, allusive book for adults that is meant to follow two reasonably straightforward books for children; a sequel separated from its predecessors by not just time and audience, but by genre as well? If we understand a sequel to be a continuation of the original story, Boneland functions only partly as one. Even at the end the details of Susan’s disappearance (her name is never mentioned in this book) and of Colin’s loss of memory are tenuous.  Yet through its allusions to the earlier books  –Colin’s fear of crows and fascination with the Pleiades, Meg’s house shrouded in rhododendrons–  it not only draws on their significance to deepen its own, but acts as a sort of meditation upon those books as well.

Garner has hinted that Boneland is likely to be his last book. It’s possible to read this not just as the final volume of a trilogy but as the culmination of his career. References to his earlier works are scattered through this one; including the sacred axe-head and flashes of “blue silver” of Red Shift and the “Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!” refrain of The Stone Book Quartet.

Over and over in his writing Garner has returned to the history and myths of this part of England. The legend of the sleeping knights under Alderley Edge forms a significant part of his first book.  Red Shift moved in time between Roman and Civil War Britain but in place stayed firmly in Cheshire. The Stone Book Quartet was a collection of interlinked stories spread over four generations of a family, possibly Garner’s own. In Boneland this concern with history is stretched to the geological. Colin, who is something of a savant, is able to give erudite lectures on Permo-Triassic rock even as he refuses to leave the Edge at night because he believes that he must watch it. The mythic and the scientific sit together in uneasy companionship here.

Questions of myth versus science are frequently raised. In a sense this difference between the truth of science and the truth of myth is roughly analogous to the difference between Boneland and its prequels. Colin admits that his mistake all along has been to mix the two, “using the telescope to find a myth, an object to trace a metaphor”, while Meg compares this endeavour to “chasing love with a scalpel”. There’s the suggestion that the truth, whatever it is, may be as a metaphor here and narrative an object, so that we are doomed to frustration. But the book’s cryptic first lines, in which someone is reassuring Colin that it is “just a scratch” also suggest that he has been unconscious in a hospital throughout, and the whole of the narrative is only a metaphor for the processes of his brain. And the book’s use of psychology occasionally serves as a reminder that this is a discipline in which science is arrived at in part through metaphor.

Boneland shows all the lyricism (“He cut the veil of the rock; the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brought the moon from the blade, and the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang”) of which Garner is capable, and is resonant with echoes of his own and other works. It is by parts frustrating, emotionally exhausting and beautiful. And it is a resolution of sorts to Colin and Susan’s story, if not quite the one we might have expected.