Archive for ‘Alan Garner’

March 1, 2013

A solution to Susan

A few years ago, I read Alan Garner’s Elidor and was struck by a number of similarities with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. This is not to say that I think Garner was doing a conscious rebuttal of Lewis in his own work, necessarily (that disclaimer applies to this post as well). Portal fantasies with “chosen” children were, I think, a reasonably established trope by the time Garner’s earlier books were written, as were fantastic unicorns and books that began with train journeys (see for example practically every school story ever). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these, along with other tropes, come into play in Elidor, but that’s because Elidor works as an inversion of exactly that type of fantasy.

It’s probably also a coincidence that both writers write of girls named Susan; there are a number of Susans floating about mid-twentieth century children’s literature. Still, reading both the Susans together is potentially illuminating.

Lewis’s Susan Pevensie first appears in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as the concerned older sister. She tries to mother the younger ones, is sensible, is rescued by her brother, grows into a good archer and a beautiful woman.Skimming the book again I see that the being sensible part remains constant; at the end of the book Susan is the only one of her siblings to suggest not taking the path that will (though they don’t know this at the time) send them back to their own world with no way of coming back. In The Horse and His Boy, which is set during the Pevensies’ time as rulers of Narnia, she’s an adult, capable of desire and contemplating marriage to a Calormene prince (who turns out to be evil, as most brown people are). There’s no sign, either here or in the final pages of LWW, that any of the children spend much time thinking about where they came from or contemplate returning– though at the end of The Horse and His Boy Aravis and Shasta hear Lucy telling the story of how the Pevensies came to Narnia, so at least at this point they still remember. And while I find this a little creepy, the implication is that these characters’ lives are here.

And so to Prince Caspian, the last book in which Susan appears. I’m indebted for my reading of Susan in this book to Ana Mardoll’s ongoing chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the series, all of which can be found here, but I want to particularly focus on these two posts. Ana Mardoll sees Susan as deeply vulnerable, and strongly affected by being hauled in and out of Narnia; and it’s a situation that is potentially traumatic. We’re never shown how Susan feels at being told at the end of Prince Caspian that coming back is no longer an option for her, but it’s quite conceivable that she’s less accepting of it than her brother.

Within the series’ internal chronology, that moment when Susan walks through the door in the air and back to “our” world is the last time we see her. We will see her siblings, and fellow Narnia-adventurers in The Last Battle though:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

Critiques of Lewis tend to focus on that “nylons and lipstick and invitations” line, and while I find it rather indicative of Lewis’ politics in general, I find what Eustace says to be more interesting. Susan says Narnia doesn’t exist at all, and within the logic of the series this doesn’t make sense because obviously it does exist and this is the real problem.

Back at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Pevensie children had found Lucy’s insistence that she had entered a magical land through a wardrobe alarming, and had asked Professor Kirk for advice. His answer:

“There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad.”

This is a version of Lewis’s trilemma, and let’s ignore for the moment all the things that are obviously wrong with it as an argument. Lucy is not in the habit of lying and is “clearly” not mad (how likely is it that the Professor’s degrees are in anything related to the field of mental health?) so we have to assume she’s telling the truth, against all laws of time and space as the children know them.

Within the logic of Narnia’s universe (which I am respecting much more than the Professor does that of the real world) Susan is not telling the truth when she says Narnia does not exist. Is she in the habit of lying, then, or is something much more serious going on here? I notice that the dismissive comments that the ‘Friends’ of Narnia make about Susan do not come from her family. Polly, Jill and Eustace all have negative things to say, but of those who know her best, Peter is short and changes the subject, and Edmund and Lucy are silent.



One of the reasons I suspect no one expected a third book in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen series is that it ends so very well. In The Moon of Gomrath Susan briefly rides with, and feels a strong kinship with the Daughters of the Moon. She has further reason to feel like she belongs with them; the Mark of Fohla, given to her by Angharad Goldenhand. We see Susan’s desolation at the end of the book twice, through her own eyes and her brother’s, as they leave her behind.

The Einheriar paled, their forms thinning to air and light, and they rose from her into the sky.


But Susan was left as dross upon the hill, and a voice came to her from the gathering outlines of the stars. “It is not yet! It will be! But not yet!” And the fire died in Susan, and she was alone on the moor, the night wind in her face, joy and anguish in her heart.

The hoof-beats drew near, and the earth throbbed. Colin opened his eyes. Now the cloud raced over the ground, breaking into separate glories that whisped and sharpened to skeins of starlight, and were horsemen, and at their head was majesty, crowned with antlers, like the sun.

But as they crossed the valley, one of the riders dropped behind, and Colin saw that it was Susan. She lost ground, though her speed was no less, and the light that formed her died, and in its place was a smaller, solid figure that halted, forlorn, in the white wake of the riding.


It’s a horrible moment.

And you have to wonder how much of the awfulness of those final moments of Elidor has to do with the terrible thing that has just happened (the death of Findhorn) and how much of it is the horror of return to the mundane world:

… for an instant the glories of stone, sword, spear, and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light. The song faded.

The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.

These children cannot skip unconcernedly back and forth between worlds without consequence or thought for what they must now do without. There’s magic, then it’s gone, and they are bereft.

And so to Boneland*, Garner’s 2012 conclusion to what we now know is a trilogy. This is a darker book, an adult book. It works outside the realm of children’s fantasy and in some ways is not fantasy at all. Susan is not present in this book, any more than she is in The Last Battle. Here she is not even named. And Colin cannot work out where his sister has gone; for much of the book he can’t even be sure he had a sister. The siblings are separated, either because one of them has managed again to access the world of fantasy from which the other has been cut off, or by death, or (as is the case in The Last Battle) the two are the same thing anyway. Susan is not the one left behind this time, she has moved ahead into whatever it is she has moved into. Boneland is all about Colin’s fractured psyche that is partly (in one of several possible readings of the book) a result of his childhood adventures. In a sense, then, if we accept Mardoll’s reading of Susan (I do, though I’m reasonably sure Lewis would not) with Boneland Garner may provide us with a solution to the problem of why Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. I wonder how Colin would answer if asked whether the events of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen were “real”.




* I reviewed Boneland here, and Maureen Kincaid Speller has some detailed notes here that are especially helpful in placing it in the context of Garner’s larger body of work. And see also this lovely snippet about girls who went back (by Atilla/atillariffic on tumblr, based on art by Helen Green/dollychops).

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.


October 5, 2012

September Reading

As ever, a list of the books I read last month.


Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, Team Human: I wrote about this here. I’m not sure you can read Team Human outside the context of the debates within which it situates itself, and I’m not sure if that is a flaw. Within said context, it’s smart and engaging, and I enjoyed it.

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: One of the methods I employed to put off reading Boneland (see below) was to read things that seemed likely to be connected in some way to it. As Armitage explains in the introduction, he chose to focus on preserving the alliterative quality of the poem rather than a more literal translation. As a result, his version is a pleasure to read out loud – even when I was in places where this would have been alarming I was mouthing the words as I read them.

Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and Boneland: My continued project to procrastinate over reading Boneland – I reread The Stone Book Quartet and Red Shift instead. I wrote about Red Shift here, and at some point in the unspecified future I’d like to think through the failed relationships in this book and in The Owl Service. I was unprepared for how much more The Stone Book Quartet affected me this time than on my first read some years ago. As for Boneland, I’m rereading and trying to write about it, but. Imagine being as good at what you do as Alan Garner. I can’t imagine anything is going to be better than it this year.

Janice Pariat, Boats on Land: One of the more widely anticipated books to come out of Indian publishing this year. This is a collection of short stories, most of them set in and around Shillong. My review should be out this weekend; on the whole, I really enjoyed this.

Elsie J. Oxenham, The Abbey Girls Win Through – Rosamund’s Castle (books 17-27 in the Abbey Girls series): These were published over the decade immediately preceding the Second World War. I’ve read most of the Abbey books in the past – though I’m not a huge fan, I’m terribly susceptible to long series – but I’m working on a longer piece that made me curious as to how they deal with the war. They don’t, much. Perhaps the later books in the series (the last was published in 1959) might be of more help.

Anushka Ravishankar, Moin and the Monster and Moin the Monster Songster: Anushka’s a former colleague and she and my ex-boss Sayoni Basu have just started their own publishing company for children’s and YA fiction, called Duckbill. Anushka is also a well-known children’s author, and one of the books Duckbill are publishing is a reissue of her 2006 book Moin and the Monster along with a new sequel. I avoid reviewing people I know personally (though please know that these books are great fun) but I’ve interviewed Anushka for the Duckbill blog, and that ought to be up on their website soon. We are very erudite.

Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, Pride of Baghdad: Reviewed here. I was disappointed in this; a bit too simplistic, some dodgy politics, and rape-as-character-development, all of which severely undermined the effect of Henrichon’s excellent art.

H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness: A work-related reread, and a welcome one. I’d forgotten how frequently Lovecraft compared the scenery to Roerich’s art – I tend to think of him as being all about the monsters. I’d also forgotten how much I also love Roerich’s Asian paintings.

Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination: Work-related again. Spufford is wonderful and this is such a lovely, intelligent book.

Nicholas Blake, The Worm of Death and The Case of the Abominable Snowman: Both very enjoyable, but not the best of the Strangeways books I’d read.

A pygmy goat

E. Lockhart, The Ruby Oliver series: About halfway through the month I turned into a teenaged girl. This is really the only explanation I can offer; that, and the fact that these books are adorable and funny and also pygmy goats.


September 25, 2012

Alan Garner, Red Shift

I nearly read this book again today, trying to find a suitably wonderful bit of it to quote here, before finally giving up. There are passages that are gorgeous, but more than most books everything requires the context of everything else to really work.

It’s been a few years since I last read Red Shift, but I had read it as an adult. Which is why I was surprised by how much more it meant to me this time – and I’ve always found it heartbreaking. Certainly far more than last week’s (650 word) column had space for.



The big literary event of this year, for me, has been the release of Alan Garner’s new book, Boneland, a sequel to his first two books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath) written almost half a century after they were published. Garner is not as well-known outside the UK as he should be. This may in part be because of his intense focus on his own country – the geography and dialect of his own particular part of England. But this makes for a sense of absolute ownership and belonging to a place that is one of the finest things about his work.

As with any new book that really matters to me, I’ve been doing everything I can to stave off reading Boneland. I’m not sure if this is a natural desire to draw out the pleasure or an act of sheer cowardice. But it has given me an excuse to reread Garner’s earlier work, and I stayed up all night recently reading Red Shift.

Garner’s earliest books were for children, but with Red Shift it’s hard to be sure. The book is composed of three parallel plots that are centuries apart in time – Roman Britain, the English Civil War, and the present (it was published in 1973). All three plots take place in the same part of Cheshire, however, and to all of them the hill of Mow Cop is important.

The primary plot is the modern day romance of Tom and Jan. Tom is brilliant and poor, trying to study for a university scholarship in the small caravan where he lives with his parents. Jan has moved to London to become a nurse. The couple meet when they can and find refuge in a building on top of the nearby Mow Cop. It is here that they find an axe-head, which Jan adopts as a symbol of their relationship. Yet both the relationship and Tom himself become less stable as Tom sells the valuable axe-head to a museum and learns that Jan had an affair with an older man.

A group of Roman soldiers from the lost Ninth Legion attacks a village, killing all its inhabitants except a priestess, before settling on Mow Cop. Macey, one member of the group and the owner of a stone axe-head, is subject to strange fits during which he fights and kills. During his fits he claims to be someone else, and sees flashes of blue-silver. Macey is the only one of the group not to injure or rape the priestess, and when she poisons the others he is the only one to survive.

In seventeenth century England a man named Thomas Rowley, along with his wife Margery, survives an attack by Irish Royalists upon his village due to the charity of another of Margery’s former suitors. Thomas has found the axe-head and he and Margery decide to build it into their new home on Mow Cop. Like Macey, Thomas is subject to visions, most of them featuring a man in pain. It becomes clear that both Thomas and Macey are experiencing flashes of Tom’s anguish, passed back through time as Jan leaves on the blue-silver train.

Garner has always been an economical writer, but in Red Shift the narrative is pared down to the point that there is hardly anything but dialogue. In the case of Tom and Jan’s relationship in particular this dialogue is wide-ranging and allusive; a frequent refrain is the plaintive “Poor Tom’s a-cold” borrowed from King Lear. It’s hard work, and it’s obvious we’re expected to work at it; Garner even ends the book with an encrypted letter for the reader to decode. Sometimes it’s almost poetry.

In the three stories here, twice unstable men are rescued by the women who hold onto them. For Tom and Jan, this is inadequate. There’s a lot to say about Red Shift (its relationship to the Tam Lin ballad, its overlooked place as a Modernist classic) but more than anything it’s a beautiful, bitter story that breaks me every time.



October 12, 2010

Garner love

For many months now I’ve been promising myself a reread of Alan Garner’s magnificent book The Owl Service (and a rewatch of the very good BBC adaptation alongside). I’ve written about Garner on this blog, though never enough to express quite how vital he has been to me, and to how I read.

Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (which I only read quite recently, in 2008) is now fifty years old, and The Guardian have an interview with him up here. And though I’ve linked to it before, here is an essay by Garner that I am particularly fond of.