19 January 2023

Alan Garner

I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when I was ten. Like many others, fantasy was a passion for a time, and, along with inevitable Tolkien, The Weirdstone stuck with me for some years. I remember little about it now, other than a sense of darkness.

Many years later, I was lucky to attend a talk given by Garner. It was a storytelling event held in the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall of Thirlings at Bede’s World in Jarrow. My older brother had been a Garner fan for years, but all I had was that vague childhood half-memory.

Garner’s talk was like nothing I had ever seen or heard. It told of his experiences writing his imminent short novel Thursbitch. I’ve never before or since heard someone hold the room so completely, as he dug us down into the earth of his new book.

After reading Thursbitch, I sought out all of Garner’s fiction. The Weirdstone didn’t stand up wonderfully well to an adult reader, and the other two children’s books were similarly unmemorable. The Stone Book Quartet gave a glimpse of what was to come, in its peerless evocation of childhood.

Then came The Owl Service. I confess almost to having my breath taken away while reading this short book for the first time. The Welsh valleys act as a protagonist, perhaps emphasized to this English reader in the contrast drawn between its middle-class English and working-class Welsh characters. Class, and cultural and intellectual hatred, soak every character, and I had my first glimpse of Garner’s horrific perception of his childhood and adolescent self, and his unwavering certainty in his own intellectual superiority. It’s a tough read, but a compelling one.

The Owl Service is rightly remembered, of course, for how it sinks its landscape and protagonists through the fabric of history and nature. This is Garner’s genius. Even in this early work, he creates echoes between ages, made concrete in elemental man-made objects. His is the liminal world between the natural and the unexplained. And that threshold is one of horror.

The Owl Service is everything which Jacqueline Wilson fails to achieve. It’s a children’s book about misery and anger. Red Shift takes these themes to another level for a slightly older audience.

Red Shift strips out the bucolic setting of The Owl Service, rejecting its beauty for the industrial hinterland of Garner’s beloved Cheshire. The themes of class and intellectual snobbery infect one of the three narratives which run in parallel and intersect in this disturbing, upsetting, and raging work.

Each strand distances itself from the reader quite deliberately in its characters’ language. Modern-day irritating intellectualism, seventeenth-century Cheshire dialect, and US military jargon in the mouths of Roman legionaries all unsettle.

Red Shift’s multiple narratives allow Garner, quite astonishingly, to place massively greater emphasis on the echoes and touches between ages, again channelled through the ancient man-made. However, because of the explicit narratives in different periods of history, this totemic relationship is set free to become vastly more impressionistic. The conscious uncertainty amplifies his central theme of inter-generational historic emotional resonance to an astonishing degree, and the book chills with dread.

The splitting of the narrative into three allows and requires Garner’s overweaning evocation of place to sharpen and localize from The Owl Service’s Welsh Valleys to Red Shift’s Mow Cop. Again, the historic and man-made act as a conduit between ages, in both the land and the ancient axe-head, which inherits the mantle from The Owl Service’s megalith and spear-head.

Red Shift is despair. “Not really now not any more.”

As described, I read Thursbitch, last in this undeclared trilogy, before the other two. I was still buzzing with dread and fascination from Garner’s mesmerizing talk.

Thurbitch pares Red Shift’s three parallel narratives down to two. The present-day protagonists have continued to age with Garner, and death is constant. While hateful snobbery persists, Garner’s characters recede, and his land looms ever larger. The Owl Service had the iconic Welsh valleys. Red Shift had a local curiosity and landmark. Thursbitch gives its name to the novel, but is otherwise unremarked, to the best of my knowledge. The landscape’s lack of historic or monumental significance allows the novel’s setting to drop all cultural baggage and creep its own quietly screaming path. The horror of The Owl Service’s myths, and of Red Shift’s history, becomes purely of Thurbitch’s earth.

Again, the ancient man-made bridges the narratives and the ages. The seventeenth-century Cheshire dialect, crisp and lilting in Red Shift, becomes rhythmical and beguiling in Thursbitch. While the former’s characters battled in extremis, the latter’s chthonic archetypes mutter and lilt, “think on”.

Treacle Walker was up for last year’s Booker. To me, it was the faintest echo of the unflinching horror of this most English trilogy. If Garner had won, in my mind, it would have been in recognition of these unforgettable books.

Walk and do. Walk and do. Walk and do till all is done.