Welcome to the Pile of Leaves Book Club. The walled garden is strung with little rainbow lights. Pour yourself a glass of something and hunker down with everybody else - friends and strangers, each clutching a copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which we've all been reading this month.
Had everyone read Alan Garner's work before? Tom says, ‘I came to Garner's novels via The Owl Service which I can read and re-read still. I think my first shock of reading "Yarawarawarawarawar!" in Chapter 1 and supposing Another Being (a Welsh mythy sort of being?) had made an entrance into the story made quite the impact on me. I don't recall how but I read Red Shift soon after and got the same shakey-hair-tingling feeling of amazement when reading this kind of Harold Pinter meets Ray Bradbury meets William Mayne with shades of Nicolas Roeg maybe story.’
Meanwhile, Rosie says, ‘I wasn't sure what to expect as The Owl Service didn't really do it for me, with its very abrupt ending and quite unlikeable characters. However, Weirdstone is much more captivating. ‘
And Alex says, ‘I grew up with several fantasy books – but I think The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was perhaps the one that felt most personal. I was born a decade after it was written, and raised about ten miles from where it was set… So more than any other story I knew, this one seemed to have an immediacy, one that was almost familiar, only just out of reach in space and time.’ I think my Jon would share that sentiment. He often says about the lady in the Legend bookshop in Alderley saying: ‘You’re about the right age for this. And it all happens just up the road.’
Perhaps because of the maps of Cheshire, included in most editions, Tom ‘read with a kind of geographic bearing in mind much like Watership Down or, to use again another Adams' novel, his amazing The Plague Dogs.’ I think that geographic bearing is there, even if you don’t have those lovely maps. It’s subtitled A Tale of Alderley and Garner uses every aspect of the landscape, from physical features to pub gossip, via local legend (commemorated in a giant mural on Wilmslow Sainsbury’s).
Initially, the Southern protagonists jarred for me, like they'd wandered in from another book. 'It has a very old fashioned feel about it,' Rosie says, 'and I love it all the more for that. As a young girl, I loved the adventures written by Enid Blyton and this reminds me of those but with much more punch! A tale of children adventuring in the countryside (loving the natural landscape just as the characters in Blyton) but where magical things happen!' Maybe it was Susan’s name that made me think of CS Lewis as well. In deliberate counterpoint to the no-place, myth megamix of Narnia, Colin and Susan explore myth’s inseparability from region and history.
Alex says, ‘So many of the stories I loved seemed distant from us: the mystic fringes of
Scotland or Cornwall;
England always somehow
meaning ‘ South-East England’ on the page or on
TV. But no legend was as powerfully evocative as that of King Arthur, and to
find that he was buried not at the other end of the country somewhere but in
our own ,
now, that was marvellous.’ North West
‘I like best the bits when the human world is still in sight of the world of the fantastic,’ says Paul. ‘They co-exist in a really strange way for parts of this novel. But when we go fully into the myth and lose touch with Colin and Susan, I lose a little interest. It goes a bit 'epic' for me, in places. I always preferred Lewis to Tolkien, though.’
‘Just as I felt on the edge of its world, it feels between ours and somewhere else,’ says Alex, ‘and not just because of its plot, which is not about a great event but on the fringes of it. Think of Selina Place, both a modern woman using the highest technology in the novel – a car – and at the heart of a witch brood that’s also a conspiracy of ordinary blokes you might meet down the pub. Think of Gowther, reassuring, thoroughly normal… But, in the ’60s, still driving a horse and cart, as if for all his ordinariness he's half in a time of legend and not awake to the fact.’
‘I really like the human characters,’ Rosie says, ‘Gowther with his steady and sure character, Colin for being tough but not so brave as Susan, who says things such as "Cripes!". I mean, what is not to love about it?’
So in several ways it’s a novel of multiple dimensions – and what we witness is an ‘awakening’ to the fact of that. There’s something wonderfully uncanny about witches disguised as hikers, pretending to study their maps – perhaps related to that childhood anxiety of adults who mean you harm. Don’t go off in the stranger’s car! (Though you can rely on wizards and policemen to be all that they should…)
On visiting the Edge, Rosie and I wondered what little Alan got up to there as a child. ‘Throughout my childhood,' says Alex, 'I loved, but also somehow felt threatened by, winding my way through tiny caves and passages. I was a very thin and gawky boy, and found a strange satisfaction in twisting my way through places that I couldn’t really twist through. I suspect all that, something I enjoyed but dreaded, was a child’s way of dealing with that extraordinarily long, unforgiving account of Colin trying to make it through the dwarves’ improbably horrible tunnels.’
‘I feel cornered and achieve a sense of claustrophobia just thinking about them tunneling underground in The Weirdstone,’ says Tom quickly.
‘It felt like quite a long section of the book, which actually did a good job,’ says Rosie. ‘Imagine if you were stuck underground in the dark with dwindling food and no way out... it would feel like you were trapped in there for days or months even when in reality it was only a few minutes or an hour or so. Superbly written.’
Paul agrees: ‘The scene where Colin swims on his back in a flooded cave, with only his mouth above water and breathing a slim pocket of air - that's really horrible and frightening.’
Perhaps it's about the attraction of going deeper – and the fear of not being able to get back - which we see less with regard to unknowable magic power (though perhaps something like that has happened to Grimnir). Our protagonists' courage in the grip of that immediate, sensuous and threatening landscape is what ultimately engages us.
‘I loved the "real" element,’ says Rosie, ‘How Susan was a little braver than Colin, how Colin struggled to fit through the caves because he was an inch taller!’
Did anyone re-reading find things they had missed before?
'Many of the people and images are still as powerful as ever,' says Alex, 'But I can also feel things to kick against; torn between agreeing with the condemnation of pollution, and thinking that if elves shut us off from magic and then slag us off when we find other ways to live, aren’t they just insufferably up themselves?'
'I loved finding - on this reading - a gay myth I never noticed before, somehow,' says Paul. 'On page 162, where Durathror tells Colin '...it is hard to lose the companionship of elves. And if one has been dearer to you than your own kin, a more than brother right from the earliest memory, the loss is nigh unbearable. When Atlendor took his people northwards I thought to renounce my heritage, and go with him, but he would not have me come ... I exchanged the power of going unseen for the power of flight, and Gondemar, my father, cast me out in his anger. So have I wandered all these years, barred from my people and from the elves.'
And, Alex continues, 'The most distinctive, most jarring thing structurally about Alan Garner’s writing, found here and throughout his children’s books: no coda, no resolution, the book simply stops – I’ve never known if that abruptness was a deliberate choice, an unpolished craft, or a sign of an author exhausting himself. To me, they feel like they finish before their time ... yet it’s that very incompleteness – a sense of certainty about the big things, and merciless uncertainty about ordinary life – that’s a strangely powerful signature, telling us that, no, people don’t live happily ever after, or if they do, it’s no business of ours.'
I think, all in all, our group would echo Rosie - they loved this book, for all its odd features and switches in tone. (Do you agree?) I hope they - and you - will join me in reading the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. I'll shift the deadline back on this one, life being what it is. Please send any thoughts on this second book of our Brisingathon to email@example.com by September 10th.
And have a lovely Bank Holiday weekend!
PS: Thank you to everyone who sent in comments - and apologies if I had to trim them for the purposes of the blog. Alex, in particular, please publish all your thoughts in a blog review at some point - and I'll save some of your thoughts for our group blog on Boneland (out next week, folks!)