the need to kill and the need to make…

December 30, 2012

I've mentioned the terror of the Earldelving before and recommended Alan Garner's books, based around Alderley Edge in Cheshire, that synthesise a hodgepodge of different magical traditions.  The first, Weirdstone of Brisingamen was again discovered through the BBC's children's hour and with its sequel The Moon of Gomrath were read and reread when I was young.  My children discovered them through audio books and interestingly both of them independently listed them in their top three when I asked them last week.  There are also related books in Elidor and The Owl Service which occupy a similar world albeit with different characters.  His later books are very different and very adult, as is the concluding part to the Weirdstone sequence Boneland published this year was around 50 years too late!  I can't help thinking that if he had written it back in the 60s it would have been in the same style as the earlier works and we have lost something in the process.  The critics have blown hot and cold about Garner and I suspect he was his own worst critic;   Weirdstone was his first book written in his early 20s.  The net result is that he has lost a lot of the simplicity of the earlier works, moving into a more abstract and ambiguous style.  So just a warning, don't pick up Boneland expecting any resolution of the plot lines left hanging at the end of The Moon of Gomrath, and it is very definately not for children

The charm of the books is what they are often criticised for, namely they mix up all manner of celtic, norse and manx legends with a spice of local cheshire legends thrown in for good measure.  Like many a great book for children they follow a form of hero's journey in which ordinary children are driven by extraordinary circumstances to achieve prodigious feats of endurance and moral courage.  The journey to Shutlingsloe and the sacrifice of  Durathror in the face of Nastrond's great wolf Fenrir is a wonderful piece of story telling, from the initial passive threat of the Morthbrood to confrontation with the Mara after the Fimbulwinter has been summoned.  In fact the two journeys, that through the Earldelving and the trek to Shutlingsloe provide the main narrative structure of the first book.  

By the time we get to Moon of Gomrath the writing style has improved and Garner explores the world that the children have been drawn into and from which they cannot escape.  In Boneland that confusion between the two worlds is drawn into a near psychotic astro physicist Colin seeking his sister who, as custodian of the Mark of Fohla has now moved into the realm of moon magic for ever.  There is a deep metaphor underpinning this book which contrasts the emotional old magic with the intellectual new magic of the Wizards.  In a sense it celebrates something a little more human, less sterile if messy.  Again this is no easy book where only the bad guys get it, many deaths are required to rescue Colin from the Morrigan.  There is no happy ending, these books are more in the tradition of European Fairy stories that teach through narrative and through realistic consequences of actions in those stories. 

The title of this post comes from Susan's encounter with the Hunter and the Herlathing, it emphasises the relationship between people and the land which is the main theme of Garner's adult books

2 responses to “the need to kill and the need to make…”

  1. Ralph Brew says:

    Thank you for your review. For me as an adult, Boneland strikes a strong chord. It is a chord I do not like but it is one I must respect.

    You see, if anything in my childhood reading developed my sense of joy and wonder about the world and landscape, trees, rocks and what could… maybe… sit just out of sight… just out of consciousness… but still in the landscape… awaiting a special moment of discovery… through the subconscious… or a nudge from faery… it was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

    The trees roared in the darkness. The silent ancient petroglyphs throbbed and echoed down the millenia. The land’s heart beat. Just out of sight, mythical figures jostled and peered over the rocks. I felt and still feel alive to this.

    So, with a lifetime of wishing for more, but having to accepting Gomrath’s melancholic cliffhanger ending, it was with great disappointment that I realised Boneland was not a continuation of or a cosy conclusion to the original narrative.

    But wishing for magic is different than operating as if it exists. In my own 20s, I indulged in magical thinking, and to my detriment and destabilisation. To regain some stability, I had to decide to keep magic at bay, behind the veil, something still detectable in my mind, and to appreciate it at moments but also to turn from and not indulge. To not let it out to directly influence my decisions and actions. To keep the Old Magic locked down and for Reason to prevail. This proved to be wise I believe.

    Boneland is a fantastic demonstration of a mind that has continued struggling with the membrane between waking and dreaming being ripped so forcefully away, during a time of greatest vulnerability. Including the loss of a sister who was his best friend. And the way a lifelong obsession can both maintain a life and lock it into terror.

    Boneland stands perhaps as testament to the dangers of indulging in magical thinking, and that despite the temptations, it can be far better to not continue far down that path while you are still young enough to put it aside.

    For the ultimate conclusion of any significant removal of the membrane between some semblance of rational consciousness and the irrationality of magic, is insanity.

    • davesnowden says:

      I agree Boneland was a real disappointment in that it didn’t continue the story of Susan and the New Moon against the Old. Red Shift in a sense was better.

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