London: Fourth Estate Books, 2012; £16.99 hc; 160 pages
Redhill, Surrey: Naxos Audiobooks, 2012; £11.00; 4:56
It is difficult to avoid seeing Boneland (2012) as a valedictory text. Not only does it represent an act of closure, completing as it does a trilogy which began with Garner’s first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), but it feels too like an act of remembrance, revisiting the themes that have appeared in so many of Garner’s other novels. In particular, we meet again the gifted but troubled adolescent male, intellectually precocious but emotionally stunted, who has figured in so much of Garner’s fiction. We are also introduced once more to the landscape of Cheshire, Garner’s home county, although in Boneland Garner will venture much deeper into its mythic past than he has ever done previously. Indeed, almost everything about this novel suggests more of the same yet carried out with so much more intensity than ever before. Perhaps most significant of all, Garner finally engages directly, or as directly as I think he is ever going to, with the story that has underpinned so much of his literary practice—Gawain and the Green Knight, composed in the Northwest Mercian dialect by an unknown poet around 1400 (that is, around the time Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were first published). The Gawain-poet, and indeed Arthurian stories generally, have been a shadowy presence in all of Garner’s work, but here his work is more immediately present than it has ever been before.
On top of all that, Garner’s ongoing fascination with orature and with the Cheshire dialect is well to the fore as the novel switches between a present-day setting in which Cheshire dialect appears rather strangely to still be in constant daily use (something I’ll come back to) and the story of a shaman who seems to have become the first of the watchers at Alderley Edge, and for whom the power of story is a literal thing, for it is through story that he maintains the world. This is particularly appropriate given that this article is in part a review of the audiobook of Boneland.
Few of Garner’s novels have been turned into audiobooks. We might conjecture as to why that is, though I suspect that one of the problems that might arise is Garner’s heavy use of Cheshire dialect and, in the case of Strandloper, the use of thieves’ cant, Aboriginal words, and the simple sound of the language. And his use of dialect has increased over the years: there are portions of Thursbitch in particular that are practically impenetrable unless one has a glossary of dialect words available. In artistic terms, I can understand why Garner might make such choices, but from the point of view of performance, getting the right actor for the job must be a nightmare.
Robert Powell, from Salford, Manchester’s twin city, and himself an alumnus of Manchester Grammar School, is probably better placed than most to explore the nature of such an intricate net of words, and he does an excellent job with Boneland. The earlier two novels were read for Naxos by the late Philip Madoc, a wonderful performer (and one of my favorite actors, I admit) who did a marvelous job of voicing all the different characters except, alas, for Bess Mossock, and Gowther Mossock, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they are quintessentially Cheshire characters while Madoc was unequivocally Welsh. (We can only wonder how it was that Madoc never came to read The Owl Service ; I firmly believe his Huw Halfbacon would have been a thing of magisterial wonder, but it is alas forever lost to us.) As it was, his portrayals of the Mossocks, Gowther especially, seemed to me to be set rather closer to Birmingham than to Manchester. A similar problem has beset radio adaptations of the two novels; probably the most successful was the 1980s adaptation of Weirdstone (the 2011 adaptation included Powell as narrator, though the production left many listeners gasping with its failure to include the journey through the Earldelving, one of the most significant events in the entire novel).
Having said that, Madoc’s attempt was undeniably warmer than Garner’s own reading of The Stone Book Quartet (released on vinyl by Argo many years ago and never, apparently, converted to CD), which seemed to owe more to the influence of Manchester Grammar School and Oxford University in its clipped iciness than it did to Garner’s early years on the Edge. Garner has spoken of having his mouth washed out with soap as a young child, for speaking “broad” at school, and seems to have quickly understood the need to switch codes according to setting. Yet while he prides himself on having retained the ability to speak “broad,” his accent throughout that reading was much more of a conscious performance than I’d expected, and in the end became rather uncomfortable to listen to.
Powell comes much closer to addressing the problem of finding a Cheshire accent that is convincing without being incomprehensible or generic northern than anyone else I’ve heard. (Although it may be that I tend to hear Gowther in my own head as sounding like my late father-in-law, also a Salford man, so maybe I am a little biased too.) Powell also easily manages to negotiate the streams of jingling rhymes running through Colin’s head and give them a rightness that does not exist on the page, where they often come across as being rather twee and self-conscious. According to one uncorroborated Internet comment, Powell is Garner’s preferred reader, and if that is true I’m not at all surprised.
Powell’s reading also skilfully handles a textual problem that arises a number of times in Garner’s work, particularly what we might call the “fragmented” novels, those where Garner has more or less dispensed with the niceties of textual framing to show us who is speaking. Red Shift (1973) is the obvious example, with whole pages reduced to uncredited dialogue, requiring a very careful reading in order to be sure of who is speaking (glancing at my ancient paperback copy of Red Shift, I notice passages where my younger self penciled in the identities of the speakers, because it was at times so hard to keep track). Thursbitch (2003), the most similar in terms of narrative framing to Red Shift, presents almost identical problems. In Strandloper (1996) difficulties arise because so many different voices are in play, and Garner uses many different forms of dialect, cant, and language. In Boneland, the text comes in larger sections, and here the difficulty lies in spotting the transitions between the present-day and the deep past, which are often very sudden. Within the shaman’s narrative, there is a further need to make a distinction again between the shaman’s own voice and that of the Grey Wolf who aids him on occasion, and whom we must understand as a distinct character rather than a product of the shaman’s imagination.
One of the most vexing questions raised by the publication of Boneland is the matter of the trilogy that didn’t exist until Boneland was published. Yes, The Moon of Gomrath (1963), sequel to Weirdstone, ended with almost brutal abruptness, such that more about Colin and Susan seemed inevitable, almost necessary, although simultaneously it was difficult to imagine what there was left to say. While Garner has admitted in interviews over the last few years that there was supposed to be a third novel in the sequence, I doubt that he ever intended it to be the novel that is now Boneland; though Garner’s novels are famous for their often lengthy gestations, I find it hard to believe that he could be playing such a long game right from the start. Garner himself fairly quickly took to dismissing his first two novels as poorly executed, and later critics tended to follow his lead. However, I think that the distance of years makes it clear that Weirdstone and Gomrath are as much a part of the whole Garner corpus as any of his later novels, and the appearance of Boneland seals that reintegration.
Elidor (1965), Garner’s third published novel, turned out to be a very different beast from its almost bucolic predecessors, with its urban setting—a grimy postwar Manchester, pockmarked with bomb sites and in the throes of slum clearance—and its altogether much darker, more elegiac qualities setting the tone for much of Garner’s later work. This might prompt us then to see Weirdstone and Gomrath almost as Garner’s prelapsarian novels. Certainly, one might read the two novels as an extended love letter to Alderley Edge, the landscape of Garner’s own childhood; indeed, at the time one reviewer commented rather dismissively that the reader was effectively following the young Garner as he scrabbled about, exploring the Edge. Having said that, Colin and Susan experienced unusually bruising and violent adventures for a children’s fantasy novel of the period, with endings that were at best bittersweet, if not downright disturbing, even though they nonetheless appeared to come back to the quotidian world more or less unscathed. However, it would be fair to say that the reader has to trust to this idea for there is no definitively Tolkienian moment where a character declares, “I’m back.” And, as we shall see, the reader would indeed have been wise to be cautious.
Most of Garner’s subsequent novels have ended ambiguously, without much in the way of consolation or restitution, though he occasionally allows a glimmer of hope for the future. Often, however, Garner abandons his characters on the brink of a final revelation and leaves it to the reader to decide what might have happened. A prime example is the ending of The Owl Service (1967), where Roger convinces Alison, the avatar of Blodeuwedd, that the pictures on the china are of flowers rather than owls, thus breaking the curse, but we can never be sure; and I’ll admit I’ve never been entirely convinced by that ending.
On occasion, the protagonist might accept the situation within the novel, while for the reader the ending remains too open-ended to be entirely satisfying. Here, an example might be the ending of Strandloper, when William Buckley returns finally to Cheshire, only to realize that his promise to Esther can never be kept because she has not waited for him. Bereft of that which has sustained him, all he can do now is to make peace with the land itself. There is a similar uncertainty of resolution in the ending of Thursbitch. And yet in these and other instances, one might as easily argue that Garner is suggesting that this, rather than a tying-off of loose ends, is how life really is, and how it should be reflected in fiction, and yes, even in stories for children. Even in those first two novels, although the world is restored and balance maintained, comrades are lost, and nothing is ever quite the same as it was before. Garner did not flinch from killing off characters whom the reader had grown to love—Durathror and Albanac in particular—while the death of Grimnir in Weirdstone was unusually powerful emotionally in what was after all marketed as a story for eight-year-olds.
One might then read Boneland as a revisiting of those apparently more innocent days with the intent to show just what those experiences cost the children in emotional terms. Because the most important thing to note is that Boneland is not a direct sequel to those earlier novels (though there is something pleasingly tricksterish in the thought of children beginning the Brisingamen Trilogy, only to find that volume three makes little if any sense until they’re older). As 50 years have passed since the first two novels were originally published, so 50 years have passed for the characters. Bess and Gowther Mossock are long dead, as is Scamp the dog; Prince the horse was, it turns out, put down when the farm was finally sold, and I still find this one of the more shocking small details. Colin is, in late middle age, a respected astronomical researcher, working at Jodrell Bank telescope. This perhaps comes as a surprise as young Colin always seemed to be more preoccupied with the history and folklore of Alderley Edge; one might have perhaps expected him to become a historian in later life. He was clearly bright, but over the course of two novels, it would be fair to say that it was Susan who had the quickfire intellect and the ability to grasp what the others hadn’t yet seen, and it was Susan who was eager and restless for new challenges. On the other hand, it was Colin who had the patience to mull over and finally track down the reference he’d seen to “the old straight track” in Gowther’s book when someone needed to find the mothan plant. So, a thoughtful reader, yes; a scholar of some sort, certainly, but a scientist? Something clearly changed along the way.
It quickly becomes obvious that Professor Colin Whisterfield is by no means the Colin of the earlier novels. Instead, he is a man possessed of a ferocious intellect, with the apparent ability to recall everything he has ever read, and he has read extremely widely, as well as acquiring a string of postgraduate degrees in a variety of subjects, and contributing to a number of books. He seems to know something about most things, except perhaps himself. He can also describe everyday actions with an over-abundance of detail that might be read as precision, or else as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He also appears to have acquired a highly developed sense of ritual (and an interest in theology and religions).
And most extraordinary of all, he lives on Alderley Edge itself, in a mountain hut that he bought and had erected there. There is no electricity and no running water, yet Colin seems to be content with his Spartan life. (It comes as no surprise to discover that in the early twentieth century there was an actual hermit, John Evans, living in a log cabin in Church Quarry on Alderley Edge. When Colin notes that his hut is built on earlier foundations, it’s clear he’s living on precisely the same spot.) It will take some time to understand why Colin chooses to live like this, but one thing is made quite explicit from the novel’s opening pages, and that is that Colin believes that he cannot spend a night away from the Edge, not even if it means discharging himself from hospital after treatment.
During the course of the novel, the reader will come to understand that Colin has had a breakdown of some sort—indeed, belatedly we can see that the novel’s opening sequence involves Colin emerging from an episode of electro-convulsive therapy intended to treat a particularly severe episode of depression. However, it is only when Colin finally consults Meg Massey, a psychotherapist, that the story begins to unfold. But what is actually happening? There is, undoubtedly, a medical intervention being staged by Colin’s doctor—drug treatments, hospital visits, and so on—but what are we to make of Dr. Massey, a singularly improbable psychotherapist? Does she even exist? In the light of what is to come, this is not an unreasonable question.
Since he began the latest course of treatment, Colin has also begun to experience visions, which seem to take him far into the past. These visions follow the life story of a man, a shaman, whose role seems to be to tend the landscape and guide it through the seasons. He is alone—his wife and child are dead, killed in an avalanche—and he sustains himself through the carrying out of certain rituals, although he is acutely aware that he is now the last of his line, as there is no son to follow him.
Colin’s visions serve to position him as the latest, possibly even the last in a long line of guardians of the landscape and its memories in Garner’s writing, while the crane shaman was evidently the first of them, for though he arrived eventually at Alderley Edge, his story begins at what he refers to as Ludcruck, better known today as Lud’s Church or Ludchurch, a deep chasm in an area of the Peak District known as the White Peak. Crucially for this novel, Lud’s Church has been identified by the late Ralph Elliott, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and also a friend of Garner’s, as the Green Chapel, the setting for the final encounter between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and thus the crane shaman becomes part of that ongoing dialogue with the Green Knight’s story. (Garner and Elliott also had a little party trick in which they would simultaneously recite the Lord’s Prayer, Garner in Cheshire dialect, Elliott in NW Mercian, the point being to demonstrate how closely allied the two versions were. And indeed the two versions meshed together extraordinarily closely.)
Other watchers include Huw Halfbacon in The Owl Service, who guards the valley wherein the tragedy of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Gronw Pebyr, and Blodeuwedd, the woman of flowers, is doomed to be reenacted in every generation. In Red Shift, the guardian is marked by his epilepsy, his ownership of a stone axe head, and by his name—Macey, Thomas, Tom. The role of shaman is perhaps most fully explored and acknowledged in Strandloper, in the character of William Buckley, a Cheshire laborer transported to Australia, where he escapes from captivity and is eventually found by a group of Aboriginals who recognize him as the reincarnation of their shaman, Murrangurk. William, it should be noted, is like the three Tom figures, an epileptic.
In Thursbitch, the Turner family watch over the valley of Thursbitch, practicing a form of bull worship that reaches back to the Mithraic rites of the Roman soldiers (bearing in mind that the Romans in Red Shift are allegedly the remnants of the lost Ninth Legion, gone tribal in order to survive). The current guardian of the rites, John Turner, is the adopted son of the family, and like William, John has travelled, though as a packman his journeys have been shorter if more frequent. But like William, and Colin (and to some extent the contemporary Tom of Red Shift) he has been exposed to a broader range of ideas than his predecessors, suggesting that the nature of this guardianship is in part syncretic. Many of these guardians are psychically, rather than physically, damaged; Malebron, the ruler of Elidor, is unusual in carrying a physical injury that reflects the injury to his land, somewhat reminiscent of the Fisher King, and it is surely not a coincidence that among his kingdom’s treasures is a cup. Only belatedly will we find that Colin also carries a physical injury, at which point his smashing of a crystal glass might possibly take on greater significance.
And what, in the end, is Cadellin, if not a guardian, tending to the sleeping knights beneath Alderley Edge? Again, that Arthurian connection is present, if one accepts that these knights are Arthur’s, as one version of the story goes. One might indeed also want to reconsider Bert, the mysterious taxi driver who is always available when needed, whose meter never seems to tick over, and remember the name of the Green Knight’s alter-ego, Sir Bertilak, while also bearing in mind that Colin, himself bearded, is the owner of a remarkably large and very sharp axe.
Whereas these other shamans might, in their various ways, seem to have come to their guardianship by right, through inheritance or apprenticeship, it is not initially clear how or why Colin has assumed such a role. As an astronomer, he is of course a professional “watcher of the skies,” but from the outset there is a strong sense that his role may have been forced upon him—there is more than a passing flavor of a geas about it—or else that he has taken it upon himself as some sort of penance, because something else clearly troubles him. There is no Cadellin to guide him, Gowther is long since dead, and it is noticeable how quickly Colin adopts Bert as a surrogate father; those familiar with Weirdstone and Gomrath will immediately recognize Bert as an avatar of Gowther. Or perhaps that should be the other way round.
Indeed, one of the things that is so striking about Colin is that he has no family and no friends. He has colleagues at work, but his relationships with them are distant, and they obviously regard him as at best an oddity. One has an impression there was some sort of scene before he went on sick leave. In fact, Colin believes that he once had a sister, but those around him have consistently denied that he was ever anything other than an only child, and no records apparently exist to say otherwise. One might suppose that Colin’s family would be in a position to confirm or deny this but, it turns out, at some point after the end of Gomrath, Colin’s parents were killed in a plane crash (they were absent throughout the two novels), and he was adopted by Bess and Gowther Mossock. That they did so suggests there was no other immediate family who could take him in and who could provide Colin with a personal history.
It is only when Meg takes on Colin as a client that we finally learn two things: first, that Susan apparently rode away from the farm one night on Prince the horse. Prince was later discovered on the island in Redesmere with no indication as to how he had got there. Secondly, that at some point after Susan’s disappearance, Colin was struck by lightning while out on Alderley Edge. After this, he acquired a number of unusual abilities, including the ability to recall what he was doing on any specific day after the strike, and something akin to an eidetic memory. Of his life before he was struck by lightning, he remembers almost nothing, although he has puzzling flashbacks which he doesn’t understand. The reader in effect knows more about Colin’s past life than he does. Which means in turn that we already know what Colin only suspects: that he did indeed have a sister, though it is Colin who reveals that Susan was his twin. (And this did surprise me; for reasons I can’t quite account for, I’d always assumed that while they were close in age, Colin was the older of the two. Looking back at Weirdstone now, I can’t see anything that overtly suggests this, and I suspect that this was just one of those assumptions one made about relationships in children’s fiction when I was young. In fact, their being twins perhaps makes slightly more sense of the emotional tenor of their relationship in those two novels.)
Colin has always been haunted by the feeling that he has a sister, but as he reveals to Meg, it is only within the last few years that this has begun to play a significant role in his life. He has been plagued, he says, by visions of his sister riding into the Pleiades, Messier 45. As a result, he has been using the radio telescope to scan M45 in order to search for her. It is not clear exactly how this is supposed to work but, as we shall see, in some mysterious way it has. For the reader familiar with Gomrath, none of this will come as much of a surprise.
Two of the great set pieces in that novel involve Susan and what come to be called the Shining Ones. Much of the early part of the novel is concerned with Susan’s being taken by the Brollachan, after lending her bracelet, the Mark of Fohla, to the lios-alfar. The Brollachan has driven Susan out of her own body, and it takes the Old Magic—here represented as a plant, the Mothan—to recall her to herself. Susan’s account of her time away from her body centers on her meeting with a woman called Celemon, who wears a bracelet like the Mark, and who tells Susan that they are to ride to Caer Rigor. When Uthecar forces Susan to swallow the leaves, their bitter taste calls her back to her own world. Cadellin explains that Susan
has ridden with the Shining Ones, the Daughters of the Moon, and they came with her from behind the north wind […] But the Shining Ones did not leave Susan of choice, for through her they may wake their power in the world—the Old Magic, which has long been gone from here. (69)
It is Colin, however, who actually sees the Shining Ones at this point:
he could not say if they were stars, or what they were. The sky was a haze of moonlight, and in the haze it seemed as though the stars had formed new constellations, constellations that moved, had life, and took the shape and spangled outline of nine young women on horseback, gigantic, filling the heavens. They milled round above the farm, hawks on hand, and among them pranced hounds with glittering eyes and jeweled collars. The riders wore short tunics, and their hair gleamed along the sky. Then the horn sounded again, the horses reared and flared over the plain, and the night poured shooting-stars into the western sea. (65–66)
The Shining Ones return at the novel’s conclusion, when Susan blows Angharad Goldenhand’s horn because “All else is lost” (154). The horn summons the Einheriar, the Wild Hunt, to destroy the Brollachan, and Susan is caught up with them.
In the distance, as over a field, she saw nine women with hawk on wrist, and hounds at leash, coming to meet her, and gladness carried Susan past all thoughts but one, the memory of Celemon, daughter of Cei, which the Mothan’s bitterness had driven from her. (154)
However, Angharad orders them to leave Susan, for she “is but green in power,” and
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. (155)
Colin also observes this encounter, at a distance, and his view of it is much the same. He sees the Einheriar—
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. (156)
Then he sees Susan, suddenly dropping behind, “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” (156). And finally,
The horsemen climbed from the hillside to the air, growing vast in the sky, and to meet them came nine women, their hair like wind. And away they rode together across the night, over the waves, and beyond the isles, and the Old Magic was free for ever, and the moon was new. (156)
These encounters seem to suggest that while Susan sees Celemon and the other Shining Ones as actual people, Colin always sees them as stars or as figures of light, and his later interest in astronomy begins to make a little more sense, as though he has always subconsciously been searching for his lost sister, even before he could articulate that loss.
Looked at from a mythological point of view, these scenes are also interesting. Garner’s novels draw on a broad range of British myths and folktales. Caer Rigor is a version of the Welsh version of the underworld, and Susan has now been sent back from it twice. Celemon is the daughter of Cei (that is, Kay) in the story of Culhwch and Olwen. And the Shining Ones are, it would seem, a version of the Seven (in this instance, nine) Sisters of the Pleiades. It is also worth noting that Meg’s house is located on Seven Sisters Lane (and this is the actual name of the road).
One of the motifs at the heart of Red Shift is the constellation of Orion, which is a neighbor of Taurus, the constellation in which the Pleiades are situated, and it is Orion who pursued the Pleiades in their earthly form, before Zeus took pity on them, turned them to doves, and set them in the heavens. The constellation of Taurus also plays a significant role in Thursbitch (and the Pleiades make another appearance, this time as bees), so it would seem that Garner was making these astronomical/mythological connections from quite early in his fiction. Indeed, given that the Jodrell Bank telescope is literally at the bottom of Garner’s own garden, it is perhaps not surprising that astronomical connections surface quite so often—this is explicit in the very title of Red Shift. In the end, we must surmise that Susan made a third attempt to join Celemon and that this time she succeeded. Given that Prince was found on what we know to be Angharad’s island, one of the two Floating Islands of Logres, and there is no body, we might also assume that Susan was transported to Caer Rigor rather than that she simply drowned herself. And for Colin’s purposes, Caer Rigor is transformed into the galaxy M45.
In all of Garner’s novels, the acutely sensitive young man has had a woman in whom he can confide, be this Roland’s extremely close relationship with his sister, Helen (Elidor), Gwyn’s tentative relationship with Ali (The Owl Service), and most famously, Tom’s love affair with Jan (Red Shift). The pattern is broken with The Stone Book Quartet where, with the exception of The Stone Book itself, the relationships are between the men of the Garner family, and focus on Joseph, grandson of Robert Garner, the “bazzil-arsed” mason of Garner family legend. It resumes with Strandloper (William and Esther) and continues through Thursbitch (Sal and Ian, and, to an extent, John Turner and Nan Sarah—though Turner’s case is unusual, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment). What is also striking about each of these relationships is that in each case the girl or woman has a nurturing, quasi-maternal role within the relationship, but as the characters grow older, novel by novel, so the sexual tension grows stronger.
This is constantly alluded to in The Owl Service, which is based on a recurring cycle of love triangles—Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Gronw Pebyr, and Blodeuwedd; Nancy, Huw Halfbacon, and Bertram; Clive, Margaret, and Ali’s invisible father; and of course, Ali, Gwyn, and Roger—but becomes explicit with Red Shift. Here, Tom’s mother directly accuses Jan, whom she perceives as being more sexually experienced (correctly, as it turns out, but not quite in the way Tom’s mother imagines) of seducing Tom (echoing the always invisible Margaret’s concerns about Gwyn and Ali). On the other hand, it is clear to the reader that Tom is sexually frustrated, in part by his mother’s insistence on continuing to treat him as a child rather than a young man about to go to university, and by her insistence that there will be time enough for girls after university. In the same way that Jan nurtures and supports Tom as he struggles to win his scholarship and make his escape from home, the goddess cares for Macey. Unlike his comrades Macey did not participate in her rape and honors the girl—there is though an ambiguity in their relationship. Did he deliberately choose not to rape her or was it simply that he was unable to? His epileptic fits, which transform him into a berserker on occasion, might in some cultures position him as a simpleton, and yet he is regarded by everyone as some sort of shaman, and is clearly more intellectually engaged than Thomas, the middle iteration of this fractured figure.
In an earlier period in Red Shift, Thomas Rowley’s story is set during the English Civil Wars, and he participates in the most complex relationship of all. His wife Margery was previously courted by another Thomas, Thomas Venables who is now a soldier, and Margery is also an object of interest to John Fowler, son of the rector of Barthomley. John is teaching Thomas to read and write, though his reasons for doing so aren’t clear (he is evidently some sort of agitator, like Edward Stanley, who is teaching Thomas Buckley to read and write in Strandloper). Thomas is evidently regarded as being slow-witted. although he suffers from what we would recognize as epilepsy, and there is evidently considerable puzzlement as to why Margery married him. Fowler deliberately taunts Thomas by claiming that Margery only married him because he was soft and malleable.
There is the same sense of fragility about William Buckley in Strandloper, whose “sitting up” on Saturday nights with Esther is accompanied by anxiety headaches. As Shick-Shack, William is required to take a prominent part in the local fertility rites but in his own life, he is as anxious about consummation as Tom. When William returns to Esther after many years, he finds that she has married someone else. Her son, now grown, is named for William, although the implication is that he was the son of Edward Stanley. (William the younger is, circumstantial evidence would suggest, the silk weaver, Old William, the “little maister,” brother of Robert Garner the stone mason, just to establish another connection).
The pattern has apparently shifted in Thursbitch, where Ian and John Turner would seem to be the nurturing figures, but Sal Malley, the woman for whom he cares, and with whom he has perhaps had some sort of relationship, notes quite late in the story that Ian had joined a celibate order, the implication being that he was fleeing from any sort of sexual involvement. John Turner’s relationship with Nan Sarah seems extraordinarily loving by comparison with other portrayals of relationships in Garner’s work, but being a packman, he is often away from her and their relationship is more one of periodic ecstatic reunions than a day-to-day marriage. Nan Sarah may be pregnant with their child but the narrative seems to suggest that even such a comparatively happy relationship cannot be allowed to stand. Nan Sarah dies of the plague (although she gives birth to twins as she dies) and John Turner is driven temporarily mad by her loss. During this period he renounces his role within the bull cult and transforms himself into a charismatic if eccentric Christian preacher before finally returning to the older ways.
Again, in Boneland, the shaman has lost his wife and child, prior to the novel’s opening, this time in some sort of avalanche. We learn less about this relationship than the others but there is something horrific in the shaman’s being able to see his wife and child behind the ice without being able to reach them, and having to wait for the thaw in order to bury them in the appropriate way.
All of which necessarily requires us to reexamine the relationship between Colin and Susan, in part because of the hesitant relationship that begins to develop between Colin and Meg. This has clearly not prompted Susan’s initial reappearance but it seems to fuel Susan’s activities. This presupposes, of course, that Susan’s presence is real, however far-fetched the scenario might seem to be. The other possibility is that Colin has imagined her from the start, as everyone tells him he has, in order to account for other experiences.
At this point it is necessary to backtrack somewhat and consider some of Colin’s other symptoms. There, for example, is an obsession with crows and other members of the corvid family. Those familiar with Weirdstone and Gomrath will of course identify this as a residual fear of the Morthbrood, agents of the Morrigan who primarily manifested themselves as crows. It is, though, also tied to a flashback Colin has of finding a dying crow. Similarly, he has a fear of witches—an early scene in Boneland is set in the doctor’s waiting room, where a woman is reading a story to her grandson, prompting Colin to counsel him urgently not to go upstairs—which recalls Colin’s own imprisonment upstairs at Errwood Hall, in Gomrath. (His aversion to rhododendrons can be similarly linked to this episode, as the hall was surrounded by them.) Almost the first question that Colin asks Meg is whether she is a witch. She dresses in black, as did the Morrigan, or Selina Place, and the description of her house reminds us of both St Mary Clyffe and Errwood Hall.
With such similarities, one can see why “Susan” might be concerned to “rescue” Colin from the Morrigan a second time—“It’s her, Col. She’s come to get you. This time” (Boneland, 55); “I told you she’d get you. And this time I couldn’t stop her. You say you don’t want me now” (89)—but Meg’s question to Colin is much simpler: “How is your sex life?” How, indeed. Does it exist at all? Based on the evidence of Garner’s other novels, one suspects not (though one might also think of this in terms of a sacrifice having been deliberately made; in more than one respect Boneland makes me think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu, and the revelation of Ged’s celibacy, his sacrifice in order to become a mage).
In which case, we need to think again about Meg the therapist and Bert the taxi driver, and the endless hints that dropped as to how they know one another (“Bert and I go back a long way” [Boneland 32]). If instead, we see Bert as Sir Bertilak, keeper of the castle at which Gawain stays before his second meeting with the Green Knight, and Meg as Bertilak’s flirtatious young wife, who tries to seduce Gawain, for a wager, this makes a little more sense of what is happening in the contemporary part of the novel. Gawain’s experience is a test of his loyalty and chastity (and this is not the only story in which Gawain is confronted by women who require hime to make or relinquish choices), and if as we surmise, Colin has devoted his adult life to searching for his sister, his consultations with Meg can be seen as a test of his resolve to continue. The clue might lie in the fact that in Gawain and the Green Knight, the entire enterprise was devised by Morgan le Fay, who is, according to some scholars, a later version of the Morrigan. It’s also worth noting that when Morgan first appears, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, she is the eldest and most beautiful of nine sisters who live on the Isle of Avalon. And that “nine” points us straight back to the Shining Ones, and to the Pleiades.
How then should we see Meg? If Susan is the New Moon or Maiden, and the Morrigan the Old Moon or the crone, then Meg has to be the wife and nurturing mother figure. This is reflected in her therapeutic practice, but Meg seems also to suggest that she can no longer fulfil the expectations of the sensitive guardians. Rather, as Bertilak’s wife is outrageously flirtatious, so Meg is forthright in her approach as a therapist, and as forthright in her private life, with little concern as to what people think of her. It is Meg who suggests, on the assumption that Susan’s return is quite genuine, that her emotional development is as arrested as Colin’s own. On that basis, an older woman dressed in black must be the Morrigan and she, Susan, must naturally save her brother from her depredations, whereas, 50 years on, is it not time that Colin found a more immediate happiness, without his sister’s interference?
Except there are also those niggling references to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus fetches his wife back from the Underworld, and will succeed so long as he doesn’t look back at Eurydice, who is following him. Having returned safely to the upper world, Orpheus looks back, forgetting his wife has not yet emerged into the upper world, and thus he loses her again. That reemergence into the upper world reminds us of Colin and Susan’s journey through the Earldelving in Weirdstone, and it is perhaps worth noting that it was Susan who led the way throughout the entire journey under Alderley Edge. As I commented earlier, it has always been Susan who led the way, Colin who followed.
And as it turns out, Colin has spent the last half century continuing to follow. It is Meg who forces Colin to travel back into his own past to understand the true nature of that lightning strike. And here we face the terrible tragedy at the heart of this story. In his grief at Susan’s loss, Colin attempted to wake the Sleepers in order to find her, and as a result was cursed by Cadellin, and given the duty of watching over the Edge in his place. Cadellin has always been afraid of the volatility of the Old Magic, disliking its unruliness and the fact that he cannot control it. Similarly, he has always resisted the notion that the children were a part of the story of Alderley Edge, despite it being made plain by other characters that they were. The rescue of Susan in Gomrath is predicated on the need to get her back from the Old Magic ,and yet the entire second half of the novel rests on the fact that she cannot be controlled, nor indeed should she be. The world, Garner seems to suggest, needs the Old Magic, and yet Cadellin stands in the way of that. Cadellin’s response to Colin’s despair may thus come as a shock but possibly not as a surprise. It’s a terrible curse to place on a 13-year-old boy who lost his sister to magic, but it seems also to be the final expression of a man who has sacrificed his own life to a dreadful burden; the one true indication of Cadellin’s own sufferings and it is at this point that we realize just how little we know of this person who has struggled to keep control of magic.
There is a moment early in Gawain and the Green Knight when the Green Knight makes his first appearance in Arthur’s court. Who, he demands, is the governor of this gang. It is an interesting moment for a couple of reasons. A king should be easily identifiable by his nobility, and one might read the Green Knight’s question as suggesting that he can see no obviously regal person in that room (and we should bear in mind that the young Arthur is busy playing party games at this moment). Or is he deliberately ignoring Arthur because he is behaving in such a childish fashion, unbecoming to a king? We can read the Green Knight as an intrusion of old, wild magic into a contemporary and rational court, but we could as easily read the Green Knight as representing an older, more ceremonial way of conducting the business of kingship, one that recognizes the importance of kingly duty. When Gawain returns to court, he is sadder and wiser, knowing that he has failed in his duty to the quest, yet he is greeted with approbation by the court, simply for surviving. This, he knows is wrong.
Throughout Garner’s work, the Green Knight’s question is answered, over and over: “I am the governor of this gang” says Robert the mason, in The Stone Book, and in Boneland the “bodger” whom Colin encounters at what was once Meg’s house, says something similar. Other characters use a similar form of words. These are all people who have control of their lives, and the implication is that the Green Knight represents a form of empowerment that cannot be found in Cadellin’s formal magic.
Anyone who has read a number of Garner’s novels will be aware of certain rhetorical devices that recur, not the least of which is the recitation of place names. It comes right at the beginning of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when the farmer’s second meeting with the wizard is described—“By Seven Firs and Goldenstone they went, to Stormy Point and Saddlebole.” It is a description of a route across Alderley Edge. Variations of this particular route appear a number of times in Weirdstone and Gomrath, and reversed, it appears also in Strandloper when William Buckley returns to Cheshire. Boneland too has its variants—“Colin went along the old broad way by Seven Firs and Goldenstone to the barren sand and rocks on Stormy Point and Saddlebole and looked out across the plain beneath” (25)—although the adult Colin has also taken to his bicycle: “After the station he went by Brook Lane and Row-of-Trees, urging past Lindow Moss, along Seven Sisters Lane to Toft” (21).
But what begins in Weirdstone as a simple storytelling device has, by the time we reach Boneland been transformed into ritual and something even beyond that. It is in Strandloper that the recitation is obviously transformed into incantation. William Buckley, having been a shaman among the Aboriginal people of South Australia, brings home his new understanding of the power of the land (one thinks inevitably of Aboriginal songlines and it is worth noting that Garner has been quite heavily influenced by Aboriginal oral traditions). As a narrative, Thursbitch is most deeply tied to a landscape, and is indeed specifically about that landscape and its effects on its inhabitants. In Boneland, however, it is as though something has gone awry. Colin, as watcher, walks the bounds of Alderley Edge but in a highly ritualized way, wearing his academic robes. In doing so there is something in him that suggests Cadellin, but at the same time about the process that suggests that in some way the ceremony has become emptied of meaning other than in the ceremonial robing. Colin is desperate to be part of this land, but at the same time he cannot make proper contact with it, not even if he does the things that Cadellin did, dresses as much like Cadellin as possible, and so on.
The possession of the axe, the fact he has a beard, the green academic hood that he wears, position Colin instead as Gawain, as the Green Knight even, and suggest that he participates in a different story to Cadellin’s, an older one that allows him to leave and return at will, if he can but recognize that fact. If, indeed, as Meg points out, he can ask the questions, which are “What is this thing? What does it mean? Whom does it serve?” (Boneland, 134): the grail questions. “You must not let yourself be prisoner to deep place; to the Edge. Or to Ludchurch” (135), Meg tells Colin. And in the dying moments of the novel, Colin walks by Seven Firs and Goldenstone and Stormy Point to Saddlebole, unadorned, simply himself again, the memory of his sister laid to rest finally, and accepting his part in the greater story.
At the end of The Stone Book, after Mary has gone underground into the heart of Alderley Edge, and witnessed the footprints that testify to the hundreds of her ancestors who visited the same spot, and seen the bull painted on the cave wall, she returns home with her father, pondering what she has seen. After he has answered her questions, her father comments, “I recollect it puts a quietness on you, does that bull” (TSBQ, 48). And that seems to me to be the most apt comment to make about Boneland.
Maureen Kincaid Speller lives in Folkestone, Kent.
Garner, Alan. Elidor. London: Collins, 1965.
——. The Moon of Gomrath. London: Collins, 1963.
——. The Owl Service. London: Collins, 1967.
——. Red Shift. London: Collins, 1973.
——. The Stone Book Quartet (1976–78). London: Collins, 1983.
——. Strandloper. London: Harvill, 1996.
——. Thursbitch. London: Harvill, 2003.
——. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. London: Collins, 1960.