Alan Garner

Originally published on LiveJournal in March 2006.

I can see that this year will be one of sporadic mini-essaysrambles on the authors who got to me young. A month ago, it was Wyndham; this time, it’s Garner.

The thought to blame is this: Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I vaguely remembered not understanding as a child – because the truth is, I think every single one of Mr Garner’s books went flying straight over my head and off to warmer climes the first time I read them. This was not so much a case of me missing the main point (it’s usually fairly obvious), as me not being in any way ready at the tender age of 6 or 7 for books with moral ambiguity and unhappy endings.

I remember running to my mother when I finished The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, to ask her whether the empty cross of the final image meant SPOILER (mouse over to read) that Durathror wasn’t dead after all. I desperately didn’t want him to be: bold, brash, proud, tragic warrior that he was, I wanted to see him drinking away his sorrows with the lios alfar. His name was easier to pronounce than Fenodyree (Fen-oh-DYE-ree. None of this “emphasis is always on the second syllable bollocks” – Fen-OD-i-ree would just be silly) and he had a cool cloak. These things matter when you’re seven.

My mother, used to my reading habits and their attendant questions, wisely evaded the question with some sage response such as “What do you think?”. I may have decided he didn’t have to be dead if I didn’t want him to be. After all, my seven-year-old logic offered as alternatives that the morthbrood ate him (oh, marvellous) or that someone rescued his body (but who? The lios? Well then why didn’t they save him?). Or, just possibly, that it was magic and to stop his body being defiled. That would have been fine. Just about.

I didn’t let my confusion stop me from charging up to WHSmith and procuring The Moon of Gomrath. I was appalled to find out that few of the familiar characters returned: the children and their guardians, naturally, and the wizard – but what of Fenodyree? Gaberlunzie? Angharad Goldenhand? They had been replaced by an unpleasant one-eyed dwarf with no charm.

…and then it didn’t matter, for I met (helpful_mammal look away now!) the Brollachan. If The Weirdstone taught me claustrophobia (I still hate confined spaces, and I blame Colin entirely), Gomrath underlined my fear of the dark. Do you see eyes in the shadows? What if they are really there? Similarly, if I thought the first book had an ambiguous ending, then the sequel snatched my fading concept of a happy ending out of my hands, cast it on the floor and jumped up and down on it until only splinters remained. Then it fed the splinters to me with a nasty smile and slunk off into the night.

There was no confusion here; I could not deny any of the events had happened or polish them to cast them in a better light. Garner always draws the distinction between good and evil with skill, but in Gomrath in particular, he then takes it further to question right and wrong. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is the watchword here, and from the horror of the Brollachan to the nightmarish final battle under the moon, childhood innocence is dismantled. Sometimes there is no happy ending, and you take what comfort you can in the lesser victory.

This clear in my mind, I found Elidor. Like The Owl Service, I read it only once, but it left the stronger impression. Whereas my hazy memories of The Owl Service were only of confusion, Elidor I remember as a dying dreamscape of rusting weaponry, where letterboxes and white noise become things of terror. It’s probably just as well our library had no copy of Red Shift.

Rereading The Owl Service this weekend, I can understand why I failed to get to grips with it too. This is closer to the adult novels such as Thursbitch, telling a story through omission and elision as much as through exposition. Truncated sentences, interior monologue, and deliberate evasions make for a tangled story, with the book driven largely by dialogue as confusing as only communication between people who can’t bring themselves to share a perspective can be.

Reading it from an adult perspective, these difficulties make it more real. Human communication tends to be bitty and harsh; most conversations make sense only in context. Garner has resisted the urge to fill in the gaps that would make it accessible. Likewise, he allows other currents to stay lost beneath the surface: Gwyn’s real relationship with Alison, for example, is never really drawn out for the young audience. But Gwyn is either Alison’s illegitimate cousin (and thus potentially able to challenge her inheritance) or at best the son of the woman involved in her uncle’s death. No wonder Alison’s mother fears their intimacy. Likewise Huw’s role and motivations are unclear; the scene in which he has Gwyn reaching into the tree to reclaim the instruments of murders past is chilling – just what does he really have in mind for Roger at that point?

The smoothest progression is measured in the tension, which starts in the first paragraph and does not relent until the explosive climax – but it is then cut off abruptly, the book ending almost mid-scene. There is no resolution here, no comforting Epilogue to assure you everything turned out okay; only the suggestion that perhaps Roger has talked Alison down against the odds in spite of Gwyn’s refusal to help them. No wonder it confused my young head; I was still expecting books to finish stories for me, rather than leave them open to interpretation (even if the storyline had not ultimately revolved around the somewhat abstract “she wants to be flowers and you make her owls”). I certainly would not have understood that a main character might choose to stand aside and allow disaster to happen because of wounded pride.

All this reinforces my affection for Mr Garner and his works, and has me marvel all the more at how well-loved these difficult books are by generations of children. Once read, they stay with you, the effort rendered worthwhile in half-glimpsed symbolism and suggestions of deeper questions for later consideration. One day, I hope to be grown up enough to understand them fully. In the meantime, I shall revel in as much as I can.

Edit: Yes, I did read Charlotte’s Web as a child (continuously, until I conquered the crying-at-the-end reaction). This may not be a happy ending as such, but it’s not a patch on Garner’s Celtic bleakness.