Alan Garner 1935–
British author of novels for children and young adults.
Garner's powerful novels demonstrate the enduring vitality of the themes of ancient myths. Though he recasts the time frame of the legend, he tries to convey its spirit intact so that "the life of the myth is handed forward." The Owl Service provides perhaps the best-known example of his technique: in it the three teenage protagonists find themselves trapped in an old pattern of passion, jealousy, and revenge, represented by the ominous flower/owl design on a china plate. The symbolism in the novel comes from the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales; the actual details of the plot are modern, Garner's own.
Some reviewers see more to reject than to praise in Garner's work. They point, for example, to the rather undeveloped characters in his stories who sometimes seem to exist merely to advance the plot. Some wonder whether Garner's books are not really written for adult critics. The response to Red Shift, a highly wrought story set in three different centuries and done almost entirely in dialogue, indicated that many readers did indeed think Garner would no longer publish for young adults. To such questions about the ability of young people to understand his work Garner has replied that he "[tries] to write onions," books that can be read at many levels of experience.
The layers of experience belonging to Garner himself seem to encourage him to write "onions." The child of country people in northwest England, Garner was the first of his family to attend grammar school and university, where he studied classical languages. He has felt his break from tradition very keenly; thus the theme of dislocation figures importantly in his work. Yet his linguistic training has made him more sensitive to the dialects his people speak, and has enabled him to give greater depth to his own language. His understanding of the social and natural history of his native Cheshire has only heightened the love of place which comes through vividly in those books he has set there. And his familiarity with myths of all cultures and ages has undoubtedly intensified his fascination with the elusive boundaries of time.
Among Garner's more recent works is the Stone Book quartet, a series told in a blend of modern standard English and the old Cheshire dialect, which follows certain members of a family across generations. Each of the four stories highlights a particular moment in its protagonist's life; each contributes to the appreciation and comprehension of the others, with the same love of land and of the cycle of life through them all. These books show the level of skill Garner has attained in writing modern myths, integrating all parts of his knowledge. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1967 and the Guardian Award in 1968 for The Owl Service. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, and Something about the Author, Vol. 18.)
[The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is Alan Garner's] first book and his great enthusiasm permeates his writing, making the book rich and sparkling with movement and people. The folk-lore of his native countryside forms a background for a jostling crowd of characters and drama. This is an all-round book where reality and fantasy are intertwined until they are indistinguishable. In his enthusiasm, however, the author conjures forth too many characters and too many names, and while some of the latter are mellifluous and haunting, others are ugly and confusing. The children's long chase and subsequent long drawn out flight tire and perplex the reader. Mr. Garner should, perhaps, have restrained himself a little and deleted some of the repetitive action and a few of the characters. (pp. 363-64)
"'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 24, No. 6, December, 1960, pp. 363-64.
Elidor is the third long novel by a writer much involved with the meeting of ancient world and new: this, if the least wildly poetic, is also the most skilful of the three. It is ambitiously imagined and worked out with a hard economical tension: the reader is kept—except for some dazzling visionary moments—well on the present-day human side of the arena. It is, you might say, a reanimation of the Roland/Burd-Ellen legend in a modern industrial setting. There are cracks where the fabric of time and place is weak—and a Manchester bomb-site with a ruined church, already on the eve of demolition, is such a one…. The climax, a peak after chapters of mounting terror, is brilliant. The threads of myth make a nice unravelling. (pp. 748-49)
Naomi Lewis, "Other World," in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXX, No. 1809, November 12, 1965, pp. 748-49.∗
[It] is clear that The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath have created for the author a reputation which will take a lot of keeping up. It will not be kept up by such hastily germinated hybrids as Elidor in which four Manchester children "break through" into a benighted kingdom in which, it seems, "light" can be restored only through their agency as the chosen. The individual incidents are exciting and stimulating but the balance of...
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Roger Lancelyn Green
[The] technique of the great adventure with spiritual or allegorical undertones breaking through into everyday life has been employed …, with considerable success, by Alan Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963). But here the adventure tends to grow too titanic, the powers to belong to a greater and more heroic world, such as that created by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings; and exciting though the stories are, they tend to lose that sense of the actual and the credible…. (p. 272)
Roger Lancelyn Green, "New Wonderlands," in his Tellers of Tales (copyright 1946, 1953, 1956, © 1965 by Edmund Ward (Publishers) Ltd; reprinted by permission of Kaye and Ward Ltd), revised edition, Franklin Watts, Inc., 1965 (and reprinted by Kaye and Ward Ltd, 1969), pp. 269-79.∗
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Holly from the Bongs is, to put it simply, a nativity play. It was written for the Cheshire village of Goostrey and performed at Christmas 1965 in the stable of the Crown Inn…. The effect of the book as a whole is overwhelmingly sincere and beautiful. You get the impression of a small, interdependent community with the freedom of the fields, of children being themselves and yet being partly translated by the feel of unfamiliar language and heightened emotion…. It is in the text … where Alan Garner has used local place-names freely. Cheshire is a county where mummers' plays still flourish, and he has offered such a play … as the shepherd's "present" to the infant Jesus—a bold stroke which links pagan and Christian stories in an extraordinary beauty of rhyme and prose. There is a delightful immediacy of local history here…. Everything is relaxed, friendly and yet hallowed—there is really no other word—by the depth of traditional feeling.
Margery Fisher, "After Christmas: 'Holly from the Bongs'," in her Growing Point, Vol. 5, No. 8, March, 1967, p. 864.
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[Holly from the Bongs] is one of the most delightful books I have looked at, read, listened to, for a very long time…. [It includes] the full text of the play, in which Alan Garner has skilfully included a Mummers' play based on traditional sources…. How lucky are the children of Goostrey; but how lucky are we also to share in this experience.
Timothy Rogers, "Fiction: 'Holly from the Bongs'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, March, 1967, p. 106.
Some of [Elidor] is hilarious … some is harrowing, but it rarely rises above the level of formula fantasy. The obvious weaknesses are a certain flatness of style and the lack of definition of character, the stillborn aspect of faerieland: we don't know Elidor or the children intimately enough to care what happens to them, nor to regret, in the case of the children, that they are little touched by the sum of their experience.
"Younger Fiction: 'Elidor'," in Kirkus Service (copyright © 1967 Virginia Kirkus' Service, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 5, March 1, 1967, p. 269.
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Alan Garner's writing is marked by hard thinking and hard, fierce imagining. These have been brought to bear upon a distinctive choice of subject: the meeting-plane of two contiguous worlds. One is the world that most of us agree to describe, however inadequately, as ordinary, everyday, or by some such term. The other is the world of folklore and myth, dream and nightmare and vision. The wall between these two worlds is tough, but of less than tissue-paper thinness. Where the thinness can be worn into a transparency or where the unusual pressure of one world bursts its way into the other, there is the beginning of a Garner story.
In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, which can be considered as consecutive parts of the same story, the two worlds were unequally balanced: the weight of the reader's interest was with the other world, not with the two ordinary, convenient children who broke through into it.
Then came Elidor, realistic-apocalyptic, comic-sublime: the author's art held his two worlds together in exact balance, in a perfection of narrative tension. Here was a splendid achievement. (pp. 291-92)
The fourth and latest book, The Owl Service, brings the worlds together again; but with a difference of method and effect. The story is contained within a remote Welsh valley where the power of that other world lies like some bottomless lake. Into this...
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On one level [The Owl Service] is a story of possession, in which accidents take on dual meanings and the Welsh landscape adds its own shut-in, brooding atmosphere. Alison's mother and Roger's father hope to consolidate their recent marriage and see their children making friends here in the valley. So quickly does the author establish these characters, particularly through subtly diversified class idiom, that you can see the stresses which will threaten the holiday hopes…. These stresses might have upset the surface amiability of the four in a week of wet days: the owl plates precipitate personal crisis and, as well, actual, frightening, inexplicable happenings. The real and the supernatural interchange, influence, quicken feeling. Most of all in Alison; for here is a remarkable portrait of a girl in her 'teens who is translated, as it were, from her conventional self into an ancient counterpart whom she cannot escape from or understand. Her refuge seems to lie with Gwyn…. It is the last irony of a subtle book that her safety is achieved finally not by the sensitive, tormented, Welsh boy but by brash, unimaginative Roger. The book shows how people change under stress—shows it in a novelist's manner, with none of the limitations of 'writing for children.' (p. 949)
Enough of the Mabinogion is quoted for the reader to pick up clues and see the rôle of each person involved in this strange re-living of the past, but anyone who...
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Andrew B. Myers
In Alan Garner's story the moon of Gomrath rises over an unmistakably British countryside and over a hidden, ageless underworld of frighteningly evil powers and almost equally fearsome champions of the good…. ["The Moon of Gomrath"] jumps abruptly from one Tolkienish shiver to another, but there is a gripping power to these episodes of creeping horror, reminiscent of those in Charles Williams' adult novels of the occult.
Andrew B. Myers, "New Books for Young Readers: 'The Moon of Gomrath'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 22, 1967, p. 62.
With his latest novel, The Owl Service, Alan Garner has moved away from the world of children's books and has emerged as a writer unconfined by reference to age-groups; a writer whose imaginative vein is rich enough to reward his readers on several different levels, whether they are old or young. This is a novel of love and of jealousy, that destructive and not often explored ingredient of human nature. The word "love" is never mentioned in the book. The primitive power of jealousy is given a dimension of poetry through the grafting of the story upon the Celtic myth of Blodeuwedd, the flower goddess. The Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion includes the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the hero or god destined never to marry mortal woman…....
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Around [the children in The Owl Service], growing out of the wild countryside, its heroic ancient legends and its recent grim past, is woven a fantasy as moving as any in the tradition of imaginative literature. For younger readers the plot is a sequence of curious happenings consequent upon the finding in the loft of dinner plates with an owl pattern. A mystery, an historical fable, the interacting of past and present and a grim, tragic element involving the relationship of parents and children evoke in older readers the deepest responses of which they are capable and point to the superficialities of current formula fiction. Mr. Garner's chosen style is a balance of elliptical conversation and poetic imagery. The bones of the narrative are taut as steel wire and contain the suspense to the end. My reservations about the climax and a number of unsorted details are not enough to throw in against my appreciation of the imaginative power…. I think this is a book for young adults, because, on one level, it is about the loss of innocence, which comes to them as both a tragedy and a relief. This book adds a new dimension to 'the adolescent novel'.
Margaret Meek, "Literature: 'The Owl Service'," in The School Librarian and School Library Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, December, 1967, p. 327.
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Alan Garner's The Owl Service … reveals that he is not a man to rest on the laurels awarded him by those enthusiastic children who read with pleasure The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and Elidor. For The Owl Service … is entirely different from his other three, having in common with them only that it is fantasy and takes off from legend. But because certain of Garner's tendencies as a writer are noticeable in all of his books and because these tendencies play an important part in the final effect of The Owl Service, it is rewarding to go back to the beginning and consider his work as a whole.
Garner is one who, from the start, has found his inspiration in Scandinavian mythology, Celtic legend, and Hebridean and British folklore. Rich is his knowledge of old spells, of the Mabinogion, and such volumes as Murray's The God of the Witches, Robert Graves's The White Goddess, and Watkins's The Old Straight Track…. Old Britain and its ancient powers and presences waiting to be released over the English countryside are what are felt most strongly in the first two books. Garner has a splendid sense of place. When he shows Colin in The Weirdstone searching for the old straight track, and its eventual revelation by moonlight, he is at his best, involved purely in scene and feeling and overtone.
Nevertheless, even given Garner's...
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Alan Garner's four novels find the source of their inspiration in non-classical mythology and all contain elements of fantasy….
For Alan Garner there are no original stories: 'originality now means the personal colouring of existing themes, and some of the richest ever expressed are in the folklore of Britain.' (Note to The Moon of Gomrath.) For example, Elidor combines the story of Childe Roland with, among other things, the Irish myth of the Tuatha Dé Danaan who came from the 'southern isles of the world'. The four treasures of Elidor closely resemble Nuada's sword, Lugh's lance, Dagda's cauldron, and the Stone of Fal which they brought with them to Ireland. But Alan Garner takes these elements of myth and folklore and skilfully transmutes them, in an almost poetic way, into new metaphors of experience. By this process the half-forgotten stories and beliefs acquire a powerful, living reality, making their presence felt in the lives of the children of our complex, mechanistic, industrial society. (p. 45)
[Alan Garner] writes for adolescents…. This attempt to write for the difficult, transitional period between childhood and adulthood means that his novels need to satisfy at various levels: at the simple, narrative level of suspense and what happens next, through the deeper levels of characterisation, to adult concerns of symbol and theme. In this, it seems to me, the later novels have been...
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First published nine years ago, [The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderly] wears well and continues to reveal new riches…. The tense and often horrifying episodes of the plot are centered around the attempt, finally successful, to restore the weirdstone to Cadellin. As in Elidor, but perhaps not with the same balance, reality and fantasy are played against each other. The feeling for terrain and dwelling, for Gowther's dialect and humor, are earthy and of this world. But the inrush of beings familiar from Germanic and Celtic mythology and folklore add the richness as well as the terror of a bygone world to the everyday surroundings of the children…. However, "beauty and terror" are presented as "opposite sides of the same coin," and the almost unbearably tense events closing the story end on a chord of triumph. (pp. 45-6)
Paul Heins, "Late Winter Booklist: 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderly'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1970 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLVI, No. 1, February, 1970, pp. 45-6.
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[In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Garner] made use of much of the material of earlier attempts at creating contemporary sagas and it seemed likely at first that he was planning a sustained series. These stories of the knights bound in sleep until they can be wakened to fight the forces of evil have moments of strength, but are marred by uncertainty in their organisation, roughness in the writing and a general sense of unsureness of touch…. [They] are clearly prentice work and the author abandoned this vein when he moved on to stronger work. He is at his best with the natural surroundings of the stories, which are set at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, and at his worst with the children, who are not fully realised and do not come alive.
The same defect is apparent in Elidor, an otherwise far better book. Four children in one of the poorer districts of Manchester explore a ruined church and suddenly find themselves not transported to, but living a parallel life in the terrifying land of Elidor. The two worlds overlap and the disturbing, at times frightening, fusion of this other world and the everyday world makes this a highly original book…. (pp. 143-44)
Elidor has been a much praised book and I am going against the weight of critical opinion in saying that to me it seems a contrived one. (p. 144)
[The Owl Service is essentially a modern...
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John Rowe Townsend
[Alan Garner's] books, though few, have had an extraordinarily powerful impact; they have been felt and not forgotten. (p. 108)
Because Garner's four novels came out at intervals of two and three years, they show their differences—and the author's development—more clearly than do the works of more prolific writers. Alan Garner has never stood still. His stories have become less complicated but more complex, less crowded but more intricately ramified. Action has become less crude but more significant. The later books are finer. Admittedly, even fineness has its price. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) was Garner's first book; it is complicated, crowded, full of crude action; and of its kind it still seems to me to be excellent. The author was hard on himself when he described it as 'a fairly bad book'. The Owl Service (1967) is complex and intricate, its action more restrained and much more meaningful. It has not the same brute vitality. But although an overall comparison between two such different books is hardly possible, it seems fair to say that The Owl Service is by far the more notable achievement.
When The Weirdstone of Brisingamen first appeared, it was widely hinted that Garner was indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact he did not then know Tolkien's work. The great difference between Tolkien and early Garner is that Tolkien creates a world of magic apart from our own while...
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[The Weirdstone of Brisingamen] was a remarkable first book by a young writer but hardly a successful one. The narrative is confusing and confused, always whipping itself into a further frenzy of activity. The terms of reference are Norse rather than Celtic, and the Norse gods were always a complicated lot. There are some fine moments, mostly marred by a turgid style. Where the book excels is in the use of an actual landscape whose topography plays an essential part in the action and in relating the nightmares of the story to commonplace figures of the everyday world. (p. 126)
This skill in harnessing the modern scene and its inhabitants was more marked in Garner's Elidor (1965) where the magic starts to work in Piccadilly, Manchester. It is not chance that when Roland spins the wheel which operates the index to a street plan it comes to rest at Thursday Street. For Thursday Street has disappeared into a heap of rubble in a slum-clearance scheme. And why is an old street Musician playing his fiddle among these inhospitable ruins? From this confusing scene, strange yet typical of a modern city, the Watson children are shot into 'a magic land and full of song' where Malebron of Elidor holds back the night. The children—it seems improbable—have been sent to 'bring back light to Elidor'. It is never quite clear why. As in the 'Narnia' stories [by C. S. Lewis], the weakness lies in casting such commonplace children as the...
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[Red Shift's] top tune—the main plot and the easiest to follow—tells of an intelligent, oversensitive teenager, Tom (his wit saves him from being an emotionally spotty bore), who lives in a trailer with his disagreeably possessive mother and weak-willed army pa (overworked stock characters in teenage fiction, but given some vitality and individuality here). Tom is in love with a better-balanced, equally intelligent girl, Jan.… The plot begins with Jan preparing to move to London, and Tom toiling in an emotional panic that reaches a volcanic climax when his parents ask if he and Jan have "had any occasion to do anything to make us ashamed of you."
In order to solve their separation the young lovers arrange to meet regularly on Crewe station, a rail junction which for years has been the butt of vaudeville gags. For a while all is sunshine and flowers—romance among the railway engines—until happiness is curdled by Tom's prying mum and finally turned sour when Tom thinks Jan is playing him false. The book ends with the breakup of the relationship. Betrayal, you might say, is what it's all about. "It doesn't matter. Not really now not any more," says the last line on the last page. But, of course, it does matter (to Garner if to no one else), or why bother to write such a difficult thing as a novel about it?
Orchestrated with the top tune are two subplots, one set in an immediately post-Roman time, the...
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Clara M. Siggins
"Red Shift" is a stranger than strange composite novel blending illusion and reality in a peculiar technique. Three stories are superimposed in a time-spliced, tension-packed package dealing with lovers and lunacy in what well may rival the mystery of a [Samuel] Beckett tour de force.
If a novel is supposed to be news about people, the news is garbled. The plot lines are as jagged as a flash of lightning in the distance and as illuminating. The nomenclature confuses too. The story goes back and forth among three men in three different periods of time. The most easily understood segment of the story is the twentieth-century Tom…. Tom is in love with Jan, who has had an affair with another man before meeting Tom—but this is a true love with as rough a terrain to cross as star-crossed lovers ever crossed.
Another story interwined, and by no means throwing light on Tom-Jan, is a story set in the second century in Britain. This is a bloody, rough, and cruel story, of the warring tribes and Roman Legions…. The third story woven in and out through the other two, and not seemingly part of either one, is set in seventeenth-century England during the civil wars. The only point of connection is that an axe—a votive axe—is a central part in each story…. One can only speculate that the author, an archaeologist and historian, on finding such an axe, let his fanciful imagination play with the infinite possibilities of...
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Red Shift expresses the significance of place and the insignificance of time…. The significance of place is established through setting the narrative in three different periods in the history of a few square miles of Cheshire countryside around the village of Barthomley, Mow Cop and Crewe: the insignificance of time is suggested by the way the author interweaves the narrative's contemporary strand about the relationship of Tom and Jan, with the story of Thomas and the other villagers from the seventeenth century and that of Macey and his splinter group of Roman soldiers from the Ninth Legion. The shifts from one strand to another are managed skilfully such that while one is kept busy associating characters and relationships, noticing the common thread of violence, responding to the tangible link of the stone axe-head which is handed from one time level into the next, yet the three narrative lines remain sharply distinct. (pp. 5, 7)
The sense of cosmic terror and violence which the writing unleashes when Macey flips and Thomas has his fits, and the uneasiness generated by Tom's constant awareness of the expanding universe are enough to render the most complacent reader's view of reality a precarious one. Moreover, Alan Garner stamps on one's fingers at the end for, predictably perhaps, the three time levels coalesce in the last few pages. Time is collapsed. A sort of artistic red shift has been effected. (pp. 7-8)...
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Expect a lot, and you won't be expecting too much, of The Stone Book by Alan Garner…. It is a miniature masterwork and, like all great miniatures, is staggering in what its limits contain….
[It] re-establishes the boundaries of what can be done in the pre-novel form, and it shows Garner to be totally in command of his art. The prose is assured, precisely right, without flaw; the story itself has an emotional poise that up till now has not been present in Garner's writing.
Pelorus, "Notebook: 'The Stone Book'" (copyright © 1976 Aidan Chambers; reprinted by permission of the author and The Thimble Press, Lockwood Station Road, South Woodchester, Glos. GL5 5EQ, England), in Signal, No. 21, September, 1976, p. 148.
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The Stone Book is rich with detail of the stonemason's craft and with the eloquent dialect of its Cheshire setting. But, unlike the stone which is its theme, this is a bleak, austere story; one may admire the precise style and even the self-conscious parade of unfamiliar vocabulary, but one remains unmoved by the characters and their preoccupations.
Lance Salway, "Little Boy Found," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3890, October 1, 1976, p. 1241.
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[Short] though it may be, this small precise poem of a book [Tom Fobble's Day], is not simple.
In the past I have found Alan Garner too conscious of his own brilliance. Here his cleverness is nearer understanding. The book is about doing and becoming (and not always avoiding danger in the process); about belonging—to people, to landscape, to their shared past; above all about that total loving attention to substance that is not only the beginning of poetry, meditation even, but also the beginning of true making, whether of a building, or as here, of a sledge.
The import of Tom Fobble's Day, as of The Stone Book, is that to see substance properly is to understand beyond it, though its focus being metal and not stone the message is fittingly a more uncompromising, wintry one. We see metal used creatively, smelted to make sledge-runners. We also see it destructive, even, perhaps, of the man who loves it. For this is a world of air-raids, of guns raining shrapnel, of the grandfather's fears for his absent grandson and of his own tales of slaughter in previous wars. Yet the landscape and its past survives.
Penelope Farmer, "Men of Iron," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3915, March 25, 1977, p. 360.
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Something has happened to Alan Garner. He is never a predictable writer, and one can never be sure just what he will produce next. But one thing has so far been common to all his work: It has been emotionally overcharged. (With the exception, I hasten to say, of his nativity play, Holly from the Bongs, all too little known, and a gem.)
To put it in crude critical shorthand, Garner's work has so far lacked balance. One always felt the tremble of incipient hysteria: all those dark elemental forces about to break out and swamp one in their destructive power. And usually they did so at some point in each book….
[I've] noticed before that Garner has the knack of confounding his critics…. And he has done it again. Without any doubt, in my view, the most impressive children's book (not adolescent-child's, not even older child's, but children's) to appear in England in 1976 was Alan Garner's The Stone Book…. (p. 479)
[It] is the most balanced book one could wish for: heart and head working harmoniously together through language so beautifully and skillfully employed that even now, after numerous silent readings and several public performances aloud, the book still moves me afresh every time I open it. It possesses profound simplicity; it is the work of a mature man, a mature artist. (pp. 479-80)
In his two previous novels, Garner further and further cut away...
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Rarely have I been more moved by a story [The Stone Book] and the telling of it. To hold a class—any age—absolutely spellbound you read the passage where Mary climbs the church steeple to the top where her father, a stonemason, sets the weathercock and she swings round on it. Mary's lesson lies under the landscape she sees from the spire, in the stone quarry. She learns from men moulded by their craft. The language is like the theme, hewn out of the wisdom of use. A quite remarkable book….
Margaret Meek, "Seven to Eleven: 'The Stone Book'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 25, No. 3, September, 1977, p. 241.
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Alan Garner's stories, The Stone Book and Tom Fobble's Day, are not poems but they have the overtones, the power to stir and engage the imagination, which we expect from poetry….
The simplicity of Tom Fobble's Day is a matter of uncomplicated syntax and a direct, concrete vocabulary. At the most obvious level this suits a story of one winter day in which a boy whose sledge is Tom Fobbled [a ritual borrowing] and then broken, visits his grandfather, the local "whitesmith and locksmith, and blacksmith too", and achieves a new and far better sledge, the last of the old man's handiwork. (p. 3207)
[The theme of the book is] the continuity of work, family and the land, seen (as in The Stone Book) through the traditional craft of a Cheshire countryman. Time is marked by the alternation of light and dark and by the old man's references (always introduced with the utmost naturalness) to the two wars he has fought in, the Boer War and World War I, contrasted with William's youthful acceptance of World War II as the source of interesting souvenirs after a raid….
The scene of Tom Fobble's Day is set, again with complete naturalness, in the course of narrative or conversation; boy and old man are seen in the darkness of Grandad's basement workshop or against snow and starlight. Dialogue is brief, subtly dialectal, wholly individual. The book is a total, triumphant unity of...
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[Despite] the odd suspicion that Mr. Garner is showing off …, there remains the sense of an age gone by, that still lives on in the Garner Quartet.
Granny Reardun forms the lynchpin between its predecessors. Poised between worlds of quarry and forge, it traces a progress from Stone Age to Iron; from stone getters to brick setters, from monoliths to machines. The world is changing and Iron's "aback of everything".
But the view is tinged with retrospective irony. For the young Promethean who tells his grandfather "I'll not cut stone" is surely the grandfather who closes his smithy two generations later in Tom Fobble's Day. Time and tide wait for no man, but nor do they wait upon craft or machine. Block, forge and loom will have their day, but The Stone Book wears out eternity. And though Granny Reardun's weather-cock may top the church, it is an even bet that only the stone of the church endures. Already this trio is echoing with counterchimes and reverberations. We eagerly await the final volume.
Peter Fanning, "Quarry and Forge," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3258, November 18, 1977, p. 42.
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To distil the message from Alan Garner's quartet of books which, so far, includes The Stone Book, Tom Fobble's Day, and now, Granny Reardun, the reader has to locate himself in the landscape at a point in time. Chronologically Granny Reardun comes before Tom Fobble's Day, but each, in Alan Garner's terms, is its own onion of craft, time, place and family. Time is caught in stone walls and steeples made by Joseph's grandfather, so that when Joseph at the beginning of Granny Reardun lies on a hill and watches a family moving out of its house, which later provides stone for his grandfather to finish a wall, history turns. Joseph's decision to be a smith ushers in a new era.
The synchronic layers and surfaces of Alan Garner's telling defy linear description by their very transparency. By reading the text aloud one catches the movement in time of objects that have symbolic permanence: stone, spires, anvil, forge fire, hills. The speech is quarried from the landscape….
Joseph blows his cornet and the music moves the world. Like the chords of a hymn tune, the harmony of story and narration, character and setting cannot be separated even to be appreciated. The contrast of the view from the top of the steeple with the deep dark of the quarry which made such a powerful statement in The Stone Book has no counterpart in Joseph's tale, but Alan Garner still makes us feel that the...
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The creation of other worlds … leads, naturally, to a preoccupation with landscape and terrain…. [This] is a natural development but in the case of Garner it's something more than this. All his work shows a strong, mystical sense of place….
Often, as in Garner and [Ursula K.] le Guin, there's a strong sense of a vague, disembodied but menacing force which is just hovering around waiting to be loosed, a process which might be as accidental as springing a trap. This is very noticeable in Garner. (p. 146)
[Class antagonism and manipulation] is in its most obvious and usual form in Garner's The Owl Service: it's strange that very few people seem to have noticed that this book is riddled with anti-working-class feeling. (p. 147)
What comes out very strongly, especially in Garner's first three books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor is the overpowering sense of black evil. Towards the beginning of the second novel, we read that men have 'loosed the evil a second time', in a typical Garner expression. But what's it all for? What do the forces of evil want? What's the matter with them?—There aren't any answers to these questions…. (p. 149)
In Garner's later work, The Owl Service and Red Shift, two elements that were there but not very noticeable in the books already mentioned, come to the fore. In general, taking...
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In Red Shift (1973), pattern is all-important. The prose is lean and meaning elusive: the outline of patterns delicately traced (as in the axehead that links the levels of the story) is what remains in the mind after reading the novel, together with many questions and puzzles. Time past and time present mingle, resonate, and finally coalesce. As in the previous books, the past is never lost: it may be overlaid perhaps, but, looking carefully, one can still distinguish the old lines, the old tracks, and here they lead to the sacred places, the centres of energy at which people worship: sacred mound and church stand close by one another in Red Shift.
The forces at work are transmuted and realised in different forms in the three strands of time: in each, a young man and young woman attempt to shape a loving relationship in a world of violent destructiveness. Tom, Thomas, and Macey are aspects of one another: each of them sees beyond the normal bounds of vision and the results are powerfully disturbing. (p. 48)
The meaning is oblique, ambiguous, at times infuriatingly tantalising. It seems to lie partly within the geometry of relationships in the book: between the triangles set up by characters, places, times. It is implied, hinted at, rather than stated. All this makes the novel difficult to write about explicitly. But the same concerns are as in the earlier books—it is as if Alan Garner were...
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The order in which the stories of Alan Garner's quartet appear may confuse those who like their genealogies well ordered. But the young should be encouraged to read them as soon as they appear. Like memories, they are reworked in the head after their impact as events. The Stone Book is still for me the foundation of a literary experience of great power. Tom Fobble's Day and Granny Reardun keep the clarity and precision, particularly of time, place and persons…. Garner has made his text as clear as the sky and as hard as frost…. This is archetypal children's literature in our day. (pp. 41-2)
Margaret Meek, "Seven to Eleven: 'Tom Fobble's Day' and 'Granny Reardun'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 26, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 41-2.
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There are many close encounters in store for the reader of Alan Garner's work, and this is certainly true of [The Aimer Gate]. The language is cut concisely, the style exact and easy like a kind of music….
These books [of the Stone Book quartet] stand somewhat like four movements of Vivaldi's music. And there is music in everyone, an ophicleide or a cornet, and always a song. Although appearing last, The Aimer Gate is third in time and even in classic sonata form, the story of Chorley 1860–1940. But there is far more time than 80 years aback of Chorley. Two of the first ages of men, stone and iron (the later in Granny Reardun), were long ago; and they run through the village as powerfully as the measurement of time and wind at chapel and church. Some may feel that to honour the craft of stonemason and smith, hand-harvesting fields too steep for combines, or figures like old Faddock Allman with both legs blasted off in the Boer-War (a brilliant characterization, this) smells of errant romanticism.
Children will not think so. Their response may be instinctive rather than reflective. For this book, like its three companions, is recognizably children's property. It dwells on the truths of childhood, which are so simple yet have to serve most of us all our lives. One of these filed-down truths of human existence tells of the connectedness of things: the patterns and the motifs Garner gently...
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[The books in Alan Garner's quartet] are the longest short books I've ever read; and I mean that in their quite exhilarating concision they cover, and carry the delight of eighty years (from c1860 to c1940) in the life of a family in Alan Garner's own corner of the world, Alderly Edge in Cheshire. A succession of grandads, fathers, youths, Josephs and Roberts and Williams, they work in stone and wood and metal. Work, and the mysteries of work, are of supreme importance.
In the first book, The Stone Book, Mary's father is capping the steeple of the new St Philip's Church…. There's an account of working in stone, of the able magic of it, that's echoed in the last book, Tom Fobble's Day, with an account of working in wood and metal: a grandfather, to whom Mary's father is a grandfather, makes a sledge for William. And William uses this sledge to exceed all previous local records in sledging: and the description of his stunning runs from the top of Lizzie Leah's is an example of the element each book contains, alongside the element which consists of the fine description of working skills: I think of this other ingredient as an exhilaration. Something is always breathlessly and marvellously done. Mary climbs to the very weathercock of the new church and there whirls round, while her world turns with her. Your breath goes as you read…. There are exhilarations in all the books….
And everything, in this...
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In his Stone Book quartet, Alan Garner traces the lives of four generations of a working-class family in Chorley, a Cheshire village. Sentimental primitivism pervades Mr. Garner's books. His characters are by place possessed, and nostalgia for lost occupations and identities weighs heavy….
The Stone Book Quartet is gracefully written and at times wonderfully provocative. Frequently Mr. Garner uses old-fashioned words whose sounds convey their sense. Mystery abounds in the books, and events are frequently hazy. Mr. Garner's symbols are rarely clear, and he forever appeals to the creative imagination. At times his books resemble [William] Hazlitt's distant objects. Placed in shadows beyond the limitations of vision, they appeal to the fancy.
For the reader with a romantic sensibility, the Stone Book quartet offers innumerable variants upon the "poetic nature of reality." For others, the series may seem pretentious.
Samuel Pickering, "Childrens Books: 'The Stone Book', 'Granny Reardun', 'The Aimer Gate', and 'Tom Fobble's Day'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1979, p. 19.
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[As William Butler Yeats] saw the gray and grimy streets of Dublin give birth to a "terrible beauty," so Alan Garner shows that the complacent lives in a Manchester suburb can be intertwined with a "terrible beauty" [in Elidor]. With deceptive simplicity, Garner tells of the battle for the good—the light—in the world called Elidor and how that battle can hinge on the tenacious belief of a Manchester child named Roland. (p. 328)
Alan Garner is celebrated for his use of mythology, which he calls "spiritual gelignite" and "distilled and violent truth," phrases which may be analogous to Yeats's "terrible beauty." Garner takes the background for Elidor from several sources. The name Elidor, the four cities of Findias, Falias, Murias and Gorias, and the four symbols of power are taken directly from the Tuatha de Danaan stories in Celtic mythology. The maimed king and Helen's cup echo the legend of the Grail. Certain plot aspects are taken from the ballad of Childe Roland; "'Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came'" is quoted at the book's beginning.
As interesting as an exploration of these sources may be, it is more important to ask how Garner transformed the material. Equally important: Does the book stand on its own, without assuming a knowledge of the legends? I believe it does.
The author has transformed the legendary tales into a compelling, frightening, and ultimately satisfying...
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