Alan Garner Essay - Critical Essays

Garner, Alan


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.

Naomi Lewis

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 elements is less certain than before. One feels not only that the magic is too thinly and too...

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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.∗

Margery Fisher

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.

Timothy Rogers

[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...

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Philippa Pearce

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,...

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Margery Fisher

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,...

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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...

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Margaret Meek

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....

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Eleanor Cameron

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...

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Tony Watkins

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...

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Paul Heins

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...

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Frank Eyre

[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...

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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...

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Marcus Crouch

[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...

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Aidan Chambers

[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...

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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...

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Michael Benton

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...

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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....

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Lance Salway

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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Penelope Farmer

[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...

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Aidan Chambers

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...

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Margaret Meek

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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Margery Fisher

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...

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Peter Fanning

[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...

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Margaret Meek

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.


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Bob Dixon

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...

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Tony Watkins

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...

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Margaret Meek

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...

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Ralph Lavender

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...

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Edward Blishen

[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,...

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Samuel Pickering

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...

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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...

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