(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.