Monday, 9 May 2016

Alan Garner, Elidor, and Me

 Garner lives and works close to the Edge and is neither metropolitan nor provincial, He’s closer to being parochial, in Patrick Cavanaugh’s sense, never being ‘in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish'. But he’s more than that. He goes under the parish to fetch out stones, he cleans them, he inspects them, he turns them into steeples and into walls, he lifts them up to the stars above. He turns stones to words. He is the first in his line to use words not things... David Almond.

The postman – late today – hands over the package. It is beautifully packed, so I open it carefully to find a book that I’d forgotten I’d ordered. It’s a finely produced book – good paper, good bindings. I smell it, as I always do with new books: a seductive smell for a lifelong reader,

I had forgotten it, because it’s months since I made my contribution to this important book – a crowd-funded publication by Unbound of London. My own name is there in the back, with hundreds of other individuals who contributed to the publishing process.

First Light, meticulously edited by Erica Wagner, comprises a series of
celebratory essays and tributes to Alan Garner - that leading shamanistic literary writer of his generation - that magus of the stones and the earth -who can take us back with ease to into the magical ages of bronze and iron and the Celtic sunrise.

Children are at the centre of Alan Garner’s novels which speak clearly to children who read. But he does not speak just to children. He speaks to all of us in the language of storytelling which links the reality of today with the the myths and magic embedded our human identity that we have inherited from with our Iron Age, Bronze Age and Celtic ancestors.

One important element in all Garner’s writing is that – unlike many so-called; fantasy writers today – it derives nothing from the more esoteric escapist fiction of CS Lewis or Tolkien. Looked at properly, Alan Garner – like David Almond, quoted above -  is much better labelled a reality writer than a fantasy writer.,

This volume,First Light, features tributes from a wide range of writers: from
Margaret Atwood to Neil Gaimon, from Helen Dunmore to Philip Pullman, from Rowan Williams to David Almond  

David Almond’s contribution is my favourite. As a writer he is closest to Alan Garner in having the magical skill of using child characters to give us access to the everyday magic all around us.  Children today can do this, still wrapped as they are, in the birth-caul of innocence. We can do it too, using the child inside us as a conduit for wonderful insights.

These days an increasingly rigid desire to catologue literature has led the public imagination to categorise the work of supreme writers such as Garner and Almond as ‘Children’s Literature’. Both of them are garlanded with prizes and awards acknowledging their success specifically in this field. But they are much more universally significant writers than that,

This collection of essays – in which every contributor has her or his own personal story of the impact of Alan Garner on their lives and their writing - convinces me even more that it’s time we stop  marginalising writers inspired by and accessible to children and honour them in the mainstream of literature.

Every reader will have their favourite in this collection. As I have said my favourite is David Almond’s .And I was touched by the very different contributions from two of Alan’s children the novelist Elizabeth and the scientist Joseph.

Philip Pullman, in a fine appreciation, embraces the difficult task of analysing the depth and complexity of Garner’s craft: ‘There’s an area of human activity where wiliness and cunning share a border with magic and the ability to call spirits from the vasty deep, and to call a storyteller crafty is not to disparage his craft but to acknowledge the borderland between conscious skill and inspiration from somewhere unreachable by logic and reason.’ He goes on: ‘There’s much I’ve stolen from Garner but this interest in craft, and the craft of story-telling has been the most rewarding.’

As T S Eliot once said, ‘All good writers steal. The trick is to steal from the best…’

For me, as a writer, the most inspiring words come Alan Garner himself. At the bottom level, my stories have to work as entertainment, keep a reader turning the page to find out what happens next. At the top level, they have to work for me, say what I want to express. In fact, I must write poetry, making words work on more than one level, subjecting myself to the poetic disciplines - pace, compression, simplicity.

Most of all I hope First Light will send shoals of readers back to reading the excellent novels of Alan Garner.

My favourites are  the fabulous Elidor 

and The Stone Book QuartetWhat’s yours?

Personal note: My novel The Pathfinder also draws on Iron Age and Bronze Age and Celtic identity colliding with the Roman occupation of Britain, See in side panel,      wx


  1. Late Comment from me. My friend Sharon compared Garner's work with Jim Crace's Harvest? 'In some slight way, mainly the elemental, earth-bound existence of peasantry through time, it reminded me of Alan Garner.' Wendy

  2. I was lucky enough to see Alan Garner at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Wendy. I only wish his talk had been recorded for YouTube which did not then exist. My sister lives in Cheltenham so I was lucky enough to see and hear two other writers that year, the New Zealand novelist Maurice Gee and the poet and novelist P.J. Kavanagh who died in the summer of 2015. In a way those three essential writers marked the end of the 20th Century for me, though the Millenium was still a few years away. I was aware that something more than the century was coming to an end, and Alan Garner's visionary lecture seemed to me to ring out that change. His book of essays, What the Thunder Said, appeared not long after. They urgently address our responsibility to the earth and its eco-systems, to our need for genuine community and those stories and religious myths that speak about healing and renewal. The new century has seen a sudden growth in reading groups, all of which are welcome. Alan Garner and Jim Crace would make an ideal dual study in any book group. I should be very interested in your thoughts on David Wheldon's 1983 novel The Viaduct. I am reading it again after many years and I find it as rewarding as ever. Do you know his work, Wendy? I do not wish to say anything about it because I do not wish to colour your own reading of Mr Wheldon's fable. I understand he works within medicine and has distinguished himself in his specialist field. The Viaduct would be an excellent choice for any book club. I am very glad to see you are well and writing. I haven't looked at your blog for some time. Yours aye, Jack (John) Haggerty, Glasgow.

  3. Erratum. The book of essays by Alan Garner is titled The Voice That Thunders (1997). I must have T.S. Eliot in the head to have scrambled the title of Mr Garner's engrossing work. Sorry. (J Haggerty)

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post on First Light. It's wonderful to hear what happens when the book reaches the people who enabled it to exist. (And for the record, I'm a book-sniffer too...)



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