The View From Here
Alan Garner - Boneland
50 years is a long time to wait for a book. In September 1956, Alan Garner started writing his debut novel, a children’s book set among the landscape and folklore he’d known all his life – Alderley Edge in Cheshire, 12 miles south of Manchester. First published in 1960, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen followed the adventures of 12 year-old twins, Colin and Susan, on the Edge – “a long-backed hill… high and sombre and black.”
The Edge is a potent backdrop for Garner’s stories, littered with burial mounds, abandoned mines, Bronze Age standing stones, wells, caves and hollows. “Colin and Susan roamed up and down the wooded hillside and along the valleys of the Edge, sometimes going where only the tall beech stood, and in such places all was still,” wrote Garner in Brisingamen. “On the ground lay dead leaves, nothing more: no grass or bracken grew; winter seemed to linger there among the grey, green beaches. When the children came out of such a wood it was like coming into a garden from a musty cellar.”
Plucky 1950s kids in peril, Colin and Susan met a wizard, sleeping knights, shape-changing witches and a number of evil creatures dredged up from primal nightmares. It was vivid stuff, its power enhanced by Garner's very specific depiction of Alderley Edge's haunting topography. Garner halted Colin and Susan’s story in 1963, with Susan galloping off into the stars with the Wild Hunt at the conclusion to Brisingamen’s sequel, The Moon Of Gomrath. Garner since claimed he was so bored with Colin and Susan that he abandoned the idea of writing a third book, depriving his readers of a natural resolution to the story.
So, here’s Boneland, half a century years on. Those expecting that natural resolution may be confounded that Garner hasn’t followed the easy path back to Alderley Edge. If its two predecessors were children’s books, Boneland is very much written for adults. Colin is now a brilliant astrophysicist, working at Jodrell Bank (the dish of the Lovell Telescope sits close to Garner’s back garden). A psychiatric report tells us that Colin is “an immature uncooperative hysterical depressive Asperger’s, with an IQ off the clock.” The intrepid teenager has become an emotionally crippled, hypersensitive obsessive who can’t remember anything before he was 13 and who spends his days using the Jodrell Bank telescopes to search the Pleiades for his missing sister. At night, he dresses in robes and walks the woods of Alderley Edge, perhaps in imitation of Cadellin, the wizard from Garner's previous novels. He hears voices, which may belong to his missing sister, talking to him from the stars. He receives counselling from a therapist, Meg, who may be an aspect of the Morrigan, the witch Colin and Susan faced as children.
Boneland is less of a conventional sequel and more a deepening of the story, recasting the narrative in poetic, mythic terms. Alongside Colin in the present day runs a parallel narrative, where an Ice Age shaman uses rituals to keep the stars in the sky and ensure the sun rises every morning. Garner suggests Colin is the latest in a long line of shaman - who include Cadellin - to live here. “Someone has to look after the Edge,” Colin explains. “There always is someone; always has been.” To Garner, Alderley Edge is a place of High Magic, perhaps a boundary between worlds, where preserving rituals must be re-enacted down the centuries. The Arthurian idea of the Sleeping Hero prevails. A network of radio telescopes is ascribed the acronym MERLIN. An epigraph for Boneland quotes from Gawain And The Green Knight: "overgrow with grass in clumps everywhere, And all was hollow within, nothing but an old cave". This is the entrance to the Green Chapel, wjocj might be Ludchurch cave in Alderley Edge. Garner's Ice Age shaman lives in a cave, Ludcruck. Time is not necessary linear here.
Garner’s present-day prose is sparse, almost like a film script, the dialogue often oblique, closer to the style of his experimental novels like Red Shift. The Ice Age strand, meanwhile, is symbolic, incantatory: “The Grey Wolf struck the damp earth and ran, higher than the trees, lower than the clouds, and each leap measures a mile; from his feet flint flew, spring spouted, lake surged and mixed with gravel dirt, and birch bent to the ground. Hare crouched, boar bristled, crow called, owl woke, and stag began to bell.”
Although Garner has clearly abandoned the elves and wizards of the previous two books, these are nevertheless strange themes and ideas for an adult’s book. He doesn’t make it easy, either. Ironically, perhaps, Boneland is far closer to Garner's post-Gomrath books, Strandloper, Thursbitch, Red Shift and The Stone Book Quartet, that explore a connection between man and environment, quantum patterns as they unspool through centuries, and the evocative power of places. A tremendous book, in other words.