A dangerous time of year

moon NASA
Moon (NASA image)

Alan Garner The Moon of Gomrath
Endpaper maps by Charles Green
Jacket design by George Adamson
Collins 1970 (1963)

“… the world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow…”

This tale picks up soon after the events in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when 12-year-old twins Colin and Susan are still staying in Cheshire whilst their parents are abroad. Evil witch the Morrigan has, along with her allies, finally been defeated, but Susan no longer has the teardrop heirloom, the weirdstone of the title. In its place is a curious silver bracelet, its shape echoing the young moon, and it is the moon — from the title of this sequel to Susan’s crucial role — which runs as one of the leitmotivs throughout this dark tale.

It’s hard to tell, but I’m guessing that these events take place sometime in the late 1950s; the date is immaterial but helps to get a handle on the narrative. Air pollution has driven a group of travellers from North Wales to Alderley Edge in Cheshire. No ordinary travellers these: they are lios-alfar, what we would call elves, and they are resting in the caves underneath the Edge before going on to the Northlands, where they hope to defeat whatever is destroying their kin there. They are let into the heart of the Edge by Cadellin, the wizard who befriended Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone and who still guards the sleeping knights under the hill.

Gomrath
Areas associated with the lios-alfar or elves

Meanwhile a pit has been accidentally opened by workmen outside the Trafford Arms Hotel in the village, in which apparently in the 17th century a ‘devil’ had been bound by local clergymen. This we later find is a brollachan, a Gaelic name for a shapeless thing; this being is able to transform itself into an each uisge, a water-horse which bears any unsuspecting rider into a lake where the human is eaten. Colin and Susan are to come across this dangerous creature, but first they are to encounter — in very close succession — Atlendor the elf-lord, Uthecar a one-eyed dwarf and Albanac, who first appears to be merely a tall horseman cloaked in black but who is more than that. Along with Cadellin they are all concerned about the evil gathering in the area; taken in conjunction with the news that the Morrigan is still alive and heading down from the Northlands it’s clear that the twins’ lives are again at risk.

I found this a terribly confusing book when I first read it in the 70s, much less attractive than The Weirdstone and with an even less conclusive ending. First the action switches, seemingly at random, back and forth from the Edge to the Peak District a few miles to the east. The maps by Charles Green are beautifully drawn but more allusive than cartographically helpful — perhaps in keeping with the fantastical happenings of the story. We meet a bewildering and formidable array of adversaries: not just the brollachan and the Morrigan but also the chillingly creepy bodachs (Katharine Briggs describes the bodach as a ‘Celtic bugbear’ whose appearance betokened death) and palug cats (the Welsh cath palug or ‘clawing cat’ was a large wildcat, maybe even a lynx; one also featured in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Islands of Chaldea).

cernunnos
The horned god Cernunnos from the Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark

More ambiguous in nature are members of the Wild Hunt. Garner draws in names and traditions from Scandinavia, England, France and Wales to create his huntsmen: the Einheriar, Scandinavian bodyguards to the gods who are also the horsemen of the Welsh deity Donn; the English Herlathing (similar to the French Harlequin) who accompany the ancient British king Herla across the land and through the centuries; and their leader the Hunter, a horned deity who goes by the name Garanhir, in Welsh ‘tall crane’ or perhaps ‘longshanks’ from his sheer height and stride. Why such a complicated cast list with borrowed names from every which where? In a note Garner tell us that he re-used existing ones simply because to him ‘a made-up name feels wrong’.

It’s impossible to detail all the plot, the hows and whys of Susan’s coma and Colin’s later abduction, the nature of the Morrigan’s enmity, the differences between the Old Magic, High Magic and Old Evil, what exactly comes about in the final page after the final confrontation. I can only make some sense by referencing two contentious books that I remember reading in the 60s and early 70s and which profoundly influence the action and themes: Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. I still have these on my shelves, the first in the third edition of 1945, the second in a paperback edition from 1961. The Watkins book I remember being all about a sense of place and local traditions, and this is certainly characteristic of The Moon of Gomrath — especially when Colin has to use the old straight track to retrieve the antidote to Susan’s worrying absence from her body. What I draw most from The White Goddess is Graves’ hypothesis of the universal belief in a Triple Moon Goddess. It turns out that Susan has a part to play as the representative of the young moon, just as the lady of the lake Angharad Goldenhand stands for the full moon and the Morrigan symbolises the old moon.

It is of no small importance that Angharad gave Susan an ancient silver bracelet, emblematic of the moon, at the end of The Weirdstone to replace the teardrop stone that had been destroyed. In some ways both books are the opposite of the masculine stories of the quest for the grail: in Garner’s novels the object is presented to Susan at or near the start of each tale, and the quest is to find its particular virtues. The three phases of the moon seem also to be related to Susan’s existence in three worlds: her own flesh-and-blood world, then a state of unformed life called Abred when she is in a coma, and finally Angharad’s world of the Shining Ones called the Threshold of the Summer Stars.

And it’s also no coincidence that a turning point in this novel happens on the Eve of Gomrath, a time when beacon fires are lit to mark either the quarter-days (the beginning of February, May, August or November) or the equinoxes and solstices. It’s difficult to tell when the action happens — probably not the dead of winter or the height of summer — but one of the ancient Celtic quarter-days seems likeliest to me: in any case all are dangerous times of year, moments of transition from one period to another when anything can happen.

I’ve talked at length about the ideas in this book, which is largely all one can do. Colin and Susan are more differentiated in this second book, but Susan turns out to have a role in which character has little part. The human adult figures, Gowther and Bess Mossack, fret and worry in the background but are largely irrelevant; all the other individuals are non-human, even if some of them are in human form. The test comes when the reader identifies with either Colin or Susan, and it’s clear that many readers did so; I however never did, and The Moon of Gomrath was always an enigma to me.

What is more interesting to me is whether Garner invested more of himself in either one or other sibling. That he has had deep emotional attachments to protagonists as well as place is clear from his breakdown following The Owl Service, a breakdown which was detailed in a talk he gave to a science fiction convention and which was later republished in The Voice that Thunders. It is the nature of that investment that is key to understanding the Weirdstone trilogy, and that key is I suspect only to be revealed in Boneland, the final part of the trilogy, which was published nearly half a century after The Moon of Gomrath.

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7 thoughts on “A dangerous time of year

  1. I’m pleased you found this a confusing book when you read it in the 70s…I read it in that decade too, and found it so confusing that I didn’t finish it! But I love Alan Garner’s prose, his sense of mystery, etc etc. I have intended to return to it, dunno if I ever will! I enjoyed reading your post!

    1. I did actually complete it, Sue, but remembered little apart from the Wild Hunt, and the reminder of the Hunt was on the cover anyway! Still, I got a secondhand hardback copy recently (and junked my falling-apart paperback) and found the endpaper maps more physically accessible. Rereading it, and so committed to reviewing it, made Boneland so much more understandable, coming as I was fresh from the events of The Moon of Gomrath.

      So, if you’re ever intending to read the final part of the trilogy — and I loved it, and heartily recommened it — do give Gomrath another go!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Thom. The impressuon I get us is that Garner was always more respected than liked. Maybe it’s the utter seriousness with which he writes, with little or no time apparently for humour or other such niceties. And yet Boneland shows his dialogue is full of wit and fizzing with wordplay. Maybe he was yet to hit his stride with those first two titles.

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